Principal: Working Memory Helps All Learning
“Without learning, there is nothing to remember, and without memory, there is no evidence of learning”—Kay L. Huber, Nursing Professor
Questions for Teacher Reflection
- How do you remember a phone number after looking it up in a phone book?
- Do your students ever get to the end of a sentence and forget what the beginning of the sentence was about?
- Do your students move their lips when they read?
- Read the following letters once, cover them up, and try to repeat them: DTCVBG. How many did you get in the right order? Try it again with these letters: RHXKWY. How many this time? Was there a difference? Why?
What we know
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Working memory is really just a name for information that is being used while we are thinking. You can think of it as the parts of your long-term memory that are being used right now. Working memory has a lot of limits—it lasts for 10-30 seconds, and it can hold only about 7 letters or numbers, fewer words, and even fewer sentences at a time. Working memory can hold organized information much better than disorganized information. For example, you may be able to remember the number of days in each month better with the rhyme, “Thirty day hath September…” than by going through each month, “January—31, February—28,…”
Gatekeeper For Learning
Working memory has been called a gatekeeper for learning—you can only learn as many things at one time as you can fit in working memory. Beyond that, other information never makes I into working memory until you have processed the information that is there.
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Working memory includes both information and thinking. It can hold a lot of information and do some thinking, or a little information and a lot of thinking. For example, you could easily hold six single-digit numbers in working memory and add them up. But you probably would overload your working memory if you had to do calculus with those same numbers. This is one reason why people with small vocabularies have trouble reading. The new vocabulary words take up space in working memory, so there is not much left to figure out the meaning of the
sentence. Working memory is also much smaller if people have to calculate while they try to remember a list of words, but not if they just have to tap a pencil. This is because doing math at the same time as remembering uses up limited thinking resources.
The thinking and linking parts of working memory, not storage space, seem to be the most important ones for reading. Slow readers and fast readers show a big difference in working memory—slow readers use most of working memory to decode words, so they lose a lot of the information they just read. Fast readers use very little working memory to decode, so they can keep more information (more sentences) in mind at the same time.
Link To Students’ Knowledge Base In Long-Term Memory
Working memory uses both new information and knowledge from long-term memory like vocabulary (word meanings), word sounds, and background knowledge. The mind searches for the meaning of a word as soon as it is read, so part of reading time is find the meaning of the word. Good readers connect the word on the page with its meaning faster, so they read faster. They also:
- Have less trouble with words that could have several meaning, all of which need to be kept in mind, and
- Are better at remembering information from a previous sentence, which helps both reading comprehension and logical reasoning.
People who are better at reasoning also have better working memories than those who are not as good at reasoning. We do not know if they are born with better short-term memories, or if they have better short-term memories because they have had so much practice with problem solving.
Working memory and long-term memory are connected—working memory has to pull word patterns and word meanings from long-term memory. For example, when you hear a word, you recognize it from your own long-term memory. Real words are remembered better than made up words, like “maffow.” Common words are remembered better than uncommon words. People also read real words faster than made-up words and more “word-like” madeup words faster than less “word-like” ones.
Not a Place In The Brain, But A Kind Of Processing
Working memory is not a place in the brain. MRI scans show that many different parts of the brain are active whether we are thinking (working memory) or recalling (long-term memory). Working memory also includes visual information, and , for deaf people, sign language information. So working memory is a complex bundle of thinking, new words, background knowledge, visual, and other information.
© by Jennifer Cromley – National Institute for Literacy
Used with permission.