Most reading and math problems that occur in learners can be traced to one thing, the underdevelopment of a working memory. A working memory is the ability to hold information in ones head long enough to use that information.
For example. If someone gives you their phone number and you don't have a pen and paper, you have many tricks up your sleeve to keep that information in your brain until you can write it down. You are using your working memory! It is a mental sticky note, if you will.
Kids, and adults alike need that ability to sticky note information for periods of times in order for the brain to learn and make connections.
A well-exercised working memory is important. One needs the ability to hold that important information long enough to actually use it. It has to stay active for a time until it is used. Have you ever went to do a task only to forget what you were there for and have to walk back to remember the task? That was your active memory being bumped out of your brain by some distraction or other. When you get back your your original position, the working memory is generally reactivated.
One academic skill that demonstrates the need for a strong working memory is story problems. Think about all of the information a child needs to hold in their head to solve the problem. Beside the numbers necessary to the intended equation, they must hold on to word clues that will help them distinguish the correct operation that must be used to successfully find the answer.
The alphabet is the same way. A strong memory is needed to distinguish between those sticks and curves. Take some silverware out of your drawer and then make a few unique shapes out of them, giving each a name. Next push all into a pile, can you make and name all of those shapes again. When you think about learning the alphabet in this manner, it is quite remarkable that anyone learns to read! It is obvious from this activity that the brain needs a working memory to make those connections that will make sense of that pile of silverware.
Working Memory Activities
There are many ways you can help children develop and exercise the working memory, here are a few suggestions.
1. Play the sounds game. Take a recorder and record a group of two sounds in succession such as flush a toilet and a dog barking. Leave a few seconds between the group of sounds, allowing time for student responses. Make about 10 groups in all. Play the sounds for the children and then have them name the two sounds they heard. Repeat the game until students can easily retain two sounds and repeat them. Next build difficulty by making the group of sounds larger.
2. Play match my sound. Use rhythm sticks or spoons to make a pattern of sounds for the student to repeat. You and the student(s) will each need a pair of sticks. Start with one sound (like crossing the sticks and give one click), have students repeat. Build students ability to repeat the patterns by expanding to larger patterns. The game Simon is a great purchased tool that works in this same manner.
3. Play memory matching games. Use any deck of cards that has matching pairs. Turn the cards facedown on the table and build matches. With students that are struggling, begin with only 6 cards, 3 possible matches and keep the rubric fixed and simple. The purpose is to help students to remember and build strategies as to where cards are so they can make matches. Slowly add to the difficulty by adding more sets.
4. Practice two-step directions such as pick up a pencil and write your name. Stand up and hop on one foot. Next move to three-step directions and more. After children perform the task, have them repeat the task back to you. These back and forth type activities help students develop the memory necessary to following teacher directions, on top of the ability to perform the task the teacher has asked. If, for example, a teacher asks a student to take out their journal, find the next page and then write a sentence about a food they like to eat, the student with a poor working memory has a hard time juggling this information.
5. Working memory also demonstrates itself in the ability to concentrate. If the working memory is weak, children often get discouraged and misbehave. It is important to break tasks into simple steps for those children.
6. Build metacognition skills! Help children learn to make pictures in their minds and then draw the picture (this skill is great when reading stories without pictures). Next move to making a mental picture in their mind and then describing the visualization. In these modern times of technology and instant screens, this is a very important skill to develop. As related to learning the alphabet, a child must be able to visually see an Aa in their mind before they can fluently name an Aa.
7. Play card games. The most simple card games of childhood are actually the most effective in developing memory; that is why Crazy Eights, Uno, Fish, and War, are still popular today. Besides being fun, players must remember a myriad of things to play such as the rules of the game, the cards, the colors, etc. Play these simple games often with children of all ages, especially with those who are struggling academically.
8. Sing songs. Teaching songs, fingerplays, and poetry is a great way to develop language and memory.
The Working Memory Can Be Increased
The most important thing for all teachers and parents to know is that the working memory can be increased with intent and practice; allow children the opportunity to develop it. If you have a child that is having a difficult time learning any academic skill, first consider the underdevelopment of the working memory and start exercising it and the practice effect will carry over into academics.