Testing, testing: memory working?

This blog will look at the impact of low working memory on behaviours across the curriculum.

See my original tweet on how auditory working memory is measured here:


Alan Baddeley (2007) describes working memory as follows:

■…a temporary storage system under attentional control that underpins our capacity for complex thought.

■Key points:

■Temporary storage

■Under attentional control

■Underpins capacity for complex (higher order) thought.

Understanding of working memory is a work in progress! Baddeley suggests the following components:

Central Executive: responsible for attention and reviewing and selecting successful strategies.

Visuospatial Sketchpad: mind’s eye: stores visual information.

Phonological Loop: inner voice: stores auditory informs (speech) rehearsal keeps the information held through use of the inner voice.

This component causes difficulties in dyslexia. The Visuospatial sketchpad and phonological loop are not directly connected but connect via the Central Executive.

Measurement of working memory can be done using a digit span test but as number names are in Long Term Memory, non- words are a more accurate measure.

There is much less known about the Visuospatial sketchpad but this can be measured separately using abstract visual information. In dyslexia, this is typically a strength and can be used to support auditory information.

Importantly, working memory theory (especially auditory) is the thread that links language, learning and behaviours.

It helps me to think of auditory working memory as a shelf, those with a short shelf have items frequently dropping off. The consequences are catastrophic- information lost from here is gone forever!


Low working memory clues:

Organisation/ general behaviours

Filtering out background noise can be challenging leading to task failure i.e. inability to follow instructions, several step instructions are particularly problematic.

He/she may not be able to remember messages e.g. to staff, parents, or about a forthcoming event or assignment.

The student may: arrive late, be flustered, forget books or homework.

They may call out answers (because they can’t keep the information in mind).

They might find group work difficult because they can’t express their ideas quickly enough.


May have extreme difficulties with phonics, hit a wall with digraphs and trigraphs.

May struggle to hold sounds in mind and blend them.

Likely to have a slow reading speed and this may impact on comprehension, particularly factual texts.


May not be automatic- requiring conscious effort due to difficulties linking phonemes to graphemes and recalling letter shape.

May be able to spell a word aloud but not write it. Have a poor feel for orthography- structure of words and common patterns.

May transpose letters in spelling eg callde for called form for from.


Difficulty structuring and planning: sentences, paragraphs and story. Experience cognitive overload due to the complex demands of writing.

Messy work with many crossings out, small quantities or not making sense. Children who have fast processing use this strength to get information down quickly. These are the ‘careless rushers’.

Events might be told out of sequence or with parts missing.

Copying from the board: from Learning Objectives to more complex notes, diagrams and calculations is problematic.

May copy references and dates incorrectly, transposing numbers.


‘Slip of action’: may forget where they are up to in a sum and/or record the wrong answer because they’ve forgotten the question.

Fast processors can have a spikey profile making silly errors – working too quickly in order to retain information.

Confuses mathematical symbols e.g. + and x This confusion may run deep connected to multiplication taught as repeated addition.

Unable to remember mathematical formulae.

May forget the question once they have begun the calculations and not complete all the steps.

Difficulty retaining subject specific language.

Difficulty remembering times tables.

Whilst maths performance improves as Long Term memory grows, new procedures place heavy burden on those with vulnerable working memory, leading to task failure.


Difficulty with abstract language e.g. dependent and independent variables.

Difficulty sequencing events in writing up experiments.

May have difficulty copying diagrams

Difficulty processing: understanding, retaining and retrieving new, subject specific language.

Other areas that are likely to be affected:

Learning an additional language

Learning musical notation

Maps in Geography

Subject specific language across the curriculum

Following verbal instructions and new sequences in PE

A guide from Tracy Packiam Alloway:


Link to her website:


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