I often have parents talk to me about being told by their child’s teacher that their child may have working memory difficulties. The parents are often confused by this, stating that they believe their child has an excellent memory. The problem is that the teacher and parents are talking about two different sorts of memory capacity.
The parents are often referring to their child’s ability to retain information from a long time ago relative to their age. We refer to this memory as our long-term memory, of which there are a number of sub-groups including autobiographical and semantic. Most commonly, it is autobiographical (long-term) that parents are talking about, saying that their child can remember items such as where they went for their fifth birthday party. Sometimes they are also aware that their child has good semantic long-term memory—for example, remembering that Adelaide is the capital of South Australia.
Instead of the long-term memory just discussed, your child’s teacher is most likely referring to your child’s capacity to hold and manipulate information in their mind over short periods of time. This is known as working memory, which can be auditory or visual in nature. An example of using working memory would be when completing a maths product when attempting to multiply together numbers 34 and 45 in a situation where you do not have a calculator or pen or paper.
There is a limit to what you or your child’s working memory can hold. For example, for most of us, it is out of the question to multiply larger numbers such as 754 and 831 in our heads; this would require storage of more information that we can hold in working memory. Research indicates that most adults cannot hold more than six units of information in their working memory.
There are a number of factors that can affect your child’s working memory ability, including distraction. Your child attempting to do something else at the same time as attempting to learn can also affect their working memory. These factors can have an impact on their ability to hold information in their working memory.
In Part II, the differences between short-term memory and working memory will be addressed. We will also discuss ways to assist your child with working memory difficulties that are affecting their academic progress in maths or English.