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Four ways to tackle working-memory challenges

For many children with SEND, their short-term memory needs support, says this Sendco

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For many children with SEND, their short-term memory needs support, says this Sendco

While reviewing our students’ individual education plans, ahead of the new academic year, I found multiple references to difficulties in working memory for pupils with a wide range of additional needs. Issues with working memory can affect those with a diagnosis of things such as dyslexia, ADHD, and speech, language and communication needs. However, memory issues can also affect those without a diagnosis, but who may be struggling to progress with their learning. 

What is meant by working memory? According to Gathercole and Alloway (2007) in their comprehensive and useful paper, Understanding working memory: a classroom guide, psychologists “use the term ‘working memory’ to describe the ability we have to hold in mind and mentally manipulate information over short periods of time”. 

You could think of it as "short-term memory". Professor Dylan Wiliam defines short-term memory as the place where we hold things that we are working on. This could explain why young people with dyslexia struggle to copy information from the board or complete mental arithmetic. 

So what can we do in our classrooms to support our students who are struggling with their working memory?

1. Recognise

Be able to recognise what working-memory failure looks like. It may appear that a young person is daydreaming and not paying attention to basic instructions; they may seem distracted and they may not fully engage with class discussions or group activities. Recognise that multitasking (eg, listening to instructions for the next activity while completing another activity) places demands on the working memory, as the brain attempts to process multiple things. This means that students with working-memory difficulties may miss out on vital information. 

2. Reduce

Reduce the working-memory load by using memory aids (such as multiplication grids or spelling lists), prompts (such as writing frames) and tangible resources (such as Numicon for maths). 

You can help students with working-memory difficulties by not expecting them to copy information from the board; instead, give them sheets with gaps to fill in. This can be quickly achieved by printing out relevant PowerPoint slides with gaps where the key words should be; alternatively, learners could highlight the key words.

Instead of asking students to write the full date, permit them to write it numerically.

Teach mind-mapping and bullet-pointing – anything that reduces the cognitive load will aid learners with working-memory difficulties.  

3. Repeat

It is essential that you repeat information for learners who struggle with their working memory. Repeat, repeat and repeat. Repetition can take place within the same lesson, for example, by reading a piece of text as a group to decode it and get the overall meaning of it, then re-reading it.

You could ask students to visually represent what they have read by drawing a relevant picture or completing a mind map.

Frequent testing at the point of forgetting is key; you may revisit the piece of learning a few lessons or weeks after the original lesson. 

4. Relieve

Relieve the stress that working-memory difficulties can cause individuals by actively encouraging young people to ask for things to be repeated if they need it. Empower all young people to embrace their mistakes.

In the humanities department at my school, we have recently introduced an activity referred to as "starter for 10", whereby students are given 10 multiple-choice questions on previous learning, from a week or longer ago. They can then mark and correct their own work. This is a really helpful activity, as it not only helps support all pupils’ long-term learning, but also gives instant feedback to teachers.

You can further help to relieve anxiety by rehearsing important information. An English teacher at my school gets her students to commit poems from their GCSE anthology to memory by regularly rehearsing them as a group. 

Gemma Corby is Sendco at Hobart High School, Norfolk

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