Memory work

Q One of my Year 4 students has great difficulty remembering anything he's told, even for a very short time. Do you have any suggestions on how I can help?

A First, you should rule out some possible causes of what may only seem to be a problem with memory.

For example, if this only arises when the youngster has a cold or sniffles, the cause may be a hearing difficulty. If he sometimes has difficulty understanding the meaning of what's said to him, it could be a language problem. You should also check that he is attending and trying to listen to what is said, and that he is not burdened by pressing worries that swamp his thinking.

If these are ruled out, it may well be a memory problem. Here it is important to distinguish between long-term memory (memories that persist over time: for example, what one did on holiday last year) and working memory (which involves the storage and manipulation of information for brief periods).

Working memory provides a sort of mental work space where thinking takes place. For example, in multiplying 25 by 14 in one's head, one may first multiply 25 by 10. The product, 250, is held in memory while 25 is multiplied by 4, to get 100. This product is then held in memory, the 250 is retrieved, and the numbers are added to make 350.

Working memory varies widely between individuals, especially during childhood. However, it is not influenced by the child's prior experiences, such as socio-economic background, maternal educational level and pre-school education.

As you might expect, problems with working memory are associated with learning difficulties.

There are no treatments that can increase working memory, but teachers can help by ensuring the problem is identified and that appropriate assessment is undertaken.

There are several tests of working memory that your educational psychologist might employ. One useful measure is the working memory test battery for children (Psychological Corporation), which assesses a range of memory tasks involving visual and verbal information.

If a problem is revealed, you need to structure activities to ensure that working memory demands are not excessive for this child. For further information see http:psychology.dur.ac.ukresearchwmresearch.htm

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