Critical teacher knowledge: working memory (part I)
Critical teacher knowledge: working memory (part I)

Critical teacher knowledge: working memory (part I)

We pick up the story twenty-four years into my teaching career. Seven months into exploring how best to support the pupils in my classes diagnosed as, or recognised as, learning with dyslexia and / or with poor working memory. After reading Professor Gathercole and Dr Alloway’s Working Memory and Learning: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide, I went onto read a series of research papers that explored the complexities and impact of poor working memory and a paper from Atkinson et al., (2021) that reviewed teachers understanding and experience of working memory. The more I read, watched and listened about poor working memory, the more conscious I became of a glaring gap in my own professional knowledge and, according to Atkinson et al., (2021) in teachers professional knowledge more widely.

Rather than rehashing Gathercole and Alloway’s short 5,000 word ‘Classroom Guide‘, there is real value in all teachers reading it for themselves. It is a relatively short 25 minute read. If time is short – here is what I’d expect you’d takeaway from the classroom guide:

  • what working memory is
  • how shallow and fragile working memory is – that is why it limits learning
  • that each individual has “a relatively fixed capacity,” greater or lesser than others, increasing gradually until the teenage years (declining in senior years)
  • working memory capacity vary widely across individuals of the same age.
  • the causes for poor working memory are thought to be largely genetic (“highly heritable” – see Kremen et al., 2007)
  • p14-20 onwards outlines how to support pupils with poor working memory

Below Dr Gathercole explains working memory – ‘a mental jotting pad’:

What Gathercole and Alloway do not mention in their classroom guide is the ‘crucial interactions’ between working memory and long-term memory, or learning, which we will come back to in part II. The impact of which is critical for all our pupils.

Put very directly, pupils with poor working memory function are at very high risk of educational underachievement (Gathercole & Alloway, 2008).

What is the outlook for the typical classroom teacher?

Approximately 15% of pupils have working memory impairments severe enough to affect their educational attainment (Holmes et al., 2010) and “more than 80% of children with poor working memory fail to achieve expected levels of attainment in either reading or maths, typically both,” Gathercole & Alloway, (2008). It is also suggested that these are pupils who often “fall below the radar of recognition for SEN.”

Gathercole et al., (2004) found that 41% of children who achieved below-average scores on National English and 52% of children who achieved below-average scores on National Maths had working memory scores in the deficit range. Similar proportions were reported for pupils who scored in the below-average range on National tests in English, Mathematics, and Science at 14 years of age.

At the extreme end of the school distribution, children with general learning difficulties in English/literacy and mathematics were six times more likely to have both poor verbal and visuospatial short term memory and verbal working memory scores than children without SEN (Pickering and Gathercole, 2004).

Over 90% of 6-11 year-old children with reading difficulties have low working memory skills, (Gathercole, 2006).

Poor working memory function is also closely associated with inattentive behavior, mood and self-esteem difficulties in children. Conversely, those pupils with higher working memory spans were less likely to report instances of mind wandering and were able to maintain on task thoughts better during challenging cognitive tasks than those with poor working memory.

Teacher preparedness

We would hope that teachers were trained to support pupils with poor working memory, however in a recent study, Atkinson et al., (2021) surveyed and assessed 1425 educational professionals’ understanding of key concepts related to working memory. Positively, respondents generally showed “some understanding,” worryingly, “most over-estimated working memory duration,” there was also “considerable variability” in the signs identified as being associated with poor working memory and possible strategies to assist such pupils. Educational professionals’ knowledge relating to working memory was described as “relatively limited,” and “basic, but incomplete.” Hardly surprising, with only a meagre 15.9% having received training during their time in the education sector, and that training described as “brief in nature.”

Promoting the importance of working memory

…the incidence of poor working memory is more than three times higher in low achievers compared to the normal school population, in which approximately only 16% would be expected to show working memory deficits.

Holmes et al., (2010:4)

I would strongly argue that teachers, and all pupils, would benefit from a more substantial and complete understanding of cognitive architecture, specifically the theoretical architecture of working memory and it’s role in learning. A step further on from Willingham’s simple model of memory. In a crowded ITT core content framework something would have to give a little.*

The early recognition of working memory difficulties and the provision of effective educational support and targeted intervention are therefore paramount to improving the long-term outcomes for a vast number of children.

Gathercole & Alloway, (2010: 2)

I think the statement speaks for itself. I would argue that:

  • given the prevalence of pupils with poor working memory
  • the prospective value of working memory assessments to identify those pupils at risk of poor academic progress,
  • that those assessments can take as little as 5-10 minutes, and
  • that poor working memory is also a key marker of a number of developmental disorders of learning

Working memory screening should be undertaken in all schools. What is more, these insights may already be available for Year 7 pupils, with most Secondary schools baseline tests now taken online, with online tests able to measure response times. Certainly, we know RememberMore has these insights should a Trust or researcher wish to work with us? Furthermore, working memory, is more than a mere proxy for intelligence, with working memory at five years old a better predictor of achievement at 11 years old than IQ, (Alloway & Alloway, 2010).

In 2013, in a Huffington Post article, Dr Alloway added, “3 to 4 times more accurate than IQ in predicting grades in spelling, reading, and math.”

With thanks to Ally Lewis, who signposted Dr Tracy Alloway article The End of IQ (and the Dawn of Working Memory) – “working memory is 3 to 4 times more accurate than IQ in predicting grades in spelling, reading, and math.”

A second contribution was shared by Canadian Clinician Geneviève Rainville @GRainvilleOrtho who brought to my attention that children with developmental language disorder (DLD) often have difficulty with verbal working memory, that it might be that language difficulties interfere with working memory functioning.


Not designing curriculum and teaching pedagogies with poor working memory in mind would seem professionally negligent. As Atkinson et al., (2021) report, too many teachers, including myself, have a professional knowledge gap when it comes to understanding the importance of working memory, particularly poor working memory, and far too many pupils falling into it.

How to fill that gap? First, review the simple model of memory focusing on working memory and then present a more substantial and complete understanding of cognitive architecture, specifically the theoretical architecture of working memory and it’s role in learning.

Critical Teacher knowledge – working memory (part I)Working memory – a simple model (part II)What’s in the working memory box (part III)Takeaways and reflections on – Working memory (part IV)

To make space for working memory within the ITT Core Content Framework I would propose combining 2.2 and 2.6 in favour of an expanding 2.4*

Alloway, T. P., & Alloway, R. G. (2010). Investigating the predictive roles of working memory and IQ in academic attainment. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 106(1), 20e29.
Gathercole S: Working memory in children with reading disabilities. J Exp Ch Psych. 2006, 93: 265-281. 10.1016/j.jecp.2005.08.003.
Gathercole, S. E., & Alloway, T. P. (2008). Working memory and learning: A practical guide for teachers. London, UK: Sage Publishing
Holmes, J., Gathercole, S., & Dunning, D. (2010). Poor working memory. Advances in Child Development and Behavior – ADVAN CHILD DEVELOP BEHAV, 39, 1-43. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-374748-8.00001-9.
Kremen, W. S., Xian, H., Jacobson, K. C., Eaves, L. J., Franz, C. E., Panizzon, M. S., Eisen, S. A., Crider, A., & Lyons, M. J. (2008). Storage and executive components of working memory: integrating cognitive psychology and behavior genetics in the study of aging. The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences, 63(2), P84–P91.
Pickering, S. J., & Gathercole, S. E. (2004). Distinctive working memory profiles in children with special educational needs. Educational Psychology, 24, 393–408.
The levels of attainment in literacy and numeracy of 13- to 19-year-olds in England, 1948–2009 Research report
Understanding Working Memory A Classroom Guide

Interwoven with working memory, I have also written about the importance of prior knowledge here and here. Of course, one of the key strategies for reducing working memory is to invest in knowledge. A catch-22 dilemma.


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