Having a good working memory is important for school success. When we are engaged in problem solving or learning something new, we have to manipulate ideas in our brains. We might be trying out new things and figuring out how they fit in with what we already know. We might be thinking about a new vocabulary word and relating it to similar words that are already a part of our vocabulary. Each of us has a limited amount of memory space for doing these activities. If we have a poor working memory it can cause problems.
On average, a school-aged child can hold and work with between five and nine things at a time. Younger children can manipulate fewer things than older children. It doesn’t really matter how many it is, it only matters if it is causing difficulty for some reason.
A child who has poor working memory loses track of what she is doing. I watched a student read a math problem carefully, decide how to work it out, line up the numbers on grid paper, begin adding the numbers, and then switch to subtracting in the middle of the problem. He lost track of what he was doing because his working memory capacity was limited.
There are several simple tests you can do to find out how many items your child can control in his working memory. First, however, be aware that some children do better when working with letters or words than they do when working with numbers. And some children remember what they see, but not what they hear. Therefore, your child may have a better working memory in some situations than in others.
Try these tests, but be careful not to go so far that your child becomes stressed. Try to make this like a game to them:
- Say a series of three numbers rather slowly (about one per second). Then ask your child to say them back to you. Do the same with four, five, six and on until she cannot say them back (remember, stop before it becomes too difficult.)
- Try a similar test with short sentences (three words), and work up to longer sentences until you find the number he can do successfully.
- Say three numbers and ask her to say them back in reverse order. This is obviously a more complex task, but it is probably more like what she will be doing when working a math problem. Try this with more numbers until you find the limit.
- Repeat the tests using letters (forward and reverse).
What can you do to improve working memory? If you feel your child has a poor working memory, you might want to do some practice activities to see if it helps. You can do so by using one of the activities you used as a test. For example, if your child was able to repeat three numbers, practice until he can do it consistently. Then, give him four, and keep practicing until he can do four consistently. This takes time, but it might gradually improve his working memory capacity.
I would love to know if any of you have tried similar activities that work. Please post a comment and let me know!