Language Arts with Lyn Stone (St Monica's Wodonga)

Working Memory

“Working memory is the term used by psychologists to refer to the ability we have to hold and manipulate information in the mind over short periods of time. It provides a mental workspace or jotting pad that is used to store important information in the course of our everyday lives.”

Gathercole & Alloway (2008)

There are several factors which affect writing fluency. One of them is working memory (WM). Since Language Arts is concerned with writing fluency as one of its chief goals, an understanding of working memory is necessary.

Automaticity is the key to mitigating the consequences of low WM. At the phoneme, grapheme, phrase, clause, sentence and paragraph level, having a well-organised structure for planning and drafting at every level is vital.

Let’s take a look at the nuts and bolts.

Memory has been a subject of fascination to mankind throughout the ages. There is some agreement among scientists about the different types of memory, roughly divided into short and long-term categories.

Information that you need to retain and recall, such as familiar words, punctuation and syntactic structures can be said to reside in the limitless storage facility known as long-term memory. The site of conscious thought, where you figure things out, is working memory.

When writing, WM gives us the ability to select and put together the words we want so that our thoughts can be transmitted to the paper and to the reader. This is why I call writing an ‘apex activity’. To be able to generate a text, a person has to do the following things:

  • have a general idea of what one wants to say (harder than you think)
  • select sequences of letters from long-term memory to form the desired words,
  • form those letters legibly, including judgement of spacing between words and at the end of lines,
  • place punctuation in appropriate places,
  • monitor grammatical information such as tense, agreement and plural forms,
  • place those words together to form sentences, and
  • assemble those sentences to give the reader an understanding of the your intent.

The more distractions there are in the learning environment, the harder it is to Concentrate on reading and writing, especially for a novice who has not yet automatized the process of instant word recognition or recall. The two common culprits in modern classrooms are:

  1. Background noise and general classroom hubbub, but also, consider guided reading groups where a teacher rotates between students engaged in different activities. Each and every child has to spend mental energy filtering out the noise from the other groups, as well as juggling the demands of their tasks.
  2. Bodily discomfort: holding a pencil in a way that makes the hand and arm ache, sitting on the floor, hunching over a desk – all of these things place demands on working memory.

The Language Arts approach seeks to reduce demands on working memory by encouraging practices that make writing transcription increasingly automatic, so that ideas can flow unhindered and so that learning can take place in the most ideal setting.

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Computer-based intervention programs can increase working memory capacity for reading and writing,*

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The key to circumventing working memory difficulties is*


Check out this handy guide to working memory for schools.

Working Memory collaboration

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Lyn Stone

What ideas do you have for reducing demands on working memory in the classroom?