Impact of working memory deficits on learning

Over at SharpBrains, Dr. Tracy Alloway breaks down a recent study she published in Child Development about the relationship between working memory abilities and a range of academic skills, including reading, spelling and comprehension.

In screening of over 3000 school-aged students in mainstream schools, 1 in 10 was identified as having working memory difficulties. There were several key findings regarding their cognitive skills. The first is that the majority of them performed below age-expected levels in reading and mathematics. This suggests that low working memory skills constitute a high risk factor for educational underachievement for students. This corresponds with evidence that working memory impacts all areas of learning from kindergarten to college. It is a basic cognitive skill that we need to perform a variety of activities, and we use it in core subjects like reading and maths, as well as general topics like Art and Music. Crucially, this pattern of poor performance in learning outcomes remains even when students’ IQ is statistically accounted.

This fits well with evidence suggesting that working memory is even more important to learning than other cognitive skills such as IQ. For example, in typically developing students, I found that their working memory skills, rather than IQ, at 5 years old were the best predictor of predictor of reading, spelling, and math outcomes six years later.

Reading and math development are critical, but what about classroom and learning skills?

…teachers typically judged the students to be highly inattentive, and have short poor attention spans and high levels of distractibility. They were also commonly described as forgetting what they are currently doing and things they have learned, failing to remember instructions, and failing to complete tasks. In everyday classroom activities, they often made careless mistakes, particularly in writing, and had difficulty in solving problems.


…students with working memory difficulties take a much longer time to process information. They are unable to cope with timed activities and fast presentation of information. As a result, they often end up abandoning the activities all together out of frustration.

As it relates to reading, the criticality of working memory skills (and in particular auditory working memory skills) is not necessarily a new concept. Auditory working memory (the capacity to hold speech sounds in memory) is needed for tasks such as comparing phonemes, relating phonemes to letters, and sounding out words. Auditory working memory also helps listeners and readers understand sentences because it allows them to remember a series of words in order. It allows students to remember and manipulate sequences of sounds, associate spoken words with written words, retain new words while identifying their meanings, and remember the beginning of a sentence while listening to the end.

A program like Fast ForWord from Be Amazing Learning, which specifically targets auditory working memory development (along with other foundational cognitive skills like processing rates, attention and sequencing), can be an effective tool to remediate the working memory deficits that can lead to reading and other learning difficulties.


Exercises like Whalien Match in Fast ForWord Language, which resembles the memory card game but substitutes auditory cues for visual ones, develop critical working memory skills.

It’s important to note that the students in Dr. Alloway’s study were typically developing, but still struggled with reading, math and general learning due to their working memory deficits. And her data shows that 10% of mainstream educated kids have these deficits.

Clearly, we’ve got to get more of these kids on Fast ForWord!

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5 Responses to “Impact of working memory deficits on learning”

  1. Tshego Says:

    I am currently working on a research about poor memory,are there theoritical roots of this phenomena?

  2. JULIA Says:

    I an a forty nine year old how is dyslexia ,and would like some information and help on the topic .

  3. beamazinglearning Says:

    Evidence suggests that dyslexia results from differences in how the brain processes written or spoken language. Put very simply, the auditory centers of the brain tend to be under-activated in individuals struggling with dyslexia, while the visual centers tend to be hyper-activated (perhaps in compensation for the under-activation of the auditory centers).

    Fast ForWord programs can be an effective dyslexia intervention because they attacks the auditory processing disorders that can cause reading difficulties.

    While it covered children and not adults, you might be interested in a Stanford University study ( that examined brain imaging scans of children with dyslexia who used Fast ForWord. The study showed normalization of activity in critical areas of the brain used for reading. Furthermore, this group of students showed significant improvements in reading and oral language skills on a number of assessments.

  4. Working memory in the classroom and beyond « Thoughts from Be Amazing Learning Says:

    […] previously highlighted the link between working memory and academic performance: Auditory working memory (the capacity to hold speech sounds in memory) is needed for tasks such as […]

  5. Be Amazing Learning Offers Cogmed Programs for Attention Challenges « Thoughts from Be Amazing Learning Says:

    […] Impact of Working Memory Deficits on Learning […]

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