Derry Patterson, SaLT, considers the impact of a working memory difficulty and what we can do in the classroom to help.

I was recently lucky enough to attend a mind mapping seminar presented by the originator himself, Professor Tony Buzan. It served as a great reminder of how memory does not just ‘happen by magic’; we need to be active participants in the process.

As adults we have a fully developed memory system which stores different types of information and experiences in different ways. We use our long term memory to remember facts, experiences and autobiographical information and to build up knowledge of how the world works. We use our short term working memory to temporarily hold and manipulate information.

Recent research is beginning to show just how important our working memory is for learning. In the classroom we are expecting children to process and think about a range of information during every lesson and task they perform. They will need to use their working memories to do this. The ‘fly in the ointment’ is that working memory has a capacity. When a pupil reaches that capacity they start to lose bits of information or the capacity is used up on one part of the task not leaving room for them to process other information that they need.

For example, when following an instruction the pupil who has reached their working memory capacity may only complete the first or the last part of the instruction. Or when completing a science experiment the demands of following the procedure may take up all the working memory leaving no space for thinking about the science or making inferences or deductions.


A poor working memory can affect all aspects of a child’s learning. Most common everyday classroom tasks such as mental maths, reading, writing and following instructions place a heavy burden on working memory (Gathercols and Alloway, 2007).

Warning signs:

  • Forgets words or parts of a sequence
  • Struggles to follow instructions
  • Misses out words when reading or writing
  • Easily distracted
  • Gives up easily

How to help

We need to consider the working memory demands of tasks and try to reduce this where possible for these pupils by:

  • reducing the amount of information
  • simplifying the language used
  • repeating key information frequently
  • breaking multi step tasks into single steps
  • using memory strategies

Children with speech and language difficulties frequently have poor working memories. To support them we need to utilize a range of strategies to help with storage and recall. We are all familiar with a few ‘memory tricks’ such as repeating numbers or names over and over, and using mnemonics to help learn difficult spellings or lists of words. However, the real ‘magic’ is choosing the right strategy or combination of strategies for the task. If we can get this right for our children then we really can perform memory magic.

Buzan’s Study Skills: Mind Maps; Memory Techniques; Speed Reading.

Buzan, T. and Harrison, James (2011), Pearson Education Ltd

Having long been a fan of mind mapping, I was keen to read this book by Tony Buzan™. The book explains BOST®(Buzan Organic Study Technique). It’s a concise, easy read, beginning with the theory behind the programme. Buzan discusses how some established techniques can hinder our learning and details how we can develop our reading and note taking skills to maximise the amount of information we are able to process and remember. I particularly enjoyed the activities that are built into each section and was thrilled at how well I was able to perform. (The answers are given at the back but I didn’t even need to cheat!)

I knew a bit about mind maps before I read the book but now appreciate the importance of imagery, line shape and colour to maximise memory. I think Mind Maps would be a valuable read for educationalists, giving them information that they need to facilitate good study techniques in students of all ages.



Description: Form a picture in your head. Use vivid imagery and humour to make it more memorable.

Useful for: Remembering lists, e.g. Ingredients Mental Maths Spellings


Description: Make up a story incorporating the information to be remembered. Include imagery and details and where possible make the story a journey around a familiar space, e.g. home or school.

Useful for: Facts, e.g. the order of the planets. People’s names. Topic vocabulary. Steps in an instruction.


Description: Break information into smaller pieces, e.g. spellings into syllables.

Useful for: Spellings. Number strings, e.g. passwords, telephone numbers.


Description: Group similar information together. This helps extend the capacity of the working memory as you use the group heading to remember the items within the group.

Useful for: Facts Lists, e.g. shopping lists.

Mind Mapping®

Description: This is Tony Buzan’s unique approach for organising and remembering information.

Useful for: Facts about topics.

Try this combination of visualisation and chunking for teaching spellings:

Step 1: Ask the child to think of a place to ‘see’ the word, e.g. bedroom wall, bathroom mirror, desk.

Step 2: Ask the child to think of what the word will be written in, e.g. spray paint, lipstick, blood!

Step 3: Write the word out for the child breaking it down into chunks (syllables), e.g. hel i cop ter.

Step 4: Cover the word and reveal the first syllable. Ask the child to draw a picture of that part of the word in their head in their chosen place with their chosen writing material.

Step 5: Ask the child to ‘read’ the letters in their head.

Step 6: Continue repeating steps 4 and 5 until they have ‘written’ the whole word in their head and ‘read’ it back.

Quick memory check

Working memory capacity increases with age. A child of 4 years will have roughly half the working memory capacity of a 15 year old. To check a child’s working memory capacity use a digit span test. Ask the child to repeat a series of numbers back to you in the order you say them and then backwards. The number that they can repeat back easily is their working memory capacity.

2, 7, 8, 5 ——— 5, 8, 7, 2 – working memory capacity 4


  • Buzan, T (2011) Buzan’s study skills. Pearson Education Ltd.
  • Gathercols, S.E. & Alloway, T.P. (2007) Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide. Harcourt Assessment: London
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