Improving pupils’ memory

Written by: HTU | Published:

Children with poor working memory can be a barrier to achievement and a particular challenge for teachers. Sal McKeown looks at how some schools are tackling the problem

If you were standing in front of the house, how would you be feeling? Think about what you could see. How would you react?”

Oliver struggles with this stimulus activity. He doesn’t know what to do first and as he is processing the ideas, the teacher tells the class they should work in pairs.

He looks round to find a suitable buddy, has to move seats, realises he needs his pen, goes back to collect it and then forgets what he is doing. Oliver is one of a group of children to be found in virtually every classroom: a child with poor working memory.

“Working memory” describes our ability to hold and manipulate information in the mind over short periods of time. We expect children to use working memory all the time in class: to hold a sentence in their head while puzzling out how to spell the individual words, to retain a sequence such as “right over left and under and pull” when they are doing up laces, to copy text from a board.

Tracy Packiam Alloway is an expert in this field and has developed standardised working memory tests for educators. She believes that working memory is a better predictor of grades than IQ scores.

Many teachers will recognise the example of Nathan she included in her research, Making ‘Working Memory’ Work in the Classroom: “When the teacher wrote on the board Monday, November 11, and, underneath, The Market, which was the title of the piece of work, he lost his place in the laborious attempt to copy the words down letter by letter, writing “moNemarket”. 

“It appeared that he had begun to write the date, forgot what he was doing and began writing the title instead.”

Teachers may overlook children with poor working memory but signs include missing out large chunks of a task, repeating or omitting letters and words, difficulties in following instructions, poor academic progress in reading and maths as well as more obvious signs such as incomplete recall of information or unfinished work.

There are three things a school can do to help such children. First they can assess them. Some schools assess a whole year group to identify children who are likely to require extra help, others use a more selective approach and just assess children who appear to be underachieving. 

There are many products on the market but among the most popular are the Alloway Working Memory Assessment 2 (AWMA-2), an online assessment produced by Pearson, and Lucid Recall which takes only 20 to 30 minutes and provides instant results.

The second approach is to develop a remediation programme which may be computerised or use paper-based materials. Since memory can be improved with practice it makes sense to provide discrete training where pupils work on skills outside of ordinary lessons.

Many schools like Cogmed, a computer-based program which takes about five weeks and can be done at school or at home. Others use Memory Booster, a type of adventure game featuring cartoons, rewards and a voice-over by Brian Blessed.

Raye Harper is inclusion support co-ordinator at Sparrow Farm Junior School in Middlesex. The school has two-form entry and only deals with key stage 2 so staff have to assess and build a picture of each child at transition. They have found that a poor working memory often goes hand-in-hand with a speech and language problem and use Mastering Memory software from CALSC. 

Unlike Cogmed and Memory Booster, Mastering Memory is a detailed teaching programme where a helper works with the pupil to ensure that the memory strategies transfer to the classroom and real-life situations. 

At Sparrow Farm they use a higher level teaching assistant to take charge of Mastering Memory, administering the programme, assessing progress and working with parents. She works with individual children and as the scheme involves talking, rehearsal and repetition, there seems to be a knock on effect on language skills too. 

Martin had severe dyslexia with memory problems. Mastering Memory helped him develop strategies to remember new words and to improve his vocabulary and spelling. He left with Level 4 in reading and writing and is making good progress in secondary school.

The school has also gathered evidence about strategies that have proved effective. Some children need practice in listening and following instructions to build their “memory shelf”. Good questioning by staff helps them to filter out key points and they find that children remember better if staff put essential information on the board. Some children learn to make lists and others find that drawing pictures while listening to stories helps them to verbalise and recall what they have heard.

Other schools have different tactics. Queen’s Hill Primary School in Norfolk has signed up with Sing Up, a not-for-profit organisation which promotes singing in schools. Head Penny Sheppard recommends different versions of the Alphabet Song, including a song that helps them to recite the alphabet forwards and backwards.

Teachers report that they can hear children singing sections of the song when they are doing dictionary work. Some songs such as Heads and Shoulders, Knees and Toes miss out words and this encourages the children to develop a “silent voice” in their head which strengthens their memory. 

“We have recently bought all of the children in the school a CD of the times-tables to take home,” Ms Sheppard explained. 

“As repetitive and annoying as it is we have had parents comment that they are singing the times-tables themselves, even when the children aren’t around!”

While Sing Up obviously helps with auditory memory, kinaesthetic learners are benefiting from using finger spelling and common British Sign Language signs to enhance language skills, vocabulary and reinforce spelling. 

One popular resource is SignSpell which offers educational books and online resources with games and videos of words and phrases for children from early years up to age 11. Sign Language reinforces speech with visual and tactile information. Pupils see, hear and sign and evidence shows that the more pathways created in the brain, the stronger the memory will be.

Memory is not just about things which happened in the past. There is also prospective memory. Some children spend a lot of the school week by the lost property cupboard. Clare Cusack’s son was one of these. She realised that her son needed cues to remember things and be organised: “For many children, remembering everything they need to take to school and bring home again is a daily challenge. For many parents, it’s often faster and easier to pack their bag themselves. But this is really only a short-term fix as children need to feel a sense of control and ownership of their things to help them get organised and make morning routines easier.”

She created TomTag, a set of six sturdy plastic tags, one for each day and one marked “daily”. Parents and learning support assistants can choose appropriate pictures from more than 160 stickers, attach them to the tags and fasten these to the child’s school bag. 

People used to trigger their memory with knotted handkerchiefs. In these days of tissues, it seems that lists, sticky notes, reminders on a mobile phone, a colour-coded timetable and colour-coded covered books can make a great difference to children with prospective memory problems.

Types of memory

  • Long-term memory: stores facts which are still accessible after a long time
  • Short-term memory: holds the information needed for the present, such as a sequence of numbers
  • Short-term visual (iconic) or short-term auditory (echoic) memories are transferred to “working memory”
  • Working memory: holds and manipulates information, such as recalling a sequence of information and reciting it backwards
  • Semantic memory is our knowledge of the world, including understanding words and language
  • Episodic memory/auto-biographical memory: personal memories unique to each person
  • Sensory memory: smells, sounds which evoke the past
  • Retrospective memory: memory of the past including semantic memory and episodic memory
  • Prospective memory: remembering to remember, remembering appointments, responding to cues such as remembering to post a letter when you see a letter box

Classroom strategies

Jane Mitchell, a former speech and language therapist and creator of Mastering Memory, offers suggestions for classroom strategies to help relieve the pressure on children’s memory 

  • Show And Tell: give them an overview before the lesson starts, explaining what you want them to learn and how it will be tested later
  • Make it visual: use a MindMap, a topic web, grid or diagram
  • Pre-teach vocabulary: don’t let them get distracted wondering what words mean. Check they can say words, know what they mean and can spell them. Play Pictionary with curriculum vocabulary
  • Focus their attention: highlight important points with colour
  • Explain clearly: adapt your language if necessary, pause between sections, “chunk” the information
  • Write it up: put keywords and numbers on the board
  • Help the child to record information: keep copying to a minimum. Colour-code alternate lines on the board, hand out transcripts, use cloze activities (a technique in which words are deleted from a passage and students re-insert them as they read), photocopy notes, let learners make an audio recording of the lesson or take a picture of the board with a mobile phone or iPad
  • Remind the learners of memory techniques: suggest strategies such as saying it aloud, drawing pictures, visualising and creating videos in the mind
  • Talk it over: ask pupils to tell someone what they learned, recall the three most important facts from the last lesson, or make up quiz questions for other class members
  • Reflect: ask them what was easy to remember and why
  • Sal McKeown is an education writer specialising in SEN and technology.

Further information


  • For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.


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