Working Memory

Processing weaknesses are common in students with learning disabilities

Students with learning disabilities generally have difficulties processing information accurately and automatically, and many students have a weakness in working memory. 

What is working memory?

Working memory is the ability to hold information in mind and manipulate it as necessary for a brief period. It is a person’s mental workspace. A student’s working memory capacity depends on their age and innate abilities. Lower primary students are only able to hold, manipulate and recall a small number of items or ‘chunks’ of information (e.g. two or three items) whereas secondary students can deal with more (e.g. four or five items). Working memory capacity increases with age until approximately 16 years, although no matter what the age, there will be some students with larger working memory capacities than others. Working memory is highly correlated with both literacy and numeracy achievement levels and is resistant to change. Students with poor working memory at the beginning of their schooling are likely to have poor working memory as teenagers and adults. There are, however, a number of teaching and learning strategies that successfully support students with poor working memory in the classroom (speak to an Education Advisor to for more information).

Examples of classroom tasks that place a heavy load on working memory:

  • Remembering multi-step instructions
  • Performing mental maths sums
  • Reading comprehension
  • Constructing written expression
  • Spelling a long or complex word
  • Recalling details from a spoken passage or story.



Information reproduced from AUSPELD Understanding Learning Difficulties: A practical guide (Revised edition).