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Speech and Language in the Classroom

The Blog

Friday, 13 May 2016

Memory Magic, by Derry Patterson, Speech and Language Therapist

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 loose 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 (Gathercole 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
·         Makes poor academic progress

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 can really perform memory magic. 
To see more strategies see The Link, Issue 5, Page 5. 

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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