Working Memory: Classroom Strategies

By: Kristine Burgess, M.S.Ed. (Reading Department Head at Landmark High School)

The Landmark School Outreach Program's mission is to empower students with language-based learning disabilities by offering their teachers an exemplary program of applied research and professional development.

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The average person is able to remember approximately 4 things for 10‐20 seconds unless we do something with that information. A student with working memory deficits may only be able to remember 1‐2 units of information for that period of time, and even that task may be difficult. This resource includes suggestions for how to provide students with instruction in an environment that is conducive to alleviating working memory deficits.

What is working memory?

Working memory requires the brain to learn and manipulate new information in such a way that it can be translated into long-term memory and referenced again. It is essentially the work station of the brain: learning and filtering new information, working with that information, and then storing it for future use.

How do we identify working memory deficits?

Checklists provide a useful means for teachers to explore an individual student’s working memory ability. With these checklists, it is important to remember that each person has a unique working memory capacity, which is capable of changing over time. If a teacher believes a student has working memory deficits, (s)he should consult with a professional. Several subtests have been created within formalized assessments that more accurately assess a student's working memory index.

Creating a classroom environment that supports working memory deficits

It is important that teachers provide students with a classroom environment that supports their working memory capacity to avoid inducing anxiety or overloading cognitive ability.

Strategy Components Explanation

Well-designed Instruction

Provide explicit, intentional, and direct instruction

Teachers should work to simplify language and limit extraneous information.

Previewupcoming material This activity could consist of decoding a list of words from a chapter, previewing a section before discussion, or a providing a preemptive set of notes before a lecture.
Increasethe meaningful connections the student makes to the material This strategy will improve cognitive demands and allow for increased understanding. The more students make connections between curriculum and their own knowledge and experiences, the more likely they will remember new information.
Be prepared to repeat
instructions often
The more the teacher directly, succinctly repeats the instructions after gaining the student’s attention, the more the student will likely follow those directions.
For example: “Please take out your books. Take out books. Charlie-book.”
Metacognition Using strategies Explicitly teach strategies for monitoring, understanding, and adapting for misunderstanding.
Asking for help Foster an environment in which students feel comfortable asking questions when they are confused.

Recognition of confusion

Some students need to be individually and specifically guided to understand when there is something that they are forgetting or do not understand.

Strength and Weakness Understanding

Use preferred processing method

Play to the students’ strengths by providing instruction and materials in a manner that best fits student learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic.).

Reinforce what works Working memory is similar to a muscle: the more you use it, the better it works.
Use visuals Visuals provide students with a format that is often easier to process and remember. Just like road signs indicate familiar directions to drivers, an image associated with a classroom task may helpfully jog a student’s memory.

Technology as an Aid


Some video and technology-driven games help students to practice working memory tasks, such as making plans, remembering steps, and completing missions.

Train Working Memory

Counting Span

Visual-Spatial Recall

Oral Repetition

There are several activities that can be utilized to help increase working memory abilities. Practice recalling large strings of numbers, locating materials (as in the game Battleship), and repeating directions are a few examples of helpful activities.

How Does This Connect To Landmark's Teaching Principles™?

When more modalities are utilized in a lesson, more pathways are engaged and there is a higher chance that students will learn and remember the targeted information. Also, students with language-based learning disabilities often learn best through a variety of modalities. Therefore, teachers should aim to provide instruction in the students’ preferred modalities to increase the likelihood of comprehension. Using several different methods of providing instruction and practice of material can assist in both the learning process and alleviating working memory demands. For the full text of the Landmark Teaching Principles™, including "Use Multisensory Approaches," click here.


Bender, W.N. ( May 1, 2014). Memory and Children with Learning Disabilities. Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall. Retrieved from http://www.education.com/reference/article/memory-children-learning/

Dehn, Milton J. Ed.D. (2014). Supporting and Strengthening Weak Working Memory. IDA Conference: San Diego.

Gathercole, Prof. Susan E. & Alloway, Dr. Tracy Packiam. (2007). Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide. Retrieved from https://www.york.ac.uk/res/wml/Classroom%20guide.pdf

Holmes, Dr. Joni (2012). Working Memory and Learning Difficulties. Dyslexia Review Summer. Retrieved from http://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Working-memory-and-learning -diffculties.pdf

Stuart, Annie. (2014). How to Help a Child With Weak Working Memory. National Center for Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.nesca-news.com/2014/05/how-to-help-child-with-weak-working.html

Kristine Burgess, M.S.Ed. (Reading Department Head at Landmark High School) (2018)