Working memory, aka short therm memory, is the system in our brain that actively holds multiple pieces of transitory information. This information than can be manipulated. Working memory in children is linked strongly to reading and academic achievement, a new study from the University of Luxembourg and partner Universities from Brazil has shown. Moreover, this finding holds true regardless of socio-economic status. This suggests that children with learning difficulties might benefit from teaching methods that prevent working memory overload. The study was published recently in the scientific journal “Frontiers in Psychology“.
From the press release:
The study was conducted in Brazil on 106 children between 6 and 8 from a range of social backgrounds, with half living under the official poverty line. Similar studies have been conducted in the English-speaking world, so it was interesting to see that the results were similar in this highly-unequal, Portuguese-speaking society.
The study sought to identify the cognitive skills underpinning learning success. Children were tested for IQ and so-called “executive functions”, a set of cognitive processes that we use to control our thoughts and actions, including how we remember information, control our emotions, pay attention and shift between thoughts. These results were compared to attainment in reading, spelling, mathematics, language and science. The results show that a child’s working memory skills – their ability to hold and work with information in mind – predicted success in all aspects of learning, regardless of IQ. Moreover, most children identified by their teachers as “poor readers” struggle with their working memory.
“Our findings suggest the importance of early screening and intervention, especially in the context of poverty. At present, poor working memory is rarely identified by teachers,” said project leader Dr. Pascale Engel de Abreu, Associate Professor at the University of Luxembourg “Poor literacy, low academic achievement and living in poverty create a mutually reinforcing cycle. There is a chance to break this by early identification of children with working memory problems and by helping them to acquire the mental tools which will enable them to learn,” she added.
Abstract of the research (open access):
This study examined executive functioning and reading achievement in 106 6- to 8-year-old Brazilian children from a range of social backgrounds of whom approximately half lived below the poverty line. A particular focus was to explore the executive function profile of children whose classroom reading performance was judged below standard by their teachers and who were matched to controls on chronological age, sex, school type (private or public), domicile (Salvador/BA or São Paulo/SP) and socioeconomic status. Children completed a battery of 12 executive function tasks that were conceptual tapping cognitive flexibility, working memory, inhibition and selective attention. Each executive function domain was assessed by several tasks. Principal component analysis extracted four factors that were labeled “Working Memory/Cognitive Flexibility,” “Interference Suppression,” “Selective Attention,” and “Response Inhibition.” Individual differences in executive functioning components made differential contributions to early reading achievement. The Working Memory/Cognitive Flexibility factor emerged as the best predictor of reading. Group comparisons on computed factor scores showed that struggling readers displayed limitations in Working Memory/Cognitive Flexibility, but not in other executive function components, compared to more skilled readers. These results validate the account that working memory capacity provides a crucial building block for the development of early literacy skills and extends it to a population of early readers of Portuguese from Brazil. The study suggests that deficits in working memory/cognitive flexibility might represent one contributing factor to reading difficulties in early readers. This might have important implications for how educators might intervene with children at risk of academic under achievement.