Monday / April 22

The Development of Working Memory

Do children ever surprise you with answers to your questions that go far beyond what you expected them to say or write? Have you been “wowed” by a child’s response to a question by an immediate and correct answer? Why do children learn some things with ease while other concepts are more difficult?

The human brain has different memory systems for different tasks. During early childhood, those memory systems develop at different rates depending on both environmental influences and the inherited capacity for learning. Children are born with a sensory memory system and, as they age, they develop and rely on two other systems: working memory and long-term memory.

As we discussed in my previous post, sensory memory is present at the time of a full-term birth. The sense of smell is completely developed for an infant and is followed by taste. That is understandable: it is a survival issue. The other senses complete their development rapidly based on input from the baby’s surroundings and happens so quickly that one-year-olds have relatively accurate input from their senses.

There comes a time, however, when sensory memory must be curbed. The young child is interested in something that is happening. ‘A sibling is playing with me and I’d like to do something with those blocks. Sometimes Daddy lets me sit on his back and I get to ride. My people are eating and giving me pieces to pick up and place in my mouth to chew and swallow.’ While they do not yet have words to express these thoughts, the conceptualization of them is happening as young children continue to learn about the world around them.

Serious Remembering Involves the Working Memory

Sounds and feelings continue to be received. However, at some point the child is able to block out stimulation from the senses that are not related to what is capturing his or her attention. A distant look or focused stare indicate that other sensory input is blocked and that the young child is developing the ability to focus and attend to words, concepts, ideas, or happenings in what is known as working memory.

This second type of memory requires sustained attention. Any teacher of young children in preschool or the early elementary years can tell you children come to school with varying ability to attend and particularly to concentrate.

Along with attending to what is happening or presented in a classroom, children are guided to practice and rehearse what is important to remember. It is common strategy for teachers in kindergarten to review what was learned today in school. A more realistic term would be exposed to today in school. The purpose is to stimulate working memory. An effective companion strategy is to review what they did yesterday.

Consider these two charts.

A very small amount of the massive information received from the senses is important enough to be moved to working memory. Once in working memory, the “important stuff” will remain available for further thought from up to just 18 seconds (McGee & Wilson, 1984), or, according to Woolfolk (2008), 5 to 20 seconds.

To remain in working memory for a longer time requires repeating and practicing. Teachers can help children develop the ability to rehearse important words, concepts, sequences, or understandings by speaking out loud what they might do to remember something important. Students are encouraged to follow, saying words over and over again with repetition. This type of verbal practice leads to the practice of subvocalization as children learn to quietly or silently talk themselves through working memory practice.

With rehearsal and practice, children increase the time new learning is held in working memory. As thinking becomes more complex association, connections, and manipulation of information is added to working memory’s capabilities.

To break through the 18-second barrier when information is dropped or forgotten, children learn to practice and rehearse in ways that are meaningful to them. As they practice, the concepts or words can be maintained for up to 24 hours. If after that time the subject comes up again for consideration, it might be remembered.

A common teaching practice is to loop back to concepts or words practiced previously to reinforce learning. The goal is to practice and connect with what is already known with vigor so that the desired information becomes meaningful and familiar. That which is known well and understood is stored permanently in other parts of the brain in what is known as long term memory. Although long term memory is complex enough for its own blog, we refer to it here for its importance as a companion to working memory.

Contemplation of new information requires the student to associate, connect, and manipulate thoughts to connect stored memories in other parts of the brain. This manipulation happens in working memory and results in some pretty complex results.  Children are able to problem-solve, find answers to complex questions, and develop new ideas and concepts all through this memory system.

Note that working memory is a system and cannot be pinpointed as a specific area of the human brain. This system is not neatly defined as in the diagram. It begins in the primitive part of the brain called the hippocampus (defined at the end) and moves to other areas as thoughts are more complex and more involvement of the brain is required. As the student’s cognitive processing becomes more complex, different parts of the brain are called to action.

Let’s go back to the beginning. How do you know what you know? You have earned the right to be in the know and knowing is the result of a job well done. Interestingly, I asked a sizable group of teachers what they would do to learn some complex concepts about the human brain. The list of strategies they gave included making flash cards, building a model, making a recording, taping information for practice on the bathroom mirror or refrigerator, studying with a partner, teaching someone else, distributing practice over specific time periods and days, doing more reading, and developing a practice test. Pretty impressive! All these study methods were designed to involve repetition and elaboration to intensify the involvement of working memory (Nevills, 2011).

Pamela Nevills, Author, Building the Young Reader’s Brain, Birth through Age 8.  Third Edition. 2023.


McGee, M. G., & Wilson, D. W. (1984). Psychology: Science and application. West.

Nevills, P. (2011). Build the brain for reading, grades 4–12. Corwin.

Woolfolk, A. (2008). Educational psychology, active learning edition. Pearson Education.

Terms Defined

Hippocampus A pair of brain structures located under the surface of the temporal lobes that hold information temporarily until it is moved to other brain areas for practice, rehearsal, or contemplation; dropped; or moved to long-term memory for storage and recall.

Subvocalization A conscious process of holding a string of words or other information to be repeated out loud or silently over and over. This is a strategy that must be demonstrated and taught to some children if it does not happen independently. Ask “What are you going to do to learn…?”

Written by

Pamela Nevills is first and foremost a teacher of children and adults. Her passion for teaching includes a full range of educator experiences from teaching in the primary grades, to teaching middle and high school, to being a teacher supervisor and instructor in university undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs. She participates in local, state, and national educational committees in the area of special education. As a two-time member of the instructional textbook selection committee for reading in the state of California, she brings expert knowledge of how children learn to read, and the materials teachers can use to follow the science of reading

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