What is working memory?

Working memory is the ability to hold information in our current focus of attention while completing some sort of necessary cognitive processing task. We use our working memory when we concentrate on remembering a phone number while struggling to find something to write it down on. Children use their working memory all the time. For example, when they:

  • hold sounds in mind while trying to blend them to form a word
  • remember words at the beginning of the sentence while trying to read the end
  • remember intermediate steps in a math problem

Working memory has been found to be the #1 predictor of academic achievement in both literacy and numeracy, better even than traditional measures of intelligence (Alloway, 2009). And what’s important is that working memory measures have none of the biases we’ve found in IQ tests. Working memory scores are not related to socioeconomic indicators like cultural background (e.g., Campbell et al., 1997).
Without intervention, working memory skills follow a relatively stable developmental trajectory throughout childhood (Alloway et al., 2006). Recent and growing evidence, however, suggests that we can improve our working memory (Klingberg et al., 2005; Verhaeghen et al., 2004; Westerberg & Klingberg, 2007) either by (1) increasing working memory capacity so more information can be held in mind; or (2) increasing efficiency so that more resources are available to meet other demands on working memory. In our lab, we are engaged in some pilot work assessing intervention aimed at either working memory or language skills.


Alloway (2009). Working memory, but not IQ, predicts subsequent learning in children with learning difficulties. Eur J Psych Assess, 25, ; Alloway et al. (2006).Verbal and visuo-spatial short-term and working memory in children: Are they separable? Child Development, 77, 1698-1716; Campbell et al. (1997). Reducing bias in language assessment: A processing-dependent measure. J Speech Lang Hear Res, 40, 519-525; Klingberg et al. (2005). Computerized training of working memory in children with ADHD – A randomized, controlled trial. J Am Acad Chil Adolesc Psychiat, 44, 177-186; Verhaeghen et al. (2004). A working memory workout: How to expand the focus of serial attention from one to four items in 10 hours or less. J Exp. Psych: Learn Mem Cog, 30, 1233-1337; Westerberg & Klingberg (2007). Changes in cortical activity after training of working memory – a single subject analysis. Physio Behav., 92, 186-92.