What is working memory, and how does it affect reading?

According to Maryanne Wolf in her book Proust and the Squid, working memory is what we use when we have to hold on to information briefly, so that we can perform a task with it. Working memory is an essential component in the development of literacy skills. The ability to retain verbal information in working memory is essential for reading and learning.

Working memory can be conceptualized as a central executive function with two subsystems: a phonological loop that stores verbal information and a visuo-spatial ‘sketchpad’ that stores visual and spatial information (Baddeley, 2007). According to de Jong (2006), dyslexia involves deficits in both the phonological loop and central executive functioning. Working memory also affects children's acquisition of phonics (i.e., learning the relationships between letters and sounds) in school. Strong phonics awareness skills are significant indicators of early literacy problems. A student must be able to connect letters with the correct sounds, put them together to form a word, keep that word in mind while he or she reads the next word, string all those words together to form a sentence, and then figure out the meaning of all those words. The ability to take apart and analyze sounds in words requires the student to have a strong/active working memory. This affects spelling as well. Research has shown a distinct link between working memory and reading comprehension.

Working memory capacity is often related to reading comprehension. Working memory capacity could influence both the duration that a fact remains in the working memory and the probability that it is consolidated in long-term memory. A reader with more efficient working memory might have additional capacity and processing time to devote to rehearsal and consolidate information, while the poorer reader would require all his processing capacity to perform the minimal amount of work on a given task. As reading material becomes more difficult in higher grades, the reader may also experience difficulty comprehending text he is reading, tire during lengthy readings, and have increased frustration as a result of poor working memory.

What is the best way to target working memory?

The earlier the student receives an evaluation and intervention the better to introduce, teach, and implement strategies. During intervention it is important to focus on both repetitive practice (i.e., drill) to help increase automaticity as well as provide the student with various language opportunities within meaningful contexts. Here are some other suggestions for targeting working memory:

  • Provide the student with a list of written directions as a cue or select a simple activity with fewer steps to memorize.
  • Break a complex procedure into component skills, teach them separately, and then work on integrating.
  • Consider using visual organizers to provide the student with a written record of key ideas from the text. For example, a student might be taught to review the visual organizer created from one portion of a text before reading the next portion.
  • Incorporate activities that target phonological awareness. This requires the student to not only hold the spoken word in their memory, but at the same time analyze the sounds. On this website we have provided more information about phonological awareness and its affect on reading in our Phonological Awareness section.


Baddeley, Allen (2003). Working Memory: Looking Back and Looking Forward, volume 4. Retreived from www.nature.com/reviews.

Carlisle, Joanne F. & Rice, Melinda S. (2002). Improving Reading Comprehension: Research-Based Principles and Practices. Timonium, Maryland: York Press, Inc.

National Research Council (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Pugh, K. & McCardle, P. (2009). How Children Learn to Read: Current Issues and New Directions in the Integration of Cognition, Neurobiology and Genetics of Reading and Dyslexia Research and Practice. New York, NY: Psychological Press.


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