Working memory is crucial to learning. It is the human mind's processing of information to complete tasks. Working memory plays into deciding which information to remember and which information is not important.

When people have problems with their working memory, they struggle with retaining information in the short term that is vital to learning in the long term. Working memory is extremely active in the learning functionality of students. If a student struggles with learning, his or her working memory may have issues computing the information it receives.

Working memory has two components: verbal working memory and visual-spatial working memory. Verbal working memory is using phonological and auditory systems to silently recall information while a person does an action. Visual-spatial working memory is using the mind to mentally picture something to remember as a person completes a task.

Since working memory utilizes verbal, auditory and visual-spatial brain processing, it is an essential function of second-language acquisition. Working memory consists of the necessary mind-processing skills that students need to use for learning English. English language teachers tap into the working memory of students for instructional and learning tasks in reading, writing, speaking, listening and grammar.

But, if students have mental processing deficiencies with their working memory, they will struggle with learning English. English language learners (ELLs) are extremely susceptible to deficiencies with working memory functionality due to the anxiety, fear and stress learning a second language can cause. Teachers of ELLs must keep vigilant watch for the signs of working memory struggles in students.

Signs of Working Memory Processing Struggles

If a student does the following he/she may have problems with working memory:

  • The student does not finish assignments or tasks.
  • The student can’t follow verbal instructions, especially lengthy instructions.
  • The student seems disengaged. He or she looks around the classroom and doesn't appear to be paying attention. Or the student does not speak in class and appears extremely shy.
  • The student can't produce verbal responses or answer questions. The student has basically gone mind blank. He or she may say "umm" while piecing together the information to respond, but is unable to. Even with extra response time given, the student is unable to give any type of verbal response.
  • The student gets confused easily and mixes up information. The student just seems to forget a lot. He or she may try to start all over again because his or her working memory has gone blank.
  • The student struggles with learning progress, especially in content area subjects that require significant auditory processing and a deep focus on content area vocabulary.
  • The student has trouble processing various linguistic structures of English. He/she may struggle with reading words, parts of words, and words in combination. The student may skip letters, parts of words, or groups of words when reading. He/she may struggle with decoding words in sentences and may have extreme difficulties with reading comprehension. The student may struggle with grammar forms; how to place word orders together. He/she may struggle with acquisition of English vocabulary, spellings and usages in sentence forms.
  • If a student continuously shows little to no progress in English development, he/she probably has problems with working memory. This can be evident over time as the student does not improve in his/her linguistic fluency.

Circumstances Affecting Working Memory — Impacts on Lesson Design

When English language teachers design lessons, they need to review the circumstances correlated with working memory functionalities of students. Lesson design should incorporate instruction, activities, discussions, group work, homework and review methods that intervene in these circumstances to promote good working memory functions. This is vital for learning English fluently.

While lesson planning, teachers should consider these things that affect the working memory of ELLs:

  • Young children don’t have a good working memory. Older children and adults have a better working memory.
  • Every student has a different working memory level and function. Some students will be better with it than others.
  • Students who struggle with working memory in their L1 (native language), will struggle even more with their working memory while learning an L2 (second language) compared to their peers.
  • Learning a second language taxes working memory, and all ELLs will struggle with it in one way or another. Some more than others.
  • Environmental factors and stress affect working memory. Classroom factors and home factors can stress a student with working memory problems.
  • Culture shock of being in a new country and environment can cause anxiety and fear. Anxiety and fear can also impact working memory processing.
  • Limited to no literacy or academic abilities in the L1 (native language) will affect student confidence. This can also cause anxiety, stress and fear which impact the functioning of working memory.
  • Working memory will affect performance on assessments: English language proficiency assessments, standardized assessments (WIDA, Common Core, state SOL assessments for AYP, ACT, SAT, GRE, etc.), Midterms, exams, quizzes, etc.

Instruction and Learning for Better Working Memory

When ELLs struggle with working memory during instruction and learning, teachers should consider and apply the following to promote working memory functionalities.

  • Teacher talk-time should be minimized to help the verbal and auditory working memory of students. The more a teacher talks, the more students can struggle with understanding because the excessive teacher talk-time can tax working memory.
  • Wait time should be given to students so they can think and process information. ELLs have more mental demands placed on them as they are trying to learn English, so they need more wait time to process answers to questions or give responses.
  • Auditory processing in working memory is a huge struggle with ELLs. They may struggle with following auditory instructions, sentence dictations, auditory assessments, verbal responses, written responses to verbal questions, note taking in lectures and more. Instructional focus should be placed on developing student auditory comprehension. Give students more wait time when possible to respond to verbal questions and assessments. Break up questions into segments. Repeat content several times for students to hear and process it clearly. Do auditory work each day so students can improve their working memory skills for mastering English fluency.
  • If a student has to focus on English word recognition and can’t read words by sight, then he/she will have trouble with reading comprehension. This is a struggle for many English language learners. Instruction should focus on two components: the development of English phonetics for word recognition and strategies for reading comprehension. Instructional focus should be placed on decoding words using comprehensible contexts. Decoding and retelling reading information is crucial to both of these.
  • Slowly increase exposure in lessons, activities, classroom interactions and homework interactions. Exposures can be: environmental, cultural, literacy, linguistic (vocabulary, grammar, semantics, phonetics, etc.), academic contents and relational.
  • Build cultural competence. Incorporate cultural education, comparisons, and literacy in lessons, activities and discussions.
  • Equip confidence in students. Confidence comes with increased exposure and building cultural competence. Also, build relationships of encouragement and trust. In classroom activities, create interactions that give students comfort to open up, but also challenge them to give their insight and opinions.
  • Build upon student knowledge of literacy and academic abilities in the L1. If students have little or no literacy or academic ability in the first language, then incorporate remedial activities, assignments and studies that help them develop literacy and academic knowledge.
  • Teaching testing strategies to students. Teach them learn how to decode instructions, how to answer questions effectively, how to respond to reading comprehension tasks, how to handle auditory tasks, how to pace themselves, how to look for keywords, how to skim properly, and so on.

Learning a second language is mentally exhausting for students. English language instructors must focus on minimizing the student anxiety and fear that significantly impacts student working memory for English language acquisition. To lower the effective filter of students to encourage efficient working memory functioning, teachers must strategically design instruction, learning tasks, classroom interactions and homework assignments that ultilize methods for minimizing the anxiety and fear that is ever present. This is essential for the learning of ELLs so that they can move toward being fluency-proficient speakers, readers and writers of the English language.