Supporting Working Memory in the English Classroom

In her latest post Zoe Enser, @GreeboRunner, considers what we can do to teach in a way that supports a child’s working memory.

Those of you who know me professionally will know that research, especially in relation to the workings of the memory and cognitive science, is something which gets me really excited. It will be no surprise to them then to learn that this week has been an exceptionally exciting one for me, as I am in the lucky position to begin work with Professor Becky Allan, alongside the research teams from Heathfield, Beacon and Bexhill Schools, looking at a research project on the working memory in disadvantaged students.

The Pupil Premium gap is something which has been on the national educational agenda for a number of years and, depressingly, figures show that this gap has not been closing, at least not nationally. It would appear that a simple equation of a blunt measuring tool, coupled with money, does not simply change the educational outcomes of a number of our students. However, cognitive psychology and neuroscience has been drawing a number of conclusions about the impact of poverty stressors on the working memory. It would appear that students who have been born into poverty have some significant differences in the way in which their working memory has developed and it could be this, in part, which is having an impact on their attainment in our education system. This information is something which really resonates in my context, where we have a number of students who come from a range of disadvantaged backgrounds, in a predominantly white, working class area and could have a lot of promise for our students.

If the researcher’s conclusions are correct, then despite the fact that this is not something which we can simply just ‘make better’, there are some things we can do as educators in the way we instruct pupils in our classrooms which could mitigate against these effects of poverty. Whilst we have been unable to wave a magic wand and eradicate poverty, or create a neat six week catch up programme which levels the playing field for our students, we could potentially have a very specific area which we can look at in isolation and shape our lessons in such a way to reduce the impact of this on these young people.

 Reducing the load on the working memory and embedding changes to the long term memory is an area I have been exploring for the last few years. This means being involved in the project could enable me to see how my gut instinct and trial and error approach (alongside advice from a number of key names in the world of educational writing) has actually been supporting these students, and what we could refine in order to have an even greater impact.

The Story So Far . . .

Small Steps for Big Ideas

One of the key areas I have focused on is introducing information gradually, Rosenshine’s ‘small steps’. Sometimes, with the best possible intentions, we bombard students with lots of information and I think English is especially prone to this. When we want them to produce a new piece of writing they need to have information about the genre, the topic, the tone, key vocabulary, sentence structures, sequencing and paragraphing and a number of other details depending on the text. That’s all at the same time as trying to listen to the instructions we are barking at them! This year I have been careful to ensure when planning my curriculum and a series of lessons, students gradually build up to this type of task, as opposed to it appearing at a random point within the unit, with a single lesson to think, plan and write. This has been especially important when asking students to tackle non-fiction tasks, a style which they are often less familiar with. Stories surround them, leaping out of books, films, TV shows and social interactions; newspaper articles and speeches, less frequently. Non-fiction texts also require them to have information to hand about the topic, as opposed to just something they feel like writing about from their own experiences. Some students will have a wealth of knowledge about this in their long terms memory, taken from other subject or their own experiences outside of school. Others will be struggling to hold the fragments of the topic in their working memory, recall other facts which may have been thrown into the conversation whilst still trying to think about the opening line or even word. I concluded that if I want them to write about something topical such as climate change, then I need to give them opportunities to have information available relating to this, outside of their working memory. I spend time giving them some facts which they can have at hand in a quickly accessible form, not something they have to work to dredge up. I’ve also stopped trying to shoehorn this type of task into one lesson; thinking about the working memory and cognitive load has made me slow down when necessary and ensure that they have good understanding of the different elements before we start to write. This also leads me to the other crucial area in supporting working memory: quality of explanation.   

Quality of Explanation

There is no doubt in my mind that this is something which I have left to chance previously in my career. When I was first teaching, my lesson plans were detailed scripts of what I would explain, with rehearsal included for the trickiest parts (many thanks to my son who had to listen to a lot of it out loud). I have always come back to notes when doing something new of particularly complex, but I know that my explanation has more or less relied on me just ‘getting it right’, intuitively. However, the quality of my explanation is going to have a significant impact on the students and especially those who may struggle with a poorer working memory. If I haven’t focused carefully on what I need them to understand, the core of what I am teaching, spending time circling back, heading off on a tangent, or simply not sequencing it carefully enough, they are going to find it more difficult to remember and make real use of it. Listening to Andy Tharby discuss at ResearchEd Kent, as well as reading his book How to Explain Anything to Anyone, reminded me of the importance of my explanation and the way in which I sequence it support the retention of it. Luckily as English Literature is my game, I am able to spin a good yarn and know enough about narratives to ensure that the important parts are circled back to and the main thrust retained.  I also know when to strip it back and when to embellish to create interest, embroidering the important parts in pretty colours and flowers so they remember them. This means that my students haven’t had too bad a deal whilst I have not had the importance of the explanation at the fore of my thinking. But if I am going to ensure that the students who will struggle to hold onto this information in their working memories while they need it in that part of the lesson then I need to sharpen up on this even more.

This has led to me really considering how I can improve my explanation further. I’m using use dual coding methods (sometimes with quite hilarious effects as my drawing is not quite what it could be). I’m capturing what Oliver Caviglioli called ‘transient words’ (the ones in the air during my explanation which will be gone once I stop speaking) on the board or in student notes for us to return to without adding to the working memory to hold on to them. I am also careful to shut up when the explanation needs to end, something I think many teachers, English teachers especially, can struggle with.

Most importantly, I’m thinking carefully about how I am sequencing the information so that students are more likely to ‘stick’ the new knowledge onto their prior knowledge, building schema and again placing fewer demands on the working memory. Review and retrieval is also a key element of this and leads me to increasing fluency.  

Increasing fluency               

There is no doubt that when we are fluent in certain things everything becomes easier. From the fluency you gain when you actually learn to drive your car, after you have taken your driving test, to being able to do mental maths as you can recall number bonds and times tables without having to think about it, to reading words on a page without having to break them into the phonic components, fluency enables us to tackle challenging tasks without taking up valuable working memory with the basics. Well the basics, to us. It is easy to underestimate how hard it can be to do something when you don’t have fluency until you try to learn something new.

In the past I have definitely underestimated the importance of fluency in English. Of course not in relation to reading or handwriting or spelling as they are very visible. A student in an English classroom who is using up every part of their available working memory to spell even the simplest words, sound out the syllables in a word or slowly craft a letter ‘a’ is all too apparent and we put a lot in place to support this.

However, I think I have previously asked students to complete complex analytical tasks relating to a text without first ensuring that they are fluent in their core knowledge. How can they possibly analyse the presentation of masculinity in a highly complex text like Macbeth unless they are completely secure in their knowledge of the plot, the characters and the main ideas? If they are still using their working memory to remember who Macbeth is or what masculinity might mean, they can’t possibly begin to start thinking about the harder aspects of language. Yet, although this seems obvious, I know that this is the kind of task the pressure of time has led me to attempt previously despite the fact that my students were not really ready. Thinking about the need to reduce the pressure on working memory in order to do the really tough stuff has led to a change in my approach when teaching texts. There is now a great deal of emphasis at the start of a unit on really knowing the play or novel. Sounds like the most basic of things, yet I know I didn’t always guarantee this before. Cold reads, watching good versions and ensuring that the core knowledge is securely fixed in their minds, is essential before moving on.

I also use a great deal of retrieval practice with quizzes, homework tasks on checking understanding of these details. Once I am sure that they are really fluent, I can begin to build the complexity of what I am asking them to do with that information. Of course, this also links back to small steps; we are building the schema over a number of weeks and years. It can’t happen in a few lessons.   


This is all well and good for the majority of my students, most of whom fall somewhere near the magic number 7 when we are talking about working memory (tests often show that this is the number of things we can generally hold there in any one time, although this is less in younger children, and variable with the rest of us). But what about those whose working memories are seriously impaired by the impact of poverty as suggested by the research? All of the above should help to support them, but sometimes the situation is much more complex, especially when talking about students with specific learning situations.

Firstly, I think carefully about their learning environment. I am not necessarily talking about the whole of the classroom, although it is organised in front facing rows and has generally little fuss. It is about where they are seated, are they sitting near the display which might fill up their working memory with the interesting piece of work that’s up there? Next to the student with a slight fidget problem? Or so far at the back that anything captured on the board is obscured by someone else’s head?

Then I make a point of checking with them regularly to ensure that the small steps are small enough for them to be following the sequence and that important ideas are recorded, getting them to write down a key word that I know they will need later.

I use strategies with their reading such as highlighting the key words or topic sentences so they don’t have to try to hold them in their heads or have to read back over the passage again as they have forgotten it all. It is also useful to get them to annotate so again they are not going to have to use working memory to find that important piece of information as if they hadn’t read it before.

I don’t expect students to follow when I’m reading aloud, as I know that the demands on those who have poorer working memory is too much, although for some this is a difficult habit to break. When we are reading a really challenging text I want them to know the text, not use up most of their capacity desperately trying to work out where we are. Reading guides are a happy medium for some, but for others they need to listen hard not try to multitask.

Sentence starters and key words are also useful for this group of students. They will use most of their working memory on trying to find a way in, even if they have something really interesting to say about the topic, so I take that part away so we can get to the really good stuff. Equally with keywords can both equip them to include some of those key ideas you have been talking about and act as a prompt for information in their longer term memory which you need them to draw upon. I will use this for the whole class but where there is a student who needs something even more structured a mini whiteboard on their desk for both me and them to write notes and starters on, prove invaluable. 

Next steps

Thinking about the working memory, ideas of cognitive load and neuroscience has definitely had an impact on my teaching over the last few years. I am not sure that I would be able to go back to some of the more spurious, but well intentioned, practices of my past anyway, so I will continue to explore all of the above and more. The work with the research group will hopefully indicate that some of my more intuitive practices were both well targeted and having a positive effect (or at least not making it worse) and may shed some light on what else I could be doing better. Anything which gets us thinking deeply about the experience of the young people in our classes can’t be a bad thing in my mind, even if they end up pointing me in a different direction.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: The Essential Guide to Effective and Efficient Teaching is out soon and available for pre-order now!


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