Task list that represents a paper process that teachers used to follow to plan standards-based goals for students
Written by Susan Milliones on October 19, 2020

Evidence-based Practices

How to Teach Students with Memory Challenges on Grade Level

Working memory is a system that can store a small amount of information briefly, keeping that information quickly accessible and available for transformation by rules and strategies, while updating it frequently. Jonides, Lacey, and Nee (2005)

Working Memory is like the mailroom for the learning process. It is the place where you store information. Working memory sends you the information you need for what you are working on at the moment. According to CogMed, the number of items the average person can hold in working memory is 5-9. You can keep that information active for about 20 seconds. For students with working memory challenges, the capacity is even less. Students with weak working memory have difficulty reading, solving math problems, and following instructions. Many of these students may need either an MTSS plan or an IEP.  According to The Opportunity Myth, providing consistent opportunities to work on grade-appropriate assignments correlates to better academic outcomes. Therefore, grade level goals with appropriate supports are essential for students in the MTSS process or special education. Here are 4 steps to teach on grade-level to students with memory challenges.

4 Steps to Teach Students with Memory Challenges on Grade Level 

Step 1: Teach them to ABSORB by “downloading” the right files.

Working memory downloads the “files” that are needed to absorb the expectations. For example in a reading goal, the files needed might be the “decoding file”, the “context clue file” and the “text annotation file”. Reminding students to “download” these files is one way to get them started on the right foot. You might say something like: To absorb the information in the text today, remember to:

Remind the student every time about the “files” they need to absorb information. Ask them to repeat which “files” they need for which tasks until they can verbalize them independently. Remind them of the “files” they need for a particular task so they can TRANSFER the skill to other learning experiences. For students with more significant challenges, provide actual files in the form of handouts or other materials that remind them of these strategies. 

Step 2: Teach them to RELATE through consistent content.

Asking these students to hold a new concept and remember a related concept adds load to working memory.  Use the same materials in intervention and specially designed instruction as is being taught in the general curriculum. Then, adjust the instruction using multisensory strategies with lots of opportunities to respond.  The student has already formed a memory with this content and is not distracted by yet another passage, more details, and more new words. Instead of teaching foundational skills in isolation, pair foundational/computational goals with relevant reading comprehension, and higher-order math goals.

Then use the content in the reading passage or in the math problem to teach the foundational/computational skill.

When students repeatedly practice an activity or access a memory, they make connections. When we don’t provide ample opportunity with the same grade-level content or activity to mastery, we are actually interrupting or disconnecting the classroom concept. No wonder the gaps get wider! It may sound counterintuitive, but denying students with weak working memory access to higher-order thinking just because their storage capacity is low denies them the complex literary and math knowledge and skills that will help them make the connections they need to progress in the general curriculum.

Step 3: Teach them to APPLY with Updates and Refreshing.

These students forget the steps in multi-step tasks. When you call on them they forget the question. It is very challenging for them to maintain attention and focus. They are not lazy. They just can’t hold the information so they lose their place. Think about how it feels when you are working on an intensive task on your laptop. Before you remember to save, your system crashes, and poof! It’s gone. You try to refresh your page. You look back into your history. Sometimes you just have to work hard to recollect and start again. Students with weak working memory “lose their work” all the time.  

One important note: Productive struggle is key to learning. Resist the urge to rescue by remembering for them. Instead, these students need goals that teach them to use tools and strategies that help them remember independently and generalize in other learning environments. 

Step 4: Teach them to SUCCEED in expressing understanding 

Frequent failures of children with low memory to meet the working memory demands of classroom activities may be at least one cause of the poor academic progress that is typical for them. In order to reach expected attainment targets, the child must succeed in many different structured learning activities designed to build up gradually across time the body of knowledge and skills that they need in areas of the curriculum such as literacy and mathematics. If the children frequently fail in individual learning situations simply because they cannot store and manipulate information in working memory, their progress in acquiring complex knowledge and skills in areas such as literacy and mathematics will be slow and difficult. -Weiss, Lawrence G.. WISC-V Assessment and Interpretation.

When students with memory challenges experience success, confidence increases.  Unfortunately, teachers don’t usually think about teaching students how to succeed. Success breeds success. The best predictor of how a student will perform on a task today is how successful she was yesterday. This is especially true for students with weak working memory.

How to Teach Students with Memory Challenges: Which Goals?

Lastly, here are some ideas for MTSS and IEP goals for students with memory challenges. Remember, just because a student does not qualify for specially designed instruction does not mean that weak memory is not impacting their learning. The impact is just not severe enough to warrant special education.

Reading Goals for Weak Working Memory:                                                                            

Math Goals for Weak Working Memory:

Writing Goals for Weak Working Memory

SEL and Behavior Goals for Weak Working Memory


In summary, having specific strategies for students with weak working memory can change how they can learn. You will be surprised to see quick results.


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