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Linda Houston, B.A., B.Ed., OCT, Educational Consultant, LD@school and  Nathalie Paquet-Bélanger, Specialist in Learning Disabilities, LD@school

Image of a brain

The purpose of this summary is to provide educators with tools to work effectively with students who have learning disabilities (LDs) and working memory difficulties. Specifically, the summary provides:

  1. an overview of the link between working memory and LDs;
  2. a list of potential strategies;
  3. a table summarizing how working memory difficulties may present in the classroom, with relevant interventions; and
  4. a list of resources on the LD@school website, to deepen educators’ understanding of how to support students with working memory difficulties.

Working memory and learning disabilities

Working memory is the ability to temporarily hold on to information while the mind is busy with another task. In the classroom, working memory is critical to learning situations involving literacy and numeracy; it is also vital to social situations.

A strong correlation has been found between certain LDs and working memory difficulties. In Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide (2007), psychologists Gathercole and Alloway report that approximately 70% of students with LDs in reading score very low on working memory assessments—something that is very rarely seen in students who do not have LDs.

Working memory difficulties are common among students with other types of LDs such as language deficits, difficulty with writing and mathematics. Gathercole and Alloway found that many students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have working memory difficulties as well. It is important to note that not all students with LDs have working memory difficulties.

Educational strategies

A student with working memory difficulties needs strategies in order to keep on learning. Three types of strategies are effective: compensatory strategies, recall strategies, and memory aids.

Compensatory strategies

Compensatory strategies must be taught using pedagogical approaches that focus on explicit instruction. Two examples of compensatory strategies for a student who understands mathematical concepts, such as addition, would be playing cards or calculating the total cost of a grocery shopping list. Compensatory strategies make it possible to create variety in learning situations.

Recall strategies

Recall strategies are primarily verbal; they are used to help a student retrieve previously learned information from memory. To reinforce the steps in a task, the educator can model the steps aloud; this will help the student to remember the sequence. A written review of these steps at a later time will provide added reinforcement.

External aids

External aids sum up key information on a given subject; the student can refer to the memory aid as needed. A memory aid can take the form of a schedule for the day, a list of criteria for completing a task such as a long-term project, a flow chart for completing a writing assignment, a clock face showing the time that a student has to complete a task or even a simple, straightforward poster that is displayed in the classroom.

How working memory difficulties may present in the classroom and relevant interventions

Working memory difficulties can be observed in the classroom. Various manifestations and ways to address them are presented in the following table. Note that many of the behaviours described do not manifest exclusively because of working memory difficulties. Also, some interventions lead to changes to the expectations in specific contexts.

This table is based on a Laval school board document entitled, Les difficultés d'apprentissage, comment faire au quotidien and a CanLearn Society document entitled, Supporting Students with Working Memory Difficulties.

Observable Behaviour


The student has difficulty arriving at an overview of a complex situation (poor attention to detail, forgetting or skipping words, and writing shorter sentences).
  •  Reduce elements that can interfere with working memory;
  • Repeat information and make connections to other concepts;
  • Present concepts in a variety of different ways, using visual aids that allow encoding.
The student has difficulty independently starting or completing a task.
  • Break the information into smaller instructional units; reduce the volume of work (quality vs quantity);
  • Provide memory aids and visual supports, including graphic organizers;
  • Monitor the student’s work to head off delays;
  • Reduce the number of exercises; focus on the most important ones.
The student has difficulty retaining new words and remembering the vocabulary for the subject matter.
  • Activate the student’s previous knowledge and do frequent reviews;
  • Play visual and auditory memory games;
  • Present concepts in a variety of forms, using visual supports;
  • Allow the student to use reference tools (posters, dictionaries, lists of procedures).
The student has difficulty making inferences.
  •  Activate the student’s previous knowledge;
  • Present concepts in a variety of forms, using visual aids conducive to coding and correlating.
The student has difficulty following a sequence of steps, verbal instructions or tasks (in spite of repeated reminders).
  • Reword instructions, using short sentences;
  • Ask the student to reflect back what s/he has just heard; fill in any blanks;
  • Allow periods of time for review;
  • Provide memory aids and visual supports (posters, dictionaries, lists of procedures);
  • Present concepts in a variety of ways;
  • Break tasks into smaller instructional units.
The student has difficulty representing a problem visually; s/he has weak reasoning skills.
  • Play visual and auditory memory games;
  • Present concepts in a variety of ways, using visual supports;
  • Reduce the volume of work;
  • Provide memory aids and visual supports (posters, graphic organizers, lists of procedures).
The student has difficulty remembering factual knowledge and procedural knowledge (new vocabulary words, spelling, verb declensions, and mathematical procedures).
  • Personalize reference tools, memory aids, and routines;
  • Repeat information in a variety of ways, making connections to other concepts and visual supports;
  • Do frequent reviews;
  • Ask the student to reflect the steps in the task back to you;
  • Incorporate relevant subject matter using meaningful examples;
  • Keep new information brief and direct; repeat it concisely.
The student has difficulty transferring the concepts he/she has learned to other situations.
  • Activate previous knowledge, making connections to other concepts;
  • Break instruction down into several steps; be explicit;
  • Provide opportunities for the student to repeat the task, adding details;
  • Provide information in a variety of ways (in writing, with visual supports, using modelling).
The student has difficulty remembering what s/he has just read, heard, wants to say, or was told to do.
  • Present concepts in a variety of ways, with visual or auditory supports;
  • Do frequent reviews;
  • Break down instructions and steps;
  • Provide written instructions, posters, graphic organizers, etc. as reference tools;
  • Provide oral clues for problem-solving, writing out key words;
  • Repeat information in a variety of ways (visual, verbal, figure, checklist).
The student loses or forgets his/her personal belongings.
  • Develop specific routines and procedures for daily activities.

Relevant Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the evidence-informed summary, "Understanding Working Memory and Learning Disabilities".

Click here to access the article, "Working Memory & LDs".

Click here to access the evidence-informed summary, "Working Memory and Cognitive Load".

Click here to access the webinar, "Understanding How our Students with LDs Process Information: Contextualizing working memory and cognitive load".

Click here to access the Ask the Expert question and answer, "How do we address working memory deficits in students with learning disabilities?"


If students with LDs are to succeed at school, they must be able to use their working memory effectively. Every student has unique strengths and weaknesses; it is up to educators to present as many strategies as possible so that each student can pick the ones that work for him/her. As each student becomes more adept at utilizing strategies, self-confidence will grow and learning will come more easily.


Lecours, G., Landry, N. and Émond, M. (2012). Les difficultés d'apprentissage, comment faire au quotidien. Commission scolaire de Laval. Accessed at http://www.pierrepotvin.com/8.%20Banque%20d'outils/Difficultes_apprentissage_%20strategies.pdf

Take Ten Series | CanLearn Society. Supporting students with working memory difficulties (2013). Accessed at http://canlearnsociety.ca/resources/take-ten-series/working-memory/