Working memory - a predictor of word learning

Oct 06 2022

The authors of this paper wanted to provide evidence that working memory could explain word learning variance in children, “over and above the contributions of expressive vocabulary and nonverbal IQ.”

Working memory – a predictor of word learning


Working memory can act as a predictor   

Verbal working memory measures positively correlated with vocabulary and grammar scores in a person’s first and second language. Studies have also suggested that verbal working memory measures were stronger predictors of language than attention. There is a small relationship between working memory domains and static measures of reading. 

Working memory is a more powerful predictor of later academic success than IQ. Existing vocabulary and nonverbal IQ have already been shown to relate to vocabulary acquisition in children.

Testing working memory through word learning

The study recruited 167 English-speaking second graders from two U.S. states with typical development. The children involved had to meet a series of requirements, such as passing hearing and vision screenings and achieving certain levels of mastery on academic and language testing, as well as having no history of neuropsychiatric disorders (such as ADHD or ASD). Tasks were presented as part of a computer-based game that took about six two-hour sessions to complete over the course of two weeks. The children took the test with a trained research assistant present to record and transcribe responses. The children played a series of games (tasks) that comprehensively targeted word learning (assessing “the creation, storage, retrieval, and production of phonological and semantic representations of novel nouns and verbs and the ability to link those representations”) and working memory. “The authors then established a model of working memory in children to predict an established model of dynamic word learning to determine whether working memory processes as a whole explained word learning variance over and above the contributions of expressive vocabulary and nonverbal IQ.” The model established from the data demonstrated that “expressive vocabulary, nonverbal IQ, and three working memory factors predicting two-word learning factors fit the data well.” Working memory explained 45% of the variance in the phonological word learning factor (letter-to-sound mapping) and 17% in the semantic word learning factor (storage and retrieval of word meaning). From this, the authors were able to conclude that working memory is a significant predictor “of not only what has already been learned (academic achievement) but also what is actively being learned (dynamic learning).”

Teaching strategies used to strengthen working memory

However, these results do not necessarily mean that if working memory capacity were improved then we could optimize learning. Rather educators can “tailor teaching strategies to support children with particular working memory profiles. Comprehensive working memory assessments have the potential to identify sources of word learning difficulties and help to tailor word learning teaching and interventions to a student’s strengths and challenges. 

Moreover, there are existing studies that show that “different manipulations of encoding practices, such as repeated and spaced retrieval and effortful retrieval, may benefit recall and retention in children. Further research is needed to determine whether tailoring instruction based on a child’s working memory profile could increase learning.

Notable Quotes: 

“It is possible that the relationship between working memory processes and word learning processes changes over the course of development; therefore, findings may not generalize to younger or older students.”

“It is important to note that structural equation modeling offers several advantages previously discussed, but such models cannot definitively pin down causation or thoroughly represent the complex working memory and word learning processes occurring in the real world.”

“An earlier study (Gray et al., 2019) found that children’s working memory profiles were not synonymous with learning disability diagnoses. […] The same was true of children with developmental language disorder, developmental language disorder and dyslexia, and TD [typical development].”

Personal Takeaway: 

This work highlights the importance of working memory for learning, particularly literacy, but also the importance of looking at a student as a whole when it comes to teaching. Working memory is undoubtedly a crucial executive function and is a skill that should be explicitly taught and targeted, especially for students who may need more support in this area. However, it may be equally as important to tailor interventions and teaching to a student’s strengths and challenges. By leveraging strengths educators can find opportunities to personalize instruction to best suit the needs of each student, ultimately enhancing the learning taking place for them.—Ayla Reau

Gray, S. I., Levy, R., Alt, M., Hogan, T. P., & Cowan, N. (2022). Working Memory Predicts New Word Learning Over and Above Existing Vocabulary and Nonverbal IQ. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research : JSLHR, 65(3), 1044–1069.

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