A new research study takes a look at academic achievement for first- through third-grade students, that all-important age, when about 80 percent of US students from low-income families fall behind. The study finds that, regardless of socioeconomic status, working memory is linked strongly to reading and academic achievement.
The study comes from the University of Luxembourg and partner universities from Brazil. It is published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology.
The findings suggest that children with learning difficulties might benefit from teaching methods that prevent working memory overload. Researchers in Brazil studied 106 children between ages 6 and 8 from a range of social backgrounds, with half living under the official poverty line. Similar studies have been conducted in the English-speaking world, so it was interesting to see that the results were similar in this highly-unequal, Portuguese-speaking society.
The study sought to identify the cognitive skills underpinning learning success. Children were tested for IQ and so-called “executive functions,” a set of cognitive processes that we use to control our thoughts and actions, including how we remember information, control our emotions, pay attention and shift between thoughts. These results were compared to attainment in reading, spelling, mathematics, language, and science.
The results show that a child’s working memory skills—their ability to hold and work with information in mind—predicted success in all aspects of learning, regardless of IQ. Moreover, most children identified by their teachers as “poor readers” struggle with their working memory.
“Our findings suggest the importance of early screening and intervention, especially in the context of poverty. At present, poor working memory is rarely identified by teachers,” said project leader Dr Pascale Engel de Abreu, associate professor at the University of Luxembourg. “Poor literacy, low academic achievement and living in poverty create a mutually reinforcing cycle. There is a chance to break this by early identification of children with working memory problems and by helping them to acquire the mental tools which will enable them to learn,” she added.