7 ways you can help kid writers from overloading their working memory

Picture this: A six-year-old writer has many great ideas for a story. They excitedly rattle off to you four sentences to complete their story. As a young writer new to forming letters and spelling words, they write slowly and stumble to finish the first sentence—only to completely forget the once highly detailed and organized text they just told you moments before. Their brain is so focused on spelling, pencil grip, and letter formation that they have completely forgotten what they were going to write about. Their working memory is overloaded.

Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve witnessed your own kid experience this struggle. Maybe you have even experienced it during your own writing process.

The good news is there are strategies that you and your kid can use to help reduce the burden put on our working memories during the writing process. Read on to find out more.

What is working memory?

You’ve probably heard of short-term memory. Short-term memory is the limited information we can temporarily hold in our mind to use in the present moment, and the information is often forgotten shortly after use. Think of temporarily remembering a phone number while you type the numbers on your phone.

We all—kids and adults alike—have limits to our working memory.

Working memory is related to short-term memory, and it also includes our ability to manipulate or control that information. In working memory, you are actively doing something with the new information you are given. For example, when you are doing mental math to calculate the tip at a restaurant, you are using your working memory to manipulate number amounts.

Working memory has its limits, and these limits can be different for individuals. Some people have working memories with larger capacities, while other people have working memories with smaller capacities. People with ADHD, dyslexia, and traumatic brain injuries may experience more challenges with working memory.

Our working memory capacity can also change throughout the day, depending on specific situations. For example, if we are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, we may have fewer available resources for working memory because our attention is negatively affected by stress.

How is working memory related to writing?

As you might remember from our other posts on the Simple View of Writing, writing takes place within a working memory environment.

A circle labeled Working Memory, containing three equal-sized, labeled triangles. The triangles are arranged in two rows. The bottom row has two triangles: Transcription and Executive Functions. They hold up the third triangle, Text Generation, in the top row.During writing, working memory helps us temporarily store information like a new idea that we want to explain (using text generation), how we want to word a particular sentence, or how to spell a word (i.e., transcription). It helps us switch between different writing processes like planning and revising (these are executive functions). It helps us form a mental representation of “the text in construction” or the already produced text with the one we intend to write.

As my colleague Heather wrote about in “Why transcription is important in your child’s writing and reading journey,”transcription puts a lot of demands on young kids’ working memory. They are focused on remembering how to form letters and spell words. Until they become fluent with handwriting, typing, and spelling, they have little mental space to think about things like organizing and revising ideas. Typically, by grade 4, transcription skills become fairly automatic, but kids still need help developing their executive function skills. My colleague Julie has some great ideas to support this in her post “5 ways you can help kids develop their executive function skills for writing.”

Mature writers might be fully fluent with their transcription skills and skilled in executive functions, but everyone has limits on their working memory and, as Kellie wrote in “8 ways to support kids of all ages in writing at home,” text generation will challenge those limits, even in the most skilled adult writers.

So, if working memory is fairly fixed in individuals, how can you help your kid with their writing when it comes to working memory? Luckily, there are several strategies. They have two goals: (1) Reduce the demands on working memory so your kid has more resources available for competing cognitive (mental) tasks and (2) make sure kids can use their working memory to the fullest extent.

Here are a few research-supported strategies to reduce the demands on working memory during the writing process:

  1. Practice sentence combining. Give your child two or more simple sentences and ask them to combine them into a single, more complex sentence. Providing kids with starter sentences reduces the cognitive load for them to generate ideas and vocabulary on their own and lets them focus on thinking about how ideas are related, determining the word choice to convey those relationships. It also helps them make a plan for writing future sentences that express similar ideas. Sentence combining practice has been shown to improve overall writing quality.
  2. Use graphic organizers. A lot of internal mental organization of ideas takes place when planning a written piece. Using a graphic organizer can free up some of your child’s working memory by capturing that organization on an external visual plan. This is similar to taking notes while reading a book, listening to a lecture, or watching an instructional video. By offloading information to paper (or screen), the brain is freed up to focus on deeper thinking and processing. Being able to reference, add on to, and revise writing plans via graphic organizers prevents kids from exerting a lot of extra mental energy on trying to keep track of all the ideas in their head.
  3. Break it into steps. Chunking information into manageable, bite-size pieces is a key strategy for avoiding overloading working memory. It can be helpful for many kids to have an easy-to-remember step-by-step process for writing. Two popular writing strategies are POW and TREE. “POW” stands for pick my idea, organize my notes, and write and say more. “TREE” is an acronym for topic sentence, reasons (three or more), explain reasons, and ending. Typically, as kids mature as writers, this process will become more internalized and they will no longer need to follow these formulas rigidly (and should even be encouraged to experiment with their writing). But for writers who have ongoing issues with working memory, step-by-step strategies like POW and TREE can be incredibly helpful.
  4. Read, read, read. Our existing knowledge base provides the foundation for our working memory. If we are familiar with a topic, we have more available resources for working memory when thinking about issues related to that topic. When we don’t know much or anything about a topic, our working memory can become easily overloaded. (This is me when someone tries to explain how cryptocurrency works.) The best way to help your kid expand their knowledge base is to encourage them to read about topics that interest them. For more information about reading strategies to use with your kid, see our eBook How to support reading at home: A guide for families.

And here are some general strategies to free up resources for working memory:

  1. Get visual. Visualizing, or creating mental images and representations of ideas, helps us create meaningful connections, which aids with memory. Visualization can help with reading comprehension and encourage the generation of ideas when writing. For some ideas on how to encourage visualization with your kids, check out “Teaching kids to visualize.”
  2. Get moving. Research has shown that exercise improves working memory and overall brain function. Encourage your kid to take occasional breaks when writing and go outside for a walk, play a game of basketball, practice their favorite TikTok dance, stretch at their desk, or something else fun. If your child has physical limitations, check out these videos for inclusive exercise ideas: “Yoga for individuals with disabilities” and “Adaptive chair yoga class for people in wheelchairs.”
  3. Get mindful. Among the many benefits of mindfulness and meditation is the ability to improve attention, recall skills, and reduce stress and distractions. “12 ways to teach mindfulness to kids” has some great and simple suggestions.

For more information about general strategies your kid can use to optimize their working memory, check out “8 working memory boosters.”  

These strategies are applicable across grade-levels, though their sophistication should increase as kids mature. For example, older kids can work on combining longer sentences, while younger kids might use a more simplified version of a graphic organizer.

Writing: It’s not so simple

Though the model is called the Simple View of Writing, writing is a complex mental process that places many simultaneous demands on a writer. Because of its complexity, learning to write can be understood as a continuum. We develop as writers, not just across our childhood, but across our entire lifetime.

When kids are really young, most of their working memory is consumed by transcription. As kids mature, they get more practice with transcription and it becomes automatic, so they have more mental space to focus on executive functions and text generation. But we all—kids and adults alike—have limits to our working memory, and it’s important to treat those limits with patience and support. We can use a toolkit of strategies to help reduce the cognitive load on our working memory so that we can unleash the storyteller in all of us.

Many thanks to my NWEA colleagues Meg Guerreiro, Julie Richardson, Kellie Schmidt, and Heather Cella for their contributions to this blog post.

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