Here’s The Psychological Key to Early Academic Achievement

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Why some children find it hard to read and deal with complicated classroom instructions.

Working memory is a crucial factor in children’s academic achievement, including their reading ability.

Working memory is the ability to hold pieces of information in the mind and manipulate them, as well as the ability to stay on-task and ignore distractions.

The study, which was conducted in Brazil, included 106 children, half of whom were living under the poverty line (Abreu et al., 2014).

The children took a battery of cognitive tests — including one assessing their working memory — and these were matched up with their attainment in mathematics, spelling, reading, language and science.

The results showed that the children with the best working memories consistently had the highest performance across all the different areas of learning.

The children who struggled, especially with reading, were those with the poorest working memory.

The project’s leader, Dr. Pascale Engel de Abreu, said:

“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.

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.”

This study backs up a consistent finding from the English-speaking world that a strong working memory is important for academic achievement.

The authors conclude:

“…many classroom situations place heavy demands on the working memory system because children are required frequently to hold information in mind while engaging in effortful activities.

Lengthy and complex classroom instructions or difficult task structures can lead to working memory overload in children with poor working memory function.

This can result in task failure or abandonment, in other words, missed learning opportunities that negatively affect normal rates of learning.” (Abreu et al., 2014).

Image credit: Lotus Carroll

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 11 July 2014

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Images: Creative Commons License