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Working memory

Improving deaf children’s skills in working memory

This programme aims to support primary school teachers in helping their deaf pupils to develop their working memory. Parents can play an important role by helping their children access the web-based games. Parents should work in partnership with their child's teacher, who will introduce the concepts first in school and indicate which games are appropriate at the time.


Working memory is the ability to keep information in mind while working on related activities at the same time and is measured in spans. For example, a pupil without the aid of pencil and paper will need to use working memory to add up two numbers spoken to them. Children rely on working memory to follow their teacher's instructions or remembering sentences that they have been asked to write while engaged in the process of writing them.

There are two aspects of working memory: automatic attention and controlled attention, which are important in helping children to memorise and learn. Both of these aspects are important and many deaf children have difficulty in these areas. The programme of activities is to help improve the working memory of deaf children. It involves exercises for both aspects of working memory which need to be used in coordination with each other.

Age Range

This is a programme to help deaf children who are aged 5-11 years.


Research by Oxford University found that deaf pupils using these materials achieved more on working memory measures when compared with a group of children of the same age and intellectual skills who did not use the materials. Working memory is important because it is a skill which supports a child's progress in literacy and numeracy. Our briefing has more information on this research.

Teacher Instructions

The programme consists of three teacher-led games in which the children learn and practice rehearsal skills that are crucial for controlled attention and three web-based games for developing automatic attention, which the children play on the web on their own. The programme is highly individualised so that children progress through the programme at their own pace.

The programme should always be started with some teacher-led games and these should be used in combination with the web-based games. The first teacher-led game is the Words Game (listening recall). When the child no longer reaches the criterion of 4 trials correct out of 9, give the child another go at the same level. If the child misses the criterion again, move on to another game. Use the same stopping rule: when the child doesn’t meet the criterion twice, move on to another game. A mixture of two teacher-led games followed by web-based games gives a good combination for a session.

When you start the next session, you should start from the level that the child did not master. The record sheet will help you know where to start from. The same procedure applies: start with the Words Game, move on to another teacher-led game, and then to web-games. The child should always be working from the level that was not mastered at the previous session.

Watch our video with Lynda, a Teacher of the Deaf, who gives step-by-step instructions on how to use the resource.


It is best to work with the children for a total of an hour per week over 12 weeks as a minimum. A child who takes longer to master the tasks may end up having shorter sessions because the games will be interrupted more quickly but you can use more than one session to reach one hour per week.

20 minutes of this hour per week would be teacher-led activities ('Word', 'Colours' or 'Digits' recall) and 40 minutes for the child to work on the web-based games by themselves to reinforce what you have done in the teacher-led activities. The children will need some help at the start of the individual computer games, to ensure that they know where to click for the answer and where to click to move on. They also need help recording where they are in the computer games. You will need to know which game they started at and which game they ended at so that the children always start from a more challenging level than where they were previously.

Always start with 'Word recall' first, which is very demanding. If the child reaches a plateau and has done the alternative game for that level (3b for example), they might benefit from a change of context. This would be a good time to move to 'Colours'. Remember you can always go back to 'Word recall' later, at the next session. When the child's progress in 'Colours' has reached a plateau, the third activity 'Digits' can then be introduced.

Children will then have had lots of experience of rehearsal and recall with words, colours and digits and we hope these activities provide an enjoyable context for the challenge.


Developed by Terezinha Nunes, Deborah Evans, Rosanna Barros and Diana Burman at the Department of Education, University of Oxford.

Funded by the National Deaf Children’s Society and Action on Hearing Loss and supported by the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf.