Getting Working Language Instead of Working Memory

Getting Working Language Instead of Working Memory


Many primary-school-aged children with Language Difficulties can find it challenging to understand and use language. Many children with Language difficulties can understand English’s basic sentences (e.g. The monkey bit the lion), however, find difficulty with longer or more advanced forms of language (e.g. The skinny monkey hungrily bit the grumbly old lion; the grumbly old lion was bitten by the skinny monkey).

Some common approaches to treating these difficulties have been to treat a child’s working memory (ability to process and store information at the same time), which is typically a weakness in these children. However recent investigations by researchers in the USA have found that targeting the weak cognitive skills in therapy (i.e. Working Memory) is ineffective. Rather, the functional intervention consists of strategic language building.

The difference between children with Language Difficulties and their peers.

When listening to spoken sentences, children must immediately make sense of sounds that disappear as soon as they are spoken. Typically developing children rely primarily on complex working memory* for sentence comprehension and can easily and automatically ‘chunk’ information for fast processing (*the complex working memory is fed into by relationships with pattern recognition, controlled attention, and long-term memory language knowledge).

However, children with Language Difficulties have a poorer complex working memory, making sentence understanding into an effortful process. They have greater difficulties with pattern recognition abilities as well as long-term memory language knowledge. This directs them to rely on a word-by-word comprehension strategy, which does little good.  

So should we target working memory?

No actually. Various reviews of the literature have found that trying to improve working memory directly doesn’t make functional or long-term gains.

How to approach treatment for poor comprehension of sentences

Approaches currently recommended are ‘contextual language interventions’. Examples of these might be learning the organisational structures for narratives, where children should be supported to learn story elements such as characters, setting, initiating event, internal response, plan, actions, consequences. After learning these elements, there should be teaching in linguistic structures such as adding adjectives and complex conjunctions (e.g. glittering, coarse; although, until).

This functional ‘contextual language intervention’ helps children learn to organise and process information, which is likely to generalise to gains in their working memory, and thus improve their difficulties with understanding language. This means when encountering complex language, they now have ‘templates’ stored in their brain that quickly allows them to process the spoken sentence.

It is important that children with Language Difficulties are able to understand the increasingly complex language that surrounds them, at Optimum Health Solutions we are specialists in identifying and treating the language concerns of our clients. As Speech Pathologists, we work alongside parents and schools to help children and teenagers improve their confidence in their communication.


Gillam, R., Montgomery, J., Evans, J. and Gillam, S., 2019. Cognitive predictors of sentence comprehension in children with and without developmental language disorder: Implications for assessment and treatment. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 21(3), pp.240-251.

Gillam, S., Holbrook, S., Mecham, K. and Weller, D., 2018. Pull the Andon Rope on Working Memory Capacity Interventions Until We Know More. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 49(3), pp.434-448.

Found this article helpful? Share it with your community

Want to find out more?

Recent Articles

Our team actively contribute the latest health tips, exercises routines and healthy recipes to support your life’s health journey.