Professor Melissa Wake
Murdoch Childrens Research Institute
11 September 2017

‘More than 90 per cent of children six to seven years of age with reading difficulties have low working memory.'1

Preventing early academic problems by improving working memory: translational randomised trial

Murdoch Childrens Research Institute | 2011 | Project Grant | $831,085

Team members: Associate Professor Gehan Roberts, Professor Susan Gathercole, Associate Professor Lisa Gold, Professor Peter Anderson, Professor Field Rickards, Professor John Ainley and Dr Jon Quach

Learning difficulties can have lifelong effects. Typically they are picked up late—only after the child has already experienced school failure and poor self-esteem. Preventive programs are therefore very attractive to schools and to parents. ​

Professor Melissa Wake and her team set out to understand more about working memory and how current intervention strategies might improve academic achievements in young students at risk of learning difficulties.

Working memory—the ability to briefly hold and manipulate information in a mental headspace—is a core element of executive functioning. Likened to the air traffic control system at a busy airport, executive functioning refers to the cognitive processes that enable children to successfully navigate their environment by filtering distractions, setting goals, prioritising and self-regulating.   

Working memory deficits are often associated with academic under-achievement. Brain training programs targeting working memory have shown promise in some clinical groups. In response, many schools worldwide are routinely implementing commercially available programs, despite a lack of evidence that translating these programs into schools is beneficial to students.

The team tested the potential benefits of one of the most popular brain training programs as a population level prevention strategy for children with low working memory.

‘As the largest and only rigorous population trial, we expect its results to have a major impact,’ Professor Wake explained.

‘The Memory Maestros trial offered a working memory screen to all Grade 1 students in 44 schools, testing over 1700 children in the process. We offered children in the lowest 25 per cent either a one-on-one 25-session computerised adaptive working memory intervention program or usual classroom teaching.

‘Unfortunately, six month gains in short-term and working memory largely disappeared by one year and did not translate into academic benefits at two years.’

Not implementing such programs could save money and allow other more effective interventions to be tested, preventing children from needlessly missing valuable classroom time.

‘Working memory—the ability to briefly hold and manipulate information in a mental headspace.’

Next steps:

Professor Wake and her team now plan to link birth, school entry and later learning outcomes with genetic testing to help understand how genetic differences interact with cognitive and environmental factors to determine long-term learning and mental health related outcomes.


1 Gathercole SE, Alloway TP, Willis C, Adams AM, 2006, Working memory in children with reading disabilities. J Exp Child Psycho, 2006 Mar;93(3):265-81. Epub 2005 Nov 15


Featured image Credit
Photo supplied by: Murdoch Childrens Research Institute