* Working Memory


Articles on working memory are appearing more and more frequently in journals. Frankly, I can’t quite see what all the fuss is about because it does not seem to me to offer any part of a theory which can easily be used to improve existing cognitive theories of SLA. It seems more like an attempt to explain the difficulties some learners have, which, of course, is admirable, but the results are not in any way conclusive, or even, in my opinion, indicative of how studies should proceed. But judge for yourself. I’ve chosen 3 recent articles to give bits and pieces from, in the hope that you get what’s going on and can follow up withmore reading. Three of the articles are included in the Articles section of this website.

The following notes are taken verbatim from the articles

1. Juffs, A. and Warrington, M. (2011) Aspects of working memory. L2 learning. Language Teaching, 44.2, 137–166

One of the cognitive processes which is claimed to affect SLA is working memory. This is the system for temporarily storing and processing information while performing higher order cognitive tasks such as comprehension, learning and reasoning (Baddeley & Logie 1999). Since first proposed by Baddeley & Hitch (1974), the construct has been the focus of extensive research in psycholinguistics. Differences in working memory capacity (WMC) have attracted the attention of L2 researchers, who have been interested in how individual differences in WMC might account for variation in L2 learning and use.

Working memory refers to the mental processes responsible for the temporary storage and manipulation of information in the course of on-going processing. Working memory is not memory PER SE. Rather, it is better understood as a system that controls and regulates behavior, or, in much more general terms, as “a set of limiting factors for performance in cognitive tasks”’ (Oberauer et al. 2003: 168). These factors arise from the interaction of a complex web of neural and cognitive processes, leading some researchers to suggest that WM is better understood as a part of cognition rather than as a part of memory (Engle 2007).

The best-known model of WM is that first proposed by Baddeley & Hitch (1974); a later version was presented by Baddeley in 2000. See Figure 1 in the full article in the Articles Section of this website. The original model had three elements. It was comprised of two short-term storage domains consisting of the PHONOLOGICAL LOOP and the VISUO-SPATIAL SKETCHPAD, and a CENTRAL EXECUTIVE controlling the flow of information between these domains and other cognitive processes. The phonological loop handles phonological and verbal information, while the visuo-spatial sketchpad processes visual and spatial information. Later a third element, THE EPISODIC BUFFER, was added (Baddeley 2000) as the place where various types of information are temporarily stored and integrated. The three short-term storage domains are called ‘slave’ systems to denote their passive roles as repositories of information controlled by the central executive.

The short-term memory stores hold a limited amount of information that is available only for a matter of seconds before it is lost. This capacity is limited both by how much information can be maintained and how long that information is available. The processing of verbal material depends on the phonological loop and this element of it has, from the outset, received the greatest attention from researchers interested in language learning and processing. Essentially, WMC is perhaps best thought of as a bottle-neck through which information has to pass in order to be permanently stored in long-term memory.

Note from Geoff:

The most important part of the paper, I think is this:

The construct of Working Memory has been applied to knowledge of SLA and L2 pedagogy in a variety of settings. Because SLA and L2 pedagogy seek to address the question of why some learners struggle to acquire an L2 (usually in instructed contexts), researchers have been interested in finding out whether WM limitations explain differences in success in a variety of domains. The assumption is, of course, that higher WM will lead to more successful learning. As with most broad questions of this nature, breaking down the problem into smaller sub-questions first is more likely to lead to results that make sense. The caveat with all of this research is that although WM may indeed be a factor in explaining SOME variability among learners, other factors such as L1 and motivation may turn out in the end to be much more powerful explanatory variables in L2 learning. Moreover, if it turns out that WM does play a role, AND WM is a fixed TRAIT (perhaps in specific domains) rather than a capacity or attentional variable that can be changed or manipulated, then even knowing that WM is an explanatory variable may not help in pedagogy. Our current state of knowledge is such that we do not know for sure what amount of variation in an individual’s learner behavior WM can explain, so researchers have not yet attempted to develop interventions that may help learners increase their WM capacity and, as a result, achieve greater proficiency, or more rapid learning, in instructed contexts.

See the re-produced article in the Articles Section for references.


2. Mackey, A. and Sachs, R. (2012) Learners in SLA Research: A First Look at Working Memory, Feedback, and L2 Development. Language Learning 62:3, pp. 704–740.

Abstract: In this article we argue that it is important to investigate older adults’ language learning aptitudes, processes, and outcomes, both to expand and fine-tune SLA theories about working memory (WM) and interaction-driven L2 learning across a wider range of age groups and to improve L2 pedagogy. … With the goal of motivating further research into the role of individual differences in interaction-driven SLA by older adults, we conducted a small-scale study exploring whether age-advanced ESL learners would show L2 development following interaction with feedback and whether this might be related to their WM capacities.

Note from Geoff: Discusses age-advanced learners. Worth reading.



3. Martin, K. and Ellis, N. (2012) The roles of phonological short-term memory and working memory in l2 grammar and vocabulary learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 34, 379–413.

Abstract: This study analyzed phonological short-term memory (PSTM) and working memory (WM) and their relationship with vocabulary and grammar learning in an artificial foreign language. Nonword repetition, nonword recognition, and listening span were used as memory measures. Participants learned the singular forms of vocabulary for an artificial foreign language before being exposed to plural forms in sentence contexts. Participants were tested on their ability to induce the grammatical forms and to generalize the forms to novel utterances. Individual differences in final abilities in vocabulary and grammar correlated between 0.44 and 0.76, depending on the measure. Despite these strong associations, the results demonstrated significant independent effects of PSTM and WM on L2 vocabulary learning and on L2 grammar learning, some of which were mediated by vocabulary and some of which were direct effects.

Conclusion: Constructionist accounts naturally allow for a strong relationship between grammar and vocabulary, while acknowledging their differential reliance on PSTM and WM. Vocabulary learning involves the sequential sound patterns of words and their arbitrary mapping to meaning; grammar learning involves the sequential patterns of words and morphemes. Both involve the memorization of phonological sequences in PSTM, yet grammatical patterns are more global. They apply to the utterance as a whole, beyond the individual word, and more than that, they involve the abstraction of patterns over sets of morphemes. These more complicated patterns may demand more processing capacities, the holding of a greater amount of information over time, and the identification, selection, and correlation of relevant features both in the input and in long-term memory. Thus they are likely to be somewhat more reliant on WM. Nevertheless, vocabulary and grammar are highly interrelated in use and learning, and both make substantial demands on PSTM and WM.

Note from Geoff: An excellent article; almost a “must read”. See the whole article in the Articles Section of this website.


4. Baddeley, A. (2003) Working memory and language: an overview. Jornal of Communication Disorders, 36, 189- 208.

This is from the main man. Here’s the Abstract:

Working memory involves the temporary storage and manipulation of information that is assumed to be necessary for a wide range of complex cognitive activities. In 1974, Baddeley and Hitch proposed that it could be divided into three subsystems, one concerned with verbal and acoustic information, the phonological loop, a second, the visuospatial sketchpad providing its visual equivalent, while both are dependent upon a third attentionally-limited control system, the central executive. A fourth subsystem, the episodic buffer, has recently been proposed. These are described in turn, with particular reference to implications for both the normal processing of language, and its potential disorders. Learning outcomes: The reader will be introduced to the concept of a multi-component working memory. Particular emphasis will be placed on the phonological loop component, and (a) its fractionation into a storage and processing component, (b) the neuropsychological evidence for this distinction, and (c) its implication for both native and second language learning. This will be followed by (d) a brief overview of the visuospatial sketchpad and its possible role in language, culminating in (e) discussion of the higher-level control functions of working memory which include (f) the central executive and its multidimensional storage system, the episodic buffer. An attempt throughout is made to link the model to its role in both normal and disordered language functions.

See the whole article in the Articles Section of this website.

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