2013. Vol.4, No.10A, 7-12
Published Online October 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/psych) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2013.410A002
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 7
Working Memory and Reading Development
T. L. Ferreira1*, C. M. T. Valentin2, S. M. Ciasca1
1Department of Neurology, Research Laborato ry of Learning and Attention Disorders
(DISAPRE), São Paulo, Brazi l
2Applied Neuropsychology of Ch ild Neurology School of Medical Sciences, State University of Campinas
(UNICAMP) Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil
Received July 24th, 2013; r evised August 25th, 2013; accepted September 28th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Tais de Lima Ferreira et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
Purpose: To evaluate the development of working memory and reading in proficient students from 1st to
4th year of elementary school. Method: Participants were 19 people of both genders, with an average age
of 8.26 years, enrolled between the 1st and 4th year of elementary school, who met the proposed inclusion
criteria and were proposed and evaluated for working memory and reading level. Results: There’re no sig-
nificant differences in the level of reading and working memory between genders male and female. The
research points to an improved performance of working memory with the increasing age and educational
level. The students belonging to the 3rd and 4th year showed better results in the physical assessment of
working memory, as well as in the evaluation of the reading level. Conclusion: In this study, it was ob-
served that with the increasing age and schooling, there was an improvement in the performance of
working memory, and consequently a better performance in reading. But it cannot be inferred that only
the working memory and reading complement themselves bidirectionally, because the literature indicates
that other factors also help the development of reading.
Keywords: Short Term Memory; Performance Evaluation; Reading
The basic operations of memory are encoding, storage and
retrieval. Encoding is the transformation of sensory input in the
form of mental representation that can be stored. The storage is
the storage of coded information. Retrieval refers to the access
and use of the information stored. These processes interact with
each other and are interdependent (Sternenberg, 2000).
There are four components of working memory: central ex-
ecutive, phonological loop, visual-spatial layout and episode
buffer (Baddeley, 2000).
According to the study above, the central executive is used to
perform tasks that require greater cognitive ability, being re-
sponsible for certain functions such as selective attention, men-
tal flexibility, select and execute plans and strategies; ability to
allocate resources elsewhere in the working memory, and abil-
ity to recall information stored in the long-term memory (Bad-
The phonological loop is responsible for the storage and
processing of information encoded verbally. The “phonological
loop” is responsible for its storage of verbal material and is
comprised of two components: a phonological storer and an
articulatory rehearsal component (sub-vocal feedback). The
storer is a component of the short term phonological retention
of auditory information that is subject to rapid deterioration.
Yet, the sub-vocal articulatory rehearsal feeds back the infor-
mation, preventing it from deterioration and, keeping it in
memory until it can be consolidated into other mnemonic levels
The phonological working memory (WM) integrates frontal
mechanisms to the language for organizing sequences of re-
sponses; one must compare all the possibilities to reach its goal,
which requires WM, i.e., storage and processing of information
needed to perform cognitive tasks, such as language compre-
hension, learning and reasoning (Carrilo-Mora, 2010).
The visual-spatial scheme (sketchpad), responsible for the
processing and storage of visual and/or spatial and verbal mate-
rial encoded in image form, is used in remembrance of shapes,
colors, location or objects speed in space, and in tasks involv-
ing spatial and motion planning. It can be considered as a link
between the visual and spatial information, which can be ac-
cessed by the sense organ or long-term memory (Ferreira, 2011).
The fourth component is the episodic buffer, a temporary
storage system with limited capacity, which is capable of inte-
grating information from various sources. It is assumed that it is
controlled by the executive core, and that it is capable to re-
trieve information that are stored, and when necessarily handle
or modify them (Mourão Jr. & Melo, 2011).
Cognitive processes involved in reading and writing are re-
lated to the phonological processing, including memory and
phonological awareness. The relationship between memory,
phonological awareness and written language is very expressive.
The relationship between memory, phonological awareness and
written language is very expressive, most particularly, the rela-
tionship between the working memory and reading, observing
that the former is linked to the complex cognitive functions,
where one of them, is the understanding of the language. Thus
it is necessary that their operation is complete, so that this indi-
vidual presents development of reading ability and comprehen-
T. L. FERREIRA ET AL.
sion of the reading material. In addition, there are differences
between the storage capacities of the memory in the different
ages (Mourão Jr. & Melo, 2011).
Children with reading difficulties also show difficulties in
reverb tasks and storage of phonological information. They
present a worse performance than that observed good readers
(Kibby, Marks, Morgan, & Long, 2004). This difference is even
greater when the complexity of the task is increased, requiring
even more phonological reverberation, or sub-vocal feedback of
the reading material.
The phonological deficit hypothesis is frequently used to ex-
plain the problems related to reading and writing. Students with
reading disabilities, and problems with reading comprehension
as a result of changes in the phonological processing which also
involves the low storage capacity of information in the working
memory (Tenório & Ávila, 2012; Van der Leij & Morfidi, 2006;
Capellini & Conrado, 2009)
In order to better understand the development of reading and
its relation to the working memory, the aim of this study was to
evaluate the development of the working memory and reading
in proficient s tudents from the 1st to 4th year of elementary school.
The study enrolled 19 subjects from 1st to 4th year of ele-
mentary public school that serves students from Nursery to
middle school. The study was conducted after approval by the
Ethics in Research (View 805/2011) of the institution. This
group consisted of 12 male subjects and 13 females, aged be-
tween six and ten years old, with an average age of 8.26 years
The inclusion criteria for participation in this study were: a
normal psychomotor development, normal development of
speech, hearing and visual acuity proven through tests that are
performed in the children at this school from the 1st grade level.
The results of the tests measuring visual and audito ry acuity are
delivered to school by the parents, following suggestions from
the teaching staff, and the data are filed in the student file. The
inclusion criteria are: no complaint of learning problems in
reading, writing and arithmetic, and performance above average
in reading, writing and arithmetic in TEA (Test of Educational
Achievement). The exclusion criteria were: complaints of
speech-language disorders, such as learning disabilities, de-
layed speech, phonetic and/or phonological having failed in
some elementary grade; doing tutoring and/or attend educa-
tional psychology service, make use of neurological and psy-
chiatric medication; being or have attended speech therapy;
complain of cognitive performance below normal standards,
and lower pe rform ance in re ading, writing and arith metic in TEA.
To help fulfill the inclusion and exclusion criteria question-
naire was used, which was filled by the parents for the selection
of subjects who would participate in. In the above, there were
the following questions: Did he attend kindergarten for at least
two years? Does he present the framework of neurological dis-
ease? Does he present sensory deficit? Does he display motor
change? Did he show developmental delay? Does the child
make use of neuropsychiatric medication?
To assess the working memory , was used the Work Memory
Protocol Assessment (Ferreira, 2011) which is composed of
auditory and visual evidence, tasks of free recall and serial on
the forward and reverse, repetition of words and non-words and
tasks Forward and Backward for visual and audio material. The
tests are linguistically balanced according to the complexity of
speech articulation, word length and degree of familiarity of the
words in Portuguese. The protocol is divided into six stages: 1)
repetition in direct order, 2) free recall, 3) verbal span, 4) visual
span, 5) do not repeat words, 6) memory in reverse order. In
step 1, the serial repetition is two and three syllable words with
different semantics and equal phonology; phonology words with
different/same semantics, words with different phonology and
semantics. In step 2, the lists of free repeating included poly-
syllabic words with phonology complex and different se- man-
tics, phonology words with different and the same semantic
field (color); syllable words with equal phonology and different
semantics, words with different semantics and phonology;
polysyllabic words with different semantics and phonology.
Step 3, (verbal span) consists of a list of two-syllable words
with equal phonology and two-syllable words with different
semantics. Step 4, (visual span) consists of colored cards,
which must be remembered in the forward and reverse order,
according to the stimulus given by the applicator. Step 5, works
with the repetition of non-syllable words and three syllables.
Step 6, involves and recall in reverse order a list of two-syllable
The reading assessment was performed by the Reading Level
Protocol Assessment. The subjects read the text “Bunny Som-
ersault” (Nauhum, 1990). The protocol allowed the reading
level of the same rank in 3 levels: logographic, alphabetic
spelling. According to Frith (1985), the logographic stage oc-
curs in the recognition of familiar words, and itis evident in the
graphic characteristic, not taking into consideration the order of
the letters in the word. The words are read as a whole. In the
alpha stage the child begins to use the correspondences between
phonemes and graphemes, thus acquiring knowledge about the
alphabetic principle by means of phonological awareness. First,
the simples rules are learned (sequential decoding), and then,
the contextual rules (hierarchical decoding). At this stage, there
is still no complete understanding of the reading material. In the
last stage, the spell, the subject is able to analyze words into
orthographic units (groups of letters and morphemes) without
performing the phonological conversion. These orthographic
units, such as syllables, form a unit whose combination may
generate an almost unlimited number of words.
The subjects underwent the following tests: Test of Educa-
tional Achievement (TDE) (Stein, 1994), Working Memory
Assessment Protocol (Ferreira, 2011) and Reading Level As-
sessment Protocol (Capellini & Cavalheiro, 2001). Individual
sessions were conducted lasting approximately 20 minutes.
For this study were performed some analyses by descriptive
and inferential statistics using SPSS for Windows (version
20.0). Descriptive analyses were performed to characterize the
groups and inferential analyses to compare the performance
between the groups (Mann Whitney, Correlation coefficient of
Spearman), considered the significance level of 5%, i.e., p <
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
T. L. FERREIRA ET AL.
The Mann-Whitney aims to investigate possible differences
in the working memory performance between groups.
Observe that all 1st year students have alphabethic reading
level. Figure 1 does not show the level logographic because no
participant achieved this rating. In the 2nd year they obtained
levels of alphabetic spelling, remaining 20% at the orthographic
level and 80% at the alphabetic. All subjects of 3rd and 4th year
reached the orthographic level.
As seen in Table 1, with increasing level of education, or
grade, a higher reading level between subjects. From the 3rd
year all subjects were on stage spelling reading.
Figure 2 indicates the comparison of the level of reading
spelling between genders male and female. It was observed that
75% of the male subjects presented and 25% of the female in
the 2nd year presented reading classified in the orthographic
level. In the 3rd year the subjects of both sexes presented read-
ing in the orthographic level. In the 4th year, all male subjects
were at the orthog ra p hi c level.
In order to understand better the following tables, the names
used for each subtest were transformed into abbreviations as
shown above (Figure 3).
1º 2º 3º 4ºTotal
Comparison of the reading level and the series.
Relationship between grade and reading level.
Alphabetic Orthographic Total
f 3 0 3
1st year % 100% 0% 100%
f 1 4 5
2nd year % 20% 80% 100%
f 0 6 6
3rd year % 0% 100% 100%
f 0 5 5
4th year % 0% 100% 100%
f 4 15 19
% 21.1% 78.9% 100%
Note: f = frequency.
1º 2º 3º 4º
Comparison of the reading level spelling between males and females.
A1 Serial repetition in direct order – two-syllable words and
three syllables with different semantics and equal phonology
B1 Serial repetition in direct order - two-syllable words with
different phonology and equal s emantics
C1 Serial repetition in direct order - two-syllable words with
different semantics a nd p honology
A2 Free recall - polysyllabic words with different semantics
and complex phonology
B2 Free recall - Words wit h d ifferent phonological and e qu al
C2 Free recall - two-syllable wo rd s wi th different semantics
and phonology equal
D2Free recall - Words with different semantics and phonology
E2 Free recall - polysyllabic words with different semantics
and phonol ogy
A3 Verbal Span – two-syllable words w ith different semantics
and phonol ogy
B3 Verbal Span – two-syllable words w ith different semantics
and phonology equal
A4Visual Span - direct order
B4Visual Span - reverse order
A5Repeat no w ords - two syllable s
B5Repeat no words - three syllables
A6Recall in reverse order
Acronyms subtests of the working memory assessment protocol.
In the above table, (Table 2) the groups were divided by
reading level (Alphabetical and Spelling) and the average per-
formance on each subtest memory were compared. The results
that showed differences statistically significant (p < 0.005) are
indicated with a star(*). The table shows that subjects with
reading at the orthographic level presented a better average
performance on the subtests of the assessment protocol of
working memory and that this group showed a statistically
significant difference in performance when compared to the
performance of the group with reading in alphabetic level B1
on the subtests, C1, A2, C2, B3, B5 and B6. The subtests of
visual nature A4 and B4 showed no results with statistically
significant differences in relation to levels of reading and
Table 3 indicates the presence of a positive correlation be-
tween increasing age and the increase of performance in the
tests working memory B1, C1, A2, C2, A4, B5 and A6. In other
words, the older the subject is, the higher the subtests scores
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 9
T. L. FERREIRA ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Comparison of reading levels with the subtests of the assessment pro-
tocol of working memory.
Test Reading Level N A SD p value
Alphabetic 4 6.00 2.48
A1 Orthographic 15 7.16 1.41 0.39
Alphabetic 4 4.50 0.82
B1 Orthographic 15 5.57 0.46 0.02*
Alphabetic 4 3.13 2.06
C1 Orthographic 15 5.60 1.06 0.02*
Alphabetic 4 2.25 0.50
A2 Orthographic 15 4.40 1.50 0.01*
Alphabetic 4 4.50 2.38
B2 Orthographic 15 5.53 1.96 0.57
Alphabetic 4 2.25 0.96
C2 Orthographic 15 4.13 1.19 0.02*
Alphabetic 4 2.50 1.00
D2 Orthographic 15 3.93 1.67 0.09
Alphabetic 4 2.75 1.50
E2 Orthographic 15 3.20 1.32 0.47
Alphabetic 4 3.75 0.50
A3 Orthographic 15 4.00 0.38 0.27
Alphabetic 4 3.00 0.00
B3 Orthographic 15 3.67 0.62 0.04*
Alphabetic 4 4.00 0.82
A4 Orthographic 15 5.00 0.85 0.05
Alphabetic 4 3.50 0.58
B4 Orthographic 15 3.73 0.88 0.59
Alphabetic 4 15.00 0.00
A5 Orthographic 15 14.80 0.77 0.61
Alphabetic 4 14.00 0.82
B5 Orthographic 15 14.80 0.41 0.03*
Alphabetic 4 1.75 0.50
A6 Orthographic 15 3.13 0.92 0.01*
Note: A = Average, SD = Standard Deviation, Mann-Whitney, *significant.
The aim of this study was to verify the performance of the
working memory and reading level for proficient readers.
In this study, it became evident that as the age and education
level increased, there was an improvement in the performance
of the reading level and in working memory (Tables 1 and 3).
According to the literature, it is expected that the student
from the 2nd to 4th year of elementary school, read texts whose
content and form are familiar, and shows that he completely
understood a text read by him or by someone through a con-
versation, a discussion, a recount or writing (Brasil, 2003).
The reading implies a decoding and understanding compo-
nent. When learning to read, the reader can decode words in
most texts, but does not meanthat an understanding of what is
being read is occurring (Capovilla, 2005).
The present study showed that children in the 1st and 2nd
year presented, in most cases, analphabetic reading level. The
students of 3rd and 4th year were reading at the orthographic
level, which allows for the automatic decoding of words, analy-
sis of orthographic units, and the consequently of theses under-
standing (Figure 1 and Table 1).The performance of the work-
ing memory is associated with chronological age and learning.
Thus, it is expected that older children have better performance
on memory tasks than younger children, and this was attributed
to maturity and schooling (Gindri, Keske-Soares, & Mota, 2007).
As to the working memory, refers to the study by Barreyro,
Burin and Duarte (2009) positive correlation between the per-
formances of the child during the development of the reading
tests in auditory working memory. The same authors also point
out that the increase in storage capacity and processing of this
memory facilitates the acquisition of new vocabulary and un-
derstanding of syntactically more complex sentences and of
greater extent, containing redundant linguistic information. In
addition, the auditory working memory helps the child to ac-
quire metalinguistic skills such astasks of grammatical judg-
ment of sentences.
These data corroborate this study concerning the perform-
ance improvement in the working memory to the impairment
according to age. In the literature, failure in working memory is
associated to disorders or oral and written language, and atten-
tion disorder, such as phonological disorder, specific language
impairment, developmental dyslexia and ADHD (Ferreira, 2011;
Barreyro, Burin, & Duarte, 2009; Salgado, 2010; Nicolielo,
Fernandes, Garcia, & Hage, 2009).
Auditory and Visual working memory pointed in another
study among proficient students in reading and writing, and
students with a diagnosis of ADHD (Ferreira, 2011) included
the analysis of the effects of phonological similarity, semantic
extension, word in working memory, and verified the existence
of differences performances according to the purpose for which
the words were submitted. The author observed that words with
phonological similarity are more difficult to be recalled due to
Correlation between age and the scores of the subtests of the protocol of working memory.
A1 B1 C1 A2 B2 C2 D2 E2 A3 B3 A4 B4 A5 B5 A6
R 0.38 0.54 0.69 0.60 0.42 0.67 0.380.410.040.450.56 0.28 0.35 0.62 0.68
p value 0.11 0.02* 0.00* 0.01* 0.07 0.00* 0.110.080.870.050.01* 0.25 0.14 0.00* 0.00*
Note: R = correlation coefficient of Spearman; *significant.
T. L. FERREIRA ET AL.
generated the acoustic confusion. Another justification is that
the representation of these words is subject to a partial loss
caused by temporal deterioration, by interference from other
phonological information or the difficulty to memorize the
meaning of words (Fisher & Craik, 1977). The results in Table
2 corroborate those found by Ferreira (2011). In that table it is
observed that, on the evidence, and on C2 B3 involving recall
of the word lists under the effect of phonological similarity, the
average performance of the subjects were lower compared to
the other subtests. Words with semantic similarity showed
greater ease of recall, because the recall of words under this
effect also involves the long-term memory. The span of mem-
ory increases when words that are repeated have semantic
similarity, allowing to imagine a working memory made of
multiple representations that constitute the same amount of
buffer systems connected to each other (visual, auditory, lexical,
phonological, semantic, motor, and etc.).
Table 2 shows that the average performance of recall of
words with semantic similarity (B2) presented no statistically
significant difference between the alphabetic reading and spell-
ing phases. The lack of statistically significant performance
might be due to the difference in N subjects in a phase and
another reading. These results do not corroborate other findings
(Ferreira, 2011; Cunha & Capellini, 2010) because there was a
statistically significant improvement in performance among
proficient students recalling words under the effect of semantic
The results on the recall of polysyllabic words with complex
phonology, and different semantics presented statistically sig-
nificant difference between the subjects who were in alphabetic
level and the orthographic level reading. Consider the positive
effect of reading ability on working memory, mainly phono-
logical, corroborating the study of Cunha, Capellini (2010) that
investigated the performance of working memory in school
from the 1st to 4th grade of elementary school. In the study, the
authors observed an improvement of the average performance
of remembrance of polysyllabic words throughout the school
The subjects’ performance on the test recall of non-three syl-
lable words (B5), displayed in Table 2, indicates a statistically
significant difference between subject-level alphabet and spell-
ing. The subjects who were at the orthographic level showed
higher average performance than the subjects of alphabetic
level. In the same table, it is observed that there was no statisti-
cally significant difference of the recall of non-syllable words.
These results allow us the discussion from the point of view
that the memory of non-syllable words does not require too
much use of phonological abilities, and therefore not sensitive
to differentiate the performance of subjects in different age
groups and levels of education. The repetition of non-three
syllable words requires more efficient use of phonological
awareness and the knowledge that this skill is intrinsically re-
lated to the level of education, promotes the development of
finer levels of working memory, and it is able to justify the
difference in performance in this study, which corroborates the
findings of Ferreira (2011), Cunha and Capellini (2010).
The analysis of Table 2 of the subtests in Table 2 that pre-
sented differences statistically significant (with star *) shows
that the development of working memory and reading has
strengthened each other, because the subjects who had read at
the orthographic level obtained better results in average per-
formance work memory than the subjects with reading in al-
As to the visual aspect of working memory assessed by the
material used in this study, the results presented in A4 and B4
subtests indicated the non-occurrence of a statistically signifi-
cant difference between the group of children with reading in
the alphabetic stage and the group of children with reading
stage spelling (Table 2). I.e. the breakthrough performance of
the reading level was not relevant to the occurrence of better
performance in visual working memory. Although there is no
performance difference between the visual subtests in relation
to the reading level, the study showed that there is a positive
correlation between age and visual recall in direct order (Table
3). These results are in line with the studyof Hitch, Wooding,
Barker (1989), which states that the development of “visual-
spatial scheme” (sketchpad) in children 5 to 10 years old has
little influence on the size of the stimulus and the similarity
between them. However, Lopes, Lopes, Galera (2005) found
improved performance on visual-spatial memory in children 11
to 12 years old. A study made by Barbosa, Bernardes, Misore lli,
Chiappeta (2010). revealed that the acquisition of orthographic
rules have positive relationship with the performance in visual
working memory, revealing that the greater the number of mis-
spelling committed in dictation, the worse the performance in
visual working memory.
The present study shows that the performance of working
memory and reading level is influenced by age and ranking of
the subject. The results showed that participants in the 1st and
2nd year showed reading in the alphabetic stage and that the
students of 3rd and 4th grade showed reading in the spelling
stage. As to working memory, the results indicated that the
participants of the 3rd and 4th year showed better performance
in the assessment of working memory when compared with
children from 1st and 2nd year. Regarding the variables that
influenced the auditory working memory, in this study it was
evident that the recall of words with phonological similarity was
affected by auditory and temporal variables, but the recollection
of words with semantic similarity features improved the per-
formance over the earlier. Regarding the visual working mem-
ory, there were no significant differences between groups, but
there was a positive correlation between age and visual recall in
direct order. Therefore, it was observed that older children per-
formed better on tasks of working memory than younger chil-
dren, and this was attributed to the mutual, concomitant and
bidirectional development between these skills.
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