Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Working Memory in Any Language: Is It the Same?

Published on February 13, 2012 by Tracy P. Alloway, Ph.D.

Working memory is critical for many activities at school, from complex subjects such as reading comprehension, mental arithmetic, and word problems to simple tasks like copying from the board and navigating the halls. We have a limited space for processing information, and the size of various individuals' working memory capacity can vary greatly. For example, a 7-year-old who has working-memory problems may have a working memory capacity the same size as an average 4-year-old. This student will likely find it difficult to keep up with what the teacher says, will struggle to remember instructions, and will mix up words. In contrast, another 7-year-old may have working-memory skills the same size as an average 10-year-old. This student will be the first to finish individual work, will respond quickly to questions during group time, and may even be bored by school.

In everyday classroom activities, students with poor working memory often struggle in activities that place heavy demands on working memory. Thus, it is especially important for educators to be able to directly and accurately assess Working Memory. In my own research, I have published the Automated Working Memory Assessment (AWMA; published by Pearson Assessment, UK), a standardized assessment of verbal and visuo-spatial Working Memory. Not only does the AWMA eliminate the need for prior training in test administration, it also provides a practical and convenient way for educators to screen students for significant working memory problems. Currently, it is the only standardized assessment of working memory available for educators to use, and to date has been translated into 15 languages. Details on the reliability and validity of the AWMA, including research on it use with different learning needs populations, like dyslexia, ADHD, and Autistic Spectrum Disorder, can be found here:

A key question is whether the AWMA provides an accurate assessment of Working Memory in other languages. This is a question that colleagues of mine in Argentina were particularly interested in. The first step was to translate all 12 tests of the AWMA into Spanish. My colleagues who conducted the translation took into account various aspects of phonology, orthography, syntax, semantics, and communicational context (such as, word frequency). They also compared the translation, especially of the verbal tests, to a written work of different literary genres, such as popular science, editorial essays, and news articles from diverse Spanish-speaking countries, not only Spain or a particular Hispano- American country.

Next they recruited 6, 8, and 11 year olds from different demographic backgrounds in Buenos Aires and gave them the Spanish version of the AWMA. My colleagues found very similar patterns in performance between the Spanish-speaking children and the English-speaking children that I tested. Importantly, their results demonstrate that a normal distribution of scores and good relationship between the test scores.

This Spanish translation offers the first step in creating testing materials that are culturally appropriate and offers psychologists and clinicians an opportunity to reliably test Working Memory. The AWMA (and the various translations) is available from Pearson Assessment, UK.

Reference: Injoque-Ricle, I., Calero, A.D., Alloway, T.P., & Burin, D.I. (2011). Assessing Working Memory in Spanish-Speaking Children: Automated Working Memory Assessment Battery Adaptation. Learning and Individual Differences, 21, 78-84.

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