Making Learning Last: Stories and imagery

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Do you ever feel frustrated that your students can’t hang on to what you’ve taught them?

Actually, about 70% of what we forget is forgotten in the first 24 hours after learning. That may help to explain why our students, who seem so good at using a particular grammatical structure or lexical set by the end of one lesson, are struggling to use it correctly the following week. While various techniques exist for memorising information in the short-term, less is known about how we can commit learning to longer-term memory. Cracking this nut is the focus of this series of posts, starting with this one, which looks at the use of stories and imagery in making learning more memorable.

Stopping power

To a large extent we don’t choose what we remember. Advertisers are very aware of this fact. They know that before they can begin to educate you about the benefits of a particular product, they first have to command your attention. In other words, their advertisement must have ‘stopping power’. In ELT terms, this means presenting students with an idea, a story title or an image which at once stimulates their interest and draws them in. Anyone familiar with National Geographic magazine will know that it is a principle they use to great effect.  National Geographic Learning’s Life uses the same principle and these examples (from NG Life Upper Intermediate and Advanced), describing the phenomena of how the teenage mind works and what makes waves glow blue, illustrate the point well.

making learning last

Another example of stopping power would be the use of mime. When I teach the vocabulary of everyday injuries, I usually begin by entering the class, tripping over my own feet, getting up and banging my head on a table, then stubbing my toe on the table leg etc. I then ask students to recall the sequence of events and as they do, supply them with the language needed.  They tend to remember this better than presentation of the language through cartoons!

The power of images

Our minds and memories work in images. Whatever is said about different learning styles – auditory, kinaesthetic etc. – we are all principally visual learners. 50% of our brain’s activity is devoted to vision and visualization. As language teachers we can exploit this by using images – especially powerful images – to support discourse or by presenting language in such a way that students can more easily visualize it (imagination is even more powerful than incidental imagery).  So when students read or hear a description, ask them to describe the images that come to mind. If you are teaching pronunciation e.g. the sound /ɘu/, use examples that can easily be visualized e.g. an open goal, a hole in the ozone.  Then later on in the lesson, use the images to revise the language.

The power of the story

It is a fact that we recall events, or what are called ‘episodic memories’, more easily than various facts, e.g. ‘10 interesting facts about the Moon’.  That is because stories provide a familiar framework (and often a familiar social context) for us to place events in. This makes stories an ideal vehicle for consolidation of language learning. We can ask our students to summarise stories, retell them, analyse the characters and behaviour in them or act them out using the characters’ words. The story becomes more compelling when it is a real one from the outside world which we bring into our classroom.  Take for example the stories (NG Life Upper Intermediate) about the blind man who  taught himself to see using echolocation or the woman who took a Japanese holiday without going to Japan.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about the role of emotion and relatability. But, in the meantime, I’d like you to reflect on two things:

1) What lessons have you given that were particularly memorable for you? What makes them memorable?

2) What lessons (and language) have your students found memorable? Why do they think this is? Ask them.

As I said at the beginning, we don’t choose what we remember, but perhaps by being more aware of what we do find memorable, we can begin to influence it.

Paul Dummett is a co-author for National Geographic Learning’s Keynote and Life 1st edition. Life 2nd edition will be released in 2018!

Author: Paul Dummett

My career in ELT began in Oxford in 1987, first as a teacher, then DoS, then vice principal of Godmer House School of English. In 1996, I set up my own school teaching English to professionals which I ran for 10 years, giving it up in 2006 to concentrate on writing full-time.

My interests have always centred around needs-based learning: from task-based learning for general English students through business English teaching to specialised ESP courses. As a teacher and a writer, my aim is to develop materials that are meaningful and thought-provoking – that offer more than just language learning. I seek out projects that offer this possibility.

This was what led me to work with National Geographic Learning on the adult series, Life. My publications include: Success with BEC (Summertown, 2008), Energy English (Cengage Learning, 2010) and Life (National Geographic Learning, 2012). I live in Oxford with my wife (and children when they come home).

I love exercise (tennis, yoga, swimming, cycling and walking), reading and travel and I like to combine all three as often as I can.

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