In the last post on memorization, I talked about the role of emotion, stories and personalization. All of these things gave language a better chance of reaching longer-term memory because of their impact on the student – the way they resonated with them on a deeper level. In this post I want to talk about techniques often associated with conscious efforts to memorize information in the short-term. Short-term memorization is a key stepping stone to longer-term memory because, as I mentioned in a previous post, according to Gairns and Redman, around 70% of what we forget is forgotten in the first 24 hours after initial learning1. So somehow we need to improve that statistic.
What techniques do you use to memorize say: a password, someone’s name, a telephone number, as short speech even? Do you try to make associations or use prompts? Do you write things down? Do you repeat things to yourself? Do you test yourself?
The chances are that you do all or a mixture of these things, because repetition is a tried a tested tool in memorizing. It is said that an item of language needs to be encountered and manipulated between five and fifteen times before it is successfully committed to longer-term memory2. Thirty years ago I heard and used this phrase Watashi no namae wa Paul desu (‘My name is Paul’ in Japanese). It was the first lesson in my CELTA teacher training course. Why do I still remember it? As I say, it was thirty years ago. I’ve never been to Japan or used this phrase or any other Japanese phrase since then. One reason could be that as it was the first lesson, my emotions were heightened: it was a new experience with new people. But I think this is a secondary reason. The main reason I remember it is because I heard that phrase about 20 times and used it about 10 ten times over the course of half an hour before I ever saw it committed to the whiteboard. In other words, the act of pulling it back repeatedly from my short-term or ‘working’ memory over the course of half an hour seems to have fixed it in my memory more or less permanently. Drilling and repetition is rather out of fashion these days rather. Personally, I think that is a shame, because it is still a very effective tool for teaching pronunciation and for dialogue building. At the same I understand that adults may feel uncomfortable with it. It can feel to them like a childish or even meaningless exercise at times.
An alternative is to keep revising language with students within the 24-hour window or even over a longer period, but to keep varying the way in which the students encounter the language. Let’s look at an example with the vocabulary of materials.
Imagine you are going to listen in class to an explanation of what 3d printing is and can do (LIFE Upper Intermediate Unit 3B). The speaker is going to mention the different kinds of material that a 3-d printer can use. So first you want to pre-teach these words; you use an exercise like this asking them to match the material to the picture:
Then you ask them to apply the words by matching objects to two materials they might be made of:
They then listen and do some comprehension exercises, followed by an activity where they discuss possible applications of 3-d printing.
At the end of the lesson we give them a chance to revise the vocabulary set again with an exercise like this:
The following lesson – a different subject – you begin with another exercise where the students apply the words in a different context. You can see here that there is no particular right answer; it offers students the chance to ‘play’ with the language a little, an important factor in helping them to memorize it.
Lastly – also in a spirit of fun – you might ask them to work in pairs and take it in turns to mime one of these sentences (e.g. Chewing a piece of rubbery steak) for the other to guess.
What we are doing here is repeating language and each time trying to vary the way in which students encounter it: through images; in a listening passage; they apply it to their own experience; they use it both literally and metaphorically; and they play with it using mime and actions. This variation almost inevitably means that students will encounter language using different senses – the multi-sensory learning approach that I will talk more about in my next post. In the review sections of LIFE 2nd edition and also in the new Classroom presentation Tool (CPT) you will find examples of this kind of repetition and variation.
The final point is about rehearsal, a word which we normally associate with preparation of dramatic performances – ‘learning your lines’. That is certainly a valid activity for students, as is the memorization of poems , but it also applies to any prepared speaking activity. We all do this, perhaps without realizing how valuable a tool it is in memorization, when we ask students to speak first among themselves and then to feed back or do the same activity in front of the rest of the class.
Examples of activities that require rehearsal are:
- performing dialogues to the class
- student summaries of things they have read
- student presentations or mini-talks
- performing role plays or simulations
Think back to your own schooldays. It is very likely that you still remember talks or dialogues that you had to perform in front of your peers.
Finally, here are three questions to remind yourself of the main points in this blog post.
- Roughly how many times do we need to encounter a piece of language before it is committed to longer-term memory?
2. How can we vary the way we repeat and revise language?
3. What are examples of students rehearsing language before ‘performing’?
If you missed Paul’s recent webinar, Making learning last: Creating memorable lessons for your students, you can still view it on the National Geographic Learning webinar page for adult/academic webinars.
Do you have any other tips for helping your students remember something for the longer-term? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.
1 Gairns, R and S. Redman. 1986. Working With Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2 Stirling, S. 2003 “Helping Students To Learn the Vocabulary That We Teach Them” [online]
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 and 2018). I am also a series consultant for National Geographic Learning’s new series for young learners, Look. 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.