Memory Skills for the Language Classroom
By Hall Houston

(Articles for ESL/EFL Teachers)

According to Wikipedia,"memory is an organism's ability to store, retain, and subsequently receive information." In this article, I will tell you about human memory and its potential to assist the language learning process. I'll also describe some practical activities related to memory that you can use in your classroom.

Memory skills are vital for students of a second language who must confront new words on a daily basis. Oxford (1990) lists memory strategies as one of three major language learning strategies. She claims that memory strategies allow students to deal with the vast number of words and meanings they encounter. These strategies "enable learners to store verbal material and then retrieve it when needed for communication." (p. 39). Although Oxford mentions vocabulary, I would like to add that these strategies can also help students remember grammatical patterns, phrases, collocations, and many other features. Teachers, too, must rely on their memory strategies to summon forth the vast amount of linguistic knowledge they impart to their students.

The Facts About Memory

There are three basic stages of memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding is the stage where you commit something to memory. Storage is retaining the information until it is needed. Retrieval is where you recall the information.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you took a trip to Brazil. When you reach your hotel room, you decide to get out the phrase book you bought at the airport and learn a little Portuguese. You sit and say the phrase "Bom dia" (Good morning). You repeat it several times. This is the encoding stage.

If you repeat the phrase often enough, there should be a permanent record. This is the storage stage. The phrase is now stored in your memory for future use.

The next morning you buy breakfast from a street vendor. You call out to him, "Bom dia!" This is the retrieval stage, where you recalled the phrase that you learned the night before.

In addition to the three stages of memory, there are two basic types of memory. These are short-term memory and long-term memory.

Short-term memory (also called working memory) is where you store information you only need for a short period of time. A good example is when you go to the phone book, look up a number, recite it a couple of times, then call the number. You remember the number long enough to make the call, then quickly forget it.

Long-term memory is where we store things we want to remember permanently. In order to transfer information from short-term memory to long-term memory we have to do some encoding. Encoding means manipulating information in some different ways so that we remember it.

Several factors can improve the chances that something gets moved into long-term memory. One factor is the amount of attention you give the information. If you eliminate all distractions, sit still and concentrate, the information is more likely to wind up in long-term memory. Another factor is meaningfulness. The more relevant the information is to you, the better the chances you will remember it easily.

There are three ways to encode information and transfer it to long-term memory: recitation, elaboration, and visualization. Recitation involves saying something many times, as in saying "Bom dia" over and over. This is one way of learning something, although some might find it a little tedious. Elaboration is the act of adding information to make something more memorable. Adding sensory detail or making up a story about the information you want to learn are two good methods of elaboration. Visualization entails closing your eyes and imagining the information, using all the senses. This works better with concrete words.

Later in this article I will present some guidelines for helping students remember more of what you teach them. But first I'll dispel a few myths about memory.

Memory Myths

Memory is not a thing, but a process.

Although we talk about memory as if it were an object, actually the truth is a lot more complicated. What we refer to as memory takes part in several parts of the brain, and, as we learned earlier, can be described in different ways, such as short-term and long-term. Higbee (2001) states, "memory is more appropriately viewed as an abstract process rather than a tangible thing."

Ginkgo biloba is not a miracle drug for memory.

Despite claims to the contrary, ginkgo biloba does not have any magical effect on memory. Mason and Smith (2005) note "ginkgo does not boost memory or enhance cognitive functioning."

Memory tapes or programs with exaggerated claims to improve memory skills are to be regarded with suspicion.

While these programs, often advertised on radio and TV, might teach some useful memory tricks, there is no simple method of improving your memory so that you can remember everything without effort. As Schachter (2001) states, "mnemonic techniques are not the memory equivalent of eyeglasses: improvements are possible, but they require effortful use of the technique to encode each individual face, name, event or fact."

Multitasking makes it harder to remember things.

While some people take great pride in their ability to listen to heavy metal while studying physics, they're probably not doing their memory any good. Most experts say that you need to concentrate and pay close attention to something in order to get it into long-term memory. As Arden (2002) notes, "Recent research has made clear that divided attention dampens memory." Language learners need to find quiet places to study in.

Guidelines for Helping Students Remember

Here are some suggestions that you can use in class to help your students remember and learn better. Incorporate some of these ideas into your lessons to aid students transfer more of the material into long-term memory:

Meaning - Make sure that students are aware of the meaning of new vocabulary, even if you need to use their mother tongue.

Association - Give students opportunities to relate something new they are learning to what they already know.

Visualization - Students will learn vocabulary better if they can associate the words with images, especially if the images are vivid and involve some degree of movement. Humorous, absurd, exaggerated images are recommended. Oxford (1990) points out several good reasons for making connections between words and images: "First, the mind's storage capacity for visual information exceeds its capacity for verbal material. Second, the most efficiently packaged chunks of information are transferred to long-term memory through visual images. Third, visual images may be the most potent device to aid recall of verbal material. Fourth, a large proportion of learners have a preference for visual learning." (p. 40)

Collocations - Make students aware of the collocations of words they are learning.

Verbal/Non-verbal - Help students make connections between words and non-verbal stimuli that demonstrate the word's meaning. You can accomplish this using realia, pictures, TPR activities, and mime.

Organization - Tell students to organize the language you teach them. They can organize words into categories, and organize the ideas in a text. Use graphic organizers to supplement a reading or listening activity.

Rhyme - Have students create rhymes using new words and familiar words. Assign them to write a song, a rhyme, a rap, or a grammar chant.

Testing - Provide time for students to test themselves and each other on how much they have learned so far.

Review - At given intervals, review some of the language they have been working with. They should review language in new contexts (use phrases from a news article in a role play or use words from a film clip to write a poem).

Four Practical Activities about Memory

The following four activities are relate to the subject of memory. The first two directly relate to the information above, while the other two are more indirectly related.

The name game

1. Before class, prepare handouts of the layout of your classroom, with boxes representing each student's seat. Also prepare a small prize, such as a bookmark or chocolate.

2. At the beginning of class, challenge students to learn each other's names. Tell them you will give a prize to the student who learns the most names.

3. Give them these suggestions for learning names:

- ask the person to say his or her name again slowly
- repeat the name several times in your mind
- use the name a few times (Nice to meet you, Bill...Are you new here, Bill?)
- ask the person some questions about the name (How do you spell your name? What does it mean? Is that a common name in your country?)
- if possible, think of an image related to the name
- visualize the person's name in bright letters in front of their face
- think of a word that rhymes with the name
- think of a word in your language that sounds similar to the name
- find a distinguishing feature of the person's appearance (tall, big ears, etc.) and associate it with the name

4. Ask them to walk around and mingle. They should talk briefly to each classmate, then sit down when they have met everyone.

5. Continue the lesson, then at the end of class, ask "How many names do you remember?" Pass out the handouts and ask students to write the names of their classmates in the boxes. The first person to fill in all the names correctly wins the prize.

Memory problems

1. Put students in pairs and ask them to discuss common memory problems, things people usually forget.

2. Now write the following up on the board.

��I can't remember where I left my keys!"
��It's so hard to remember people's names!��
��I forgot my password again.��
��I never can remember my wedding anniversary.��
��Sometimes I walk into a room, and then can't remember why I went in there.��
��When I park in a large parking lot, I can't find my car.��

3. Put students in groups of 4 or 5. Tell them to discuss solutions for each of the memory problems.

4. Get everyone��s attention. Ask each group to tell the whole class some of their solutions to the problems.

5. Then give students this handout of solutions for the problems.

Solutions to Common Memory Problems

If you often forget where you put your keys, describe your actions out loud. Say "I'm putting my keys in the purple ashtray." Another idea is to always put your keys in the same place.

Here��s some advice for remembering names. When someone introduces himself, think of the name and create a clever pun or mnemonic to help you remember it. For example, if you meet a tall man named Jim, you might think of a very tall "gym". Also, repeat the name several times in your head, and use it in conversation, as in "Very nice to meet you, Jim."

You can remember your passwords better if you give the numbers a meaning. Look at the digits and associate them with important numbers you already know, such as your birthday, your street number or your phone number.

The best solution for remembering important birthdays and anniversaries is to get an organizer or a PDA, and use it every day. If your cell phone has a calendar or an organizer, you can use that as well.

A common memory problem is forgetting why you went into a room. Before you enter the room, picture what you want to get or do. Make a strong, vivid image. If you forgot to do that when you get to the room, you can try to remember what you were thinking and feeling before you arrived.

If you have trouble remembering where you parked your car in a large parking lot, just tie a brightly colored ribbon to the antenna of your car. Alternatively, you can adopt the habit of parking in the same general area of the parking lot wherever you go.

Role plays

1. Put students in pairs. Give them one of the following situations for a role play:

A is an amnesiac. B is A��s friend. B tries to help A remember who he is.

A and B are old friends. They recall events from many years ago, but they always remember the details a little differently.

A is a doctor who can remove some unpleasant memories and enhance more positive memories. B is a patient who has come to receive B��s services.

2. After they have practiced the role play for a few minutes, combine two pairs into a group of 4. Have the pairs perform their role plays for each other, and decide who did the best job, and send that pair to the front of the classroom to perform their role play for the whole class.

Remembering the past

1. Tell students to sit quietly and close their eyes. Ask them to think of a happy memory from the past. For example, a time they spent with a close friend, or something that made them laugh a lot. Tell them to try and remember all they can about it.

2. Put students into pairs and ask them to tell their classmates about the memory. Encourage students who are doing the listening to ask questions to get more information.

3. Call on a few students to tell the whole class about the memory they talked about.

4. Finally ask a few questions to see what their memories had in common. For example, you can ask ��Did your memory involve your family?�� ��Did it happen on a trip?��

Reference List

Arden, J.B. 2002. Improving your memory for dummies. New York: Wiley Publications.

Higbee, K.L. 2001. Your memory. New York: Marlow and Company.

Mason, D.J. and Smith, S.X. 2005. The memory doctor. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Memory. (2008, March 2). In Wikipedia, The free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 3, 2008 from

Oxford, R. L. 1990. Language learning strategies. New York: Newbury House. Schacter, D.L. 2002. The seven sins of memory. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Sprenger, M. 2005. How to teach so students remember. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Sprenger, M. 2007. Memory 101 for educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tipper, M. 2007. Memory power-up. London: Duncan Baird Publishers.

This article appeared in Language Magazine and It's For Teachers in 2008.
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