Activating memory in the language classroom

Or testing, in other words!

After my last couple of posts, I have a horrible feeling that I’ve probably painted myself as some loveless, joyless evil testing freak whose students do little else apart from get made to feel inadequate about failing to fully recall all the meaningless nonsense they’re forced to parrot-learn for the endless assessments. Nothing could be further from the truth (I hope!)

For me, when I think – and blog – about testing, it’s far more to do with the endless number of ways we as teachers bring back taught language and check the degree to which it has been retained. This is something I spoke in detail about at IATEFL Brighton 2011, and I thought it worth reproducing the talk in full here, so that folk can get a clearer idea of what kind of (soft) testing I’m suggesting we ought to be doing if we’re really going to help our students learn language better. Here goes . . .

How many of you are familiar with the musical CATS? And how many of you have seen it? OK, how many of you are familiar with the song MEMORY, one of the highlights of the show, apparently? Now . . . how many of you have heard that song more than once? More than twice? More than ten times? Yeah, me too – more than a hundred perhaps, and that’s despite me hating the song and having never seen the show! Final question – how many of you can remember the lyrics?

Me neither. Apart from “Memory / All alone in the moonlight” – and that’s the case for the vast majority of folk, apart from perhaps the odd Andrew Lloyd Webber fanatic here and there. Yet presumably most of us here understand the bulk of the words when we hear them – and we’ve clearly all heard them many, many times!

So what’s going on here? I’m reminded of something one of my Chinese students very perceptively observed a couple of years ago. “Understanding English,” she said “is very easy, but remembering it,” she continued, “is very hard.” And ain’t that the truth!

Hearing – or reading – something and understanding it is obviously a prerequisite for learning to occur, but by the same measure, it’s clearly not enough! For things to move anywhere our long-term memories clearly something else has to occur. What that something else might be seems to have something to do with NOTICING – and then to do with repeat exposure (and repeat re-noticing).

On discovering that my main foreign language is Indonesian, my students often ask me if it was a hard language to learn – to which I reply that learning it fifteen years or so ago was easy, but keeping it fresh in the memory is the killer. It seems to me that we do not place enough stress of memorizing in class – and we do not talk enough about the sheer memory load that studying a foreign language places on the learner, or about what we can do as teachers to ease this burden on our students.

The amount of language a student needs to come to terms with if they are to become even relatively proficient is terrifying. To get close to B2 / C1, you need something like three or four thousand of the most high frequency words as well as a whole slew of other less frequent items as well. With around 15,000 words you should be able to understand around 98% of all texts you encounter – though of course it’s far more complicated than simply knowing the words; you need to know the multiplicity of different ways in which those words interact with other words. An educated native speaker, though, is estimated to have acquired considerable information about the various uses of around 20,000 words by the time they leave college. In classroom terms, most coursebooks have between 12 and 20 units. Let’s say they have an average of 15. That must mean we need to aim for FIFTY new items per unit at the very minimum – and that even if we achieve that target, we’ve still only covered 3000 by the time students enter Advanced!

And really we need to do more than simply REMEMBER the language we meet – we need to internalize it and proceduralise it and make it part of our automatic behaviour. In much the same way as when we drive a car, we’re not really REMEMBERING what to do – we’re simply doing what we’ve trained ourselves to do automatically over many many repetitive encounters with car and road, so with language we need to move it from new and understood to noticed and then to learned and patterned behaviour.

I’m sure all of you will be familiar with the sinking feeling you get when you encounter words or phrases that have a familiar feel to them, but whose meaning seems to have escaped you! As teachers, I believe we have a responsibility to intervene in this process of forgetting. Research seems to suggests that the bulk of any forgetting we do happens soon after any learning session, and after that first major loss any subsequent losses occur more slowly. However, spending time on encouraging memory and getting students to ‘perform’ memorization in class, which is really the main area I’m interested in exploring here, is complicated by the fact that memorization has almost become a dirty word in ELT. Little stress is placed on it during training courses and concepts such as learning things by heart are becoming ever more unfashionable – and this is despite the fact that the ability to remember and access language under the pressures of real-time communication is clearly at the heart of what makes good language learners good!

Where memory IS discussed in ELT circles it is mainly with regard to ways we can encourage students to remember language outside of the classroom – tips about approaches to learning vocabulary studied of the ‘put Post-It notes with new words on different thins in your house’ / ‘Re-write your classroom notes every day in a new vocabulary notebook and re-order the language in a way that best suits you’ variety – and I’m not saying these are not useful things for us to suggest students do. Indeed, in a week or so I may even post up the ten top tips we give our students at University of Westminster to encourage them to take a bit more responsibility when it comes to trying to shoulder the burden of remembering.

Perhaps the other common way we’re encouraged to think about memory is via revision and recycling games that we might begin classes with: the one step back that we take in the first fifteen or twenty minutes of our classes before pushing on with the two steps forward. Again, I’m not saying these activities are wrong either. They’re clearly a central part of teaching and anyone who doesn’t do at least some of these kinds of activities is inadvertently committing what they have previously taught to the dustbins of memory.

However, neither or these areas are really what I want to focus on today as I think they’re at least occasionally discussed within ELT circles. What I want to explore instead is ways of activating memory in class – or, if you prefer, ways of encouraging students to demonstrate – or perform – what they’ve already learned, in non-threatening, fun, motivating, affirming kinds of ways, but also in ways that send the message to students that noticing and remembering is central to what learning a language is all about.

So, the first area I want to look at today is what we do as teachers when we are leading students into – and then rounding up from – speaking tasks that our students do.

Have a look at this SPEAKING practice activity that comes from OUTCOMES Intermediate. It follows on from some work on reported speech and a subsequent presentation of and exploration of the patterns that often follow common reporting verbs – and is designed as a personalised practice of the language just studied.

C            Work in pairs. Discuss these questions. When was the last time someone you know:

  • offered to do something for you?
  • promised to do something?
  • insisted on doing something?
  • persuaded you to do something?
  • told you (not) to do something?

Now spend a couple of minutes thinking about how YOU would set this up if you were in teaching it to one of your Intermediate-level classes.

OK, I’m now going to try something I’ve never done before and which I hope doesn’t come across as arrogant in any way as I’m certainly not suggesting this is the only one in to this exercise – or even that I’d always do it in the exact same way every time I was teaching – but here’s a little clip of me with my class last autumn doing this exact exercise. I just felt that it was slightly odd that we spend so much time discussing classroom practice and yet so rarely actually ever get to see any occurring online (or in conference talks, for that matter), so here we go:

Now I’m guessing many of you also had the idea of not only setting the task up, but of also modeling it – and if you did, then it’s always nice to hear your own ideas validated by someone else; but I think that modeling is actually one of the great unheralded arts of teaching – and also that it lays a central role in activating memory in class.

The model I gave here was based on something one of my Japanese students in the class, Take, had mentioned much earlier on, at the start of the lesson, when students were chatting about their weekends, so there was already some recycling there, as well as some obvious expansion. It seems simple on first inspection, but is actually achieving three or four ends, I think: firstly, it’s giving students a clear idea of exactly what kind of turn you want them to now take when they attempt to relate tales from their own lives – and it’s validating a culture of story-telling and anecdote-sharing within the group. Secondly, and more pertinently for the purposes of this post, it’s exposing them to plenty of useful lexis and grammar, both language that I know they’ll have encountered before, and also language that they might now be more able to use themselves in their own Student Talking Time.

As you get more experienced at doing these things, you use your voice more consciously to draw attention to language, and you become more adept at ensuring the language is not only graded correctly, but also contains plenty you’ve already taught before, thus forcing it back into students’ consciousness, and this is what I’m doing when I’m saying:

He needed to buy a ticket to get into town

He had no idea how to work the machine

The couple behind him asked him if he spoke German

They offered to help him, they offered to buy the ticket for him

It’s a kind of verbal prompt to notice, to pay attention, to remember, to listen, to process.

I’m sure many of you are aware of Stephen Krashen’s acquisition hypothesis, where he puts forward the theory that students need to be fairly consistently be exposed to what he terms i + 1. Well, cunningly, he never really goes into much detail about what the i might involve. I’d like to suggest that this kind of modelling – where you take language just studied and explored and then use it to tell an anecdote of a very similar kind to the one you’re then asking students to tell – might well constitute something approaching this formulation.

So, this is one, perhaps relatively indirect, way of bringing taught language back to students’ minds. As we’ll see, what I’m going to suggest should be done FOLLOWING on from student talking time is a more interactive way of doing something similar.

Again, to lead in to the clip I’d like to show, just think about how you usually round up speaking slots: what you say to end things, what kind of round up you usually conduct, whether or not you use the board, if so – what for, etc.

OK, you’re going to see a brief two-minute round-up that followed on from a speaking students did in response to a little speaking activity from the same unit of OUTCOMES. Students had studied some vocabulary for describing accidents and then had to choose one of four cartoons showing various accidents occurring. They pretended they were one of the people depicted and explained their accidents to each other in pairs. Here’s the round-up that followed:

Now, this way of rounding up by focusing NOT on errors as such, but rather on providing better ways of saying things the students had been trying to say  – and on how the conversations may actually develop in terms of responses and follow-up comments not only brings the focus of the classroom back to the teacher and back to language after a speaking slot, but also it’s a chance for students to show what they’ve learned already, and for this learning to be validated by the teacher. With the second piece here, the thing about having stitches and sympathising by saying You poor thing and showing your scar, this is all language I know we’d previously looked at in an earlier class and that students could come up with up here, thus consolidating their knowledge. At the same time, it allowed covert recycling of HAD TO and I KNOW – an important response phrase for my Japanese students who tend to translate I THINK SO directly from Japanese.

The first piece here, the beehive, came directly from something students had been trying to say and so was something I perceived as an immediate need in this context – as opposed to something I’d been consciously planning to teach. In this instance, it wasn’t something students knew, though without asking, I couldn’t have known that of course, but by taking them to the place where it was needed, it’s still satisfying to then be able to provide it for them – whilst also getting to covertly recycle MUST’VE and SOMEHOW – as well as CHASE and STING in my talk around these examples.

Obviously, this kind of language-focused whole-sentence / extracts from conversation round-up doesn’t have to ONLY occur after speaking slots; it can also happen as we’re going through the answers to exercises the students have been working on. The teacher elicits answers from the class and, through the judicious use of questions, both explores and expands upon the language that’s been studied. Here’s a quick example of what I’m talking about, where as a teacher you provide MORE THAN just the answers.

Here’s a short round-up after an exercise where students were practicing language for describing cause and effect in relation to diseases and illnesses – and had been talking about the following:

C            Work in pairs. Use the patterns in exercise B to talk about what you think are the causes/results of these medical problems:

asthma                                    migraines                                    diabetes                                    rash                                    malaria

sneezing                                    insomnia                                    stress                                    HIV                                    upset stomach

Again, it’s EXPLICIT revision of things like transmit and run down that had come up earlier in the course, as well as covert revision of the present simple passive and the present perfect continuous.

With this kind of round-up, you basically win on both fronts: either students know the language and feel good about being seen to remember it – and you get to use the democratic, open access process of asking the whole class for language – and using the stronger students to feed the weaker ones, in a kind of Robin Hood style, whilst also giving them whole sentence, fully grammaticalised input that has covert revision purposes as well – or else you create the need for the language and create a feeling of completion by then providing it.

Obviously, to get good at doing this takes time and needs practice. Working out which language to focus on – and being able to choose words which are the only plausible answers – is hard. When I look back at some of my early attempts to do this, I can sadly recall such gems as the following:

I’m lucky, because I’ve got a really ……………. job.

I have quite a lot of ……………., which is great.

so I’m not saying this is easy – and I’m not saying it means students automatically remember everything, but research into how memory works does seem to back up these kinds of approaches.

Research into how we remember things best seems to suggests several things:

– things that are stored together tend to be retrieved together, so the mind tends to automatically ‘chunk’ memories in terms of relationships

– distributed practice – exposure over time interspersed among other items – tends to result in more effective memory retention that massed practice – numerous consecutive exposure to an item

– sentences are easier to learn if the student meets them in a meaningful context, possibly because such contexts require more complex processing and therefore greater engagement with the items in question

– we seem to learn best when there’s not only meaningful engagement, but also a strong personal stake

One thing you might want to try and do, if this kind of reformulation is not something that’s part and parcel of your everyday teaching yet, is CHEAT! The way you do this is BEFORE you get students doing a speaking task in class, you sit at home – or in the staff room – and predict what students might say in response to the task. Actually say – or write – what you imagine might be said. Then select some choice vocabulary – or grammar you want to just briefly go over again – from all of this and SCRIPT your boardwork in advance. You then lead into this by simply saying OK. STOP THERE. THAT WAS GREAT. LET’S LOOK AT HOW TO SAY SOME OF WHAT YOU WERE TRYING TO SAY BETTER. I HEARD SOMEONE SAY . . .

So let’s move on to consider another way in which we can encourage the remembering and repetition / performance of chunks and wholes – TEST AND REMEMBER. This is something we’ve tried hard to build into the classroom material we’ve written for both the OUTCOMES series and also for INNOVATIONS, but is, I suppose, something that could be adapted and used with any material, though I think it does work best if you’re asking students to try to recall whole sentences / responses.

Basically, all that happens is students do an exercise in a coursebook that involves maybe matching questions and answers or statements and possible responses . . . or else perhaps the beginning of sentences with the endings or verbs and possible collocations, or matching descriptions of an event or thing or crime, say, to the actual names of the things. The teacher then goes through the answers, working on any language that’s caused any problems, asking questions about it, providing extra examples and maybe writing up some extra boardwork to consolidate all of this. Then, quite simply, give students a minute (or two minutes) to remember the language from the exercise; then put students in pairs – As and Bs – and tell B to close their books. A reads out their sentences, B tries to say the correct responses – and A corrects them if needs be. After a couple of minutes, stop the students and change the pairs round, so this time B is testing and A is trying to remember.

There are several advantages to this kind of activity: firstly, it helps you deal with mixed-level classes in that in every pair, you can always make the stronger student of the two Student B – the one that closes their book FIRST – meaning Student A gets more time / support before they’re out on the spot. It’s also something students can test themselves on at home – and that can easily be recycled the following lesson, either in pairs again or simply with the teacher playing the role of Student A and the whole class shouting out the responses that B said the lesson before.  Finally, yet again, it sends subliminal messages to the students that it’s not enough to DO exercises, practise them in class and move on: they have to notice and try to remember the language, and this process can extend over time.

One final thing I often do in class is probably worth mentioning here is re-eliciting texts that students have read – or listened to. It’s often a nice way of rounding off one section of a lesson – or a lesson itself – and is yet another language-focused hassle-free way of allowing students to show you what they can remember. All you do is basically put students in pairs and tell them to compare what they remember about the last text you did in class . . . and then elicit the thing from the whole class, but insisting on correct lexis and grammar, so for instance, in the class you’ve watched extracts from, the class heard a conversation about an accident that happened during a cycling holiday. At the end of the class, I run through the stages already outlined and then start to elicit, targeting things I want to go over again, so for example:

Ss: They went round a corner

T: Yeah, OK. so the accident when they were going round a . . .  not a corner, but a ….? A BEND, yeah, and if it’s the kind of bend you can’t see round, it’s a very MMMMM bend – TIGHT BEND. OK, so they were going round a tight bend and then what?

Ss: The guy went from the road and to the bush.

T: OK, yeah. He went OFF the road and INTO some bushes and HURT HIMSELF pretty badly.

This kind of group re-telling essentially attempts to disrupt the students’ interlanguage and bring it face to face with language a step up from there; it removes them from the comfort zone of being able to report things understood in language already learned – and instead pushes them to start to try and take on some of the new language and appropriate it fro their own purposes.

Once you do this kind of thing a fair few times, students start to realize that not only do you want them to pay attention to and try to recall CONTENT, but that you want the language as well . . . and students generally get much better at reflecting upon and then resurrecting this in the classroom, much to everyone’s satisfaction.

One final point to make here about the nature of memory is the fact that research seems to back up the notion that not only can people learn more language from our classes at a faster rate than perhaps more conservative commentators have previously suggested, but that teachers beliefs about how much – and how well – learners are capable of learning also seems to have a fairly sizeable impact upon how well they do. In short, if we believe that our students are capable of doing the kinds of things I’ve been talking about, then they may well become so. If, on the other hand, we don’t, then we may well be damning them with our low expectations.

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10 responses

  1. Using REAL examples from the students (or teachers) life is the easiest way to encourage students to remember language because they can immediately see its use in their lives. Testing can be done by eliciting an anecdote from earlier in the lesson or a previous lesson and drawing out the language that accompanied it. Students will remember much more language if it comes from a real life situation as opposed to a random course book activity or text. I remember when you did a talk for regent London about TTT and from that talk I have noticed that by telling anecdotes about my own life I can give the students the language I want them to learn and feel safe that they are more interested in their teachers life than a random character from a coursebook. In the next lesson I can say “remember when I broke my girlfriends piggy bank?” and my students will usually recall ” you got away with it”.

    It’s this type of ‘testing’ that you seem to be advocating, or so it seems to me!

    1. Hi Sean –
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to post.

      I think you’re definitely right that the use of examples rooted in the realities of the classroom, and especially rooted in the lives of the students and / or teacher, do help to make language more memorable (at least most of the time!) It provides a hook that you can hang the language on, and then later you go fishing with that hook again and try to reel the language in from the class.

      That’s not to say that coursebook language can’t also be memorable, though. It depends how it strikes the students, what response to it they have, and what they – and the teacher – do with it.
      As for testing, yeah, one example could well be the kind of elicitation of lexis from a previously told story. It’s a kind of test of memory, and is very satisfying for students when they get it right – and when they are SEEN to be getting it right.

  2. [...] Dellar, teacher, trainer and materials writer, blogs about activating memory and emphasizes the role of the teacher and his or her “task management” when it comes to making [...]

  3. Just a short question, Hugh: you wrote this in the blog post above:
    “. Indeed, in a week or so I may even post up the ten top tips we give our students at University of Westminster to encourage them to take a bit more responsibility when it comes to trying to shoulder the burden of remembering.”
    Did you get round to doing that and in which blog post would I find them?
    If you have a mo to answer this one, I’d be jolly grateful!

    1. Think I may well just have neglected to post that up, Amanda.
      Here’s the sheet we give them:

      Self-study Tips

      It is important to revise regularly (preferably daily), looking again at the parts of the book you have studied in class as well as your notebooks. The language in your coursebook and the language your teachers give you on the board are good models of English. It’s a good idea to try to copy this as much as possible. Moving from understanding language in class to actually using it outside the classroom should be the focus of your self-study. The activities below are good ways to revise language at home.

      1. It might be a good idea to have two notebooks. One for in class and one for revision. When you get home, have a look at the notes you took in class and organise them in your revision notebook. You can organise language according to topic (for example, food, weather, describing people, talking about sport, etc.). You can also organise lists of collocations and expressions common verbs (e.g. get, make, do, etc. so that you list things like How long does it take you to get here in the mornings?, I didn’t get to bed until 3, etc. under GET) Make sure you always have an example sentence of how the collocations are used. A good English learner’s dictionary such as the Macmillan dictionary of the Collins Cobuild Leaner’s Dictionary can help.
      2. Pick 5 – 10 expressions and translate them into your language. Do not use a dictionary when you do this. You can do this with a partner who speaks the same language or on your own. If you find the translation difficult, check the meaning of the expression with your teacher in your next class. A few days later, look at the translated sentences and translate them back to English. Compare your translations to the original sentences in English. Think about any differences. Repeat a few days later and see if you translated the whole expression correctly this time.
      3. If you work with a study partner, you can also test each other by saying the translations in your own language. Your partner then says the English collocation or expression. Only do this with collocations or complete sentences, not with single words.
      4. Do any gap-fill exercise from the book again and see if you remember the missing words. To make this a bit more challenging you can redo a gap-fill without looking at the words given.
      5. If you work with a study partner, you can also test each other by reading out sentences from the book or from your notes, but leaving out the words in the gaps – or saying MMM instead of the words. Your partner then says the words in the gaps.
      6. Re-do any exercise from the book, especially ones you found difficult.
      7. With a study partner, re-read a conversation from the audio scripts In the back of the book. Close the book and try to have the same conversation again. When you get stuck, have a quick look at the audio script, close the book and carry on with the conversation.
      8. With a study partner, make a list of words / expressions you want to remember. Student A: act or draw the words. Student B: guess.
      9. Choose up to five expressions that you like and think are useful. Think of a situation when you might use them. Then try to use them in the week ahead. Don’t worry about making mistakes. You learn from mistakes.
      10. Re-read a reading text from the book. Underline 8-12 key words. Then, using only these keywords, try to retell the story. When you get stuck, give yourself a minute to check the text, close the book again and carry on. You can do this on your own or with a study partner.

      1. Only just found this as we’ve been having internet problems over here due to nasty storms. Thanks for posting this for me. It’s been duly stored as a word doc in my newly created file which is entitled “The Collected Wisdom of Hugh Dellar”. I hope that won’t go to your head too much!!! I shall pass it on to my students in due course.

      2. Glad you found it useful Amanda.
        It’s what I’m here for.
        Hugh

  4. I came to your excellent talk at the British Council in Madrid last Saturday. There was a slide titled ‘Some implications of the research’. Would you be able to provide me with the content of that slide? Also, do you know which specific researchers are the most important in this field?

    Thanks Hugh

    1. Thanks for the kind words Patrick.
      Glad the talk struck a chord with you.
      The best thing `I read when thinking about this talk was the old Earl W Stevick classic Memory, Meaning & Method.
      The vast bulk of the research I referred to I must admit to only knowing second-hand through Stevick, though I did manage to track the odd piece down like a piece by Ciccone called Massed and Distributed Item repetition in Verbal Discrimination Learning.
      In terms of who to look out for in the field of memory research, I wouldn’t presume to be knowledgeable enough about the field to really say, sadly.
      Hope this is of at least a tiny bit of help, anyway.

  5. […] I love the driving analogy. It’s a simile I’ve used myself before and I feel that there are many many similarities between learning to drive and learning to use a […]

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