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Expanding Students' Memory for English Language Learning

Expanding Students' Memory for English Language Learning
Admin - Apr 12 2017

Memory is a fundamental tool for any student embarking on the journey towards mastering the English language. As such, it is a skill that all TEFL teachers must cultivate. Not only are memory activities stimulating, but they also allow students to retain and recall central concepts they’ve learned. Even more importantly, short-term recall is important for many language tasks, especially for examination questions that use the TOEIC format of listening to a passage prior to knowing what you are listening for. Therefore, it is crucial for an ESL educator to be mindful of strategies and activities that promote the development of students’ memory. It can be as simple as educational games, or a more thorough approach that has been refined through decades of research. This article will detail some of the most common methods, and you get to be the arbitrator on determining which techniques to employ in the classroom.


Prime the Memory

Cues prior to starting an activity are crucial when preparing students for the task to come. This technique is called priming the memory. As an example, prior to giving students a passage to read, it would be prudent to discuss the vocabulary and central themes of the written material beforehand. This strategy will enable students to concentrate on pertinent information, and allow for in-depth memory processing. Moreover, handouts with chapter themes and motifs would be a helpful guide when reading fiction books. As such, literature overview resources such as CliffNotes and SparkNotes are ideal for older students.


Cues for Storing Information

Decades of studies have concluded that cues are fundamental for information recall. Furthermore, this technique is best employed when the cue is also present at the time of memory retrieval. Researcher Endel Tulving proposed that memory retrieval using tracers in the brain, in conjunction with environmental cues, are central to recalling information. This idea necessitates placing an importance on contextual cues in the memory retrieval process. Specifically, information is best retrieved when the environmental cues and emotional states are similar during time of recall as it was at time of encoding (learning). Therefore, students should be encouraged to study in an environment and state of mind similar to what they would be expecting during an examination.


Practice Information Retrieval

Long-term memory formation is directly correlated to continuous information retrieval. As such, reviewing schoolwork at home, recapping previous lessons at the beginning of class, and taking practice tests, all offer enormous benefits. Moreover, when reviewing for examinations, teachers should ask students questions, or encourage the class to create questions of their own. When students generate their own test questions, it allows teachers to assess if students understand the central concepts to be tested or if they are focusing on trivial details. Lastly, educators should encourage reviewing right before sleeping. Countless memory formation studies have demonstrated that memory is best stored when information is cemented in the mind prior to sleeping.


Use, Recall, Analyze

URA (Use, Recall, Analyze) is a modification of the often utilized PPP/TTT (Presentation, Practice, Production/Test, Teach, Test). In this approach, after asking students to answer some discussion questions on a worksheet, they are required to recall something about the language they used (such as the tenses used). Thereafter, students will compare their memory with the given answers on the sheet. This technique trains students in the processes of communication that they will use outside of the classroom.


Visual and Conceptual Imagery

Students who perform poorly in an academic setting usually have weak short-term auditory memory, and a relatively strong visual short-term memory. This indicates, that teachers should employ multisensory instructional and teaching methods to best cater to all students. The computer software Inspiration is useful for creating graphics and concept maps; ideal for visual learners. Similarly, mnemonics in the form of an acronym is a useful strategy for conceptual learners. For example, the mnemonic HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Eerie, Superior) is useful for remembering the names of the five Great Lakes.

Memory Games

When it comes to practicing language, nothing compares to activities and games. It keeps learners of all ages engaged and participating. A couple of tried and tested ESL games are as follows:


ESL Concentration

This is an enjoyable game for older ESL students. Words and their definitions are written on cue cards and placed upside-down, students then take turns trying to match words with their respective definitions. Moreover, this game could be modified to teach students about verb-noun relationship.


Disappearing Text

Disappearing Text is an excellent tool for teaching beginners and younger learners. Start by writing a passage on the blackboard. One by one remove a word from the sentence and have your students attempt to repeat the original passage. Students who give incorrect answers are removed from the game, and it continues until there is one student remaining.

Memory games for younger ESL students

Memory games for adult ESL learners

Memory games with audio


Know the Limits

We all know that memory isn’t infallible, so it is important to know the limits of memory before placing too much emphasis on any single aforementioned technique. Recently published studies have concluded, that without cues, the human memory is only capable of storing three or four items for up to twenty seconds. However, even with cues some students naturally have poor memory capabilities. In such scenarios, the teacher should take care to accommodate for students’ specific needs. Students having trouble processing memory should be advised to employ strategies such as writing down information, rather than attempting to conceptualize ideas. Furthermore, underlining, highlighting, and taking notes would greatly aid students to become active learners and better at processing information.



Whether reminiscing about that perfect day at the beach, or learning English, memory is a fundamental component in our daily lives. As teachers, we have innumerable resources at our fingertips to augment students’ study habits. Priming students about tasks to come is the first step towards memory enhancement. In conjunction with cues for memory storage such as mnemonics, repeated recall work hand-in-hand towards improving students’ memory. Other techniques such as conceptualization and engaging memory games only further facilitate this process. With a little bit of guidance, every eager student can succeed in mastering the English language. It is up to us, the teacher, to place them in the best position to succeed.

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