Using memory theories in teaching languages

Using memory theories in teaching languages

As teachers, we refer to different techniques and research to be able to teach the material successfully. Understanding how memory works, will help us better use different activities and tasks. Human memory has three stores according to Atkins-Shiffrin theory (1968): Sensory Memory (SM), whose visual component is called iconic memory, Short-Term Memory (STM; also called working memory, WM), and Long-Term Memory (LTM). While presenting new vocabulary, teachers should know that the capacity of short term memory is usually 7 words on average.  

The importance of repetitions

Old methods of calling a student and asking them to remember the English translation of the words from their vocabulary copybook do not work. Teachers now understand that by making students keep the list of vocabulary will not work as there the “primacy and recency effects” exist  which means the students will not remember the middle part of the list. Regular repetition is an effective method to transfer the new vocabulary through short term memory to long term memory. For reading, the greatest increase in learning happens between two and three repetitions. For listening – between five and six (Vidal, 2011). If too much time has passed from the last meeting with a word (~a month or more), it becomes the first meeting again, not a repeated meeting (Nation, 2013).

Memory games for kids

As children may not recognize and use the words in a different context, they can simply learn the words and translations of those words in the native language through regular and habitual repetition.  This method is effective if the goal of a lesson is just to help the students remember new words. 

Students playing with words, listing them in alphabetical order, grouping them in semantic groups, pairing words as synonyms or antonyms will function with short term memory but pushing the words into long term memory store. 

We may not exclude the use of this method also for some primary grammar skills. A teacher cannot explain elementary and primary students the importance of auxiliary words and how they function with interrogative and negative sentences. The guided practice activities are based on developing the habit and accuracy of making questions and negating the statements. Children do not cognate the logics in the grammar structure, instead, they memorize the patterns that they later produce.

Memory use in adult classrooms

Working with elder students, teachers rely on Central Executive (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974) that drives the whole system and manages two subsystems: the phonological loop and the visuospatial sketchpad. Phonological loop that is the part of working memory system handling spoken and written information, and has two parts: phonological store (inner ear) and articulatory control process (inner voice).  While the phonological loop is believed to be accountable for the manipulation of speech-related information, the visuospatial sketchpad is responsible for manipulating visual images.

Both the phonological loop and the visuospatial sketchpad form central executive, and it chooses what information should be focused on and where to send that information. But unlike the phonological loop and visuospatial sketchpad that are memory stores, central executive acts like attention controlling system letting the working memory system to select the information to be stored.

While in language classrooms, teachers and professors will need to make sure that the students’ working memory handles the information presented to them. The phonological store is linked to speech-based form; thus, spoken words enter directly to the store. Written words will be converted into a spoken code before entering the phonological store.  Thus, presenting new vocabulary or grammar and writing down some patterns, ensures a smooth transfer of information to the phonological store. 

Why this method is useful

In the early years in school students experience an intensive period of vocabulary learning. Also, this period is characteristic for accurate repetition of unfamiliar words (Gathercole & Baddeley, 1989). The function of the phonological loop is crucial to consider for teachers if students need to acquire new vocabulary and store it.  Interestingly, the capacity of phonological loop diminishes when the new vocabulary that students have to learn has long words (Baddeley, Thomson, & Buchanan, 1975). The visual code should be provided for the students to be able to decode it in their memory. Some teachers while teaching new words and relying on driving phonological loop to provide meaningful pairs so that students can decode them in lexical semantic context. However, this does not prove to be effective if it is a sole practice activity. This can be followed by different other exercises or more practice to make it possible to remember newly learned vocabulary.

Planning the lessons with memory activities

Different teaching plans may concentrate on how well the students remember the material they have learned. PPT (present, practice and produce) or TTT (test, teach, test) are based on what the students remember. TTT format mainly relies on the memory and the learned skills. The teacher first tests what they remember, and then teaches what they do not and then tests again. 

However, in PPP format, teachers can use different memory activities. 

When a teacher presents a new linguistic pattern or vocabulary, memory is used quite intensively by the students. Firstly, in the presentation phase, the teacher elicits what the students know or remember from previous lessons. For example, teaching complex words, the teacher can rely on whether they remember the root words and then refer to finding the meaning of unusual words. These self-discovery activities are usually very effective in learning the new material, as the knowledge stored in memory is activated and students learn the material with the coding new information through decoding what they know.

Teachers who use running dictations can use the rehearsal of memory which will test all the short term memory. The idea of running dictations is the students running back and forth trying to dictate the text they see on the board to their peers. This can be used in the beginning or at the end of the lesson when as it can serve as a good warm up or winding down for the lesson. 

Memory activating games are usually effective in the practice stage of language classes; such as disappearing text or dialogue. The teacher writes a text on the board,  and the students read it. After the students read the whole text, some part of it disappears every time. At the end of the activity, there is no text, but the students have already memorized it. If a teacher wants the accuracy or is more keen on practicing exact grammar pattern, he or she may insist on reciting the text as close as possible to the original one. However, they can choose to instruct the students to improvise. This rehearsal part activates the short term memory or the working memory, making the children encode the information both visually and by listening to it. Improvisation part may trigger the long term memory activating as the students will have to use the experience and the knowledge they have.

Another activity where the teachers may need students’ memory is Chinese Whispers. The students pass on whole stories or statements that their peer tells them to the others. 

A very useful activity is to make students remember the photo or the painting and try to tell their peers what they have seen. Teachers can also instruct others to draw what their peer is telling them about the painting or the photo they have seen.  Along with being a very good speaking and listening activity, the teachers may make the students use specific vocabulary, by making the activity as a vocabulary practice as well.

In conclusion, language teachers can conduct a number of activities relying on students’ memories to make the classes both fun and effective. The most important thing is to remember how memory works. If teachers are not aware of what part of a memory they rely on or what memory they are activating with that particular activity, the aim of the activity will not be reached. The teachers should understand how the students decode and encode the information. The language learning is based on how well the students remember the past material, how they acquire new knowledge, and how well they will remember the new one.


Lusine Stepanyan

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