IH Journal of Education and Development

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Memory activities for Language Learning By Nick Bilbrough, CUP

reviewed by John Carry, IH Madrid

Reviewing new language regularly is good practice for the simple reason that, if this is not done, it will soon be forgotten. I once heard that for a new piece of language to become stored in the long-term memory and for it to become part of the learner’s repertoire, it needs to be met on at least nine separate occasions. I have since heard this same sentence numerous times with a figure anywhere up to 16.

As a native English speaker living in Spain, I’m constantly being exposed to new words and phrases, some of which are high-frequency and are quickly taken up and used almost immediately, others I struggle to remember just when I need them. For students studying English in a country where it is not the L1, it must be doubly hard to remember new items of language. Therefore, unless the teacher reviews and recycles language regularly in class, progress will be slow. I have a limited bank of ideas that I rely on for this purpose and at times I cringe at the thought of using ‘that old one’ again. However, help is at hand! I was recently offered the chance to review a book for the IH Journal and soon found myself using some of its ideas in my lessons, with positive results.

Memory activities for language learning by Nick Bilbrough (Cambridge) is packed with ideas that require little or no preparation and comes complete with a CD ROM of printable material in PDF format. We are reminded that ‘there is no learning without remembering’ and are introduced to the idea of memory as the 5th skill; a skill on which the development of the other 4: reading, listening, speaking and writing depend. Remembering language, it states, involves three processes: encoding, storage and retrieval. The activities in the first three chapters offer a selection of exercises that focus on these three ‘basic memory processes’. 

Chapter one (encoding) looks at mental stretching and how our working memory (not to be confused with short-term memory!) handles information that we are initially exposed to. Some of the examples given in the chapter’s introduction are: remembering and repeating the last few words that have been said (a skill often used when we are talking on the phone and need to relay the message to a third party) and describing something we have just seen. The activities in this chapter involve exercises that present the students with similar memory tasks. Holding an image in your working memory whilst describing what you can see for example. However, this memory process does not store information long term and it is soon lost beyond retrieval.

In chapter two (storage) the focus is on making the language we are exposed to memorable. This might be because the subject matter generates interest or curiosity or because of the way it’s presented. Word association or asking students to personalise new language makes it more memorable, as it can be linked to information already stored in their long-term memory; the stronger the link, the stronger the memory. Some ideas explored here are chunking, contextualization, decision making, physicality and affective factors. Presenting language in chunks rather than as individual words (chunking) or in a context (contextualization) often makes it easier to remember. Encouraging students to make decisions about language items; putting them into categories is one example, is also an effective way of making language memorable, as is linking language items to physical movement (physicality); a trick often employed by actors to remember their lines. We often remember events in our lives because they were happy, sad or even violent or disturbing experiences and this is explored under the heading of affective factors.

Chapter three (retrieval) does what it says on the tin! The focus here is on offering students productive and creative ways in which language is retrieved and reused, from the simple practice of keeping a word bag to ‘Smellyvision’, where different smells are used to bring to life old memories that the students are then encouraged to talk about.

Although the three basic memory processes are covered in the first three chapters, the remaining four chapters offer further ideas. Repeating and reactivating, for instance, offers some ideas for revisiting texts from earlier lessons and how learners can be encouraged to re-notice language, this time with different tasks or goals. Memory techniques and mnemonics looks at ways of making things that are difficult to remember, easier to remember. For example, when I was nine my best friend taught me the acronym Elephants Are Damned Good Bread Eaters in order to remember the notes of the six strings on my guitar! Learning by heart employs some of the techniques from the previous chapter and explores ways of learning short dialogues for example. Finally, memory games explores the use of game format as an effective way of providing opportunities for retrieving stored language, as well as repeated exposure to a language area.

Each chapter has its own short introduction explaining the memory process it supports, allowing the teacher to make an informed choice about which type of activity to use. A valuable addition to any resource library, Memory activities for language learning should be on the shelf of every teacher’s room. Better still… lock it safely in the cupboard!

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