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Help your young learners to remember new language

Young girl leaning against brick wall

Photo courtesy of Jenn Durfey via Flickr

Ritsuko Nakata, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at why children forget what they’ve learned and shares her top tips for getting young learners to remember new language. Ritsuko will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 13th February 2014.

Teachers are often puzzled and dismayed to find that their students have forgotten what they learned in the last lesson, not to mention lessons from a few weeks or months before. However, if we look back on our own school days, I think we can say that we also had a similar experience: often forgetting what we had learned. We also crammed for tests and tried to memorize everything, forgetting most of it after the test.

Children tend to forget things

Why do you think you forgot your lessons? Was it the way the teacher taught you or was it your own attitude towards learning? It might have been a combination of both. There might have been other factors as well, like the way you felt at the time, or the environment in which you were living and learning. There are many reasons why students forget.

As teachers, we have a great responsibility to get our students to learn as much as possible. When I first started out teaching, I worked very hard in every lesson and the children were able to repeat after me quite well. However, I was shocked when I saw them again at our next lesson. They had forgotten almost everything! They could repeat well after me, but could not say a single word on their own. I was beginning to think my students were just not good at learning English.

I started to think very carefully about what and how I was teaching the children, and why they couldn’t remember much even after working so hard in each lesson. I realized that it was the way I taught them! I was teaching them to become parrots, repeating all the time and speaking like robots. The children were satisfied just to repeat rather than trying to remember what to say, because I did not teach them how to retain what they learned and actually use the language themselves.

So what are some other reasons children forget what they have learned? Perhaps they were not paying attention during the lesson or were bored. It’s possible that they did not understand the lesson. They may not have been given enough of a chance to internalize the language. Or they might have not practiced it enough to react spontaneously to it.

So what is remembering and being able to retain new language? It is NOT memorization. How many times have we memorized things, only to forget them fast? Since English is a communication tool, we want our students to use the language they learn in class. If children use the language, they will remember it because they are the ones talking, not the teacher. Children need a little time to process the new items we teach them. They need more time to practice saying them aloud in order to become independent speakers. As teachers, we need to make time for practice in our lesson plans.

How can we help them remember?

One way to get students to remember their lessons is to make the lessons active and student centered, where the students do the work together. They will want to learn more, and will be more active in class, concentrate better and enjoy your lesson. This leads to retention of the lesson, gives the children confidence, and will surely bring a sparkle to their eyes (and the teacher’s, too)!

We should give children lots of practice time in class. If your students do not have exposure to English outside of class, this is the only time they will be able to practice. In Japan our once-a-week lessons are only 35 to 45 hours a year. This means that a year’s worth of lessons do not even amount to two days! Therefore we have to make every lesson an intensive one so that they can remember each one six days later when we meet again.

An intensive lesson does not mean study, study, study!

An intensive lesson can be a lot of fun and even more interesting than a slow-paced lesson. Children concentrate better when there is rhythm to the lesson. They speak out more when they get a chance to do quick, short drills instead of one long one. They are more active when they can talk to each other and not only to the teacher. They are motivated, concentrate more and enjoy their lessons. Emotions affect learning and, if they are having fun, learning and concentrating, they will remember the lesson! Motivation and a sense of progress play a big part in student attitudes. Once children are able to remember their lessons, they will have more confidence and will be motivated to learn (and remember) more.

Output is important!

To help our students remember better, our lessons should concentrate on a lot of output from the students. Not only speaking naturally with speed, rhythm, good intonation and pronunciation, but also reading and writing. Listening is also important, as it is an active skill that requires concentration and understanding. With a balanced lesson, that teaches the four skills, we can cover the learning needs in a way that fits the students’ ages. With a variety of techniques, we can cover the different learning styles of the students as well.

It’s easy to get into the “textbook trap”

This means that when the lesson starts, everyone opens their textbook, all heads are looking down and it is difficult to get the children to look at the teacher. Instead, it is more interesting to pre-teach the lesson before looking at the text. This way, the students will pay attention to the teacher, and the cards and other materials that are used. Visual aids will help slower learners by allowing them to see as well as hear the words. Adding the sentence pattern will provide context to the vocabulary, and therefore meaning to what the children are learning. Without meaning, memory will not be well formed. After the sentence is learned, the question form can be practiced. Putting the Q&A together, the students can ask and answer each other instead of being asked individually by the teacher. They will have fun and will have to THINK of the words themselves, instead of just repeating after the teacher.

It’s important to present the language in a variety of ways

Using actions while talking stimulates both sides of the brain and improves memory. Songs and chants with gestures also are important to bring rhythm into speech. Picture and word cards provide the visual stimuli necessary for students to grasp the meaning of what you are teaching. Putting the students into groups and pairs will encourage them to start speaking on their own, to each other, creating their own dialogs instead of relying on the teacher.

If you teach new language step by step, with children putting together new chunks of language to build meaningful short dialogs, the students will remember what they say and will be ready to read and write what they have learned. Their memory will be built up gradually. With plenty of review, their language bank will be expanded throughout the lessons and they will be able to retain most of what they learn.

Join me for my webinar on 13 February to find out more. I’ll be sharing some of the techniques we can use to build our students’ confidence and get them motivated as they have fun learning. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

Get more free articles, videos and lesson plans from Ritsuko and her Let’s Go co-authors.


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“I’m bad with names”: How words are like people

Woman shrugging her shouldersRon Martinez has been a TESOL practitioner for over 20 years, with extensive and diverse experience as a teacher, trainer of teachers, materials developer, and academic researcher. In this post, he draws parallels between remembering people’s names and remembering foreign language vocabulary.

I recently had back surgery, which forced me to miss the first three months of this semester at the university where I teach on an MA TESOL program. Right before I was to finally return to duty, I was invited to a special dinner that would be attended by faculty and students from the school. When I got to the restaurant, a number of former students approached me – most of whom I had not seen for over four months – and I found myself doing a lot of “Hi!  It’s… you!” and “Hi… guy!” I, of course, recognized their faces, but I couldn’t remember many of their names. (And I’m sure they could tell!)

And then there was today. I returned to campus for my first day back, and I ran into a person who works in our English Department office – we’ll call her “Linda.” Linda smiled and waved, but I didn’t recognize her. “Out of context, right?” she said, kindly trying to assuage my embarrassment. And then I realized who it was. And Linda was right: I had never seen her anywhere outside that office, and that coupled with the extended time off also threw me off. (But at least I remembered her name.)

I realized that there are some parallels to be drawn between those rather awkward experiences and memory for vocabulary:

  • we tend to forget names, not faces; with vocabulary, we tend to forget the form of a word, not the concept;
  • even after repeated contact over months with people, it’s possible to forget their names after a while if you don’t interact with them somehow;  with vocabulary, the same will happen if you don’t refresh newish lexis on occasion;
  • when you only see people in a certain context, you might not immediately recognize them in other contexts; with vocabulary, you’re less likely to readily retrieve a lexical item from memory that’s only been encountered in one context/genre (e.g. in a coursebook) when meeting that same item in a different context/genre.

All of the above are echoed in one way or another in language acquisition theory. Vocabulary expert Paul Nation, for example, believes keys to vocabulary staying remembered include noticing the word in context, retrieving the meaning of that word from memory, and, ideally, using the word (what he calls “generative use”). So perhaps I was able to remember Linda’s name more easily than my former students’ simply because I’d used her name before. But there’s probably more to it that that. On reflection, I’d not only said her name when speaking to her, but I’d also seen her name in my inbox just about every other day during the semester in her email announcements to faculty. Another authority on vocabulary, Robert Waring, has shown in different studies that a newly-learned word that is met only once in a text will stay remembered for just so long. It needs to be encountered a number of times in order to reach long-term memory.

But just how many times is “a number of times”? It’s not really a hard-and-fast science, but what the research shows is that encountering or even repeating a word over and over again in a short period of time (for example, in just one class) really is an investment with diminishing returns. (Think of trying to do too many “reps” of one exercise at the gym.)  What studies show is that it’s encountering and/or using vocabulary again and again (and having to remember what that vocabulary means) over a long period of time, in various contexts, that helps ensure that a lexical item does not just fade away.

Indeed, as I learned the hard way today with Linda, the “various contexts” part seems to be really important. Michael Hoey has hypothesized that when we come across a word or phrase, we not only notice and retrieve its meaning as Nation would assert, but on each encounter we also retain some information about where that word was found (e.g. its genre), the context in which it was met, the co-text (words before and after the word), and even where in the discourse it was (e.g. the introduction, the body, or the conclusion). This is the theory of “lexical priming,” which suggests that the real key to gaining vocabulary “depth” of knowledge (e.g. collocation) is meeting a word in various contexts over time.

So, maybe if I had kept in touch with some of those students  – even just an email or two – while I was convalescing, remembering their names wouldn’t have been so elusive. And that might explain why I didn’t forget the names of fellow faculty at that same dinner, with whom I of course have had longer and more regular contact in varied contexts. But it wouldn’t explain it fully.

You see, I did not forget all my former students’ names at that dinner. There was one, for example – let’s call him “James” – whose name I remembered right away. What was different about James?

Unlike most of the students in James’s class, I had had contact with him outside of class as well. For example, last semester after a special seminar, snacks and drinks were served and we spoke for several minutes and we realized that we actually had some mutual friends. It is also worth noting that James was exceptional among his classmates, and regularly sent me emails asking questions and asking for suggestions on papers and so on. He even sent me a “get well” email while I was out with the back injury. Moreover, on most if not all those diverse occasions, I actually said (or wrote) his name.

Put another way, it was the combination of the relative frequency, variety and depth (i.e. non-superficiality) of my interaction with James, in addition to also using his name in diverse contexts, that made remembering “James” a lot easier. This concept is also echoed in the literature on vocabulary retention, encapsulated in Norbert Schmitt’s notion of “engagement,” the idea that the deeper the personal and cognitive involvement a learner has with lexis, the better.

So what might all this mean for you, the teacher? Get students to treat vocabulary as they would their friends!  People don’t forget their friends’ names because they see them often, or at least think of them often. Moreover, usually your friends are involved in a network of friends of some kind, and it’s harder to forget a friend’s name when her/his name is being mentioned (or gossiped about) over coffee every so often. And people like to do stuff with their friends, and not the same stuff all the time. You build memories, deep and meaningful memories with those friends, and maybe their names will therefore become engraved in your memory for the rest of your life.

Well, OK, I know that students will not want to start adding lexical items as Facebook pals or anything, but what matters is that students experience (at least) the noticing and retrieval that Nation suggests, repeatedly over a period of time as Waring has recommended, and with the engagement that Schmitt advocates. But what about the variety of contexts?

There’s only so much we can do in class. The variety of contexts and co-texts that Hoey says are necessary for lexical priming to have a positive effect on depth of vocabulary knowledge really are not likely to be had in class alone, which means investing in learning out of class, too. Naturally, a lot depends on students’ motivation, and how we get students motivated…  Well, that’s something for another blog entry, I’m afraid. There are some great authorities on the subject you can read, though. Now, if I could just remember their names…

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