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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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Teaching Conversation

Two friends having a conversationDr. Jack C Richards is an applied linguist, writer, and teacher trainer. He is the co-author of Speak Now, a four-level speaking course that helps students to communicate with confidence. In this article, he looks at teaching conversational English.

Conversations are longer exchanges that may follow on from small talk and are the more meaningful type of interaction that results from small talk. They are a more serious type of exchange in which what is said and how it is expressed are both important. One of the most important aspects of conversation is managing discourse around topics. Whereas topics are only lightly touched on in small talk, conversation involves a joint interaction around topics and the introduction of new topics that are linked through each speaker’s contributions.

The skills involved include:

  • Initiating a topic in casual and formal conversation
  • Selecting vocabulary appropriate to the topic
  • Giving appropriate feedback responses
  • Providing relevant evaluative comments through back-channeling
  • Taking turns at appropriate points in the conversation
  • Asking for clarification and repetition
  • Using discourse strategies for repairing misunderstanding
  • Using discourse strategies to open and close conversations
  • Using appropriate intonation and stress patterns to express meaning intelligibly

Second language learners need a wide range of topics at their disposal in order to manage conversation as interaction, and developing topic fluency is a priority in my speaking classes. Initially, learners may depend on familiar topics to get by. However, they also need practice in introducing new topics into conversation to move beyond this stage.

Casual conversation between friends or people who know each other well has these characteristics:

  • Topics switch freely
  • Topics are often provoked by what speakers are doing, by objects in their presence or by some association with what has just been said
  • There does not appear to be a clearly defined purpose for the conversation
  • All speakers can introduce topics and no one speaker appears to dominate the conversation
  • Speakers comment on each other’s statements
  • Topics are only elaborated on briefly, after follow-up questions or comments from listeners
  • Comments in response to a topic often include some evaluation
  • Responses can be very short
  • Ellipsis is common
  • The speaker’s co-operation is often shown through speaker support and repetition of each other’s vocabulary
  • Vocabulary typical of informal conversation will be present, such as clichés, vague language and taboo language

Developing topics in conversation is a subtle process that requires skills in topic management.

Personal recounts are very common in conversation and serve to re-tell an event that the speaker was personally involved in. They often involve one person sharing a recent experience followed by the second speaker’s sharing of a similar experience as in this example:

A: Someone nearly ran into the back of my car on the freeway yesterday.
B: No way!
A: Yeah I was going down highway 201 when ….
B: That almost happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I was ….

Students need practice in sharing personal experience and exchanging recounts, as in the example above.

Agenda management and turn-taking are also important features of small talk and conversation. The former refers to the participants’ right to choose the topic and the way the topics are developed, and to choose how long the conversation should continue. This includes strategies for opening, developing and closing conversation and for introducing and changing topics. This process is often jointly managed by the participants, depending on the social relationship between them (e.g. teacher-student; friend-friend; employer-employee).

Turn-taking involves providing opportunities for another person to take a turn in speaking and recognizing when another speaker is seeking to take a turn.

Teaching conversation

Ways of teaching conversation include:

  • Awareness raising activities: students examine examples of conversation, either recorded (audio or video) or transcribed examples, and look for examples of how such things as openings, topic introduction, back channeling, etc. are realized, and for indicators of casual or formal speech.
  • Dialog completion: students are given transcripts of conversations with selected features removed (such as opening, closings, clarification requests) and asked to try to complete them. They then listen to or read the completed dialogs, compare, and then practice.
  • Planning tasks: students are given topics to include in a conversation and asked to write dialogs that include them and that also include personal recounts. They then compare and practice.
  • Improvisations: students are given skeleton dialogs or dialog frames (e.g. containing a sequence of topics or functions they should use in a conversation) and use them to improvise conversations.

Both small talk and conversation have features in common:

  • They require being a good listener: this can be indicated through the use of back channel signals
  • They involve asking questions: conversation develops through the participants asking question and following through on the answers they get with further questions
  • They involve sharing of information: participants are expected to share information they have that is relevant to the topic being discussed

Don’t forget to read Jack’s previous post on Teaching ‘Small Talk’.


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Teaching ‘Small Talk’

Office workers making small talkDr. Jack C Richards is an applied linguist, writer, and teacher trainer. He is the co-author of Speak Now, a four-level speaking course that helps students to communicate with confidence. In this article, he looks at small talk in conversational English.

Small talk refers to communication that primarily serves the purpose of social interaction. Small talk consists of short exchanges that usually begin with a greeting, move to back and forth exchanges on non-controversial topics such as the weekend, the weather, work, school, etc., and then often conclude with a fixed expression such as See you later. Such interactions are at times almost formulaic and often do not result in a real conversation. They serve to create a positive atmosphere and to create a comfort zone between people who might be total strangers. While seemingly a trivial aspect of speaking, small talk plays a very important role in social interaction.

Skills involved in mastering small talk include:

  • Acquiring fixed expressions and routines used in small talk
  • Using formal or casual speech depending on the situation
  • Developing fluency is making small talk around predictable topics
  • Using opening and closing strategies
  • Using back-channeling

Back-channeling involves the use of expressions such as Really?, Mmm, Is that right?, Yeah, etc., and very commonly short rhetorical questions such as Do you? Are you? Did you?. The use of expressions that show exaggeration such as Way out, Awesome, Fantastic is usually a sign that the two participants are friends, as in the following example:

A. Look at what my dad gave me for my birthday.
B. Fantastic.
A. He got it in Italy.
B. Awesome!

Echo responses are another type of back-channelling and involve echoing something the speaker said. For example:

A. So where are you from?
B. Chicago.
A. Chicago. That’s interesting.

Ways of teaching small talk include:

  • Modelling and creating: students study examples of small talk exchanges and create similar exchanges on the same topic.

For example a lesson can start by giving students a model of  a small-talk exchange, such as the following example from a teacher in Japan, that shows a conversation between two friends in Japan who meet in a shopping mall:

A: Hi.
B: Oh hi, how’s it going?
A: Good, good, fine.
B: Are you, er, doing some shopping?
A: Yeah, just a few things really, you know.
B:Yeah.
A: Yeah, …actually I’ve been looking for a present, for Hiroko, but it’s difficult to.. you know..
B: Yeah, umm, what kind of thing?
A: Oh, something like, umm, a present… something like… it’s her birthday tomorrow actually. [laughs]
B: Tomorrow?
A: Yeah, tomorrow. So I’ve looked in Hamaya, like, at the makeup and stuff, but it’s not very exciting.
B: Tomorrow? How about Amu Plaza, they’ve got Tower Records and some kind of new shops.
A: Yeah. OK, great, Tower Records might be good. I might give that a go. I’ve got to go over to the station, anyway. So, anyway, good to see you and thanks for the tip.
B: That’s fine. Say happy birthday to Hiroko from me.
A: OK I will. Bye.
B: Yeah, bye.
A: Bye.

This exchange can be used to highlight some of the features of casual language, such as the use of ellipsis (e.g. doing some shopping?), phrases such as you know, idioms (give that a go), and bye as a closing routine. Like many interactions of this kind, the exchange opens with a friendly greeting, moves towards small talk, and then closes with an exchange of greetings. The teacher provides worksheets in which the students identify the different sections of the conversation and the discourse functions and practice writing their own dialogs using the same discourse features. They later enact role-plays to further practice the appropriate sequence in a small talk exchange.

Other activities to practice small talk are:

  • Class mingles: each student has one or two topics on a card. The class mingle, students greet, introduce their topic, make small talk for one or two exchanges, close the conversation, and move on to a different student.
  • Question sheets: students have a worksheet with 10 different small talk questions. They move around the class and take turns asking and responding to their exchange in small talk format.

Don’t forget to visit this blog on Thursday 16th January to read the second part in this blog series written by Jack C Richards: “Teaching Conversation”.


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Yes! No! Spaghetti!

Children in class raising their handsRitsuko Nakata, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at how to get students answering questions in full sentences.

‘Yes! No! Spaghetti!’

Are these the kind of answers you get from your students when you ask them a question? Single words, instead of ‘Yes, I do!’, ‘No, I don’t!’, or ‘I like spaghetti.’

When you were learning a foreign language, there were probably times when you were able to understand questions, but only able to answer with ‘Yes’ or No’ or another single word. I’m sure it was a very frustrating experience – you probably wanted to say much more to continue the conversation, but weren’t able to communicate effectively with just one word. We all want our students to be able to continue a conversation and not experience the same frustration we did, but our students usually don’t have much exposure to English outside the classroom.

So how can we prepare them to continue a conversation with confidence? We can do this by teaching them how to use full sentences – and by showing them, through activities and role play, how to communicate with these new sentences.

What kind of communication do you think your students could engage in with the following sentences?

  1. I like cats.
  2. It’s a green book. / The key is on the table.
  3. That’s great! / I’m sorry.

In the first sentence the student is expressing an opinion. (Almost any statement can be an opinion if you teach them to say, ‘I think…’)

In the second sentence the student is giving information.

In the third sentence the student is reacting to someone and expressing feeling or emotion.

Our students can communicate very effectively with simple sentences like those above. They can even create dialogue using question forms. In class, these may feel stilted and sound unnatural, but they form the basics of communication. When our students can use what we teach them to construct a sentence, they are able to use the language practically in conversations, instead of just repeating independent sentences.

When teaching sentences to students, I first teach the vocabulary, then show them, step by step, how to construct a sentence. (This provides a context for using the words.) I then show them how to use that sentence to create a dialog by teaching the WH- question form. You can see how questions and sentences can be taught easily and systematically in my webinar recording, Introducing new language effectively for the young learner classroom.

YES/NO questions and answers

With YES/NO short answers, we are often faced with the challenge of teaching auxiliary verbs. Teachers often say they are reluctant to teach short answers because they do not want to go into grammar explanations about auxiliary verbs. Students have a hard time remembering which auxiliary to use and often make mistakes like the following:

Do you want a cookie? Yes, I am.

Can you swim? Yes, I do.

To help my students learn and use the auxiliaries correctly, I present the WH- question forms before YES/NO questions (my co-authors and I do this in Let’s Go too).

What do you want?

What can you do?

Knowing the WH- question form helps my students to master the YES/NO questions and answers more easily. I ask them to take away the ‘what’ in the question they have learned and add the word they want to ask about. For example:

What do you want?   =  What   do you want       + a ball?

What can you do?    =  What   can you                + swim?

By removing ‘what’, my students are able to use the correct auxiliary automatically.

Do you want a ball?

Can you swim?

My students don’t have to guess what the auxiliary is and they are more confident in asking and answering YES/NO questions.

To help students overcome their habit of guessing, I give them a quick listening activity, which is like a game to them. I don’t complete the sentence, but just say the first two words. I say them quickly in rapid succession, mixing them up:

Can you xxxx?  Do you xxxx?  Are you xxxx?

My students listen for the first words to make their answers:

Can you xxxx?   Yes, I can.

Do you xxxx?    Yes, I do.

Are you xxxx?   Yes, I am.

I make the drills very quick so that my students are able to focus on the words.

Would you like to see how I do this? In my free webinar on Saturday (you can sign up here), I will give a demonstration on how to do this. I will also show you how you can use teacher cards to make learning YES/NO questions and answers lots of fun without a lot of teacher talk. I hope to see you there!

Ritsuko will be giving a free webinar on ‘Getting students to answer questions in full sentences on Saturday, 23 February. Register here.

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