We shape our perceptions and understand our surroundings when past experiences connect with incoming sensory information. During this first phase of sensory data processing, we tend to be unaware of the intensity of the information being filtered for selection through our senses. However, it is important for English language teachers to understand as mentioned in a previous post that attention, meaning and emotions are key factors as to whether the neurological system will process this incoming sensory information.

Once the information has moved through the sensory processing stage, it reaches the short-term working memory. Short-term working memory works like a busy middleman using a more conscious level of processing that receives, recycles, sorts out, and finally assimilates incoming information with previously saved memories.

Working memory: limited space and temporary storage

For English language teachers, it is important to know when planning lessons that the temporary storage space available in the short-term working memory system is limited. Also, besides limited storage space, ESL / EFL teachers need to remember that short-term memory is exactly that. Some types of information are held there for less than 20 seconds – others much less. In addition, teachers need to be aware that the short-term working memory of their language students cannot process effectively when there is:

  • anxiety or emotional issues
  • more than one simultaneous train of thought using the same sensory mode (teacher talking, student whispering to another class member)
  • cognitive overload expected to process more than nine parallel chunks of information


Teachers —  Tips to encourage information processing in the short-term working memory:

  • Create an EFL / ESL classroom atmosphere that is calm and predictable.
  • Keep students’ attention focused on the material being taught.
  • Trigger previous knowledge to help students receive and integrate new information.
  • Group information into familiar or meaningful sets.
  • Present small, significant, manageable chunks of information.
  • Go over new material more than once using different methods.
  • Support limited memory capacity by using visuals, lists, diagrams, and  highlighting essential information. 
  • Question students, to recycle information and confirm their understanding of the material being taught.

Ensure retrieval: rehearse, recycle, reinforce

Besides making sure ESL and EFL students are presented with an optimum quantity of new material, the right amount of practice is essential. Rehearsal is the main activity that ensures information stays in the short-term working memory until it is correctly encoded and ready for transfer to long-term memory.
The new topic being learned at this stage needs reinforcement so connections can be made and neurological paths created and strengthened. If not enough meaningful practice takes place, the carefully prepared information may fade away very quickly from the working memory and not advance to the long-term memory system for processing and storage. Alternatively, the material may be ‘stored’ in a ‘degraded’ form and become ‘lost’ in the memory system. If this happens, when your EFL / ESL students are presented with this topic in the future, they will be unable to retrieve very little about it.
Try to keep your English language lessons ‘working memory friendly’.

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Copyright Lesley Lanir. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Disclaimer: Content on this site is for educational purposes. If you re-use any content please include original source and copyright information.

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