What are you doing to help your students remember and retrieve the main content of your lessons?
Do your choice of topics match up? Are your presentation skills memory friendly? Read on.

This is the fourth post in an introductory series on the possibility of  lack of information processing causing EFL and ESL students to have ‘poor’ memories. The first post in the series discusses the brief and fragile registering process of the sensory memory; The second presents tips on how English language teachers can arouse student interest and prevent weariness and inattention and the third, whether information overload and lack of rehearsal is affecting the efficiency of short-term working memory. This post looks at one part of long-term memory — the explicit memory, in particular the semantic memory and how to ensure enough practice and rehearsal is taking place to consolidate long-term memories.

Memory consolidation

In the second stage of processing teachers need to consider the limited capacity and duration of the short-term working memory and the need for repeated rehearsal of new material.  If the subject matter is being recycled and practised, then new neural connections form and strengthen and the process of consolidation — the transferal of information from the short-term working memory into the long-term memory — takes place.

Explicit memory — I do declare

Explicit memory known also as our ‘declarative’ memory is our ‘conscious memory’.  It is packed with information and experiences we are aware of and can verbalise. For example, what supermarket we went to yesterday; who our favourite characters are in a popular TV drama.
Explicit memory systems can be subdivided into semantic and episodic. As mentioned above this post focuses on semantic memory.

Semantic Memory

Semantic memories are of facts, concepts, names, and other general knowledge. This is the most important memory system in the language classroom since it stores all aspects of word knowledge: symbols, meanings and grammar rules.

How can English language teachers support semantic memory?

Long-term memory checklist

Use SMART material that ESL EFL students find:

  • S – significant
  • M – meaningful / motivating
  • A – attention grabbing
  • R – relevant
  • T – thoughtful

Present material:

  • gradually
  • systematically
  • cumulatively
  • clearly
  • chunked
  • varyingly
  • interestingly 
  • repeatedly

Methodology suggestions

Lots of useful links are provided below. The linked articles and sites are packed with information and ideas. And check out my free resources mentioned below.

  • open and close the class with the three most important words or concepts
  • ensure the subject matter is structured, meaningful and relevant to the students and their backgrounds
  • preview material, such as potentially difficult words and new concepts
  • relate new information to existing memories by teaching mnemonic strategies
  • display only one new concept at a time
  • provide simple but relevant visual representations of information
  • use illustrations
  • highlight important words using strong colours
  • use tables and charts to show relationships, steps, comparisons and contrasts  present graphic organisers
  • arrange semantic and concept maps
  • highlighting connections and patterns for example – prefixes and suffixes – conjugations – spelling patterns 

NO to rote

Rote rehearsal of lists of vocabulary is not enough. Attending to the meaning of a word in different yet significant contexts for the students leads to better recall. As Conti mentions, so does elaborate rehearsal — using problem-solving which engages higher-order thinking skills will deepen neurological processing.
Students can for example:  

  • Connect a word to a famous person, favourite place or personal item.
  • Create their own definition of a word and compare definitions with class members.
  • Think of situations and justify where a group of words might be useful or not. For example, a check-list of items needed to go to the beach or documents necessary to board a flight.

Weakest of all systems

Unfortunately, semantic memory is known to have the weakest retrieval system. Therefore, ESL EFL teachers have to make sure many neurological paths and connections are made and developed so English language students can store subject matter securely and retrieve information easily.

Please take time to look through the great information and suggestions provided in all the links. I’ve listed them below too for your convenience.

Free Resources

Join other teachers and professionals if you are interested in:
  • Finding out more about how to quickly and easily recognise and help struggling students.
  • Checking whether your lessons are ‘memory friendly’.
  • Having other useful, time-saving resources at hand.
Go ahead check out my free how-to guides and toolkits. Enjoy!

For Further Ideas

Enhancing School Success with Mnemonic Strategies By: Margo A. Mastropieri and Thomas E. Scruggs

Helping Children with Learning Disabilities Understand What They Read

EDUPlace Please note — this extremely useful site closes at the end of 2020

Connecting Word Meanings Through Semantic Mapping

Conti, F (2016). 10 commonly made mistakes in vocabulary instruction. Retrieved from https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/10-commonly-made-mistakes-in-vocabulary-instruction/

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