This is the first installment in a article series called English Language Learning Strategies. To view the second article click here.
Memory is one of the most important aspects of language learning. Without concrete memory strategies, English language learners can become overwhelmed by the amount of information they’ll be required to remember, classify, manipulate, and produce.
It’s easy to demand students to memorize a list of vocabulary words or the correct greeting for a specific social situation, but it’s much more effective and helpful to provide your students with techniques and strategies for doing so.
An English language learning strategy is an intentional and deliberate approach to overcoming a language challenge, which is, in this case, remembering (if your students are struggling writers, check out this article to help support them). Strategies shouldn’t be confused with processes, which are universal and pervasive, such as identifying, categorizing, or associating. They also shouldn’t be confused with learning styles, which are specific and limited, such as relying on visuals, paying attention to details, or learning through doing.
In the classroom, learning strategies can take a variety of forms. Nevertheless, they always help the student acquire, store, retrieve, or use information or language. They’re specific actions that the learner takes to solve a problem and to make learning easier, more effective, more enjoyable, more independent, etc.
English language learning strategies can be either direct or indirect. Memory strategies are classified under direct strategies because they directly and explicitly involve the target language. They require the student to mentally process the language. Indirect strategies support or manage language learning without directly involving the language. For example, using music to lower students’ anxiety while studying is an indirect strategy.
If your students are struggling to remember things that they've learned, find a memory strategy that will work for them! Memory strategies are one of three different types of direct language learning strategies. However, it lays the groundwork for the other three. Without memory there is no cognitive processing or compensating.
Let’s look at the history behind memory strategies. They’ve always been popular in learning circles and can be found throughout all of history. Before literacy was widespread, memory strategies aided individuals in remembering and passing on information. While literacy has lessened the necessity of memory strategies, you’ve probably still used and been taught how to use them in your own education. Many individuals today have used acronyms, associations, physical responses, or reviewing techniques to learn things like the planets in the solar system, the keys on a piano, or parts of the body.
In English language learning, memory strategies are helpful for storing and retrieving information related to language. There are four main types of memory activities: creating a mental linkage, applying images or sounds, reviewing well, and employing an action. In fact, the first letter of each of those sets of strategies spells out the word CARE. This acronym is, in itself, a memory strategy!
Creating Mental Linkages
Creating a mental link is an incredible tool when learning a language, especially English! Things like grouping language into meaningful units, associating new information with concepts already memorized, or placing new words and language into a sentence, conversation or story are all types of memory strategies that create links. The key to creating a mental link between new and old information, is that the old information must be personally meaningful to the individual. If they don’t create the link, it’s less likely to take hold.
ACTIVITY: When working on parts of speech, have students assign a different color to each part of speech (noun/red, adjective/blue, verb/yellow, etc). Then, have your students rewrite their vocabulary list in different colors, according to the words’ part of speech. This will allow them to create a mental link between color and part of speech, and can enable them to more easily remember the parts of speech and the classification of vocabulary words.
Applying Images and Sounds
Human beings naturally apply images and sounds to certain feelings, words, and experiences to create links with memory. Think of the feelings that can flood you when you see an old picture, or hear a specific song that your mother used to sing to you. Teaching your students to utilize these tools is invaluable. It can be done in a variety of ways. When students relate new information to a meaningful information; create a map or web of words based on meaning; choose keywords with auditory or visual links; or remember information based on sounds, their memory can be activated and strengthened.
ACTIVITY: When teaching abstract terms, have students take 5 minutes to draw or create a picture to represent the term. For example, if you’re teaching the word “compassion,” students may draw a picture of someone helping an elderly person cross the street. This simple link between abstract term and image can help them to remember the meaning of the word to use at a later date.
If you've ever learned anything, at any point in time, you'll know that review is critical. We’ve all heard that your brain is a muscle, and if you don’t use it, you lose it! This is 100% true in English language learning situations. Reviewing well can mean different things to different individuals, and it often takes some time for students to figure out what works for them. Nevertheless, there are a few key principles that apply to everyone, and these are the things that you should emphasize in your classroom. Make sure you recycle material, and teach your students how to review often and consistently!
ACTIVITY: One of the best ways to review and/or learn something, is to teach it! Put your students into "expert groups" of 3-4, and give each group a different topic that they’ve learned to review together and teach to the other students briefly. You can structure their planning however you’d like (teach for 5 minutes, come up with an activity, come up with a set of discussion questions, etc). After the students have had time to talk to their "expert groups." Take your groups of 3-4 and put the students into "sharing groups." These groups should have 1 person from each of the original groups. In these "sharing groups," your students will take turns teaching and sharing what they discussed with their "expert groups." This is great for making sure every student has time to talk and teach!
Some individuals are more inclined to learning through physical actions, or when relating new information to those actions. While this can be a learning style (kinesthetic), it can also be a language learning strategy to overcome issues with memory. There are a variety of ways to bring kinesthetic learning into the classroom. When learning actions, it can be helpful to act out that action, or if you’re going over a new expression it can be helpful to link it to a physical sensation. Simply using activities that get your students moving can also be beneficial. I’ve had students write terms on index cards in order to physically move and organize ideas. While it’s a great activity for employing action, if nothing else it can help to keep your students awake and engaged!
ACTIVITY: If your students are working on the vocabulary terms for taste, be sure to provide snacks for them to taste as they learn. As you taste the food and discuss the word, model a facial expression for them to associate the new information with. For example, teach your students about the word ‘sour,’ give them a little bit of lemon juice to taste, and scrunch your face as many people do when tasting something sour. This connection to physical action will help them to make more mental connections between the vocabulary term!
Like most direct English language learning strategies, memory strategies are most effective when used in conjunction with indirect strategies like paying attention, reducing anxiety, or encouraging yourself. Be sure to incorporate a variety of strategies in the classroom in order to support your students in their learning journey.
Memory strategies are just one aspect of language learning strategies. However, they’re often the most basic and important of the three types of direct strategies. Helping your students remember information regarding the English language is vital to their learning. Without memory strategies, students won’t be able to apply or use the language.
Don't forget to check out the next article in the series: English Language Learning Strategies: 4 Ways to Make Your Students Think.
I Want to Hear From You!
What are some of the ways that you've remembered information in your academic career? Do you use any of those strategies in your classroom?
Have you ever had students forget what they've learned as soon as they leave the classroom? How do you deal with this?