I can confidently say that without building up strong memory strategies, learning a second language becomes near impossible. Memory impacts every aspect of language learning. Grammar, vocabulary, sentence structures, social etiquette, and so much more is dependent upon a learner’s ability to remember previously learned material and connect it to recently learned material.
The term, “schemata,” is often thrown around in language acquisition circles, and all that this fancy word means is, according to dictionary.com, “an underlying organizational pattern or structure; a conceptual framework.” In ESL classrooms, especially adult ESL classrooms, it’s really important to continually build schemata or build your students’ mental structure or framework for understanding language. A strong organizational framework allows students to remember information they know and categorize new information accordingly. In other words, it allows your students to better (and more quickly) understand and integrate new language.
You may be wondering what all of this has to do with working memory, or you may already be one step ahead of me. Working memory and building schemata go hand-in-hand. Without strong memory strategies, your learners won’t be able to properly and quickly access the schemata that they’ve already built and store new information successfully.
You would be surprised how many classroom problems can be remedied by spending a few minutes specifically targeting and building your students’ working memory. If your students often revert back to their L1 (native language) in your classroom, it’s probably because they just don’t remember how to communicate what they’d like to communicate in English. If your students often rely on you for the answers to questions, it’s probably because they’re having trouble accessing the schemata they’ve built. If your students are unmotivated or having difficulty following directions for an activity, it could be because without a strong working memory they’re overwhelmed by so much new language.
Today we’re going to be breaking down everything you need to know about building working memory in your language classroom, and you won’t want to miss the 4 activities that can help your students access and build their schemata! Keep reading to learn more and to find the perfect activity for your adult language learners.
What is Working Memory?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of building working memory and helping your students get into the habit of accessing their schemata, we need to properly understand what working memory is. There are three different types of memory that we’re going to look at: short-term memory, long-term memory, and working memory.
Working memory is, in basic terms, a system for temporarily storing and managing information. It’s a way for students to store, adjust, and retrieve language from both short-term and long-term memory. In other words, working memory is what allows students to access their schemata.
There are three steps to using working memory. First, students will remember an item in their short-term memory. This could be something that they just learned or something that they’re working on understanding more fully. In this instance, we’ll use the example of the term, “practice makes perfect.” Next, students have to tap into their prior knowledge or schemata in order to find out where this phrase fits into the framework they’ve already built. In this example, students may think about the use of the word practice with things like sports or musical instruments. Eventually, students will get to the third step and match this new phrase or knowledge with their prior knowledge.
It’s important to note that this three-step guide to working memory isn’t done once and then forgotten. Students must constantly access and adjust their schemata in order to make room for new language and new things that they’ve picked up about previously-learned language. As the student in our example hears, “practice makes perfect,” more often, they’ll learn more about how, when, and why the phrase is used. Working memory is an active process throughout all of language learning and language use.
Activities to Improve Working Memory
There are many activities that you can guide your students through in order to build their schemata and help them get into the habit of practicing and improving working memory. It’s important to note that activities that simply build memory don’t necessarily build working memory.
Tasks like finding the difference between stories, sentences, or vocabulary words will only employ short-term memory. Whereas tasks that ask your students to write definitions from memory or other typical “assessment” tasks will only employ long-term memory. However, an activity that asks your students to categorize both new and old vocabulary terms based on their differences will require your students to use their working memory.
Another important thing to note is that while memory exercises are great and one of your jobs as a language teacher is to help your students acquire new language (which improved memory helps them do), memory activities should be linked with language activities. If your memory activity doesn’t involve language, simply spend some time after the task discussing what you did and why. Not only does this practice help your learners better understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, but it also gives you an opportunity to involve them in the learning process and provide feedback on classroom activities.
Without further ado, let’s look at a few activities that can help your adult language learners improve their working memory and practice building and accessing schemata!
Students work in pairs to read pre-determined sentences to one another. Student A reads their first sentence, such as, “she has red hair,” and Student B must recite that sentence back from memory while also switching the pronoun and the last word. For example, “she has red hair,” switches to, “he has red shoes.” Student B now reads their first sentence, repeating the process until all sentences have been completed.
Asking your students to spell words backwards or rearrange words within a sentence can help improve working memory. Another fun option is to give your students phrases that belong at the end of the sentence and require them to come up with the first half of the sentence. For example, if students are working in pairs and Student A says the phrase, “and that’s why we don’t get along,” Student B must come up with a phrase that works, such as, “She’s always mean to me.” This activity can also be a lot of fun and create some funny sentence combinations!
Any activity that asks students to summarize something is a great way to have students access their working memory. You can have students summarize their weekend, a book they read or their favorite childhood memory. If your students are a little bit more advanced, it’s a lot of fun to get more abstract and have them summarize an experience, song, or story with a single word, picture, or even color (and explain why). Students can share their answers with a partner, small group, or as a mini-presentation. If discussing a story, song, or something else that all students have experience with, have groups come up with an answer together to give your students more opportunity to discuss and negotiate their answer.
Working memory and building schemata is integral to creating a healthy and thriving learning environment, but it’s easy to forget to build these language learning strategies in your classroom. Just spending a few minutes a week on a working-memory-based activity can help your students more quickly and easily access old language and integrate new language.
If you’re looking for more activities to help you strengthen your students’ memory skills, be sure to check out the Everyday ESL article called, English Language Learning Strategies: Improve Memory in the Classroom! There you can learn more about using memory strategies to help your learners remember what they learn in your classroom, and there’s plenty of activities and tasks for your adult language learners to practice!
I Want to Hear From You!
Do you set aside time in the classroom to practice and build non-linguistic strategies?
What memory strategies do you use to help your learners strengthen their language learning skills?