I need your help! My patience is wearing thin… I have a student who remembers absolutely nothing. I mean, not an iota. We could go over the same vocabulary every day as if it’s the first time he’s seen it! He tells me he studies at home but how can that be if he can’t recall a single thing the next day?? I feel like I’m wasting time with him when I could be helping students who are really making an effort to learn. What should I do?
Just because your student is not progressing at the same pace as his classmates does not mean he is not learning. Nor does it mean that he’s not making an effort. There may well be motivational factors you need to explore so take the time to talk to the learner about his perspective on what’s going on and how he might become more engaged, if this is indeed the issue. Likewise, consider how your actions may be disadvantaging him in some way.
It is also possible that your student has a particular need that would be best assessed by an expert in SEN (Special Educational Needs). I can’t advise you on this but I strongly recommend you get your hands on Memory Activities for Language Learning, by Nick Bilbrough. This book was an eye-opener for me: it taught me about typical memory functioning and contains loads of classroom activities to help your student remember the stuff you want him to remember.
First, we receive information via our senses. Sound and vision are imprinted on our sensory memory without even making an effort and can be remembered for 1-4 seconds. This is why, even if you are not paying attention to what someone is saying, you could probably recall the last few words; this unconscious remembering has implications on our teaching since it means that during drilling, students do not need to pay attention to a word to repeat it since they are simply echoing from the sensory memory.
If we pay attention to the sensory input, there is a good chance it will reach the working memory (also referred to as short-term memory). It will remain there for 15-20 seconds before it is forgotten unless it is rehearsed either by repeating it to yourself (“phonological loop”) or creating a mental image (“visuo-spatial sketchpad”).
With plenty of rehearsal, new language items will be encoded and stored in the long-term memory. What is fascinating about this process is that it is actually physical: when long-term memories are created, synapses (connections that allow communication between neurons) are actually formed. The long-term memory is thought to have unlimited capacity and the encoding of new memories is facilitated by connections with existing knowledge. Long-term memory creation is what we’re aiming for as teachers since that’s how automaticity and therefore fluency are achieved.
So, since the demand on the working memory to both encode and retrieve target language is huge, the first thing you can do to help your student is to use activities that might strengthen his working memory, thereby increasing its capacity.
Here are a couple of Bilbrough’s activities which are designed to stretch the working memory:
- Dialogue reconstruction
Cut up the dialogue, shuffle the strips and distribute them to students (minimum 2 students per group). Give students a suitable time limit to read and remember their lines of the dialogue then collect the strips. Students have to recall their lines to their group/partner and together they must reconstruct a coherent dialogue.
2. Auditory pelmanism
This is an adaptation of the typical pelmansim, or memory game, in which students take turns to turn over two cards at a time and find the pairs. The same principle applies, but this time there are no visual cues. Students select two numbers from the grid and you read out the corresponding sentences. There should be two numbers that don’t have a pair to make the game more interesting.
In the activities above, students are forced to hold information in their working memories with or without visual cues.
Bilbrough also suggests activities that make the target language as memorable as possible to students. Here are my favourites from his book:
3. Skeleton stories
Read a short story/text out loud to the class and students have to mime what’s happening. Read it again and students mime again. Then get students to retell the story to each other in pairs. Then give students a handout with the ‘skeleton’ of the story and they have to fill in the gaps.
4. Treasure hunt
Cut up 20 new lexical items and hide them around the classroom before students enter. In teams students have to find the lexis and then decide which category they belong to.
Ask students to write a list of items they want to remember. Then give them a picture (they could also use their own images/photos) and they should label the image with their selected items of vocabulary creating an association that is meaningful to them. They should then work in pairs to tell their partner why they labelled the picture they way they did. Later on, perhaps at the end of the lesson or the day or week, give them another copy of the picture to label in the same way and see how many items they remember.
Hope this has been useful.
S.L.L. (SGI Teacher Trainer)
Bilbrough, N. (2011), Memory Activities for Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.