The other day I was teaching the song “I’m a Little Teapot” to a student. If you don’t know, the children’s song goes likes this:
“I’m a little teapot, short and stout.
Here is my handle, here is my spout.
When I get all steamed up, hear me shout:
‘Tip me over and pour me out!'”
I had woken up 10 minutes later than usual that morning and, as a result, had skipped my morning cup of tea. However, I wanted to show how awake I was (◕ᴥ◕), so I grabbed my cup of water to demonstrate the phrase “pour me out.” I did not intend to pour water in my lap, but that’s what happened. And I hope my student will never forget the meaning of the word “pour” again.
Think back to something you’ve remembered well from your own education. How did you remember it? For example, the definition of “mitosis” is stuck in my head because it was a running joke on the TV show, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Whenever Sabrina would get together with someone to study, they’d start with “Mitosis is…” and then get distracted and not finish the sentence. Finally, in one episode, they said, “Mitosis is… the process of cell division!” It didn’t matter that they only said it once — it stuck.
As an adult language teacher or learner, how do you get new words to stay? There are various specific strategies, but the obvious thing they have in common is making meaning memorable.
Memory itself is a complex topic (and one I hope to write more about after I’ve read this book), but for now, let’s look at the basic processes.
Here’s the boring scientific explanation of memory:
(Skip down to the fun examples below if you’d prefer to see how it applies to language learning.)
There are three main stages to memory: sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory.
Sensory information such as sights and sounds are stored* in your sensory memory for less than a second. Whether or not the information is then transferred to short term memory depends on if you are paying attention or not.
Once in short-term memory, information only lasts for about 20-30 seconds. Short-term memory can only hold about 5-9 things at a time, so any new information pushes the old information out, even before the 20-30 seconds is up.
Lastly, if the brain decides the information is important enough, it will be encoded into long-term memory, where it will stay. You can retrieve memories from your long term memory and bring them back to your short-term memory.
That was all a huge oversimplification. If memory science interests you, you can read more about how memory works at howstuffworks. Please remember to come back here to learn how all of this applies to language learning. 😀
Now for the fun examples!
Read this string of words, then quickly cover it with your hand and answer the questions afterwards:
black, quack, hunt, itch, adventurous, bat, cover, art, mailbox, worry, grape,
best, education, plain, enjoy, stem, stocking, lively, shivering, match,
splendid, rob, end, precede, tie, slip, cowardly, size, jittery, air.
Did you read it?**
Oh good. Now, how many verbs can you recall from the list? Maybe you can think of a few, but chances are you’re not going to be able to recall most of them. I didn’t draw your attention to the verbs in any way, there were too many items in the list, and the list wasn’t connected in any meaningful way.*** I set you up for failure, sorry.
Let’s try another vocabulary set. Read these sentences, then cover them with your hand and answer the questions:
The rhino is coming for the giraffe. Run, giraffe, run!
At the last minute, the giraffe steps aside, and the rhino bumps into the fierce lion instead.
Oh no! The lion is verrry angry. He starts chasing the rhino, but he is distracted by a group of gazelles.
The gazelles scurry over to hide behind their friend, the elephant. The elephant doesn’t mind.
Did you read it?*
Great. Can you name all the animals that were in the sentences? I bet you can! There were only five of them, I put them in bold to bring your attention to them, and they are all part of a (somewhat) meaningful story. I even added in some extra memory-helpers, like repetition and humor.
Those animal words are already in your long-term memory, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to remember them easily. If we had a test on them a week from now, you might not remember them. There are ways to increase our ability to remember them, though, and those are the ones that we need to pay attention to as teachers and learners.
How to make meaning more memorable — the promised tips!
For each of these tips, I have one specific application for teachers and one for self-studying students.
First, how you put information into your long-term memory helps determine how easy it will be to recall. The more senses involved, the “stronger” the memories will be when they are encoded in your long-term memory. For example, if I had added pictures to the animal sentences, you might be able to remember them a week from now. But what if we acted out the whole story as a play? What if we made it a musical? Chances are, you’d still remember it months from now.
- Teacher’s Tip: When you’re introducing new vocabulary, try to use as many senses as possible. Don’t just teach the word “ball,” bring one to class and toss it to a student. Touching it while saying the word “ball” will be a much more vibrant memory than just looking at a picture of a ball.
- Learner’s Tip: Interact with your vocabulary. Limit yourself to 5-9 new words at a time, and try to pay close attention to sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Every time you experience some sense in relation to the word, say that word out loud.
Another factor is how often you retrieve the information from your long-term memory and think about it consciously. Simple repetition can be useful while you are encoding it in your long-term memory, but after that, you want to aim for thinking of it independently many times over a longer period of time. You can remember something by either thinking of it directly or being reminded of it through associations.
- Teacher’s Tip: After teaching a new set of vocabulary, make a point of reviewing it after a few minutes of doing something else. Then after a longer interval, such as at the end of class. Put vocabulary cards on a wall to review them first thing at the beginning of the next class. Then turn them over and ask for students to recall the words freely at the end of the second class. In the following class, just have students run to the board to write the words.
- Learner’s Tip: Buy a label-maker. Label all the things in your house in your new language. Whenever you see the word, read it out loud. After a couple days, take off the labels and try to say the words from memory. I did this when I was a kid studying Russian, and I still remember the words for “basement,” “refrigerator,” and “orange” (I had some orange chapstick), despite having forgotten many other words which I didn’t label.
The last way to improve memory which I want to mention is building schemata. Schemata are like systems or webs (hey-o!) based on prior knowledge that help our brains quickly organize new information. So instead of storing a new word like “rhino” in a new mental box labeled “animals,” I might put it somewhere on a schema of familiar animal stories that follow the pattern “conflict — complication — climax — resolution.” There’s a lot more to schemata, so here’s a good article that summarizes schema theory, without getting too academic.
- Teacher’s Tip: Consider the context of new words. Try to connect them as much as possible in related groups, such as “detective stories,” or “common advertising techniques.” Draw attention to these schemata and figure out how familiar they are to your students. Only build off of structures they already know.
- Learner’s Tip: If you’re studying on your own, first come up with some schemata that you are familiar with. Try to find vocabulary that belongs to those frameworks, or, if you’re studying from word lists, use your imagination to connect the new vocabulary to what you already know about a subject.
Last thoughts and a question
As a English language teacher, I have to remind myself that my mission is not to be dignified, or clever, or entertaining, except insofar as those qualities help my students succeed. However my students think back on my lessons, I hope they do remember them, at least!
I had started this post intending it to be something rather light-hearted, but I realize that I ran out of gif-able things to say pretty early on. I’m happy we arrived here, though, and I hope that you have learned something useful.
I’d love for this blog to be more conversational, so I’ll end with a question. Please leave a reply below!
What is one vocabulary word you’ve learned that you’ll never forget, and how did it stick in your memory?
*Words like “store,” “transfer” and “retrieve from” are essentially metaphors for what your brain is doing with memories. There is no literal “storehouse” of memories, and you don’t “pick them out of” a collection. However, it’s a much easier way to talk about these processes.
**Yes, that question is just there to keep you from accidentally reading the questions first. Hehe, I’m tricky like that.
***Since humans are really bad at coming up with truly random strings of words or numbers, I used this random word generator.