It was all about memory and how students remember, and forget, new language as they go through the process of acquiring it.
Here I’d like to give you just a summary of the theories that were talked about, along with their implications for the teacher and the students.
How much can we remember in one go?
George Miller suggested that there’s a magic number for our short-term memory.
He claims the number of items a normal person can remember in one go is 7, plus or minus 2. Therefore he suggests most people can remember between 5 and 9 items. However when language is delivered in a ‘chunk’ like a sentence we can remember much more.
When we are overloaded with new words our minds go blank and can’t take in any more.
So next time you are teaching a lesson where there is a lot of new vocabulary to introduce think twice about how much you can realistically expect your students to take in. It will be de-motivating and counter effective to overload your students with new words and phrases.
Also take a good look at your board work.
How do you record vocabulary on the board?
Do you have a special space on the board dedicated to new words?
Do students know which words they should record? Do students have vocabulary notebooks or some system of recording new vocabulary?
Clear board work and an established system of recording vocab will help your students a lot. Even adult students sometimes need help with this so don’t think that spending some class time looking at their note books and thinking about ways to improve their note taking and organising their notes is a waste of time. Speak to your students about how they learn and what helps them learn in other subjects they study. Mind maps may be good for some students or a system of a vocabulary bag may help others. Check out the teaching tip on Recycling Vocabulary for more on this:
How can we make things more memorable?
According to research (the Von Restorff effect) we are more likely to remember something that is surprising or out of the ordinary. We all know that when things are a bit bizarre or weird we tend to remember them.
Try to think of ways to make vocabulary more memorable. Pictures may help your visual learners or getting students to mime or do role-plays may help new language ‘stick’ for others. If you ask students at the end of term how much they can remember about the course you’ll probably be surprised. Rather than remembering your excellent lesson on the present perfect which took you hours to prepare, they’ll probably remember the class when you brought in a photo of your partner, made a sandwich in the class or when the TV blew up!
How quickly do we forget?
Herman Ebinghaus researched the ‘forgetting curve’. He claims that after one hour of learning something new we forget 50% of it. After 9 hours we forget 60% and after one month we forget 80%. The fact that we can forget things so quickly should reinforce the idea that we, as language teachers, have to encourage students to revise out of class time and that we should also spend some class time revising. Some teachers believe that each lesson should start with a revision task of some aspects of the previous class. This could be a simple vocabulary game or you could even ask students to look back at their notes and give a summary of what they learnt in the last lesson.
One of Gillie Cunningham’s catchphrases throughout her talk was, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it.’ Therefore whenever you are introducing new lexical sets or grammatical structures make sure you have enough time in the class for students to put the newly acquired language into practice. Revision should be an important part of every class. It’s easy to think we always have to constantly move students along by presenting new language and new vocabulary all the time. Although it’s obviously important to challenge our students we should maybe give students more time to recycle and revise. By doing this the language will become more familiar, more meaningful and hopefully more memorable. If we believe the theory of Ebinghaus’ forgetting curve, within an hour you’ll have forgotten 50% of what you’ve just read! So, just remember three things to do with your students: Revise, revise and revise!
... By Jo Budden