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Kids World

Topics of interest to teachers of English as a second or foreign language to young learners.

April 16, 2000

Memory-Friendly Teaching

by Douglas Corin

The children you teach are already learning, but would you like to help them even more, especially those who seem to be struggling?

Kids It's no secret that some children learn much faster than others and that this soon leads to imbalanced levels among classmates. The strugglers may appear to be uninterested in English or, stated positively, much more interested in everything else other than English. We can imagine such a child's point of view. His life is being interrupted by the English lesson. He usually has two choices about how to cope with this. Change his classroom environment, or ignore that environment. To ignore it, he'll use his imagination to think of other things, people and places. To change it, he'll try to make your lesson more 'fun' - based on his own definition of 'fun' of course, - often not what you were hoping to have happen in your lesson! Whichever course he chooses, the end result is he's not learning well, he's not remembering.

To help, and such children do need help, the teacher can use memory-friendly teaching techniques. Over recent years, memory experts have written many books containing practical ideas on improving memory. These memory experts, such as Harry Lorayne, apply the principles of memory to produce results that amaze others. During my ten years of teaching in Japan, I have sometimes noticed children naturally using some of these same memory techniques. Teachers too, soon learn that certain teaching methods boost children's memory. 

Most of the following memory principles you will already know, but I set them out here as a kind of checklist for you to refer to. Through this, I hope we teachers can help more of the 'strugglers' in children's English classes throughout Japan.

Movement, and Peripheral Learning
Yuri, a 3 year old girl, was again rushing past, behind the group of other kindergarten children who were sitting on the mat. She was on her way to climb yet another of the curtains in the hall where we had our 45-minute weekly English lesson. "Eating", she called out as she flew by. To my amazement she had correctly identified the picture card I was showing the class. I'd introduced it, among others, while she was seemingly occupied elsewhere with her gymnastic feats. The children on the mat hadn't yet remembered it. Yuri had. How come?

Two principles of memory were at work here. Movement, and peripheral learning. For children, movement is a great memory reinforcer. Songs which include movement (songs such as, 'I like Running' or, 'Head, shoulders, knees and toes') help children remember the song's vocabulary. Even without music, Total Physical Response instructions like, "stand up, sit down, sleep, wake up, open the door" are also quickly remembered as children carry out the actions.

The second, lesser known principle is that of peripheral learning. The vocabulary card, 'eating' wasn't at the center of Yuri's attention that day! It was on the outside edge, on the periphery. One of the theories of accelerated learning is that people can even remember things that they are scarcely aware of learning. Our minds are continually taking in information from our surroundings even though we don't always notice. Until I mention it for example, you may not have been paying much attention to the background sounds you can hear right now, or to what is in your field of vision other than this text. The point is that children don't always focus on what the teacher is teaching when the teacher is teaching it. Rather, they are also able to pick things up 'on the fly' from their environment, things such as chance remarks, English in the background, or background visuals such as wall posters. By definition, 'peripheral' items cannot be the focus of your teaching, but for the sake of those whose attention wanders, you can create your background classroom environment to support your teaching.

When I first started teaching young children, I felt guilty when we gave them 'coloring time' to color their workbook pictures. We should be teaching, I thought. But color is one of the most powerful aids to memory. Coloring is NOT a waste of time. (It also includes movement, another aid to memory.) If you have the children repeat relevant vocabulary while they are coloring, you will be enhancing their learning.

This principle of color as an aid to memory also needs to be taken into account when selecting course materials, such as flashcards, posters and textbooks. British publishers seem to be the recent leaders for providing bright, bold colors. Colors attract. Just what the strugglers need. Choose your materials well, and a great deal of your teaching will be done for you by the power of the colors.

I've already mentioned the teaching power of songs. Any children's teacher who excludes music from her class is putting some students at a disadvantage. Beyond songs, your voice is one of the most potent teaching tools you have to enhance learning. '"FEE, FI, FO, FUM", boomed the giant. He was a-n-g-r-y!' You can use your voice to great effect in telling stories such as this 'Jack and the Beanstalk'. Children pick up a more complete meaning of the word 'angry' through the acted, added emotion of your voice. Like a hot knife through soft butter, such words slip easily into memory. Getting children to imitate you and use their own voices to add emotional expression to vocabulary words can help their interest and therefore help their memory.

Rhythm and rhyme are other strong devices for promoting better memory. Many teachers will already be familiar with such children's materials produced by writers like Carolyn Graham. Why not produce your own local rhymes and rhythms, making them relevant to the particular children you teach?

Children are incredible at this memory strengthener - using minimal clues to remind them of words they have learned, thus reinforcing the memory. We often employ this reinforcing technique at our school when using vocabulary picture cards. Holding a pile of such cards, the teacher begins to expose the picture on the back card, pulling it very slowly, little by little, out from behind the other cards into the children's view. After glimpsing only a mere splash of detail, children will often correctly identify the whole picture. The same can be done with word cards. This 'part-whole' reinforcing method helps children become more spontaneous at recalling the words and pictures you have already taught. Our 'Letterland' learning-to-read materials use this method successfully to teach even advanced phonics. The plain alphabet letters are the 'part' used by children to quickly remember the previously learned, 'whole' related pictures and sounds.

This is when you remember new information by using something seemingly unrelated as a hint, creating a relationship (often strange or amusing) between the hint and the new information. For example, a Japanese word for 'two' is 'ni', pronounced like the English word, 'knee', of which I have 'two'. 'Knee' becomes a mnemonic for the sound and meaning of 'ni'. Children seem to create mnemonics like this naturally. As an example, when we teach, 'How much is it?' children around here (near Lake Hamana) often spontaneously say, 'Hama Cheese'. It has little meaning for me, but they laugh and use the sound to remember 'How much is it?' Some of the local junior high school English teachers also use such mnemonics to help their students remember various English phrases and grammar points. Keep your ears open to any mnemonics that your students come up with. Maybe you could make a collection to share with others.

Spaced Revision
Many children's classes are held once a week, so their revision is already spaced. Spaced revision leads to stronger memory than that which results from constant revision. Once reminded of something learned and 'forgotten', children usually then continue remembering it even longer. And long-term memory is one of our goals. If you have been constantly revising something so that the children now 'know' it, stop revising for two or three lessons, let it fade a bit, then review it again. This seems to enhance its importance in children's minds and memories.

Systematic Learning
Previously, in teaching reading, we used texts, word cards and phonics workbooks that progressed little by little through the basic spellings and sounds of English. The books were logically arranged, but that logic was not apparent to children. Not until we changed to a system that made sense to the children, and was logical from their point of view, did we really begin to see success. Do your children see the relationships between the 'parts' of what you are teaching them? Are recent lessons following logically on from previous ones, from the children's point of view? One logical way to organize lessons, for example, is by providing a monthly or term theme, such as 'eating', or 'family'.

The memory techniques above are not the only useful ones you can find among modern memory methods, but if you choose to use them, they will begin to help those in your classes who are struggling with memory, and learning.


How to Develop a Perfect Memory
Dominic O'Brien

ISBN 07472 45177

The Learning Revolution
Gorden Dryden and Dr. Jeanette Vos

ISBN 09583 70109

Your Memory
Tony Buzan

ISBN 0563204761

Mindpower System
Jonathon Hancock

ISBN 03406 40308

Improve Exam Results
Harry Lorayne

ISBN 07225 26407

Accelerate Your Learning - Action Handbook
Colin Rose and Louise Goll

ISBN 09055 53403

Douglas Corin

Douglas Corin started his ELT career in Japan as a JET Program participant in 1988. He now runs his own English School called the J & N English Club. He is also the manager of Letterland Japan. Letterland produces teaching materials that aims to increase the reading ability of children. Half of the elementary schools in England use the Letterland method to teach reading.

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