Remember that car that was parked two spaces down from you, at that store you went to, for that thing you wanted to buy?
Of course you don’t.
Every day, thousands of events pass through our experience, and they do not stay with us. For most of us, these experiences go in, they’re briefly acknowledged in whatever sense we need for our current purpose, and then they’re simply gone. Unless something intervenes.
Here’s a question I’m asking teachers: If it’s true that a specific set of intervening circumstances boosts encoding long-term memory, and it is, shouldn’t we be making those circumstances happen in our classrooms?
Let me say that again. We can intervene in learning experiences for better long-term memory. So should we?
Yes. Of course we should. But how?
Enter Lisa Genova. If you’ve seen the movie Still Alice, you’ve seen some of her work. She’s a neuroscientist who writes in a unique genre of neurological fiction, walking us into the story of someone losing part of themselves through a neurological disease. Now, she’s given us a nonfiction offering called Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting. Naturally, as soon as I heard the phrase “science of memory,” I was intrigued.
I’m so excited about sharing research like this that my friend Haylee Ziegler and I will be presenting this topic for ACTFL ’23 in a session called “Teaching on TL Memory Lane,” but as a preview, let me share it with you here.
Before I give you some summary and ideas, let me offer these resources so you can explore what Genova has to say about memory and how to get better at it:
- Listen to the NPR Ted Radio Hour featuring Genova and her segment on “Alzheimers, Memory, and How to Keep our Brains Healthy as We Age.”
- Explore her website, including the page on this book.
- Watch her TED Talk from 2017 on preventing Alzheimer’s.
- For treatment of this topic specific to language-learning, I’m excited to explore Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti’s book Memory.
The five keys to long-term memory
In case we weren’t aware, let Genova remind us:
Your capacity to learn and recall information is both remarkable and shoddy.
Even memories that seem very vivid to us of events from childhood can turn out later to be factually false. As I finished reading Educated (highly recommend), I was fascinated to read about the memories Westover had that other family members experiencing the same event remember differently.
Memory is quite a trip.
The more we learn about memory, the more we know that we can manipulate it. The next time someone tries to tell you how many times a word must be repeated in context to be encoded in long-term memory, respectfully call their bluff. Maybe it’s an average, maybe it’s just made up, but it’s a lie.
Do you know how many times you need to hear a word to remember it? You might hear 12, you might hear 160, but the answer is…
Once. One time.
If, that is, you have seriously memory-boosting events associated with it. I learned the word servilleta in one experience while my dad’s lip bled on an Ecuadoran sidewalk after he tripped into a parked car. I learned the word ladillas in a story by a student who mis-translated the word “crabs.” Other words, now, I cannot bring to my mind ever. Does that word start with p or b? Does it end with –on or –ote? I don’t know, because my brain never found a reason to lock that bit of information inside.
This is our task as teachers: give brains a reason to lock it up.
Here’s the way Genova describes that locking process:
- You perceive something through your senses (sight, sound, etc.) and…
- your brain makes it neurological information.
- Then, the brain takes the unrelated neural activity and links it together into a neural circuit.
- In the next step, the brain stores that new circuit into a lasting alteration, actually changing the makeup of your brain.
- Finally, when you need that woven circuit at a later time, it is activated in some way so that you can retrieve it – or rather, remember.
We can give learners’ brains more reasons to follow this process to store information. How? In five ways: make information meaningful, emotional, surprising, new, and repeated.
1. What does it mean?
As Genova points out, you can’t remember what you don’t pay attention to. Think about a penny: perhaps you know who is on the penny, but do you remember how much of his face is there? Which way he’s looking? Is he wearing a hat? How accurately could you draw a penny, which you’ve seen twelve thousand times? I’d guess not very accurately. The reason is that you don’t pay attention to it, because you don’t have to. The detailed layout of a penny means nothing to you.
All five of these keys are part of what makes us pay attention to language input, but this first one stands out in all the research on language learning. It’s the foundation of comprehensible input methods, the foundation of task-based language learning, a vital piece of project-based language learning, and the key to how you learned your native language in the first place.
It has to mean something to you, something that you comprehend.
This is why so many of us avoid conjugation charts and drills. If whether the verb ends in s or o or n means nothing to a learner, the brain will not lock it up.
I watched a teacher very recently ask students to fill out a conjugation chart comparing present and past tense. It does not work. Depending on your definition of “work,” that is. The worksheet may…
- keep them quiet and “on task”
- satisfy your worksheet lovers
- create something for you to grade
- fill an empty spot in your lesson plan
- produce something for parents to see as work
…but for acquisition of long-term memory? No, it simply doesn’t work. The brain doesn’t pay enough attention to keep it, because on its own, it has no meaning.
How do you infuse meaning? Here are some ideas:
- Instead of conjugating past tense, make a chart of what everyone did yesterday.
- Instead of drilling food words, do a bracket to see what your learners’ favorites are.
- Instead of singing a song they don’t understand, riff activities off of an engaging, comprehensible bit of the song.
Essentially, the question here is:
In this activity, do we have to communicate real information in order to be successful?
2. Make ’em cry (or laugh).
Again, to form a memory, you have to pay attention. If you’ve ever sat through a captivating keynote, sermon, documentary, eulogy, etc., you could probably explain what it was the speaker did to hold your attention. It was probably funny, emotional, or both.
As you structure and present content for your learners, ask yourself what about it could be funny or emotional. Could your input be based on a captivating news story, like the fantastic rescue of Ingrid Betancourt from las FARC, or the miners in Chile, Hurricane Maria, an earthquake, and so on? Could your discussion of pets involve describing some of those super wacky kitten videos that come across my Instagram feed?
Even something like my attempts at drawing inject humor and interest into the content. Recently I was storytelling in class, drawing Jeffrey the penguin at a restaurant, and he was with an actor. The actor was in a chair, which was a funny sketch in itself (really, I cannot draw), but Jeffrey was more or less floating in the air. He became el pingüino flotante.
Even Duolingo occasionally does this, whether intentionally or just AI gone awry. My daughter can’t stop laughing over the task to translate to French, “Do you take a car to school? We go to school by plane.”
Let funny (or sad) happen, and embrace it – it’s a brain booster.
For ten years, I’ve been arguing that things like student involvement, crazy characters, repetition, and surprises are keys to good language-class storytelling (7 keys to a great story). Of course, it helps learners want to pay attention, a key element in whether they’re acquiring the language, but also, it turns out that the element of surprise reduces the number of times input has to be received in order to create long-term memory.
One of my favorite strategies for surprising learners is something I’ve often seen great storytellers like Caroline Gaab (founder of Fluency Matters) do. As you’re asking questions through a story to have learners help you build the input, occasionally take their suggestions for what to name the character, where the character is headed, etc.- but just as often, don’t. No, the penguin is not headed to Taco Bell in San Antonio, he’s headed to the first McDonald’s on Mercury. But Mercury is very hot for a penguin, you say? Well, he’s got an ice-filled, climate-controlled spaceship to to take him. Combine the effort to make your learners laugh with these surprises by proposing bizarre alternatives to the (sometimes rather boring) story elements learners suggest.
Another way to incorporate surprise is to use social media and human-interest news stories that have a surprising element. Crazy escapes, surprise box openings (search “mystery/suprirse box” in the TL on YouTube), and pranks can offer a fun surprise that will help you power TL input through to their brains.
- Care to serve your dog something raw? (I’m dying that it’s called BARF.)
4. Novelty wins.
Since the dawn of communication-based teaching, brilliant teachers and researchers have been identifying commonly used phrases and words (power verbs, anyone?) and giving us fantastic ideas for how to teach them. An example in Spanish is “I’m going to…”: voy + a + infinitive (what I call a ‘bare verb’ or ‘a verb that shows no person involved’). But there’s only so much you can do with “tell me what you’re going to do tomorrow” before the brain just shuts down from boredom, before the structure is actually encoded in memory.
This is a strong argument in favor of thematic units. Frankly, I’ve never been able to understand the resistance to thematic units. One reason I favor parking on a theme rather than spending too much time on most frequent words or random input is that themes boost memory. Of course language structures are important, but you’ll not get very far without depth of vocabulary, and thematic units bring the same vocabulary up over and over – but in a way that’s hard to force in typical random-input lessons. Because you’re ostensibly coming at a theme from different lenses (clothing related to specific stores that sell it, clothing related to specific cultures that wear it, clothing related to what your learners have on in the class today, etc.) there’s something novel about the same thing, and novelty swings the pendulum to long-term memory storage.
For similar reasons, I also advocate milking interpretive sources for all they’re worth. With an added bonus that you don’t have to be a creativity superstar every day, you can take a fun text (including audio) and do lots of different activities with it. The fact that it’s the same text keeps bringing up the same vocabulary and structures over and over; the different approaches add novelty. Also, use the text as a springboard to other modes of communication. This is one of my biggest tips to help new teachers stop reinventing the wheel. You really can get several lesson plans out of one single home for sale unit – I promise. Here are some ideas from a presentation I have called “Interpretive, and then what?” (find the story dice here):
- Sequence: put the sequence of events (or whatever) out of order, then have learners re-order them.
- Matchup: Describe a character or feature in the text and ask them to match the description to the correct word/person.
- Swap/Madlib – drop some nouns, adjectives, etc. and have groups create their own new version (the funnier the better for memory!).
- Draw questions about the text out of a jar. They can be simple yes/no or X/Y answers, or actual interpersonal prompts using the ideas in the text.
- Play a game that fits the type of text: charades for actions or characters, Pictionary-type drawing for vocabulary or entire phrases, etc.
- Use finger puppets to re-enact parts of the text.
What suggestions do you have for getting everything you can out of one text?
5. Yes, repeat. Again. Then stop.
With pieces of information you want to remember, including memorized info like phone numbers as well as motor memory like driving a car or riding a bike, repetition is key. We know this. We know that it’s rare to see, hear, or do something one time and remember it for the long term. But research has offered us some helpful nuance here.
(Side trail: Producing sounds in a new language is absolutely an issue of motor memory. Language learners have to do things with their mouths that are totally new. It matters, contrary to what you may have been told by the anti-output crowd. Ask kids to speak. For my English learners to start producing kitchen instead of chicken, it’s going to take some motor memory work.)
The helpful nuance I’m talking about is something we’ll call desirable forgetting. Almost forgetting something, and then recalling it to mind, is something recommended by every researcher I’ve read, from Genova to John Medina to Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti. This means you let learners almost forget, and then repeat. As Medina puts it in Brain Rules (one of the most accessible, impactful research books I’ve ever read),
The way to make long–term memory more reliable is to incorporate new information gradually and repeat it in timed intervals.
You might hear this called spaced practice as well. An added benefit to planning intervals between repetition of particular structures or vocabulary themes is that it involves sleep. There’s a strong argument that sleep is the way our brains encode the day’s learning into memory. No sleep, no memory.
You know, based on this robust research, apps like Duolingo really ought to prompt you to take a break from your learning instead of promoting a streak. Imagine if Duolingo told you, “Come back in 3 days for a brain-boosting review – enjoy your break!”
Here’s the thing, though; repetition can get really boring. See 1-4 above for ways to make repetitions happen without the glassy eyes.
Putting it all together
Ok, how do you do this? How do you put the theory into practice every day in the classroom, in practical ways? I can assure you that once you start looking at your lesson plans through this lens, it becomes a habit, and an easy one at that. Frankly, every teacher is looking for ways to make lesson planning easier. Especially if you don’t use a textbook, finding and making resources is the biggest time suck in lesson planning. Making a single resource last eases that burden, for sure.
Let me (finally) end this with a quick example of how to incorporate every one of these memory-boosting elements into your lessons. When I Googled “infographic most popular music” in Spanish, this infographic was the top result. It’s called “And you, what music do YOU listen to?” It contains the results of a survey asking people in several countries what their favorite pieces of music were. How can we use it to help build long-term memory?
Poll your class with the title question- and you, what music do YOU listen to? Let them choose multiple genres, like the survey did. You can choose to work with targets like “I listen to…” or “I like…” etc. Decide which country surveyed most closely matches the results from your learners. Ask what they think “world music” refers to, or what India thinks is “country music.”
Use some strong opinion phrases to elicit emotional responses. Try something like “Country is awful music” or “Jazz is better for dancing than hip-hop” and divide the class by who agrees or disagrees.
After you poll your class, but before you reveal the infographic itself, ask learners to predict what genres would be most popular in 2 or 3 countries, or what genres, say, Brazilians would particularly like. Include the US and UK. Structures could include “What do you think?” or “They like…”.
List activities like dance party, lake trip, road trip, study session, etc. and assign types of music as the best music for the activity, but remember…
As Medina says, repeat to remember! Even as you introduce novel ways to come at the information, focus on the structure and vocabulary targets. If it’s descriptors, then “X is best/worst/awesome/horrible/amazing for (activity).” If it’s “we think” or “he/she likes…” then use that with the novel approach, too.
I hope this brief example helps you see that you can develop a habit of coming at new language with this brain-based lens. I’ll end with this quote from Lisa Genova:
Your memory is limitless in what it can remember if you support it with the right input.
See, you knew it was all about the input.