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Using Memory in EFL Classes

Using and expanding students’ memories while studying English as a foreign language.

The most important reasons for using students’ memories in EFL classes are:

  • Students will sooner or later need to remember the language in order to be able to use it
  • Memory activities are stimulating, and in a way that retains an emphasis on language more than faster-paced “fun” activities usually do
  • Short-term memory is important for some language tasks, such as listening when you only know what you are listening for afterwards (for example TOEIC questions)

Activities that exploit and expand these memory skills are possible at both the presentation and practice stages.

Memory activities for presenting language

Students trying to recall things stands at the centre of URA (Use Recall Analyse), my own personal variation on PPP/TTT (Presentation Practice Production/Test Teach Test). After being asked to use the language in some way (for example answer some discussion questions written with a mix of conditionals), students are asked to recall something about that language (for example the tenses that were used in those conditional prompt sentences). After checking their memories against the original worksheet, they then analyse why particular language was used that way. This is designed both to work smoothly in the classroom and to train students in the process that they will need to go through to make sure that communication outside the classroom also turns into learning.

Another approach to presenting language that relies on and simulates short term memory is Dictogloss, in which students work together to reconstruct a text which the teacher has read out twice at natural speed, then analyse the language used in that text.

Running Dictations can also be used at the presentation stage. In a Running Dictation, one person goes back and forth to a text on the wall to dictate the whole thing to their sitting partner. As only the person walking is testing their short term memories, you’ll probably want to have a stage (maybe in a future class) where the roles are reversed.

Most of the activities below can also be used in the presentation stage by taking a URA approach.

Memory activities for practising language

Memory games are much more common at the practice stage. A very simple one is to get students to repeat a dialogue again and again, each time covering one more line from the bottom. For example, they read out the whole ten-line dialogue, cover the last line and try to remember the tenth line after reading out the first nine lines, cover the ninth line, etc. You can insist on them keeping as close as possible to the original dialogue if you really want them to remember exactly the words and phrases used there, but I tend to let them improvise from the point where the dialogue is covered if they prefer.

A similar game is Disappearing Text, in which a text on the board is read out in full as it is deleted word by word. This can also be reproduced in pairs by giving students a grid and scraps of paper with which to cover the words in each box on the grid.

There are also activities where students try to remember as much as they can rather than every word as it is. One is something similar to the game Chinese Whispers, but passing on whole stories that someone else has told you (without any use of notes). Something similar can also be done with students listening to a tape over and over and rehearsing the story on there to tell to someone else, for example the joke-telling activity in the book Skills + Advanced Speaking and Listening.

A different approach to the idea of using memory is to get students to remember something else in order to prompt language use, for example:

  • looking at a picture for a couple of minutes and using their memory of it to pretend to be a witness to a crime as in one of the Play Games with English books (for Past Continuous)
  • talking about the differences in the next picture that they are shown (for Present Perfect, there is/there are, etc)

Similar things can be done with videos. Students can also try to remember things in the classroom, for example positions for prepositions, what people are wearing for clothes vocab and Present Continuous, what the teacher did for Simple Past, the class this time last week for Past Continuous, or changes in the classroom for Present Perfect.

You can also get students remembering events from their lives, for example students guessing the year from what happened to their partner for Simple Past or telling anecdotes for active listening skills. This is a nice way to practise remembering and forgetting phrases like “What was his name? No it’s gone./Got it!”, something that is worth presenting for many of the activities in this article.

I’ve also used a nice memory-stretching activity during tests. After finishing the allotted time, I tell students that they will be able to try the test one more time for five or ten minutes at the beginning of the next class. Their task is therefore to try and recall what was in the test until they can have a look at their books, and then remember the right information from their books until the next lesson.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | July 2013
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.

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