Have you realised how much I enjoy Languages education research? I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to begin my Masters of Education; Languages fulltime as it gave me time to broaden my understandings of language learning and teaching. I am also incredibly thankful that I studied simultaneously with a wonderful TCI/TPRS colleague, Bu Heather, as it allowed us to discuss various aspects of Languages research from a TCI/TPRS perspective.
Yesterday I attended the 2022 MLTA NSW conference with one of my brilliant colleagues, Bu Asti. We were delighted to hear Steve Smith speak. I first heard him talking on Liam Printer’s The Motivated Classroom podcast. I highly recommend listening to Liam’s podcasts– they contain a great balance of research and practical ideas for language teachers working with middle primary aged students and above. Can you imagine how ecstatic I was when Steve Smith began his webinar by introducing us to memory research and how it applies to Languages!
Staying on top of research requires not only considerable time but also a certain headset. In this post, I will focus generally on outlining how memory works through teasing out iconic research, some of which dates back to 1885! I hope while reading this, you can reflect on your own teaching practise to determine the extent your practice aligns with accepted understandings of memory.
This post attempts to explore aspects of the research Steve discussed in his webinar. I have found memory research so useful and I wished I had known more about it earlier in my teaching career. I have expanded on several of the points Steve made using either the book ‘Cognitive Psychology and Instruction’ (Bruning, Schraw & Norby. 2011) or relevant SLA (Second Language Acquisition) research. I hope this post is readable and most of all, helps you understand why informed practice leads to sucessful learning!
Steve Smith has taught French in the UK for 30+ years. He has co-authored several books with Gianfranco Conti, one of which is “Memory; What Every Language Teacher Should Know’ ($45.54 on Amazon). What a great title! Here he is with his wife talking briefly about this book.
Steven began the webinar by explaining Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve which illustrates how quickly newly introduced information fades over time. Isn’t it astouding!
Ebbinghaus also hypothesised on the link between stress and remembering; something I think we would all agree with. Removing stress from learning is imperative. For many students, speaking/writing (output) can be stressful. For me, as a new learner, speaking in the target language produces an instant memory blank! Stephen Krashen‘s theory of second language acquisition is based on five hypotheses; one of which is the Affective Filter Hypothesis. This hypothesis states that several factors including low motivation, low self-esteem, anxiety, introversion, and inhibition impact on acquisition. Thus, the ideal state for language learning is when the affective filter is so low that learners are completely unaware that they are immersed in the target language.
For language teachers, being aware of Ebbinghaus’ research is critical. To avoid new vocabulary fading, fast, quirky repetitions will significantly help to delay the ‘decay’. In a TCI/TPRS lesson, this can be achieved through numerous comprehensible questions and answers in the target language to incorporate the target structure in ways that appeal to and/or are meaningful to the learners. With my young learners, I love doing this with quirky images of cognates that faciliatate discussion incorporating the target structure.
Steven then outlined the two types of knowledge; explicit (declarative) and implicit (procedural) and how each leads to either language learning or language acquisition. Explicit knowledge is that which is learned explicitly e.g. the rule i before e except after e. Implicit knowledge is that which we learned unconsciously e.g. the specific order of adjectives for English. Steven then asked us if declarative knowledge can become procedural knowledge, i.e. will explicitly teaching grammar rules help students communicate in the target language? To answer this question, I encourage you to try this: speak in your first language without using the letter ‘a’. Try it for a few seconds and then reflect on the hard work your brain did to achieve that!! Stephen Krashen’s Monitor Hypothesis explains that learning rules explicitly creates an ‘editor’ which monitors output through planning, editing, and correcting. It made your output considerably more onerous, doesn’t it? Could you feel your brain planning, editing and correcting while speaking? Thus, implicit learning ie, listening to comprehensible target language will lead to acquisition whereas teaching language rules is only necessary for language learning. Through understanding the difference between explicit and implicit teaching, we can determine if our main teaching goal as a language teacher is building proficiency or building knowledge! Both have value, but the balance is heavily weighted towards implicit teaching if proficiency is the goal.
The scientific study of memory began with Ebbinghaus (1850-1909). While no one yet knows precisely how the brain stores memory, most memory researchers agree on several points:
- Working Memory and Long Term Memory are separate systems.
- Attention is extremely limited. The mental energy necessary for thinking and understanding is huge and overloading working memory will impact learning.
- Cognition includes both automaticity and controlled processing (implicit/explicit).
- Processing information is influenced by many factors including prior knowledge, context, emotional state etc.
Memory models vary in many ways. Consider the following model:
The modal memory model (see image above) is easily the most commonly understood model of memory. There are significant variations between models yet all agree that the dotpoints outlined earlier are vital for planning and teaching. I believe they should underpin all our teaching and if we do not understand or implement the research findings, we are likely failing our students.
Blunt but true!
Here is a summary of the research regarding the three major systems of memory (ie Sensory Memory, Working Memory and Long Term Memory). While reading the following, consider the implications for language learning:
The main systems of memory are Sensory Memory, Working Memory, and Long Term Memory. Information is first stored in Sensory Memory then moved to Working Memory where with attention, it can be cogitated upon &/or manipulated to make sense. (Remember when you spoke without using an ‘a’? That all happened in Working Memory!) Long Term Memory is where information is stored for long periods and can be retrieved consciously (explicit memory) or unconsciously (implicit memory).
1. Sensory Memory and Working Memory both have an extremely limited capacity and time limit for holding information. Miller (1956) suggests that adults can hold approximately 7 plus or minus two pieces of information in working memory. Interference, decay and new information impacts the time input remains in these two memory systems. Atkinson and Shiffrin (1971) claim that new information stays in Sensory Memory and/or Working Memory for just 15 – 30 seconds. New information can only be kept in Working Memory longer through rehearsal e.g., repeating them verbally.
2. There is are two subsystems within Working Memory that each either manage verbal or visual input, distributing the processing load equally and operating simultaneously without impacting on the other. If anything, they appear to increase the likelihood in moving information from Working Memory to Long Term Memory. Consider the value of using images and/or props when introducing target structures!
3. Teaching that fails to recognise the characteristics of Cognitive Load Theory (overloading Working Memory) results in cognitive overload. Cognitive overload is when the brain hits the wall because the brain was given too much new information with insufficient rehearsal/repetition opportunities. The implications of cognitive overload impact not only on decreased student outcomes but will also negatively impact on student motivation and engagement levels.
After outlining relevant memory research, Steven then offered many suggestions for activities that will help learners build memory. Here are a few of his ideas for building phonetic memory:
- Track the Sound – read a text to students who listen and count each time they hear a particular phonetic blend.
- Minimal Pairs – words with similar sounds (e.g. ada/apa) are used in comprehensible sentences for students to identify which one was said.
- Correct Transcription – provide learners with a close (text with words missing) and for each missing word, provide several answers for students to choose from. Gaps are filled in while listening to teacher read.
- Mind Reading – Brainstorm (retrieve) target structures and teacher writes them on the board. Teacher writes one a mini whiteboard and students choose the one they guess the teacher chose.
- Sentence Chaos – teacher writes a number of sentences on the board. Students in groups of three appoint a referee. The job of the referee is to read the sentences from the board in a different order. The other two take it in turns to say the sentences in the new order.
Steven recommends teaching ‘chunks’ rather than single words and states that phrases are more useful for communication and also strengthen the likelihood of retrieval. To support retrieval, he recommends using sentence builders as a ‘Do Now’ activity. I have used ‘Do now’ tasks with older classes as they keep students occupied if I am greeting students at the door or setting up for their lesson. ‘Do Nows’ are a type of warmup that helps student brains move into the flow of Indonesian. Here is a French example that Steve shared (apologies to the fellow sitting in front!). For this task, Steve instructs students to work with a partner to create sentences using the ‘chunks’ in the grid. They can add or change one or two new details or change the tense.
If you are interested in further ideas for retrieval practice, check out here episode 6 from Liam Printer’s podcast titled ‘Retrieval Practice: 11 zero-prep strategies for an engaged classroom’.
Once again, a huge thankyou to the wonderful MLTA NSW committee for delivering a fabulous conference with quality local presenters (shout out to Katherine Brownlee) and international presenters.
If you too enjoy research and would like to chat about something you’ve either discovered or read about in this post, don’t hesitate to get in touch!