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Numer: 10844

Memory strategies in learning and teaching new lexis

Understanding how we store information and why certain items immediately fall in our memory while others slip away should be the matter of concern to anyone whose work is teaching. For language teachers this knowledge should help to organise classroom activities as a result of which students will have the chance to learn in a more effective way .

The organisation of memory, i.e. why do we forget?

It is more than frequently that we learn certain words quickly and quite effortlessly while others are memorised at the expense of hard work. The answer lies in human memory and its organisation.
Psychology distinguishes between two types of memory: short and long term memory. Short term memory holds the information over a brief period of time, usually for as long as we use it or need it at a particular moment, and any distraction or interruption causes a breakdown in retention of information. Long term memory is our capacity for recall of information even years after the original input. Unlike short term memory which is limited in capacity, long term memory is infinite and can accommodate any amount of information. In other words, short term memory functions as 'working' memory while long term memory stores the acquired knowledge permanently and in any quantity. It is generally acknowledged that to commit data to long term memory we need to put certain effort into the process of repetition which is considered to be the basis for effective long term learning. This means that if we really need certain data, we may learn it through constant repetition and in this way it may be transferred into long term memory. For instance, important telephone numbers repeated many times a day, a week, etc. finally are absorbed into long term memory. However, when we cease the regular use of the number, we are certain to forget it with time.
This leads us to the theories of forgetting, the first of which, called the decay theory says that "information stored in the memory falls into disuse unless it is activated fairly regularly. In other words, we need to practise and revise what we learn otherwise the new input will gradually fade in the memory and ultimately disappear." (Gairns R. and Redman S., Working with Words, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.89) By contrast, the theory of cue-dependent forgetting suggests that the lapses in memory are not because of storage but our disability to recall the information. Due to this theory, rarely used or disused information does not disappear but persists in the memory and we simply have problems with its retrieval. In practice it means that in order to recall the possessed information we need appropriate retrieval cues that will help us regain the permanently stored data that was not lost but only 'mislaid'. The theory says that all vocabulary items that can be grouped should be acquired in lexical sets and therefore remembered better. For example, the list comprising items of 'furniture' like 'sofa', 'table', 'chair', 'drawer', etc. will be recalled much easier if learnt in lexical set. The two theories do not exclude each other and may well appear in the English classroom, as there is no conflict between repetition and lexical grouping of words. On the contrary, constant and regular revision coupled with retrieval cues is certain to result in successful establishment of words in long term memory. This clearly implicates the necessity of revision and recycling which must appear if we aim at long term retention.

Storage systems
As language teachers, our main concern is to ensure that what is taught will be permanently memorised by the learners. Therefore, we should make extensive use of memory strategies that are specifically applied to vocabulary teaching, as they have the advantage of consolidating word form and meaning in memory.
Meaningful task is the first step facilitating the memorizing of words. Meaningful activities comprise language material grouped thematically and are of particular help to students for the following reasons:
• they make students analyse and process the language more deeply (which helps students move lexis to long term memory);
• they engage learners personally and may aid in becoming more self-reliant (such activities tend to be realistic or authentic which calls for 'personal investment' of a student);
• they involve some kind of semantic processing e.g. students group words by pleasantness or unpleasantness, function, activity, etc.;
• they provide stimuli for using the target vocabulary in a context, such as a meaningful sentence, conversation or story.
The next memory techniques deal with using visual images for illustrating meaning. All kinds of visuals constitute an extremely useful framework for storage of vocabulary items. Especially, pictures and objects can be very reliable in creating mental images of words. However, we must remember that much as it is easy to conjure up a mental image of a concrete item like 'dog', 'book' or 'car', it is very difficult to supply a visual image for abstract items such as 'life' or 'truth'. For this reason pictures and objects should be used for concrete items whereas for abstract notions it is better to use other visual techniques, such as diagrams and word trees, grids and tables or labels and headings.
Diagrams and word trees are very popular visual techniques also known as mind mapping. Visuals of this kind can be used for both abstract and concrete lexical items in order to highlight the relationships between the items. Students not only can learn from word field diagrams or copy them down, but they also can organise their own diagrams of this type.
As to grids and tables, they are particularly helpful when students categorise items or select information. The advantage of grids is their lucidity, that is, the clear way of presenting already selected items.
Another effective form of storage is vocabulary selection according to the headings, such as topic areas or situations. This can be done under the supervision of a teacher or by the students themselves, though the second alternative is preferred. The students should keep their notes in ring binders or notebooks and should decide where to open a new category sheet or add new words.
Labelling objects is also a useful memory technique and an amusing form of written storage. To use this method students should invest in sticks and adhesive labels, either ready-made or prepared by the learners, which can be placed on any object at a student's house as well as in the classroom. As a result, students are constantly exposed to English names or objects which are used or observed.
Finally, we must remember about practising of what the students have already learnt. Recycling of the previously presented lexis is directly connected with the theories of forgetting which state that the information retained in memory fades without regular practice. Thus, learners must have the opportunities to activate their knowledge of vocabulary in appropriately spaced intervals and at the same time teachers must pay attention to the amount of lexis being practised to avoid situations in which students are overloaded with too many new words at one time. The teacher's responsibility is to accurately measure the extent of recycling or the pacing of new input and to ensure that the amount of new information is suitable. The recycling of lexical input is necessary because it is assumed that eighty percent of what we forget is lost within twenty-four hours from the initial learning. The sources suggest that to remember the new material permanently it should be reviewed for five to ten minutes after a study period, then recalled briefly twenty-four hours later, the further review should take place one week later, and the final reviews one month later and then six months later. This calls for systematic lexis recycling in the syllabus and discipline in retention and recall of the material.


1. Gairns R. and Redman S., Working with Words, Cambridge University Press, 1986
2. Taylor L., Teaching and Learning Vocabulary, Cambridge University Press, 1990

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