Memorising vocabulary is the first stage in learning it. Students will probably manage to keep words in their short-term memory for the duration of the lesson, but they need to be able to transfer them to their long-term memory. Forming associations is key, and providing an ‘emotional’ context for vocabulary, as well as a semantic one, helps form ‘whole’ memories. As a teacher, you need to come up with activities that will help that to happen, and these ideas will help you.
One of the best ways to memorise something is to teach it. You can have students play a peer-teaching game, where groups teach each other explanations and actions. The only rule is that they can’t say the actual word. Form two groups and give each group its own list of items such as mug, rug, blinds, stool, armchair. Students look up their words and decide how they will present them. Next, you form pairs with students from each group and they teach each other their words. They must remember the word and the mime. Finally, the students all return to their original groups and they take turns to explain and mime, to check groupmates recall the words.
2 Use colour
The vast majority of visual attention is drawn by colour, so activities exploiting colour help memory. For example, when students record information about the different word forms they could use different colours for verbs, adverbs, adjectives, nouns, etc. Alternatively, you can ask students to organise a mixed or random set of vocabulary into categories of their choice; for example, Things that fit in my bag, Things I’ll never buy and Places, or Objects, People and Feelings. They write the words in each category in a different colour. They can then use the different colours to indicate that words belong in those categories when making word cards to use for self-study. The thinking and processing that goes into this kind of task helps memorisation.
3 Use mind maps
If you find it quite easy to walk around your room in the dark, it’s because our brains create maps in our memories to help us remember. So, too, creating maps and mind maps is a good way to memorise vocabulary. Give students a list of items related to a topic (e.g. house, freedom, animals), or ask them to review their notes and find the vocabulary. They’ll also need a clean page or sheet of paper. Ask them to write the topic word in the middle of the page, and to organise the vocabulary into a mind map by grouping the items as they wish. When they finish, they can stick them in their notebooks for reference, or use them as classroom posters.
Mnemonics are techniques for memorising long lists of items. For example, when you first meet someone, you might think of something their name reminds you of in order to memorise it, like imagining a girl called Rosa holding a rose, or a boy called Axel cleaning an axle. Mnemonics are particularly good for learning items like phrasal verbs, which students find notoriously tricky. If you imagine standing looking upwards at, for example, your grandmother, it will help you memorise look up to or someone climbing over a broken heart emoji will help with get over something. When you teach new items, ask students to think of a mnemonic and explain it to a partner.
5 Start with a memory test for awareness
At the start of the course, slowly read out a list of 15 random items; e.g. nostalgic, house, rainy, chocolate, pudding, hen, etc. Tell students they mustn’t write them down, but have to remember them until the end of the lesson. Read the list a second time, then carry on with the lesson. Ten minutes from the end, ask students to write down the words that they remember. Discuss how many words they managed; seven or eight is the normal number of items a brain will store, though an overt memory test like this might give higher scores. Next, form groups, mixing those who remembered a greater number with those who remembered fewer. They tell each other how they memorised them. This will not only raise awareness but will also let them share successful techniques.
Asking students to form opinions of words helps memorise them. For example, ask students to look at a list of words and choose the five they think will be most useful to them, or the five they like best. They can then write a sentence using each one. You can also ask students to decide which is the least likely to be memorable, and to compare and discuss the words they have chosen and why. They are likely to then memorise the words chosen, having made the personal association with uselessness. You can also ask students which words they like the sound of, which ones sound funny to them, or which ones their parents might find useful. Helping them find a personal connection with vocabulary will help them memorise it.
7 Repeat, repeat, repeat
Researchers say we need to encounter a lexical item at least 15 times to memorise it. We’d never present an item 15 times, but we can, however, achieve this repetition by getting students to read a word, then say, hear and write it. Dictoglosses are good for this. A dictogloss is a kind of dictation. You read out a text once containing target vocabulary and students have to write down what they heard. They then work in pairs to try to reconstruct the text. You should always speak at natural speed (slightly slower for lower levels) and, if students ask to hear it again, never read out the text more than three times. The effort of trying to catch words, transcribe sounds, comprehend meaning and work out the context and grammar surrounding it really helps memory. Short pieces of students’ homework or a section of a text they read in the previous lesson work well.
8 Think beautiful
One thing that triggers memory formation is beauty. Try using postcards of artworks for students to label with nouns, verbs and adjectives related to what they see. They can also add adjectives of emotion or mood for their personal response to the image. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, asking students to create their own vocabulary pages by writing the words in the form of attractive graffiti will also help memorisation. This strategy is particularly effective with teenagers, as it helps develop their creativity – and creativity also aids memorisation.
9 Use wordclouds
Wordclouds (also called text clouds or tag clouds) can be created using sites such as Wordle, Tagxedo and WordItOut. They allow you to present groups of words in interesting formats and in different colours. For this reason, they are very useful for memory. So, after presenting a set of new vocabulary, show a brightly coloured wordcloud of the vocabulary to your class. Let them see if for 30 seconds (a minute for lower levels) and tell them to memorise as many words as possible. Take the wordcloud away and put students into groups of three or four. One person in each group can write down the words the group remembers.
10 Positive emotions and the senses
Memory works best when we feel positive about something (the lesson, the teacher or the vocabulary, for example) and when our senses are activated. If you bring sound, smell, taste, touch and feel into your vocabulary lessons (for sight, see above), you help memorisation (see Unit 40). When you teach, say, holiday vocabulary, such as beach, hotel, bikini and sightseeing, add in words with a sensory connection, such as hot, sandy, fish and chips. Ask students to decide if those are the words they associate with holidays, too. Then give them a table to complete with two or three words in each column. If you wish, as mime relates vocabulary to ‘feel’ and physicality, end your lesson by asking students to mime holiday words for classmates to guess.
This article is based on one of 50 units which appear in the forthcoming publication ETpedia Vocabulary. It’s another valuable resource in the ETpedia series containing 500 tips, ideas and activities on teaching vocabulary. Fiona Mauchline is co-author of ETpedia Vocabulary along with Stacey H. Hughes and Julie Moore.
Fiona Mauchline is an ELT materials writer, teacher, and freelance trainer and conference speaker. She is currently based in the UK but has spent most of her working life in Spain and other parts of Europe. Her ELT materials include courses for secondary, and resource books for teachers including How to write secondary materials (ELTTeacher2Writer). Apart from secondary, her main areas of interest are motivation, cognitive development and neuroscience as applicable to ELT. She is the co-founder of EVE: Equal Voices in ELT, and is a committee member of the IATEFL TDSIG & MaWSIG. As well as ETpedia Vocabulary, 2019 sees the arrival of her summer course for secondary, Dive In! (Delta Publishing).