How to Help Your ESL Students Remember Everything You Teach

The first step to learning how to learn is learning how to remember.

For many of our average and weaker students, remembering things is difficult. 

Whether the reasons are justified or not, this can be frustrating for them and you.

For example, when I drilled the definition of a be-verb the other day…

“What is a be-verb?” I asked the class.

A student raised her hand, “Am, is are,” she responded.

Then I put them with partners to ask each other.

“What is a be-verb?” each student asked his or her neighbor.

“Am, is are,” the other responded.

And two minutes later, when I asked Emily:

“What is a be-verb?”

She looked at me like I was Quasimodo.

How can we help our students remember better?

I would go into the brain chemistry of it—serotonin and dopamine and all of that—but I would end up using words like ‘thingamajigger’ and you would quickly realize I didn’t have any idea what I was talking about.

Luckily, we don’t have to understand brain chemistry to understand what works. Methods that help students remember are a little simpler and the most effective method for remembering anything is spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition is simply the process of learning something, waiting until you have almost forgotten it, and then recalling it from memory, over and over. 

Research shows that: 

  1. We remember something better when we have almost forgotten it and are then forced to remember it again. 
  2. The harder we have to work to remember something, the more likely we are to retain it. 
  3. Our brains prioritize things that keep reappearing, things that we are exposed to with repetition.
  4. We are much more likely to stay interested in something when it comes in short bursts of manageable content as opposed to when we are exposed to too much content at one time and become overwhelmed. 

So how can we get our English language learners using spaced repetition?

  1. Stop thinking that because one student answered a question, the rest of the class heard the answer and will remember it. Unless each student is individually recalling material, they are far less likely to remember—unless they are Rainman…or Sherlock. 
  2. Train your students to reproduce things from memory rather than just mindlessly copy. Have them look at a word or sentence, turn the book over and write the word or sentence from memory. Afterward, they can look back at the book to see if they are correct. If not, they try again until they can do it. 
  3. Talk less. Shorten what you want to say into a succinct summary and repeat that summary multiple times throughout the class, getting the students—all the students—to finish more of your sentences with each round. That would mean, for instance, cutting back substantially on long grammar explanations to instead focus on a summary that the students can repeat.
  4. Have multiple activities that require students to recall the material individually from memory. An example activity would be to have partners recall vocabulary or a grammar explanation from memory, count to 100, and see if they can recall it again. You could have them look at something for 5 seconds, do 20 jumping jacks, and then try to write it out from memory.
  5. Do a little of everything every day rather than focus on only one thing each day. That means, in a given day, it is better to practice a little vocabulary, a little grammar, and a little reading than splitting those up so that you do only vocabulary on one day, only grammar on another, and so on.

Emily has not suddenly turned into Sherlock. She still has trouble remembering things, but much less so. 

Using spaced repetition means that even my weakest students have seen big gains, not only in their English abilities, but in their confidence. It’s like taking the whole range of students in your class—the strong down to the weak—and moving them all up a few notches. 

Here is some further reading on the subject if you are interested:

What do you think of spaced repetition? Share in the comments below!

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