Ways to Help Your Students Forget

By Alex Case
Although memory is something that is not really given the position of importance that it should be in EFL (how often have you seen a standard lesson plan format that has a “Ways of making the language memorable” or “Types of memory used” box at the top?), helping your students forget is something that is […]

Although memory is something that is not really given the position of importance that it should be in EFL (how often have you seen a standard lesson plan format that has a “Ways of making the language memorable” or “Types of memory used” box at the top?), helping your students forget is something that is even more neglected. By this, I mean making sure the important things stand out in their heads by reducing the prominence in their memories of the less important things that would otherwise clutter up their brains like junk mail in your email inbox. This is one of the things your brain does naturally, for example during REM sleep, but it could no doubt do with some help when learning a foreign language where the importance or not of new language is often not clear until long after you have learnt it. Although scientists’ understanding of the process of prioritizing memories is incomplete (and mine own knowledge as a humble TEFL teacher is obviously much more sketchy than the experts’!), I think a common sense approach to helping your students forget stuff they don’t (yet) need inspired by recent neurological knowledge can help us in the classroom. Here are my first 15 ideas of how we can use this to aid our students in their learning:

1. Rank
For example, after you have brainstormed vocabulary onto a mind map on the whiteboard, write numbers 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 in order next to the most important words to learn at this stage and leave the others with no numbers at all.

2. Delete
A much more impactful and symbolic way of reducing the importance and so hopefully memorability of the less vital vocabulary is to actually wipe them off the board, leaving the important stuff up for as long as possible afterwards to show the difference in how much they need them. If students copy something useless like “Raining cats and dogs” down, you could even get them to erase it from their books. The same method works for grammatical structures etc that they do and don’t need to remember.

3. Don’t transfer
A way of making sure you can leave the important information up for as long as possible and so give it prominence is to transfer to it a box at the side of board that is labelled something like “Important language of the day”. Any language doesn’t get transferred there and gets rapidly erased from the board, and hopefully from their brains. This can also work for students, for example by getting them to transfer the important stuff from the board to their vocabulary lists or grammar reference section at the back of their notebooks, rather than or as well as copying everything down.

4. Cross out
Another symbolic and so hopefully impactful way of getting stuff they don’t need out of their heads is to put a line through it- but make sure it is easily distinguishable from how you mark actual errors, e.g. a cross after grammatical mistakes but striking through language they don’t need.

5. Screw up/rip up
An even more memorable way of making sure they don’t remember is getting them to screw up, rip up and/ or throw away the language they aren’t going to bother with. For example, after a game of “Call My Bluff”, students can decide which of the language is useful and put it in the “word bag” to be recycled in future lessons and then just chuck the rest of the slips of paper used in the game into the bin. You can also use the mime of this action while saying “We don’t need to learn that then”, even if there aren’t slips of paper.

6. Brackets
If you have several pieces of language up on the board, for example several grammatical forms that fit into the gap in the students’ book or several things you have elicited that mean more or less the same, you can show which ones are not often used or don’t fit in with the syllabus of this level by putting brackets around them, maybe putting a box around the most useful or manageable language to make the distinction really clear.

7. Percentages
A more nuanced way of dividing forms that are less used and/ or less useful from the forms you want to prioritize is to label them with how often they are used by native speakers, either generally or in a specific context. In a perfect world you can find this information out beforehand from a corpus or corpus-based dictionary, but approximate percentages based on your intuition are just as likely to be effective in making the important language stand out, e.g. “More important than the difference in meaning between ‘I like to go’ and ‘I like going’ in British English is the fact that ‘I like going’ is used more than 90% of the time” (writing “90%” next to that structure on the board).

8. Use
Information you can give students about the use of a piece of language they have asked you to explain to make sure that it doesn’t get in the way of learning the language you had planned for the day includes “This is only used by some native speakers”, “Although native speakers use this, most of the other non-native speaking nationalities you deal with won’t understand it if you use it” or “This is old fashioned/ formal/ poetic/ idiosyncratic/ technical etc.”

9. Difficulty
This is another thing you can tell them to put them off spending a serious amount of time studying something they don’t need yet, with comments like “You won’t be studying this until you reach Upper Intermediate, which will be the year after next” or “Most people find that phrase difficult to remember, so I’d stick to this one for now”

10. Speed
Rush through explanations of language you don’t think they need (assuming you can’t get away with completely missing it out), and then slow down for explanations of the next more important point(s).

11. Noise/size
In a similar way to spending more time on the points that need it, you can speak with a louder voice and write in bigger letters with the important stuff and so make the points you explain with smaller writing and/ or quieter voice less prominent.

12. Space
Another way of showing a focus on priorities with size is by how much space on the board each bit of language gets, e.g. 3 lines of explanation of the meaning, structure etc for the important stuff and just the word with no written explanation for student questions about things that aren’t important to learn.

13. Switch
If there have been a few minutes of irrelevancy, for example questions about words that aren’t important to understand the text, try to clear their minds completely of the memory of that part of the lesson by following it with main point of the day, clearly marked with language like “Right, pay attention, because this is the bit that is going to be used in test/ the language that you will be using in the speaking task later”

14. Revise
One of many good reasons for constant revision is that when you go through a point again you can leave out all the irrelevancies such as questions about rare exceptions to the rule that came up when you first presented it. Alternatively, you could use revision of an important point from a previous lesson as the “switch” (explained above), e.g. “The much more important use of the present continuous is the one we studied last week. Can anyone remember it?”

15. Mini-review
The benefits of revision for prioritizing which points to learn can also be used during the lesson in which the irrelevancies come up, either straight after finishing the explanation to wrap it up, or at the end of the lesson.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet July 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Teflnet


  • Fran Nustedt says:

    I really needed to read this. I have just started a serious learning curve as a new TEFL teacher (am now on my third one-to-one week wirth french students). I have found lots of worksheets on the internet full of the ‘noise’ of unimportant rarely used phrases and words and was a bit frustrated. I felt for my poor students so didn’t use them. This article has reinforced what I had believed and it’s great to see it written by an experienced treacher. Thanks for that!

  • rupert t says:

    nice one alex

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