National Family Literacy 2003 in Long Beach!

Feb 2003

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Memory and Language Learning
Building a Context For Future Associations

Many of us have experienced the building of a shared context with our students over the course of a semester or school year. Events, funny moments, benchmarks become landmarks which make the classroom and related activities familiar ground for the teacher and his or her students.

We may also have noticed the powerful effect which extended reading projects--particularly the reading of fiction--have on the language learning curve for our students, as they begin to recognize the objects and characters in a story. This familiarity, these series of associated memories, provide a strong context which supports faster and faster comprehension with each new chapter.

I was speaking by phone the other day with one of my professors from years ago when I was working on my master's degree in TESL. In that conversation, I found myself reminded of another professor, who had shown our class the following activity for teaching vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar or all three through poetry or song.

You write the full text, line by line, up on the board. You go over the meaning of the text together with the students. You then strategically choose which few words or phrases to erase, leaving most of the text intact, and have the students repeat the song or poem, line by line, after you.

Next, you strategically erase a few other portions, and again go through the full song or poem, line by line, as if those missing words were still there, having the students repeat after you. This is all without them referring to any written notes. They must depend on their "working memories."

Finally, you reach a point where the entire text is completely erased. You challenge the students to chant or sing the piece as if it were still written right there on the board in front of them. The rhythm, stress and intonation which accompany music and poetry can be very helpful to students in this sort of memory exercise.

If you are lucky, you'll notice some of them singing or repeating, almost unconsciously, snatches of the song or poem as they leave the class or a few hours or even days later. The music of the language in their minds can have a positive, motivating influence on other language-learning activities.

Remembering this activity, which I have used on numerous occasions, my mind was carried to another related experience. In 1985, I taught junior high EFL at the Colegio Experimental Alberto Einstein, in Quito, Ecuador. One group of 8th graders at that school were very highly motivated to learn, and their enthusiasm encouraged me to challenge them as fully as possible.

We read Ray Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine," to learn about American small town culture; we read Gardner's "Grendel," to learn about the origins of English-speaking culture; they wrote 9-paragraph "Classical Essays," arguing about issues important to each of them; most of the students signed "no TV for a month" contracts with me and their parents for extra credit; and I read stories to them nearly every day from "Fairy Tales," by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame).

The most amazing thing these kids did was when each of them memorized their favorite story from the Terry Jones collection, and presented it completely from memory in front of the class. I have never seen anything quite like this before or since the time I spent with the students at Alberto Einstein. I would like to think that those feats of memory served them in some lasting way.

I am sure there are other teachers who have had similarly profound experiences through the use of silent reading, reading outloud and storytelling activities with ESL or EFL students.

Story by Robb Scott, Hays, KANSAS

2003 ESL MiniConference Online