Capturing language

Spoken language is ephemeral; it has an unhelpful tendency to go in one ear and out the other. Any means that can be found to pin it down for closer examination makes it easier to understand, to commit to memory and, later, to recall and use.

Writing, of course, is a recognised way of capturing language for later reading, but both reading and writing are known to be difficult for some learners, and usually involve largish chunks of language, so extended reading and writing activities tend to be set rather late on in a sequence of activities. This page looks at ways of 'capturing and holding' items and patterns of language from an early stage in the learning process, so that learners who have limited capacity for understanding, memorising, recalling and using new language have a better chance of success.

The comments that follow include references to the stages of the teaching/learning cycle discussed elsewhere. If you have not already done so, look at the page on structuring learning before continuing.


There are three kinds of memory that we need to take account of here: immediate, or sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory.

Sensory memory deals with input from our environment. It allows us, for example, to register what someone has said and perhaps repeat it after them. It lasts only a few seconds.

Short-term memory allows us to attend to, and to work with, a limited amount of information. Short-term, or 'working' memory is rather like the RAM memory in a computer: you can input a certain amount of data, but if you don't take action to save it, it will be lost when you switch off the power, and so you won't be able to recall it when you next switch on. Learners vary in the amount of data they can handle at any one time, so keep instructions short and present new information in manageable chunks.

Long-term memory is like the ROM of your hard disc drive. Once the data is securely saved, it will be there for some time and, if you have labelled and filed it efficiently, you will be able to retrieve it whenever you want to: to read it or print it off; to correct and add to it as required; in other words, to use it.

Here the analogy breaks down, however, because there is no easy 'save' button to press. In order to transfer new data (or new learning) to long-term memory we have to actively work with it, to engage the brain. This is where stage three of the teaching/learning cycle comes into its own. This is the consolidation phase, where learners engage in single outcome activities designed to maximise opportunities for reviewing the new language, manipulating it, combining it with language learned earlier, experimenting and generally 'playing' with language in ways that engage the brain and effect that all important transfer of information to long-term memory.

It is worth emphasising that for some learners, the 'listen and repeat after me' activities that are often used by teachers to introduce new language may not engage the learner's brain, in that repetition can be purely imitative and not necessarily involve understanding, or even conscious thought. Listen-and-repeat involves responding to sensory input; such activities properly belong in Stage Two (introducing new language) and must not be mistaken for Stage three activities (consolidation).

In some learners, one or more aspects of memory function is impaired, perhaps only slightly. The following suggestions include strategies that can help to compensate for deficiencies in that area, but will also benefit learners who have no apparent impairment.

DOWNLOAD Memorising new language


[1.8.11] Read more
about how memory works:
(scroll down to find the section on memory)

[31.8.11] 5 tips for helping students to really learn vocabulary
Advice from Oxford University press Global Blog

[11.1.12] Teaching learning skills - vocabulary learning
Video and downloads from the interview with Susan Bremner at the modern languages Good Practice Conference 2011.

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Structuring learning

Active and multisensory approaches



Modern Languages for all – or for the few?
This article appeared in Issue 5 of the Scottish Languages Review, published online by the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and research. It is currently unavailable from the SCILT website. Meantime you can download it here:
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SCAFFOLDING LEARNING: Creating paradigms of possibilities

Words are the basic building blocks of language, but they are not much use for communication if they cannot be joined together to make meaning.

The next step is to learn 'chunks' of language that can be used in set circumstances. Learners can be coached to learn these phrases and to 'parrot' them as required. Some learners find it difficult to move beyond this stage because they memorise them almost like long words, without understanding the rules that govern the way words within a chunk relate to one another, or even, in some cases, what they really mean.

Building sentences that are meaningful to the creator and his/her audience requires an appreciation that words need to change to suit different situations. But straightforward grammar can be very difficult for some learners.

One way to make grammar easier is to provide learners with templates that display patterns of language, so that learners are provided with a tool they can use in their efforts to say (and eventually write) something meaningful within a given context. (Stage Two of the Cycle referred to above.)

These tools can be posters, help sheets, learning mats, aides mémoire, etc. or any other form that allows the learner to use it for as long as it takes for the patterns become familiar enough to be used in speech and writing.

Download, below, an example of a set of paradigms a learner can use to begin to describe themselves and others. The contents of the page should be built up gradually as new facets of the topic are introduced. Thereafter it must available in the same form while the learner undertakes a variety of single outcome tasks that require reference to the page and begins to internalise the patterns. (Stage Three of the Cycle referred to above.)

Once the patterns become familiar, 'real language' activities can be introduced that encourage the learner to ask and answer questions or make presentations that contain true facts. This may require learners to personalise their store of words and phrases, (in the example below, by adding words that are needed to describe specific people), but they will be using these words in a now-familiar pattern. They will also, in the course of reading, be able to look out for new ways to describe people. Learners can be encouraged to add their personal additions to their notes and to make use of them in the future. (Stage Four in the Cycle.)



A example of how the construction of 'paradigms of possibilities' can be used to support learners without resorting to translation: thinking it out in English and then wondering how you say that in French.

How to describe yourself and others

Practising tenses in the context of 'holidays'
Planning a holiday (future)
Sending a postcard (present)
Telling about the holiday (past)

And an example of a task sheet for revisiting all the tenses collaboratively.
Collaborative revision of tenses

Examples of some helpsheets designed for practising word-order in yes/no and information-seeking questions about events in the immediate future. Could be used collaboratively or as consolidation work for homework.

[4.10.12] Embedded Reading
Some thoughts on how to scaffold reading tasks. 'Although Embedded Reading first emerged as a way to reach reluctant readers, it has proven to be used to integrate literacy into any program'.

[24.1.11] The noun project
The Noun Project collects and organises
examples of the highly recognisable symbols that form the world's visual language. The symbols on this site are free to copy and use.

[13.4.12] Are Pictures good for learning new vocabulary in a foreign language?
Only if you think they are not, it seems!

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