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Memory, why is it important when learning grammar?

By 14th June 2016Blog


How does memory work?

Memory or learning occurs in the brain. Brains are made up of 100 billion neurones. These neurones are “wired up” to each other and communicate through thousands of electrical impulses via synapses. Memories and learning happen when certain connections are strengthened, and weaken if these connections are not used.


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How does learning work?

When learning something new, the information is converted into a pulse of energy which is first stored in the short-term memory, where it can be available for a few seconds to a few minutes. Then the information, if used again, is transferred to long-term memory areas such as the hippocampus (centre of memory, emotion and the automatic nervous system) before finally reaching one of several storage areas across the brain.


Learning is embedded when paying attention, when deeply engaged and when the information is meaningful.


How do we learn grammar?


There are several different mechanisms at work when we learn grammar. Malone, M (2014)  states the theory that the short-term memory is made of four “slave-systems”:

  • Phonological – sound and language
  • Continuous rehearsal
  • Visuospatial sketchpad – stores visual information and mental maps
  • Episodic buffer – gathers diverse information from elsewhere and integrates them together.

If we look at grammar learning through the lens of the “slave-systems”: we heard the grammatical concept, we rehearse the grammatical concept in speech, reading and writing, the grammatical patterns are stored in our visuospatial sketchpad, before the episodic buffer gathers all the information that we have about that grammatical concept from all of these sources and from our own experience before storing in our long-term memory.


Malone goes on to explain that there is still confusion and uncertainty about how emotional memory works, but that sharpening “emotional recall” could be the secret to better learning and better memory.


How can we use our knowledge of how we learn grammar to improve our teaching of grammar?


There are several strategies that can be used to aid memory and learning retention of grammar and other information:

  • Appeal to all the senses – the more ways a concept is introduced to the brain, the more neural connections there will be. Teach nouns through song, video, read text aloud, act out the different type of nouns, draw different types of nouns.
  • Meaningful Connections – Link the new content to prior knowledge. For example, when teaching tenses, link the information to a story that the pupils have already learned, or song lyrics that they already know.
  • Repetition is key – Once learning has been constructed it needs to be activated multiples times to strengthen the signals between the neurones. The more time pupils repeat the concept, the stronger the connections grow.
  • Smaller chunks – Current research suggests that two to four chunks of information is the maximum amount for that the working memory can process. Don’t teach all of the tenses at once, but split them down into one tense at a time, check that is memorised before moving to the next one.
  • Provide a stress-free environment – stress affects the ability of the memory to form strong learning connections. Stress activates the fight-or-flight mode which allows us to survive in a crisis. When pupils are constantly overloaded with school work and or personal issues, they are locked into this fight-or-flight mode. Chronic stress can lead to loss of brain cells and the inability to form new ones affecting the ability to retain new information. Allow for breaks where pupils can chat, to rest themselves, or make the learning fun so that pupils can laugh and release some of their stress levels.


Why is memory important when learning grammar?


Grammar is all about recognising patterns and understanding the function of words within a sentence. Without memory of how words are supposed to look or the patterns of suffixes then the learning of grammar and progress within grammar will not occur. Grammar is the rules of our language and how we apply those rules in different circumstances. Without knowledge, memory or understanding of those rules then it is the rules of speech that pupils use in their writing because that is the form of the language that they have internalised. They use what comes naturally, but through understanding how memory works and planning teaching around that mechanism then perhaps we can make it that little bit easier for pupils to use grammar effectively and with purpose in their writing and speech.

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