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Teaching Languages for long-term memory

Updated Wednesday, 13 March 2019
At Michaela Community School, we believe that ‘memory is the residue of thought’ (Daniel Willingham). To help pupils get language into their long-term memory, we need them to be focused on the traditional activities that concentrate thoughts on the language: translation, dictation, reading, listening, and short writing and speaking tasks.

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Why is memory so important?

‘Working memory’ refers to the very limited number of thoughts we can hold in our minds at once. Working memory is easily overloaded so instead we tend to rely on our memories. For example, drivers don’t have to think in detail about the process of driving; they learnt it and now they simply do it from memory. If you had to think in detail about everything involved in driving in your working memory, you would be exhausted!

Similarly, using vocabulary or grammatical structures in French for the first time requires a lot of focused thought. Consequently, as much information as possible should be stored in long-term memory, in order to avoid overloading working memory. To limit the demands on working memory, we first introduce a new language in the context of familiar language.

For example, our pupils can say the following phrases with confidence:

  • Je vais au collège (I go to school)
  • Je vais à la boulangerie (I go to the bakery)
  • Je vais au stade (I go to the stadium)

When introducing a new place such as ‘à la piscine’ (to the swimming pool), we teach it in the familiar sentence: ‘je vais à la piscine’ (I go to the swimming pool) to reduce the load on their working memory and allow them to concentrate on the new part ‘à la piscine’. This is quite different from language lessons at many schools, where new vocabulary (e.g. places in town) is often introduced at the same time as new grammar (e.g. a new tense).

We believe this overloads working memory and prevents learning. Instead, we combine new vocabulary with different structures only once the vocabulary has been practised and has become familiar.  Grace Watkinson - banner

How do we help pupils to memorise a new language in a lesson?

Through repetition. We use the phrase, ‘I say you say’ to call on the whole class to repeat chunks of language, building up to the whole sentence e.g. Je vais. à la piscine. Je vais. à la piscine. Je vais à la piscine.
Then we check that pupils remember what the phrase means: ‘What does à la piscine mean?’ or ‘How do I say I go to the swimming pool?’ and we call on several pupils so that the class hears the phrases many times.

Sometimes people ask me if the pupils get bored repeating these phrases so many times. In fact, it’s the opposite. When I was a child, I watched our Lion King video every Saturday for a year because I loved the repetition. 
Humans in general, and children in particular love repetition and ritual. There are children who love eating exactly the same thing every day. It’s all because humans love repetition. Repeating the phrases is comforting and pleasing for pupils and it builds their confidence because they are sure that they really know what we are practising. The repetition helps get the information into their long term memories and pupils feel confident when they are able to retrieve it easily.

Over the course of a series of 3 or 4 lessons, pupils will encounter the same phrases in reading tasks and listening tasks as well. Over the next year, the phrase will be recapped at regular intervals. For example, the swimming pool phrase might return in future plans (Je vais nager à la piscine – I’m going to swim at the pool) or in the topic of sport (Je suis sportif donc je vais à la piscine – I’m sporty so I go to the pool). This recapping means that the phrase stays easily retrievable in long term memory.


We believe that attempting to learn too many new things at once is a barrier to learning. Instead, we focus on a new structure, or some new vocabulary, but not both at the same time.

We drill and repeat the same structures within a lesson, then the same language features in homework. Over the course of a few weeks, the language will continue to be seen and repeated through listening and reading exercises. In this way, we plan and teach for long-term memory.



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