Pros and cons of using memorization during your ESL lessons

Text memorization: to be or not to be?

Text memorization: to be or not to be?

09.09.2022

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  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

Do you ever ask your students to memorize words or a dialogue, or even a whole text? How much do you think they love this way of learning English?

Text memorization is a widespread ELT method. 

Let's talk about what's good about it and what's not. Anyway, it's up to you whether to use it with your learners or not.

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A bit of history of memorization

The practice of memorizing texts exists in many educational traditions. 

It was previously believed that memorizing a sacred text leads to its better understanding and interpretation, especially in times when there was no printing.

A person who knew a religious text by heart could study it, comment on it, and spread it further.

There have always been supporters and opponents of text memorization as a technique.

Now it is most often associated with the audio-lingual method, which is sometimes called the Mim-mem Method, because it involves mimicry and memorization. 

With the help of repetitive drilling, students first memorize certain sentences, and then they memorize dialogues containing those sentences. Opponents of the method, however, call such memorization ‘mindless parroting’.

Even before the advent of the audio-lingual method, in the 19th century, there were a number of approaches to language learning that used learning sentences and whole texts by heart

For example, Thomas Prendergast invented an original method that involved the translation of grammatically complex sentences with their subsequent memorization, use and acquisition of their grammatical elements.

He said that ‘the power of speaking other tongues is idiomatically attained principally by the efforts of memory, not by logical reasons’.

Joseph Jacoto made his pupils memorize whole novels citing the fact that these texts would become a linguistic resource to which they could later turn. It’s similar to searching for the necessary words in the English corpus online today.

Memorization nowadays

The idea of text memorization as a method of learning a language or the source of this language is supported by some teachers not only in Ukraine but also in other countries around the world, such as China.

However, many teachers think that learning texts by heart is a tiring, thoughtless and boring activity. 

They may be wrong, so let's look at this method from a different perspective.

Learning the text by heart can be described roughly the following way

The student looks at the text on paper (or on a computer screen), then sideways (often repeating aloud or silently a piece of information to remember), then again at a sheet of paper or screen, and so on, with little or no variation, trying to gradually make the text "stick" in memory.

If you've ever held a wimmelbuch with bright, detailed, visual-rich illustrations, you know that there are often tasks that require you to look at a page for one minute before turning it over and trying to remember as much as possible about it.

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If a person does not know any specific memorization techniques, he or she is more likely to look at a page with furrowed eyebrows, hoping that the words or images will stick in his or her mind.

Such an approach – look at the text, then sideways, then again at the text – is reduced to a repetitive cycle: storing a certain amount of information in short-term memory, checking for memorization, confirming the accuracy, and saving the next portion of information. This is repeated until the information transfers to relatively long-term memory.

Such an attempt to mechanically "insert" the material into the head through sweating, concentrating and repetition can be considered an approach of "brute force", because such memorization does not involve thinking or processing information – no creativity, no imagination, no analysis, no logic, no reflection on the material. 

It consists only of conscious contact with the material (text), mental concentration and, of course, repetition, the very nature of which is often tiring. 

People experience various degrees of success with this approach, and some find it very difficult to memorize texts.

Deal with different types of problems

How to make memorization more effective?

First, if you decide to use this method, the best investment of time and energy for your students will be if they use logical analysis and (or) visualization to "process" the text before attempting to memorize it.

Some students will prefer the first way, others – the second. Of course, it is better to use both, and when one approach is not enough for successful memorization, they can rely more on the other.

The main idea here is not to approach the text trying only to memorize it

Instead, focus on a leisurely and pleasant analysis and learning without any thought (and accompanying feeling of pressure) that you need to remember. 

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The very process of interaction with the text, its analysis, visualization (and imagining by any of the other four senses, as well as through emotions), the literal "immersion" in it, of course, leads to its memorization.

Some of the text will remain in memory even without trying to remember it.  With active attempts to save the rest of the text in memory, the process will be easier and require less time and effort. 

It is necessary to remember that the process of close acquaintance with a material should be enjoyable.

It’s a good idea to try turning it into an acquaintance or a friend.

Fortunately, because of its coherent nature, it is much easier to remember a story or a dialogue than a list of individual words or phrases. Each part of the text provides context for its other parts, and thus creates a mutually reinforcing context.

Second, in addition to using different memorization strategies and techniques, it is important to choose the right text to help your learners memorize.

There are various criteria for selecting texts, including:

  • the appropriate level of complexity;
  • interesting, stimulating, memorable content;
  • the text must be clearly written;
  • natural, logical presentation of the ideas in the text;
  • even rhythm and or rhyme.

In his book, ‘Brain Workout’, a neurosurgeon Arthur Winter describes simple ways to improve memory, sensory perception, and intelligence. 

He also claims that in order to remember information better, one needs to:

1. organize it:

  • break it into smaller chunks;
  • divide related elements into categories;
  • create associations;
  • use cadences / certain rhythms (e.g. music, rhyme).

 

2. have his/her own approach to memorization, namely: 

  • the intention to remember;
  • to focus (with sufficient breaks in learning to maintain concentration);
  • to use all five senses (including visualization);
  • to say the information you need to remember aloud;
  • do regular memorization exercises that will improve memory over time.

As for the "intention to remember", we tend to remember what we are interested in and what is important to us, so it is also useful to cultivate these feelings in students.

More tips on adding context

On practicing memorization

It is unlikely that students will be thrilled with the idea of memorizing a text. 

However, experience shows that many people who learn English or other languages, intentionally or not, memorize the lyrics of English songs, phrases from video games, catchphrases from TV series and other programs, etc. 

Often these words, phrases or sentences come to mind unexpectedly, but very timely, accurately and correctly.

Therefore, if we approach the memorization of short texts or dialogues more methodically, it has a right to exist.

Top-down

First, students read the text, and should notice three things that will help them remember it: 

  1. main idea;
  2. sequence of events / topics in the dialogue + why;
  3. how these events / topics are related.

The next three steps include the concept of "divide and rule", starting from the highest level and breaking the text into small parts.

The main goal is to consider the general structure of the text or dialogue as a basis on which you can "hang" the actual sentences, and set "parameters" (e.g., number of paragraphs, number of sentences) to better fulfill the "memorization task".

Teaching speaking through the exposure

Look for the main idea

Start with the main idea of the whole text (discussed above), which goes beyond specific words. It can be paraphrased in other words and even expressed in L1.

As mentioned earlier, the focus here is solely on the meaning, not form.

Pay attention to the structure

Break the text into parts and identify the purpose or main idea of each.

Memorizing the number of paragraphs creates a quantifiable goal: each paragraph is like a drawer waiting to be filled with content from the memory, but first you need to know how many of these drawers there are. 

It is advisable to memorize the general content of each paragraph (again, regardless of the actual wording) and check yourself. It is not necessary to memorize the number of sentences in each paragraph, but it can be useful in some cases.

Analyze

Analyze each sentence for the general meaning and main idea, which are represented by one or more keywords from each sentence. 

This builds connection with the lexical level. How does each sentence affect the paragraph as a whole? 

Quantification can sometimes be useful here: how many words are there in a sentence? Are the words long or short? 

Again, at this stage, students should actively notice various patterns.

Help your students to master the idioms!

Bottom-up

Here paragraphs and sentences are analyzed at the lexical and grammatical levels.

Notice the pattern

Check each paragraph and sentence for any: 

  • patterns;
  • similarities;
  • coincidences;
  • symmetries;
  • asymmetries;
  • lists;
  • rhymes;
  • rhythms;
  • randomly embedded mnemonics.

Move on to the micro level

As in the previous approach, pay attention to the sequence and connection, this time at the "micro level". How does each sentence relate to the next? How does one topic shift to another? 

Here you need to define or create logical connections and associations between each sentence. 

Ideally, with the help of a chain of associations, each sentence should automatically stimulate the recollection of the next, significantly reducing the load on memorization: “Speaking of X, what is logical or natural next?”

Identify meaningful groups of words

Some of them will, of course, be collocations or other expressions. 

The goal is to memorize as many chunks as possible, not individual words. 

Grouping words in this way provides an ideal opportunity to notice and memorize formulaic language – verbal expressions that are fixed in form and often not literal in meaning, such as idioms. 

In addition to students noticing such language, these expressions are also memorized in a meaningful context, which is certainly much more effective than learning them in isolation.

Define content words for each sentence

When it comes to defining content words, these do not have to be keywords.

Of course, pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections are usually excluded when defining such words.

Next, these content words should stimulate the recollection of prepositions, articles and other words. The syntactic relationships will logically dictate the choice of words, again, reducing the pressure on memory.

How to teach prepositions effectively?

Mark the words

It is not necessary, but it may be useful to mark the first word(s) of each sentence, similar to the first bars or notes of a song.

Pay extra attention to any parts that are not intuitive, logical or natural, and therefore more difficult to remember. 

Here again, word counting, which gives a target number, can be useful so that students can check their memorization.

Create logical connection

Finally, define or create a logical connection/association between the last sentence of each paragraph and the first sentence of the next to connect them for a natural and smooth transition.

Memorization pros

Unlike traditional "cramming", focus on a creative approach to memorization that makes the learners think, solve problems, and encourages them to more actively notice language forms and language connections.

Reading and paraphrasing the content of the text makes it possible to accidentally notice the form. 

The advantage of literal memorization of the text is that such a task requires the student to consciously and very carefully focus on the form and in no case exclude the meaning.

Thus, memorizing texts can be seen as a continuation and reinforcement of reading, a way to deepen and engage the text more intensively, but not as a replacement for reading itself. This approach is also different from traditional intensive reading.

More ideas on what to read with your students

However, it can be a very powerful combination if used periodically with extensive reading and memorization of the texts that have already been read and understood.

Memorizing texts is not a communicative task, and it is doubtful that anyone would recommend spending a large amount of time on it, especially in favour of other activities. 

However, memorizing stories and dialogues can be useful in learning a language (especially in self-study) if it is done in an interesting and creative way.

Conclusion

To sum up, there are many pros and cons of using memorization. 

So, if we decide to implement it into our lesson plan, we need to make sure that it is done in a methodologically appropriate way. Memorization indeed requires a lot of creativity and preparation in order to be fun and useful. 

However, it is definitely not something that has to stop a true professional!

Now, let's look through some questions.

Memorization belongs to CLT

Frequent usage of memorization is a great idea.

Article authors & editors
  • Yulia Chorna

    Yulia Chorna

    Author

    DELTA Module 1, CELTA certified teacher of General & Business English

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