“But I told you this only last lesson, Year 11!” Memory Strategy 3, Part 1

We’ve all been there. Laboured like the sower in Mark’s parable to impart information one lesson only to discover the next that most of our seed fell on stony ground “where it did not have much soil … and whithered away….” (Mark, 4.5)

In a bid to experience less of this, I’ve spent the last few months looking at how to translate the research on memory, which is compelling, into every day practice.


My particular focus has been on the closed book anthology paper that students will confront in their 2017 English Literature exam – I think we will need to teach poetry in a radically different, much more memory-friendly way, to prepare them for this. However, with ‘strengthened content’ across the piece, less scaffolding and linear routes only, teachers in every corner of the curriculum need to be thinking about how to ensure that new learning takes root.


Even now, pre-reform, there’s way too much relearning of everything at the end of Year 11 for most students. There really is. I watched my daughter cram the whole of her science GCSE in an intense three week frenzy last summer (all forgotten now, mindyou – the science, not the frenzy). Nothing from countless hours of lesson time seemed to have stuck.

Part of the problem might have been her lack of interest in the science curriculum. Maybe she didn’t pay enough attention in class. But as I explain here, a student’s ability to pay attention is not something we should ever take for granted. We need to prepare our ground more carefully than Mark – teach the skill of focussing explicitly, as the first, essential stage in memory. With instruction and practice, students can get better at it – even when faced with content they don’t find intrinsically interesting or attention-grabbing.

After input through the senses comes encoding. How can we ensure that new learning grows roots that reach down from short into long term memory to become knowledge? That it doesn’t just whither away? There’s obviously not a single, simple answer to this question, but there are some key principles to be drawn from the research and many practical teaching strategies to be generated from an understanding of these.

I wrote about one such memory-boosting strategy – rehearsal – here. This post introduces another. Janie Booth dubs it ‘group’ in the ‘Memory Magic’ intervention that I’ve taken as my framework for these posts. Booth’s is an umbrella term really because it allows her to combine two techniques known separately in the cognitive science field as ‘chunking’ and ‘elaborative rehearsal’.


I apply below these two related strategies to the teaching of an extract from Wordsworth’s Prelude, simply by way of illustration. First though, because I did use that word ‘explicit’, what I’d tell my students about ‘group’ so that they fully understand the significance of the activities and are more likely to apply the techniques elsewhere in their studies.

What to tell my students about ‘Group’

I’m going to start with some bad news about memory and then move onto some good. The bad then. Our short-term memory, the amount we can hold in our heads at any one time, is limited. A researcher called Miller found that we can only hold seven items at once, plus or minus two items. ‘The magic 7’ he called this, referring to the seven ‘slots’ available in our brains for new information. Now there are more than seven things to remember about today’s poem, so how will we manage this?

And there’s another problem. Researchers have shown that a measly 15 to 30 seconds is about as long as we can hold new information in our heads before it seeps out. So even if we learn seven things today, nine if we’re really cooking on gas, they’ll be gone by the end of the lesson!

Of course, there are things we can do to combat this, otherwise nobody would ever remember anything, long term – so now onto the good news. Starting with the duration issue, as I’ve explained to you before, by repeating information verbally in a process known as rehearsal, we can hold it for longer. We’ve practised that. Now, if we connect that new information with something we already hold in our long term memory, we can turn it into lasting knowledge without the need for as many rehearsals. Called ‘elaborative rehearsal’ , this is a more efficient strategy, and we’re going to explore it today. 

There’s also a way around the magic 7 constraint. Can anybody repeat these numbers back to me? There are ten, so it shouldn’t be possible – according to Miller. 5794285302 No? How about this then? 579 428 5302? Some of you have just proved Miller wrong! You’ve recalled ten items. That’s because I ‘chunked’ the numbers, I combined them in groups. Something we all do with our phone numbers, of course. The strategy doesn’t just apply to numbers, though, and you’ll see today that by chunking what we learn about Wordsworth’s Prelude, you’ll remember more about it.

Exploring an extract from The Prelude through ‘Group’ Activities

As in previous posts, the memory-enhancing strategies suggested here are applied to the structure, point of view, imagery and themes of the target poem. However, I’ve divided this post into Parts 1 and 2 because there are so many fruitful activities to explore. S and P comes first then and I’m going to follow up with I and T in Part 2 very soon, staying with The Prelude.

SPIT is of course itself a memory aid and It’s worth noting that the efficacy of mnemonics is something that I’ll be looking at in some detail when I reach Strategy 6 – ‘Link’.


This might be the only extract in Edexcel’s Conflict cluster but it is still one of the longer poems in the collection and many students will find its length intimidating. Here’s one way of making it less so, through chunking. After the poem has been read aloud, ask students to split it into between 4 and 6 sections, summing each up with no more than two words. If more scaffolding than this is needed for some, then provide the line numbers and ask students to focus on naming the sections. A smaller group may need both the sections and the two-word labels with their task being to match them.

Whatever the degree of differentiation, all learners should arrive at something like this.

  • 1 – 5, steals boat
  • 6 – 20, rows lake
  • 21 – 29, peak appears
  • 29 – 34, rushes home
  • 34 – end, disturbed thoughts

In this way, an extract of 44 lines has been reduced to just ten words, immediately making it feel easier to remember. We can also see from this preliminary activity that Wordsworth’s narrative is chronological – there is no moving backwards and forwards in time, as in Weir’s ‘Poppies’, for example. He is simply recounting an experience in a straightforward way and then reflecting on the impact that it had on him, as he does throughout The Prelude.


The poem is written in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter. Now students should be able to link this with prior knowledge – what they know about Shakespeare. If, as a starter, you’ve been clapping and chanting iambic and other rhythms, as suggested in the ‘rehearsal’ post, then they will be on even firmer ground.

However, if learners still haven’t secured this key but off-puttingly multi-syllabic term, then elaborative rehearsal rather than just repeated verbal rehearsals could be what they need. Try describing the rhythm of the heart as ‘I am’. Virtually from conception, our hearts assert ‘I am, I am, I am’ . Bic is a form of pen, used for writing. Iambic is therefore writing that echoes the beat of the heart: I am + bic

Unknown-1                                     Unknown

‘Pentameter’ tells us that there are five of these ‘I am’ beats per line. Most students will have prior knowledge relating to pentagons to connect with here, and the word ‘meter’ will also be understood already. They could usefully generate their own representation to link ‘pentameter’ with words they already understand, as in the beating heart + bic example above, and this will secure the unfamiliar spelling too. Every time, elaborative rehearsal is most effective when students use their creativity to generate their own links with their own prior knowledge, but as in all things, the process does need modelling first.

All good English teachers discourage feature spotting. There’s little if any point in students learning all of the above simply to state in the exam that the The Prelude is written in blank verse. So what? To avoid this, the term ‘blank verse’ needs to be connected in students’ minds with associated points.  An opportunity to discuss context presents itself here – in a meaningful, as opposed to a bolt-on Wordsworth lived in the Lake District, type way.

Students may be surprised to learn, when exploring this apparently very safe, traditional poem about nature, that it was radical in its day. Most of the poetry published in literary magazines at that time was written in rhyming couplets and decorated with formulaic diction such as ‘enamelled fields’ and ‘feathered choirs’. The new poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge effectively threw cold water in the smug face of early C19th poetry, using language much closer to that of real people. The enjambed lines in The Prelude combine with the lack of rhyme to create a much more prosaic effect than readers were used to. Wordsworth changed poetry.

It’s also worth linking the term with a key quotation; “blank desertion”. The way that Wordsworth recalls feeling after his experience on the lake – that is, abandoned within a universe that seems empty, without colour, devoid of interest or beauty; blank. (More of this under ‘theme’ in Part 2) This is another example of chunking, of course. One word – blank – acting as a category heading and yielding more than one idea.

Point of View

As well as chunking information within individual poems, the anthology itself should be subjected to regular chunking. With regard to point of view, there are actually only four poems in the Conflict cluster that are not first person narratives. If the whole anthology hasn’t been studied, students should be encouraged to flick through to identify these. When they are familiar with the poems, however, it will be more productive to simply give students the titles, on a card each, to classify or group as directed, according to all of the elements of SPIT.


There are two main reasons for substituting the poems for cards. Firstly, we then replicate closed book exam conditions. Whether we like the idea or not, students need to practice the skill of seeing a title and then retrieving from memory information associated with it. Secondly, if students don’t have access to the text of the poems, then categorising them will be more effortful, more of a struggle, and this, according to Brown et al, strengthens recall.

Practice at retrieving new knowledge or skill from memory is a potent tool for learning and durable retention. Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention…The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval. After an initial test, delayed subsequent retrieval practice is more potent for reinforcing retention than immediate practice, because delayed retrieval requires more effort.

(Make it Stick, p43)

Moving away from Point of View, by way of conclusion to this post, I would strongly suggest that time invested in creating an anthology deck of cards, enough for a set per pair, will be time well spent. On one side, the title, the poet and date of poem, on the other an image (more on the central importance of images later). Here are just a few ways you could use the cards, perhaps by way of plenary, so that students practice retrieving knowledge in order to group the poems and draw links between them. I’ve created a ‘magic 7’, but there will be many more:


  1. Split the poem-cards into groups according to their form (e.g. free verse)
  2. Group according to perspective
  3. Group according to historical context / poetic movement
  4. Group according to related themes
  5. Choose two at random and find a link
  6. Try this game. In small groups Student One selects a poem-card. The next student must take one that links with it in some way and explain this selection to the group. If the group agrees that the link is valid (would convince an examiner) the card is kept. The next student must then select a card and the process repeats around the circle.
  7. Early in the programme of study, when students are familiar with only two or three poems, try this. Each pair of students has two poems. One makes a link between them and scores a point if its valid. Partner then tries. The game continues until students can find no further links. A generic prompt sheet could be created to direct them in both this activity and the one above.

The learning gains from activities such as these are clear. There’s regular retrieval, there’s effortful retrieval and, perhaps most importantly of all, there’s a way of keeping the whole anthology alive in students’  minds as they progress through the two year course.


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