Memory in English

On Saturday 7th November, I was delighted to present at Research Ed Literacy in Swindon. I was speaking about memory, and began by saying this is something I have only recently been concerned with. When Michael Gove some years ago suggested teaching children poetry by heart, I thought this was a terrible idea – what a waste of precious curriculum time! They have so much to learn, why waste time with this? I have, however, completely changed my mind on memory, and not just because of external imperatives – though, of course, closed text exams at GCSE has been the trigger for many of us in starting to prioritise memory.

Memory is important because if nothing has been remembered, nothing has been learned. I have an A grade at Physics GCSE, but if I sat the exam now I would fail completely. Can I really say I know Physics? I don’t think so. I’ve crammed Physics, enough to pass an exam, but I haven’t learned it. 

Cramming is not the name of the game; we are not computers storing endless facts. Instead, our brains collect these seemingly isolated facts and embed them into networks of perceptions, allowing us to have a deeper understanding of the world around us. And these facts, this knowledge, is vital to all we do; in reading comprehension, a knowledge of the subject matter predicts your capacity to comprehend a piece, as Eric Kalenze brilliantly pointed out in his session, with an incomprehensible piece on American football plays.

As Daisy Chrisodoulou points out, though, we often underestimate our knowledge and overestimate students’. She makes the argument that general knowledge is like oxygen: vitally important, but we only notice it when it isn’t there. Furthermore, the more knowledge we have, the more we can get: knowledge loves knowledge; or, knowledge is like Velcro: it sticks to other things.

English has, in the past, been seen as a ‘skills based’ subject; but the idea we can transfer skills across texts with no regard for background knowledge of those texts is only slightly less ridiculous than the idea that if we can analyse a maths problem, we can analyse a cave painting. For a full and enjoyable debunking of the skills argument, I refer you to James Theobald.

Willingham tells us that ‘memory is the residue of thought’: we remember what we think about. Our job as teachers, then, is to ensure students think hard about our subjects. This links to Bjork’s idea of ‘desirable difficulties’: we need to make students think hard, not allow them to sit back and passively let the ideas wash over them, leaving no trace of their existence. But we must be careful with this idea: school is already very hard; students are shunted from subject to subject, having to come to terms with up to six a day; there is no need to surprise students every time they enter our classroom (‘today – nouns! Tomorrow, ‘Oliver Twist’! Thursday, poetry!’) – this is just too difficult. We only need to put something in place that makes students think a little more. Don’t just read a passage, ask a few questions about it that students all have to think about to answer. That’s a desirable difficulty.

How do we build memory? In my initial scripting of the presentation I had written: ‘it’s not just rote learning of dry, meaningless facts.’ But actually, I disagree with my summer self – it sometimes is. In learning a language, I had to learn how to decline nouns, or conjugate verbs, and rote learning of those dry, meaningless facts suddenly became very exciting and meaningful in the schema of learning a language. Once those isolated facts were committed to memory, they could then link up with hundreds of other ideas. We’re keen to skip this stuff as teachers, because we know it isn’t fun; but school isn’t about fun, it’s about learning. And this is how we learn.

Making children remember what you say can take many forms: Willingham says we are attuned to narrative, so we could make our lessons into stories – not too difficult in English, as we deal in stories, but not always easy to make each individual lesson story-like. He also says we remember what prompts emotion, but it’s really difficult to be sure all your children have felt the emotion you intended. Also, what if someone comes in a bit tired, a bit grumpy, or already very emotional? I don’t think emotion or stories are reliable enough to ensure we build students’ memory in the classroom on a day to day basis. What is reliable is quizzing: any teacher can quiz students about key ideas. When I visited Michaela Community School, in every lesson I saw at least 20 minutes of recap: unabashed testing of prior knowledge, from previous days, but also from previous units.

I shared some strategies borrowed from Joe Kirby and Daisy Christodoulou: first knowledge maps, and then multiple choice questions, and explained how these were quick and easy to get recap into lessons on a daily basis.

In building students’ memories in English over the course of their study, I suggested two guiding principles: first, what are the hidden bodies of knowledge in the subject? The things we just know, that we now need to systematically teach to our students? I’d suggest these are grammar, and the literary canon (in a cruel twist of fate, I was scheduled at the same time as Katie Ashford, who has to be the most forward-thinking expert on grammar working in schools right now). We then need to sequence these ideas in the optimal way to help students see the links between them, and build up their knowledge incrementally, building in time for revisiting and interleaving the core concepts we want students to remember in the long term.

If it’s not yet clear, I need to explicitly say that there is not one original idea in what I have said. I’ve read a great many books, contained in the presentation, and a great many blogs, and had a great many conversations; I’ve stuck them together and worked at these in my own context. I’m not the ideas person. Despite this, I am so grateful that so many people came along, and were so engaging and so warm in their interactions.


Memory in English


7 thoughts on “Memory in English

  1. Grammar and literary knowledge are certainly needed, but so is a lot of focused writing practice which builds up incrementally. I opted to use Engelmann’s ‘Expressive Writing’ for this in the lower years, after discussing it with Daisy Christodoulou over the summer.

    I totally agree about the need for a simple day to day approach to building knowledge. I’ve opted for a question and answer format which pupils memorise: a sort of catechism of core knowledge. This makes quizzing very straightforward.


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