Possibilities of the short-term memory training and development in efl teaching

In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have conducted a number of research and experiments concerning memory, such as interaction of different types of memory, general principles of memory functioning, memory development possibilities, etc. However, less research was conducted on the primary stage of material acquisition and the possibilities of implementation of the results in EFL teaching.

This article is dedicated to the study of the particular type of memory with regard to the duration of consolidation and retention material, thus, the short-term memory as the primary device in the perception of the new. The article examines the abilities of the shortterm memory to train and develop.

Currently, much has been done in the field of certain aspects concerning the shortterm memory and its possible manipulations while learning and teaching. Such scientists as

R. Joel., C. Steven, J. D. Karpicke, and H. L. Roediger, M. Ziganov and V. Zinchenko consider learning and memorization the target vocabulary with the help of exercises that affect the short-term memory. The others, such as D. Killstrom, P. Atkinson, A. Maklakov, G. Miller research general characteristics of the short-term memory, which can be controlled during the learning process. But, undoubtedly, much still remains to be done, because there is no profound analysis of the possible shortterm memory development or training for the purpose of EFL learning improvement.

The results of the complete analyses may be implemented at the English lessons or any other target language lesson as well.

It is a well-known fact that while learning a foreign language memory is the main participant in this process. One should note here that the term “memory” is not quite appropriate when speaking about learning process. Not everyone is able to memorize and then reproduce one or another new word, combination of words or a grammar rule. This has to do with the fact that memory is not properly developed. To develop memory functioning one should know types of memory that can be developed more effectively. There are several approaches to memory classification. Currently, the dependence of characteristics of memory on features of memorizing and reproducing activity is approved to take as the most common reason to distinguish different types of memory. Certain types of memory are singled out according to three main criteria: the nature of mental activity, which is prevalent, the nature of objectives of activity and the duration of consolidation and retention material (in connection with its role and place in the activity) [1]. According to the nature of mental activity memory is divided into motor, emotional, image and verbal memory. The second type of criteria divides memory into arbitrary and involuntary memory. The duration of consolidation and retention material implies the existence of short-term and long-term memory [2]. It should be noted here that each type of memory cannot function autonomously, thus interaction of different types of memory can be used to improve the certain memory type functioning [3].

The study of the short-term memory functioning is of primary importance. An example of the short-term memory functioning may be a situation where a person is asked to read some words, after reading the person is given very little time to memorize them (about a minute) and, immediately, he or she is asked to produce the memorized words [2]. Hence, when memorizing new things short-term memory plays a major role. The normal operation of long-term memory is not possible without good short-term memory [3]. Longterm memory can accept only those things which were kept in the short-term memory. In addition, the short-term memory training is closely connected with emotional memory, considering that transferring the material is successful only if the last is considered to be important and what important for human beings is emotions and feelings they cause [4]. Thus, the short-term memory is the so called “buffer” which lets only necessary, already chosen information pass to the long-term memory [1]. Therefore, the short-term memory should be trained simultaneously with the learning process. It is well-known that people differ in the amount of memorized words, referring the above-mentioned example of the short-term memory functioning. The reason for that is different capacity of the short-term memory. However, the short-term memory allows one to remember anything after a short period of time from a few seconds to a minute without repetition [2]. Repetition saves the contents of short-term memory, but its capacity is very limited. G. Miller during his work at Bell Laboratories conducted experiments showing that short-term memory capacity is seven plus or minus two items (the title of his famous paper is "magical number seven plus songs. 

One should notice here that when singor minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information”) [5]. To improve the efficiency of the short-term memory one should use mnemonic exercises.

Mnemonics are learning strategies which can enhance learning and improve recall of the information learned [6]. According to Sharon S. Seay mnemonic devices or mnemonic exercises are defined as memoryextending techniques which improve learning and information recall through the use of imagery [7]. I. Alexeeva defined mnemonics as a strategy that creates and uses a cognitive cuing structure to organize and encode information for the express purpose of making it more memorable [8]. In other words mnemonic exercises include replacements of abstract objects to the notions which have visual, auditory or other representation, correlating objects with the information already available in memory to facilitate memorization. Mnemonics call the learner for paying attention to important features of the information and to treat the information more deeply than by simply rehearsing or memorizing it. Mnemonics authorize students to learn by cuing memory through association [8]. Recent research showed that the use of mnemonic exercises when learning a language increases the number of language units memorizations among students [9]. To improve the work of shortterm memory, it is important to know that memory uses mnemonics to highlight a particular reaction. This reaction sends an image produced by the mnemonic exercise to the long-term memory; then this image recall a stored object. It means that language learning with the help of mnemonic exercises can train short-term memory in terms of producing the recall reaction, or short-term memory training can include mnemonic exercises based on the target language.

The simplest example of the use of mnemonics while learning English is learning alphabet of the target language. People with poor short-term memory are not able to memorize all the twenty six letters of the English alphabet at once. They can use a mnemonic exercise related to a pleasant sound – they can sing it. That is why, pupils at primary school are suggested to learn alphabet through ing alphabet we divide it into verses, or the socalled chunks. A chunk is a meaningful unit of information, such as a group of character or number [9]. Since the short-term memory storage is limited with four to seven items a person should combine bigger amount of items into maximum seven. Thus, the shortterm memory effectiveness is based on a person’s ability of creating a chunk. K. Steven proved in his experiment on high school students that transformed verbal unit into meaningful units improved students’ reading ability [10]. He gave students two forms of texts, one of which was presented in the ordinary form and the other one was chunked by a dash between units. The students were supposed to answer questions after reading these two texts. The results of the test showed that students with the chunked text had better grades than the students with the ordinary one. This illustrates the importance of person’s ability of creating a chunk for the purpose of memorization improvement. Therefore, with the help of chunking one can trick limited short-term memory storage. However, this trickery does not solve the problem related to the failure of short-term memory function to transfer meaningful language units from the short-term memory to the long-term memory.

It has been repeatedly pointed out that mnemonic exercises are helpful when learning new thingsThey are applicable in learning vocabulary of the target language as well. The cornerstone of learning new words is a technique of mnemonic associations [11]. This technique is based upon the following action sequence: first, one should find a sound association to the English word in the native language, then invent a scene, a plot, a story or a phrase with the association and the right translation, finally, memorize the story. After this procedure it is necessary to repeat within two days four times the following: the English word – the sound association – the story – the translation. If a person knows exactly that he/she has invented the association, it will be easy for him/her to reproduce the chain mentioned before. After four repetitions it is not necessary to repeat the whole chain, because “the English word – the translation” will transfer to the long-term memory. Before this event only the story were sent into the long-term memory, especially if it was emotionally provocative. The sound association was being invented all over again when repeating, then, the story was recalled while it already had the right translation. T. E. Scruggs suggests mnemonic technique resembling this one. It is called the keyword method which is usually used to learn vocabulary words as well [12]. It includes three stages: reconstructing, relating, and retrieve. Reconstructing is development of a keyword, something that is familiar to the learner, easy to visualize, and acoustically similar (it sounds like the word to be remembered). The next step is relating, which is linking the keyword with the definition of the new word in a picture or a story. The last step is retrieve: one see the target word, recall the picture or the story, then retrieve the word needed. However, the keyword method does not imply repetition.

The analysis of the general problem shows that the amount of the information performing at once must be restricted since the short-term memory storage is strictly limited. The bigger amount of the units to be memorized leads to non-acquisition of the whole information block or acquisition but with the loss of several meaningful units. It should be added that the unit of the information to be memorized should be as big as possible; it is ineffective to memorize only few words if consider each of them as a unit. It is noteworthy that every target unit should be emotionally relevant and be a part of the story or the dramatic image to activate emotional memory for the purpose of short-term memory functioning improvement.

It may be of interest to take into account that the short-term memory span may not be developed at all and the amount of perceptible units is less than four. That brings us to different consideration of the short-term memory training.

In the last few decades EFL teaching has witnessed a lot of changes and innovations in this process. Recently educators have come to the conclusion that it is necessary to diversify the performance of the target language in order to take account individual peculiarities of the students. Such approaches have an advantage regarding the short-term memory span development. Thus, E. Ilyachenko (2003) suggests a set of mnemonic exercises, called “snowball” [13]. The principle of these exercises is based on making a snowball when the layers of snow are added one by one. The first student says one word, the second one repeats this word and adds a new word, the third student repeats the previous words in the correct order and adds a new word, etc. The set includes exercises with word repetition, sentence construction or working with texts. A. Panfilova (2010) suggests another set of mnemonic exercises, which consists in reading and memorizing poems and then filling in the gaps of missed words of the poem written on the blackboard or individual sheets [14]. Such exercises can be absorbed and adjusted by an English lesson of any kind. According to “Professional Training for Translators” by I. Alexeeva reading poems aloud to students can be useful to develop the short term memory span. Having read a big poem to students a teacher asks them to reproduce the names of main characters or characteristics of the main characters in order of their appearance in the poem [8]. Multiple repetition of these exercises increase the short-term memory span in students with undeveloped short-term memory [15].

Despite the number of research and experiments on different aspects of short-term memory functioning there has not been suggested any exact material how to train or to develop it. Due to this research it is now clear that short-term memory work can and should be trained, especially within language teaching (EFL teaching in this case), and it can be developed in some cases.

Short-term memory is of primary importance when it comes to acquiring the new. With the help of other types of memory (i.e. emotional memory) it analyses important information and transfers it to long-term memory. Thus, to improve or to train this process a teacher can use mnemonics and chunking to make the material to be learnt relevant to short-term memory. Mnemonics include mnemonic devices, such as rhymes, songs and pictures, and mnemonic strategies (i.e. keyword method, method of associations, etc). Chunking facilitates acquisition as it divides the material into important parts. Constant implementation of these tools will improve short-term memory functioning [16].

However, short-term memory capacity is limited. It has been proved that it is seven plus or minus two items. It means that this capacity depends on a person, and, if it is less than seven items, it can be developed, therefore, expanded by some mnemonic exercises (i.e. snowball, filling in the gaps, etc).

To sum up, short-term memory can be trained and developed within learning English (or any other language). On the other hand, it cannot be denied that EFL teaching can be applied with the help of short-term memory training.


  1. Aткинсон Р.Л., Аткинсон Р.С., Смит Э.Е. и др. Введение в психологию: Учебник для университетов / Пер. с англ. под. ред. В.П. Зинченко. М.: Тривола, 1999
  2. Маклаков А. Г. Общая психология. - СПб.Питер, 2001. 592 с.
  3. Atkinson, R. C, & Shiffrin, R. M. (1971). The control of short-term memory. Scientific American, 225, 82-90.
  4. Squire, L.R., & Knowlton, B. J. The medial temporal lobe, the hippocampus, and the memory systems of the brain. In M. Gazaniga (Ed.), The new cognitive neurosciences (2nd ed., pp. 765-780). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press., 2000
  5. Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.
  6. Bakken J. P. & Simpson C. G., (2011). Mnemonic Strategies: Success for the Young-Adult Learner, The Journal of Human Resource and Adult Learning (Vol. 7(2))
  7. Seay S. S. (2010). The use / application of mnemonics as a pedagogical tool in auditing. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal Publisher: The Dream Catchers Group, LLC
  8. Алексеева И.С. Профессиональный тренинг переводчика. Учебное пособие по устному и письменному переводу для переводчиков и преподавателей. Изд-во «Союз». СПб., 2001.
  9. Gerrig, R. J. & Zimbardo, P. G. (2010). Psychology and Life (19th ed.). United States of America: Pearson Education
  10. Steven, K.C. (1981). Chunking material as an aid to reading comprehension. Journal of Reading, 25(2): 126-129.
  11. Зиганов М.А., Козаренко В.А., Семин А.Н. Техника запоминания иностранных слов (запоминание на основе визуального мышления). М.: «Образование», 2002. 144 с.
  12. Mastropieri M. A., Scruggs T.E., Graetz J., Fontana J., Cole V., & Gersen A. (2005). Mnemonic Strategies: What Are They? How Can I Use Them? And How Effective Are They? Insights on Learning Disabilities 2(1). George Mason University, 1-17.
  13. Ильченко Е.В. Игры, импровизации и мини-спектакли на уроках английского языка. М., 2003.
  14. Панфилова А.П. Игровое моделирование в деятельности педагога. М.: «Академия», 2000.
  15. Levin, Joel R.Levin, Mary E.; Glasman, Lynette D.; Nordwall, M. B. (1992). Mnemonic vocabulary instruction: Additional effectiveness evidence. Contemporary Educational Psychology, Vol 17(2), 156-174.
  16. Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2007).
  17. «Expanding Retrieval Practice Promotes Short-Term Retention, but Equally Spaced Retrieval Enhances Long-Term Retention». Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33(4), 704-719
Year: 2014
City: Oskemen
Category: Philosophy