Your memory and how it works
This post contains an extract from Dr Don Blackerby’s ‘Rediscover the joy of learning’.
Dr Blackerby has a Neuro-Linguistic Programming background and works largely with children presenting with ADHD symptoms and other learning problems.
If you find yourself working with or helping children with learning difficulties, it is sometimes rewarding for you and them to intersperse the ILT programme with some useful learning strategies. If you like the extract given below, you might be interested in reading the rest of his book. Shirley has personally shared the spelling strategy with many children, and with great success! It is fun to see them succeed and show a spurt of confidence and self-esteem.
Often in school, learners are asked to remember some important information. This may be spelling words, vocabulary words, dates, names, etc. Too many times the learners flounder around trying very hard to memorise the information and yet when test time comes, they find that they cannot remember it. Many times this comes from the fact that they have no idea how their memory works or how to store and retrieve information in their brain. The following is one way that is useful – particularly in academic subjects.
In order for your memory to work for you and for you to trust your memory, you need to know the following:
- Where you are storing the information
- That you have the information well represented internally
- How to retrieve the information
Your choices of where to store information are limited to five well-known senses – visual, auditory, kinesthetic (touch and feeling), smell or taste. In school, for all practical purposes, you are limited to auditory, kinesthetic and/or visual.
The auditory field has a major limitation in that it is linear. That is, you can only consciously process one word at a time and it has to be in a particular order. It is, therefore, very slow. For many learners the auditory field is also very boring. The auditory field is very useful in singing, reciting and other subjects requiring auditory recall. In the academic subjects, it is most useful for retrieval purposes.
The kinesthetic field is very useful in sports, typing and other like typing ‘use the body’ subjects, but for most of the academic subjects it is difficult to store information in and it is also very slow.
While all three play an important part in memory, your visual field has many advantages. `it is the fastest. It is the most interesting to learners of today who were brought up on TV and other screens. You can store vast amounts of information in one picture and access any part of it instantly.
So, for academic subjects like spelling, vocabulary, history, maths, etc., the best field to store the information is in the visual field. That is, make internal pictures in your mind’s eye of whatever it is you are trying to remember. It may be the actual word or date or it may be a picture of the meaning of the word. Later we will cover how the auditory and kinesthetic fields can be very useful in the third point above – that is in how to retrieve information.
Now that we know to store the information in pictures, the question arises about the second point – how to know we have a good picture. The answer is easy but takes practice for some people. If you are trying to store a word, for example, you take a picture of what the word looks like. When you think you have a good clear picture in your mind’s eye, you spell the word backwards – from right to left. This is a check to see if you have a good picture because you can only smoothly spell the word backwards if you have a good picture.
Once you can do this, the question arises about how to retrieve it. Many tests in school are given auditorially – that is, the teacher asks the question or the learner reads the question by sounding out the words. Therefore, we want the sound of the words to ‘hook’ or bring up the picture of the information so the learner can answer the question off his or her internal picture.
This will happen if you connect the sound of the information to the internal picture. To do this, you simultaneously say the information while you hold the picture of the information in your mind’s eye. The fact that you are looking at the picture while saying the information logically connects the sound and the picture. A learner learning a spelling word, for example, needs to practice this sound and picture connection about 6 to 8 times, preferably over several days.
Developing a visual learning strategy
One of the most common problems that some learners have is the tendency to not make visual images of the words they hear. This creates several problems with these learners.
- They have to resort to a slower learning strategy such as auditory or kinesthetic. The visual strategy is significantly faster.
- For most academic subjects the auditory and kinesthetic strategies are inappropriate and even boring, so the learner who does not know how to make these images is forced to work longer and harder at a task that is boring and ineffective. Guess what this learner’s reaction will be when he is faced with the task of doing his homework or of paying attention in the classroom?
Why would the students not translate the words they read and hear into visual images? Obviously most of them don’t know they are supposed to do it! Learners sometimes show amazement and surprise at the idea that they could make up their own pictures for the words they were reading off the pages of their textbooks.
One of the causes of this seems to occur in the transition of the reading instruction from the early grades to the middle grades. In the early grades when a word is introduced to the learner, a picture of the object is displayed next to the word. The learner has a natural bridge from seeing and saying the word to having an internal image of the object. If the instruction also requests the learner to access an experience the learner has had relative to the object, then the word also has a bridge to the kinesthetic (having the learner find a use for the word or make up a sentence using the word can also create a kinesthetic experience for the learner).
This practice is fairly quickly discontinued, however, and the learners have to make up their own pictures. As learners get older and the words get more abstract, it becomes less natural and harder to do and nobody seems to inform them that they should make pictures of the material and some never get around to it.
Because of the way reading is taught in the grade schools, some learners learn to read by just saying the words, either externally or internally. They do not transform into either visual or kinesthetic unless they already have that accidentally installed in their heads by a personal experience. For example, a learner who is shown and handles a copy of the country’s Constitution will have a rich visual/auditory/kinesthetic representation of the word Constitution. When he reads that word in a history book, for example, the rich internal representation will be elicited. Obviously, the schools can’t rely on all learners having these kinds of experiences in all of the subjects they teach.
These rich internal representations can be deliberately internally generated by the learners and the schools need to teach how to do this to those learners who have not yet figured it out. In fact, one of the primary differences between the better learners and the struggling learners is this very ability
So, what do the learners do who haven’t yet learned to do this? Besides not doing their homework, or at least procrastinating on doing it, what kind of learning strategies do they come up with to attempt to do their homework? Well, some are very ingenious!
One well-meaning teenager complained that her studying took too long, much longer than her fellow students. It seemed to her that what the other learners could get accomplished in one hour, took her several hours to do, and it was getting worse with the passing years. This was a very conscientious student who wanted to succeed in school but was becoming very depressed by her lack of success and the downward trend of her marks. In fact, it was affecting her self-esteem and her attitude about school.
On looking at her reading strategy, it seemed that she used a very complicated auditory strategy. After she had read for a while (by sounding out the words internally) she would realise she did not know what she had read and go back and read it again – this time slower! After trying it a couple of times slower and slower, she would go back to each major word and auditorially insert the definition of the word in the sentence. Guess what that did to her reading speed?
The major words would be words for which she did not have a visual representation. In her case, because her parents had provided a rich background, she had some internal representations of abstract words but not all. She literally would have holes in her comprehension of what she was reading. That’s why she would go back and insert definitions of the major words. She would ultimately comprehend, but only after much effort and in a time consuming manner.
Another young man had much the same problem only he had not had the rich experiences the young lady had so he didn’t have holes in his comprehension, he just didn’t have any comprehension. He was also a dedicated student who spent all of his spare time studying. He was a seventh grade learner who stopped building his reading vocabulary (visual representation) when the schools stopped giving him pictures with words. As the words got more and more abstract, he got further and further behind because all he could do was slow down his reading and try again and again. The only words that elicited a visual representation in him were words that described objects or actions in his real world. This is quite a limitation in school.
So what can be done with these learners? Can they be taught to read and learn so that it is interesting? The answer is YES – and Don tells us to read on!
But first a summary:
To be able to visualize in rich detail, to be able to hold the image so steady you can copy off it, to be able to instantly access large amounts of information, is a skill so significantly valuable for succeeding in school. The learners who do it have an easier time and do far better in school then the students who don’t.
Back in the olden days (before television), children listened to stories told by their elders or on radio and they made up the pictures because they had to in order to really enjoy the story (sound effects also helped). Now with TV, the pictures are ready made. I haave had many students who do well in the classroom when the teacher visually presents the material and do poorly when the teacher does not. They simply did not know that they were supposed to make up their own pictures and the teachers did not know they were supposed to teach them to do it.
One last reason for teaching a visual learning strategy. Imagine having an audio tape of a class you were taking. You can remember the teacher talking about a particular topic, parts of which you could remember including the terms he used. If you wanted to access that information from the audio tape, you would have to do it in a linear fashion. That means you would have to play the tape from the first and listen to every word until you got to the terms you were listening for. That is time consuming. Now imagine that you have the lecture stored as a detailed photograph or picture. As soon as you say the word or term to yourself and picture what it would be like, you would have instant access to the part of the lecture you were looking for. That is what a visual learning strategy offers. The old cliché that a ‘picture is worth a thousand words’ is only a part of the power of the visual learning strategy. The fact that you have instant access to any part of the picture is what is really helpful to you as the student.
Applying this principl
Let’s see how a visual strategy can help when learning spelling words. Many learners are told to write the words five to ten times or to sound the words out phonetically. Sometimes
This works but many times it does not. Try this extremely effective strategy for learning spelling words in an easy and fun way.
All excellent spellers have one trait in common. They spell a word off of a very clear internal picture of the word. So the question is how do we teach other learners to do that? In order to help a child learn to spell using this new spelling strategy, it is important you lead her through these steps for each new spelling word:
- Have her write the word divided into syllables (e.g. Gau teng).
- Have her analyse the word by scrutinizing each syllable and discussing which one is likely to prove difficult to remember. With the example given, a child may well say that the sound of the letters ‘au’ in Gau may be mistaken as ‘ow’ and cause them to make a mistake.Becoming aware and cognitively processing this type of information helps memory and also keeps the child personally involved in the learning.
- Now she looks at the spelling word and REMEMBERS WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE.If the word is long, make a picture of each syllable and then put all the pictures together.
From from her internal image, have her spell the word BACKWORDS (from right to left) out loud to you. You check to make sure she spells it correctly. Have her do it several times.
- Once she can spell it backwards (and only then), have her sound the word out WHILE looking at the internal image of the word. This ‘hooks’ the sound of the word to the internal image of the word.
- Then have her spell it from left to right off the internal image.
- Praise her for her success and new skill.Go to the next spelling words and repeat the steps.
After the above strategy has been completed on each of the spelling words, practice by picking random words off the spelling list and have the learner spell them. After practicing a word six to eight times, the learner should be able to just say the word, see the internal image and spell it correctly, without having to spell it backwards. Practicing the spelling words over time (like a few days) will drop the correct spelling into long term memory.
Some additional tips and/or variations on using the spelling strategy are
- Get learners into a visualizing mode by having them imagine something very familiar such as a friend, grandparent, pet or movie star.
- Before you launch into this spelling strategy with new and difficulty words, teach them the strategy by spending one or two sessions having them learn to spell small and familiar words backwards. Gradually increase the size of the words until they are the same size and complexity as the words on their spelling list. Let them give you words to spell backwards so you can make it a game.
- Some variations on step 1 of the spelling strategy are:
- Have the learners look at the spelling word and write it down before they make an internal image
- Have the learners write the word in the air with their fingers on an imaginarty chalkboard
- While you slowly spell the word out loud, have the students ‘print it’ in their minds’ eye. You may have to repeat it several times.
- When the words start to get longer, have them break the words down into syllables or miniwords.
Remember that the reason you have the learner spell the word backwards is to assure yourself and her that she has a clear internal image of that word