Worth a thousand words


Despite all the hype about learning styles in recent years, it’s a well known fact, backed up by research, that our ability to remember images outperforms our ability to remember other forms of data, such as written words, sounds, or smells. In one study, cited in Medina (2008), people were shown 2500 different images – each one for just 10 seconds. Several days later they managed to remember which images they’d seen with 90% accuracy. After a year the recall rate was still very high at 63%.

I think that one of our jobs as language teachers is to make use of this fact as much as possible. We can do this through exploiting the pictures in the coursebook wherever we can, and by linking them to the words, chunks and grammar that we want the students to learn or practice. We can also do it by bringing in other images to class and doing lots of language related activities with them.

Here are a few pictures from different stories from the Stories Alive material. Before telling the story to the class, I’d suggest that there are lots of activities that we might do using pictures like these, with the purpose of both helping them to follow the story later, and to develop and practice their English. Below are five different ideas. In the Stories alive notes for teachers at the back of the book, you’ll find many more.


Elicitation of key language

Look at the pictures, one by one but not necessarily in the correct order, with the whole class together – either as large blown up flash cards (preferably A2 size), or using a data projector if available. Elicit vocabulary from the class about what they can see in the picture. You could ask the children to call out suggestions for what they can see, or alternatively ask them to put their hands up and take suggestions one by one. Whichever way you do it, it is really important to make sure that everyone is clear about which element of the picture is being referred to so that they can learn vocabulary from their peers. A good way to do this is to point at the part of the picture they are talking about as the learners say the words.

The questions that we ask during elicitation can provide a lot of support for learners. So we could ask for example, ‘What’s this person doing?’ to get the response ‘Leaving’ but with lower level learners we could provide even more support when it’s needed by using a closed question, like ‘Is he arriving or leaving?’

For example:

Teacher: What can you see in this picture?
Student: Person.
Teacher: A person or some people
Student: Some people
Teacher: What’s this man doing?
Teacher: Is he arriving or is he leaving?
Students: Leaving            etc…


02.G colour copy


Picture visualisation

Choose one picture which shows one of the key moments in the story. Look at it yourself but keep it hidden from the students. Describe one element of the picture and then try to engage the students in dialogue to get more information about it. For example…

Teacher: There’s a boy sitting. He’s not sitting on a chair. Where do you think he’s sitting?
Student: ….Table….. Sofa
Teacher: No not a table or a sofa. He’s not inside. He’s …..
Student: …Outside
Teacher: Yes. He’s outside. He’s sitting outside on …..
Student: شو يعني أرض با نجليزي؟ 
Teacher: Yes that’s right he’s sitting on the ground. (mimes) He’s sitting on the ground in front of a….
Student: house
Teacher: No, not a house
Student: Tree.  شجرة  صح؟
Teacher: Yes a tree.  He’s sitting on the ground in front of a tree. He doesn’t look happy. He looks sad. Why? Why does he look sad? etc etc.


When you feel you’ve got as far as you go with this, show them the picture so that the students can see how it compares with what they imagined. In this kind of dialogue with the class you are trying to provide a safe ‘scaffold’ in which the students can notice and experiment with new language. You want them to understand what you are saying but at the same time you’re trying to push them a little to work at the limits of their abilities and to engage with new language. There is potentially a lot of learning that can happen in such a situation.


Remembering detail

Choose one of the pictures from a story and display it so that everyone can see it clearly. Tell the class that they should look at it for a minute and try to remember as much detail as they can. Now take the picture away and start to ask questions about the detail to see how much they can remember. For example

There are two animals in the picture. True or false?
The crow is on the left. True or False?
Is there an apple in the picture?
How many flowers are there in the picture?
Where is the chicken? etc

You could do this as a memory competition with one side of the class competing against the other. With a low level class it’s a good idea to write some of these question types mentioned above on the board to use as a model. You could now do the same activity the other way around. That is, the class can see another picture from the same story but it is hidden from your view. They ask questions to you to see how much you can remember. You score a point for each question you answer correctly. They score a point for each question you answer incorrectly. Finally the same activity can be done in groups with the remaining pictures from a story. After studying their picture, one learner from each group asks questions to the other people in her group to test their memories. They can swap pictures with a different group if they finish quickly.


lion and mouse image

Whole class sequencing of the pictures

Six or eight different learners come to the front of the class and each is given one of the large pictures from the story in a jumbled order. They hold the pictures up in a line so that everyone can see them. The teacher now discusses with the rest of the class what the order of the pictures could be. The students at the front change their position according to the order that is agreed. For example..

Teacher: So which picture do you think goes first? Faten?

Student: Khadija picture
Teacher: Why do you think it’s Khadija’s picture that goes first Faten?
Student: Because man and boy looking to mountain.
Teacher: Because the man and the boy are looking at the mountain? Do you agree everyone? Students: Yes
Teacher: OK Khadija. Can you please move to the front of the line? Now which one is next? Etc..

This activity could either be done before listening to the story (as a way to generate ideas and vocabulary, and make the listening process easier) or after listening to the story (as a way of checking that they understood it). By doing it with the whole class together you are providing a very useful model of the kind of language that students can use if they do the same sequencing activity in groups using the smaller versions of the pictures.



Something beginning with…

Display all of the large pictures at the front of the class by sticking them to the board, or use a projector if one is available. Think of something that can be seen in one of the pictures. Tell the class the first letter of the object and see if they can guess what it is. You could use the line ‘ I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…’ to introduce each word that they have to guess. When you’ve done a few examples the students can do the same activity in groups. This activity works well as a follow up to elicitation. For an extra challenge you can play the game using two words instead of one. So it would be ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with b h  (blue hat) ’ or ‘I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with o j (orange juice)’.


How do you use pictures in your classes with your students. Please add a comment below and let’s start sharing ideas.


Medina, J (2008) Brain Rules; Pear Press


Teacher’s aren’t doctors but sometimes we’re made to feel like we are🙂

I was at a conference recently and a teacher came up to me with a wry smile on her face. ‘I have a problem,’ she said. ‘You know that chant you did in your workshop last year? It goes like this …Juha! Juha! What are you going to do? The cat came home and ate the meat and nothing’s left for you!.…Well it’s become a complete ear worm for me. It keeps coming into my head when I’m trying to concentrate on something else. Please give me something to get rid of it!’

Earworms can certainly be frustrating. I’ve been listening to a lot of music by the Cuban musician, Silvio Rodríguez, recently and I have an earworm for part of this song at the moment.

My earworm goes like this..

Que maneras más curiosas
de recordar tiene uno,
que maneras más curiosas:
hoy recuerdo mariposas
que ayer sólo fueron humo,
mariposas, mariposas
que emergieron de lo oscuro
bailarinas, silenciosas.

Mariposas is a very beautiful song and the words are beautiful too. In English it means something like this…

What most curious ways
of remembering one has,
what most curious ways:
today I remember butterflies
that yesterday were only smoke,
butterflies, butterflies,
that emerged from the dark,
dancers, silent.

I’ve probably just heard it too many times and I would quite happily fill my head with other things, but this little snippet keeps popping up, especially when I’m trying to write. It’s driving me a little crazy.

But if we think about it from the perspective of the second language learner  (I am a lapsed learner of Spanish) then earworms might actually be useful. Could it be that they are part of the cure rather than the affliction itself? I very rarely hear spoken Spanish these days, so having a stretch of naturally connected speech that I keep turning over in my head can only be a good thing in terms of giving me a connection to the language. If we are in a situation where we don’t get that much exposure to the language we are learning, (which is the case for many learners around the world) then an earworm is way to provide some quite focussed listening practice, albeit from an internal, rather than external, voice. If I listen to Silvio Rodríguez singing I can hear that my version isn’t the same of course. I can’t play it on the guitar, I’ve got an English accent and I can’t do it anywhere near as fluently as he does. But the point is that it is MY voice in my head that is singing Mariposas, and by doing this I’m constantly reaffirming to myself that I’m a fluent speaker of Spanish. At least in my head I am!🙂

One of the things that I’m trying to stay focused on at the moment is turning the Hands Up Project into a charity. It’s the right thing to do because it will allow me to access other sources of funding, but it’s also quite a complex and time consuming process. While this is going on, and while the kids in Gaza are starting their summer holiday, I’m going to take a break from writing these blog posts for a while. In the meantime here’s one of the chants from the Stories Alive book, performed brilliantly by a student in Gaza. If it becomes an earworm for you then the blame lies with me, and I apologise in advance!

Jbēne! Jbēne! As white as cheese! Come with us to the Christ-thorn trees.

Jbēne! Jbēne! Stuck in the tree! You can’t get down. You can’t get free.

Jbēne! Jbēne! As black as night! Stay with the sheep till the morning light.

Jbēne! Jbēne! As white as cheese Marry me! Marry me! Marry me please!

Jbēne! Jbēne! As white as the moon. Marry me! Marry me! Marry me soon!

The (second language) play’s the thing

I’ll have grounds
More relative than this—the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
                                                                                                   Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 603–605

When Hamlet spoke those lines he was thinking about the power of the play from the perspective of the audience. He decided to put on, ‘The murder of Gonzago’ (the play within the play in Hamlet) because the plot had similarities with the actual murder of his father. Suspecting that his uncle, Claudius, was guilty of the murder, he wanted to observe Claudius watching the play to see if he could detect his conscience being stirred.

In contrast, when we do a play with learners of English as a foreign language, we’re focussing principally on what the participants can get out of the experience rather than the audience. As the acclaimed drama in education expert, Dorothy Heathcote, put it (Wagner 1999), ‘The difference between theatre and classroom drama is that in theatre everything is contrived so that the audience gets the kicks.  In the classroom, the participants get the kicks.’

So how can second language learners benefit from performing in a play?

  1. Play scripts are ready-made coherent and cohesive texts, where grammar, vocabulary and chunks of language are used meaningfully, naturally and in context. Unlike many coursebook practice activities which focus on language items in isolation, scripts are more holistic, connecting vocabulary and  grammatical structures together through thematic links, rather than semantic ones. Research into how our brains work suggests that language presented in this way is more memorable.
  2. Most learners prioritise the learning of spoken language over written language. However it’s notoriously difficult for learners to notice the features of spoken language since speech, unlike writing, exists in its own time frame, rather than the time frame of the listener. Once words have been spoken, unless they are recorded in some way, they simply disappear. Scripts are spoken language written down, and therefore they provide the best of both worlds.
  3. Of course, we express ourselves and our ideas not just through the words that we use. Communication is a whole body experience and we also create meanings with facial expressions, with gestures and with physical movements. When performing a play it’s important to include all of these features, alongside and in conjunction with language, in order to make the play realistic.  Incorporating physicality helps us to remember the lines for performing the play, but it also helps the language to stick in long term memory long after the play has taken place.
  4. It’s not what you say it’s the way that you say it! A lot of meaning is carried through pronunciation, but it’s hard to get this point across to learners when spoken language is practised in isolation, and without a wider context. When practising the lines of a play, as teachers we can discuss with the learners different ways of saying the lines and the impact that this has. More importantly they can feel it themselves through other people’s reactions to what they say.
  5. Practising and performing a play provides the perfect combination of very controlled and very free language use. Learning the lines involves lots of repetition of a model of natural English, but at the same time there is the potential for plenty of freer discussion around how to say the lines, how to block the scene and whether to use costumes etc. Both of these types of language use are necessary in order to develop fluency. As well as this it can be very useful to involve an element of improvisation in to the process of learning lines itself. If the script is sometimes taken away and learners improvise using whatever language they have available to them it helps them to both remember the lines and to connect what they are saying to themselves.
  6. In order to learn any new word, chunk of language or grammatical structure, learners need to practice it lots of times. A few hours of English a week isn’t really enough time for this practice to be effective, so learners need to take it away with them and do it in their own time. As teachers we want them to be turning new language over in their minds at any opportune moment. Getting ready to perform a play can provide the level of practice needed in a much more meaningful way than the coursebook can usually offer – not just practice for the sake of it, but practice to make the most accomplished performance possible.
  7. Sometimes in ELT methodology we tend to shy away from the idea of performance. We avoid putting learners on the spot and incorporate plenty of pair and group work so that learners feel safe and unthreatened. This is all very well and can certainly help to build learners confidence, but in my opinion so too can incorporating a performance stage. There is a big difference of course between performing something when you are unprepared, and performing when you’ve got to the point where you feel comfortable about what you are doing. In fact for many learners it is the performance stage which provides the challenge they need in order to make real progress.

So here are a group of students at Asma’ Prep Girls A, UNRWA school, Gaza, rising very well to this challenge. They’re performing a modernised and simplified version of the traditional Palestinian story, The Farmer who followed his dream.

And here’s another one, performed by girls at Elementary co-ed “A” UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. They’re doing the Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and the Hare.

We now have lots of videos on youtube of children in Gaza performing stories from the Stories Alive material. Congratulations to all of you for the wonderful performances and congratulations to your teachers for providing the time for this when I know you’ve all been busy getting ready for the end of year exams.

From Russia with love

Last Saturday we had a rather special zoom meeting  between Sahar Salha’s class at the Elementary co-ed “A” UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza and Alex Guzik’s class of kids in Krasnodar, Russia.

It started with the Russian children performing their own excellent interpretation of the traditional Palestinian story, The Farmer who followed his dream. It was especially nice since the class in Gaza had worked on the same story themselves so they could compare the way they’d done things. After that the class in Gaza did a great performance of another well known story in Palestine – Juha and the donkey.

After that we were surprised to find out that two girls in Gaza were fluent Russian speakers themselves. Rania sang a beautiful Russian song and Aya interviewed the Krasnodar group – in Russian!  Then it opened up into a general question and answer session with them taking turns to ask each other questions. Sports and favourite animals came up and then they ended up listing the ingredients to each other for one of their national dishes – Borsch for the Russians and Musakhan for the Palestinians. A highlight for me was when  Manar in Gaza asked the group In Krasnodar, ‘What do you hope for the children of Gaza?’ The answer they gave was considerate and heartfelt. Despite the four power-cuts that we experienced during the one hour session, and the rather weak internet signal, it really felt like a strong connection was made. Here’s a short snippet of what happened..

Zooming in and Zooming out

A while back I saw a pretty impressive video on youtube and since then the images from it keep filling my head. It begins with a camera shot from space showing earth as a distant object and then gradually moves closer and closer, zooming in on the world, the continent of Europe, the UK, London and then, eventually streets, houses and finally people become visible. Once it’s zoomed in as far as it can go, it slowly zooms back out again until the world is once more just a distant blob.

earth from space

It struck me later that the analogy of the camera zooming in and zooming out, can be usefully related to the processes involved in the learning of a foreign language. We need moments where we see the language as a whole, without worrying too much about language form. But we also need to stop sometimes and examine the pieces which make up the whole. We need to both zoom in, and to zoom out on language.

If our lens is always thinking globally and looking at the bigger picture, the intricate detail of how the language works; the new vocabulary, the verb endings, the article system, the features of pronunciation, and the spellings, may pass us by. Similarly if we’re always looking in close up mode, we’ll fail to see the wood for the trees, and we’ll miss out on the role of language as a tool for communication; as a medium for understanding the people we connect to.

In my online sessions with children in Gaza (using a video-conferencing tool which is conveniently called Zoom ! ) I tend to do more zooming out because my feeling is that they have plenty of zooming in activities in their regular English classes. But particularly with older kids I also think it’s important that I do things which help them focus on detail sometimes.

The two videos below are from the same session with quite a large group in a library in Gaza city. The first one is very much a zooming in type of activity. The children first try to guess what is in my fridge and we write down the words and go through them. Then some of them come up to the front and talk about what might be in their own fridges at home.

In this second video I’m telling the same class a story. English is being used extensively and more naturally. I’m using some of the vocabulary that had come up in the ‘fridge activity’ but there’s no pressure for anyone to use the words that I use or even to understand them, since the teacher in the room, at least in the beginning, is translating what I’m saying into Arabic.

I think that trying to keep an appropriate balance between zooming in and zooming out is something that is always in the back of my mind as a teacher. It’s not easy to get it right, and I’m not sure that I ever really do! How much of each process is needed will depend of course on the needs and interests of each group that we work with, and on our own particular teaching style. So what about in your classes? Are you more inclined to zoom in, or zoom out ?

Send in the clowns

A few weeks ago I was one of the speakers at the IATEFL Pre-conference event organised collaboratively by the C Group and the Global issues special interest group. Towards the end of the day we were given a talk by Julie Pratten about her wonderful project Heart ELT which has set up a school in a refugee camp in Iraq. At the beginning Julie gave us all a blank postcard and told us that we would be doing something with it later. As she approached the end of her talk she asked us to use the postcard to write a message to the children in the camp. I looked down at the postcard in my hand and noticed to my surprise that while I was focussing on what Julie was saying, I had absentmindedly rolled the postcard up into a scroll. I immediately felt guilty and a bit panicky because I’d done something a silly. But maybe there was a way that I could use this scrolled up postcard as a message for the children after all? Without really thinking where this might be leading. I wrote ‘What’s inside?’ on the outside of the scroll. I then unravelled it a bit and wrote ‘An animal’ and then ‘A cat or a dog? ‘ before finally writing ‘A cog’ and drawing a picture of an animal that was a mixture of a cat and a dog. I realised that out of my mistake I’d created a sort of very simple book and I thought this might actually be quite a motivating thing for the kids to receive. It might also serve as a model for them to create their own mixed vocabulary scrolls. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Afterwards I started wondering whether this might be a good activity to try out in my online sessions with children in Gaza. I liked the fact that there was something very creative about it and that it pushed learners to think about the meaning of two vocabulary items at the same time. I also thought it might be a motivating way of practising some simple areas of  language (It’s got a cat’s ears but it’s got a dog’s tail etc) When I got back from IATEFL I tried it out with the first class I had. Here’s what happened.


Like many of the things I do in these sessions, this activity would probably work better in a face to face context where the teacher could go around the class and talk to the kids about what they have drawn, or monitor conversations that they were having between themselves. If you do try it out in your classes, I’d be very interested in hearing about how it went.  As a teacher there’s something that really appeals to me about this activity and I think there are interesting ways in which it could be developed. For instance how would it work if children tried to draw an animal which had features of lots of different animals not just two?

With my teacher trainer hat on, this whole process has also got me thinking about the extent to which innovative ideas for the classroom emerge, not out of meticulous planning, but rather out of mistakes and problems which arise spontaneously in class. And yet this ability to work creatively with what is actually going on, is something that is rarely emphasised on teacher training courses. Stand up comedians and theatrical clowns regularly work in this way, often building a whole routine out of something that spontaneously happens when they are on stage.  Interestingly, these can be the moments which draw us in, and make us feel involved when we are watching, which of course is what we want to happen to the learners in our classes. Perhaps learners are more engaged in our classes when we are thinking on our feet, rather than sticking slavishly to the plan? Perhaps being a clown is a useful metaphor for being a teacher? What do you think?

Bringing stories to life

The full text of Stories Alive, including the material for all 10 stories as well as detailed teachers’ notes is now available at the bottom of the Resources page. If you don’t have it already, please feel free to download it, experiment with it, and adapt it for your classes. Most of what I’m doing in my online sessions with kids uses material from here but this week I want to focus on something a bit different. One area of storytelling that I haven’t really looked at so far with these posts is working with picture books. With very young learners especially,  I’ve often felt that if all teachers ever did was tell their kids stories from these books, then something very useful would be going on. There are some wonderful books out there too – books with very satisfying rhyme and rhythm patterns, books with simple but engaging language, books with amazing visuals. So what are your favourite picture stories for young learners, and what do you do with them? Let’s use this space for sharing ideas.

To kick us off here’s one of my old favourites, We’re going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen with illustrations by Helen Oxenbury. As part of the British Council’s wonderful Kids Read programme, I’ve told this story to children of different ages and levels in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine and Qatar, and I’ve often used it with teachers in the same places to demonstrate motivating ways of working with a story book. It was a personal favourite of my own children as they were growing up and my eldest son, who’s now 21, remembers it with a lot of nostalgia from his childhood. There are lots of different versions of it on youtube including at least one by the author himself. But the version below performed by the girls at Beit Hanoun Elementary co-ed “A” UNRWA school, Gaza is my personal all time favourite. It blew me away when it was performed to me live through zoom a few weeks ago. This is the recording that was made afterwards. I love it for their enthusiasm and commitment, and for the fact that the story is no longer a piece of printed material, but something very much alive.


Bear Hunt - cover

Tense conversations

“I tried talking about our future but she just kept bringing up my past. It was a tense conversation.” 

Most of the Hands up Project’s work is with younger learners in Gaza but I also have a group of teenage boys who live in a village near Ramallah with whom I do a weekly session. In the beginning I found it difficult to organise online classes that really addressed this group’s needs, but, in consultation with their teacher Atiyyeh, a way of working has emerged which seems to be much more useful. Basically what happens is that Atiyyeh gives them a topic that they are all going to talk about individually with me. So far we’ve done clothes, hobbies and homes. They then spend some time preparing  what they are going to say and when we meet in our online session each person has a few minutes to chat with me about the topic. Here’s a recent example.

You’ll notice that in the space of less than four minutes there is quite a range of tenses and structures that are used (present perfect, present continuous, present simple, and the future with ‘will’ and ‘going to’) These grammatical forms are of high importance – certainly in terms of what learners like Ahmed will be tested on in his English exams. They may have been studied in the coursebook in a contrived way and probably in isolation, but here they are naturally linked to each other within a context that is personalised and generated by the learner. This factor may help to make them more meaningful and ultimately more memorable.

Of course we couldn’t say that Ahmed has gained complete control of all of these forms, but it’s probably completely unrealistic to expect that from any single grammar focussed activity anyway. At least having a conversation with a more advanced speaker seems to be providing a scaffold in which he is pushed to process them a little more. I like what is happening in this short excerpt for instance, where Ahmed is pushed to go from ‘My dad he’s build the a home up our home‘ to ‘He is building for me a home for me’.  

Ahmed…In the village we have another home in the village is away from the home we are living in. He’s to my brother and my dad he’s build the a home up our home (His teacher provides him with ‘second floor’ ) a second floor
Nick: aha
Ahmed: For me
Nick: Your dad, did you say he has built it or he’s building it? He has built it?
Ahmed: He’s a builder.
Nick: No but did you say he has built it or he is building it?
Ahmed: He is building for me a home for me
Nick: He’s building it now? When will it be finished?
Ahmed: Next year on the summer

Interestingly, it was my genuine failure to understand what he meant which lead me to use the closed question, ‘Did you say he has built it or he’s building it?’  and this seemed to be a useful push for him to activate a more accurate form.

Another thing I like about this way of working are the opportunities for repetition and self regulation that it provides. Learners first think about and plan what they are going to say on their own, they then go on to talk about it with a partner, and finally they are pushed to do the same thing with a teacher in front of the class. It is at the final stage that the level of challenge is at its highest, and this may be useful in order for learning to happen. Of course it is also here where the level of tension is at its highest. Some learners, like Ahmed, rise to this very well but others may find it too much. However, in situations like this one, where the other students are clearly listening carefully to what is going on, perhaps they too are being challenged to process the tenses that are included in a deeper way than they would be if they were simply having a conversation with a partner.

I started this post with an old and rather corny joke, but I’m serious about the idea that tense conversations; that is conversations where a range of different grammatical structures emerge naturally through interaction, may be a useful way to combine the sometimes conflicting aims of communicative and grammatical syllabi. What I’m less sure about is whether we can depend on these types of conversation to come up naturally, even if we’re careful about picking the right topics, or whether with Ahmed I just struck lucky. What do you think?

Storified drilling

Drilling is often criticised for being an old fashioned, teacher controlled activity with minimal cognitive challenge for learners. But the central idea behind it – that of pushing learners to process and reproduce a stretch of spoken language after a model from a more advanced speaker – can, in my opinion, be a very useful component of good teaching.

I think that it’s less effective however when the utterances that are drilled are short (so that echoic rather than working memory is used) ; when they are decontextualised; when they are devoid of gesture and emotion; and when they are not related in any way to the learners who are doing the repeating.

Here’s a neat idea to address these issues, combining drilling and storytelling, that I learnt from a wonderful performance storyteller based in my home town, Michael Quinn.  When Michael tells a story – be it to children or adults, he invariably invites members of the audience to come up to the front and to take on the roles of the characters in the story. He tells the story but asks the volunteers to act it out and supplies each actor with their lines as they need them, in the same way that a prompt performs this task in the theatre. There’s something quite powerful about hearing each line twice – once by the storyteller and once by the actor.

So this clip shows my attempt at doing Michael’s activity when working online with a group in Rafah, Gaza, with the story of Nasreddin and the dinner party from Stories Alive. Like most things that I do in this project, I think it works much better when done in face to face settings, so I’d be really interested in hearing of any experiences you have when trying it out. I’d also like to know what you think about drilling in general and how you use it in your classes.

Thanks for the memory!

On Tuesday I’ll be doing a presentation at the IATEFL Global issues/Creativity group pre-conference event in Birmingham. The title of my talk is Creativity and Memorisation: finding the links. As a teacher and teacher trainer, this has been an area of interest of mine for a long time, and it’s something that I thought about a lot when I was writing Memory Activities for Language Learning.

In my talk I’m going to be focussing on the conflict that exists between teacher training programmes and exam systems in many parts of the world. As I see it,  the importance of fostering creativity in language learners is something which is increasingly emphasised with new teachers, and yet the majority of the world’s language learners are working towards tests and exams which heavily prioritise memorisation and learning by heart. Are these two learning activities at opposing ends of a spectrum, or are they actually more closely linked than we might think?

We tend to think of creativity as being about production of language: writing a story, composing a song, or improvising. But could it be that creative processes are also involved in the storage of language, in committing language to memory. The late, great Earl Stevick (1993) certainly saw a powerful connection between creativity and memory.

  ‘Our imagining equipment is intimately associated with our remembering equipment…In order for this wonderful equipment to serve our students best, we need to provide occasions for its use..and some kind of distinctive, meaningful response to what imagination has produced.’

Imagination and Memories: Friends or Enemies (Earl Stevick 1993)

One group of people who work very much within these two realms of creativity and memory are actors. What kinds of creative processes do they employ when learning the lines of a play? Noice and Noice’s (2006) research found that using movements and physical gestures which were appropriate to the meaning of the line at the time of memorisation really helped the line to stick. Interestingly it was not always necessary to retrieve the movement in order to retrieve the line that it corresponded to. This indicates that imagination is also being activated: to retrieve the lines effectively actors are linking the words in their minds to movements, to existing knowledge, to their meanings, and to their emotional value. They’re not just consuming the lines – they are making them their own through creativity.

Of course these processes doesn’t just apply to professional actors, they also apply to children performing plays or telling stories that they’ve memorised in class. I think you can see them happening in this video of Sally in Beit-Hanoun, telling the traditional Palestinian story of Tunjur! She’s learnt it by heart, but it’s also very much her own creative interpretation of what she has memorised, and my guess is that, because of this, it will stay with her for quite a while.

What is the long term impact of learning the lines of a story or a play? Will it help the learner when it comes to taking their exams years later? Is it a way of building up a bank of language that can be retrieved when needed for communication?

Twenty five years ago I took part in a community play in a swimming pool in Herning, Denmark. Though it makes me cringe to watch this short clip now, especially for my strong English accent, my limited acting skills and my haircut🙂, I really do remember it like it was yesterday. Here’s the final scene where I had to dive into the swimming pool, swim underwater, defeat the black baron, be offered the throne, and then finally refuse it and sail away. This was certainly a very memorable experience for me and it’s interesting  how after all this time I can still remember so many of the lines. I wonder if by doing plays with our learners in class we are providing them with experiences that they will remember a long way into the future. What do you think?



Noice, H and Noice, T (2006) What studies of actors and acting can tell us about cognitive functioning; Current Directions in Psychological Science

Stevick, E (1993) Imagination and Memories: Friends or Enemies; Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning and Teaching