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Memory Techniques for Students

A guest blog by Pete Myson. English teacher extraordinaire and guitar hero!

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The focus for my Thursday morning thriller was memory technique for students. The starting point was the new changes being made to the English Literature GCSE which requires that students tackle responses to Shakespeare plays and modern novels in a ‘closed book’ exam at the end of Year 11. Students are still required to use quotations and analyse and evaluate them in detail but from 2016 they will need to have these quotations memorised.

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Kazio Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

So, the challenge for English teachers up and down the UK is how to get the students to memorise quotations in order to be able to use them in this way.

The starting point for me, which I’ve been trialing with my Year 7 poetry lessons, was quite simply the learning of quotations, extracts of poems and whole poems. Attached is a range of ideas for encouraging your students to learn poems.

It quickly became clear, however, that this was only the tip of the iceberg. At lunch-time my students were bounding up to me enthusiastically reciting Blake, W. H. Davies, Dickinson and Carroll, which I thought was fantastic – I was so impressed. And then, after a particularly impressive recitation of Carroll’s ‘The Jabberwocky’ I asked this particular student what she thought it was about: No idea. In fairness to her, ‘The Jabberwocky’ is rather nonsensical but this raised a new issue: Learning a poem (or any piece of information) and learning to talk or write about a poem are two entirely different skills.

Once students have memorised a piece of information, how do we enable them to talk and write about it in an analytical way?

I then decided to take one of the memory techniques and develop it further. This particular technique involves breaking up an entire poem and giving a single line to each student as they enter the room. Students have one minute to memorise their line and then I get them to recite it in order of the poem. Bingo! The whole class has learnt a poem by heart (between them) in a minute. This is effective in itself because each student now has ownership of a unique piece of knowledge – no one else in the class has that particular line of poetry. It is theirs and they are to become a specialist on that line.

I began to use this as a starter to poetry lessons which I would then teach as usual: vocabulary focuses; discussion of key themes and ideas,; identification and analysis of poetic techniques but with a focus on their particular line of the poem. The real difference came when I got students to talk and write about the poem. Instead of choosing any old quotations to support their response to the poem, students had to use the line they had learnt at the start of the lesson. Using this strategy has many positive outcomes:

  • It helps to develop the feeling for students that they are bringing something to the text.
  • Students take ownership of a part of the text and feel that their contribution is unique.
  • Students’ responses are reliant upon each other: An understanding of the text as a whole is reliant upon an understanding of its constituent parts. This method actively encourages collaboration.
  • You don’t have to read and mark 28 identical responses.

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 20.37.32 Here’s a response to the poem ‘The Piano’ by D. H. Lawrence (which you can read here: http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/~keith/poems/piano.html ), written by a Year 7 student, using this strategy. Her current level at the time was a 4b: The poet writes, “in spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song”. The word “insidious” suggests the thoughts of his childhood are creeping round his head. This shows that he might not want to remember them. This is heightened by the word “mastery” which shows that the thoughts in his brain are almost controlling him. Overall this adds to the image of the poet feeling light-headed above their childhood, which means the memories are happy and sad. [I have italicised words given as part of a writing frame.] So hopefully it is evident that this technique encourages not only memorisation of information, but also a deeper understanding of that information in a way that is beneficial to both the student and their peers. A recap of the strategy (worded as instructions to pupils):

  • Take one line of the poem each as you come in.
  • Memorise it.
  • Recite your line in the order given along with the class.
  • Look up unfamiliar words.
  • Investigate and discuss the meaning of your own line (think, pair, share).
  • Respond to task question through discussion.
  • Write a response with a guiding framework, using your memorised line of the poem as your evidence.

Poem Learning Strategies:

Below are some strategies suggested by Pete that he has made use of.  I’m sure many of these ideas could be adapted to suit other subjects.

Picture it

For visual learners: Make a series of picture cards with four small pictures on each card. Each picture should remind you of a line from the poem. You could even put the first word of each line on the picture to help you out.

Fill the Gap

An easy starting point: Read the poem aloud to your partner but don’t say the last word of each line. See if your partner can fill the gaps. Obviously works best with rhyming poems but try unrhymed poems for a challenge.

Act it Out

Taking one line at a time, act out what the poem is describing – just like charades. This tends to work better as a revision method rather than for learning a poem from scratch. Allow the student acting to have a copy of the poem in front of them.

Word Jumble

Working in pairs each of you has to rewrite a line of the poem with the words jumbled up. (For example, ‘ lonely wandered a cloud as I.’ Once you’ve jumbled up a line, swap with your partner and see if you can unjumble theirs. Try a whole stanza once you get good.


Working in a group of six (or however many you prefer) each student has to memorise a line of the poem. Once everyone’s remembered their line (it’ll only take a minute) see if you can all recite your lines in turn.


As above but with a whole poem and a whole class. You’ll be amazed how quickly an entire poem can be learnt.

Go it Alone

This one requires simple concentration and determination but it is very effective. Read the poem over a few times by yourself before using the ‘look, cover, check’ strategy to tackle the poem bit by bit. If you make a mistake, go back to the start of the poem.

Rap it Up

One for the performers in the group. Poems lend themselves nicely to rap music. Working in pairs, one of you has to beatbox a simple rhythm (boots and cats and boots and cats and…) whilst your partner raps the poem over a slow beat. Have the words in front of you to begin with until it starts to stick.

I hope to carry this technique forward by next encouraging group/class work which brings together individual responses. More to follow…



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