Reflections on My Recent Trip to Peru and Ecuador

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As some of you may know, I recently spent an enriching two weeks meeting with ESOL teachers in Peru and Ecuador. We discussed how our knowledge about the brain can inform our approaches to both teaching and learning.  As always, hearing about the challenges and successes of my fellow teachers has invigorated my thinking about the learning brain and pedagogical strategy.

See my trip agenda and some photos from the sessions below!


July 24, 2017: Instituto Cultural Peruano Norteamericano (ICPNA) de Chiclayo

– Smart Practice: Brain-based Approaches to Teaching

– Student Speak: The Essential Role of Elaboration in Student Learning

– Multimodal Learning: Engaging the Whole Brain in the Classroom

July 25: ICPNA Cusco

– Smart Practice: Brain-based Approaches to Teaching

– Student Speak: The Essential Role of Elaboration in Student Learning

– Multimodal Learning: Engaging the Whole Brain in the Classroom

July 26: El Cultural, Trujillo

– Right from the Start: Metacognitive Skills for Low-Level Learners

July 27: ESAN Graduate School of Business, Lima & Ricardo Palma University

– Project Success Program Training


July 31: Bénédict International Language School, Guayaquil

– Smart Practice: Brain-based Approaches to Teaching

August 1: Centro Ecuatoriano Norteamericano (CEN) de Guayaquil

– Teaching Integrated Skills with Future

– Student Speak: The Essential Role of Elaboration in Student Learning

– Multimodal Learning: Engaging the Whole Brain in the Classroom

August 2: CEN de Guayaquil

– Developing Student Resilience: Encourage Effortful Learning in the Classroom

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Smart Practice Plenary Video


This November I had the opportunity to give a plenary on Smart Practice:  Brain Based Approaches to Teaching at the 2016 New School Conference: Meeting Challenges, Exploring Solutions in the Adult ESOL Classroom.  Check it out!



How to Improve Student Memory and Learning


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Are you looking for ways to boost students learning?  

How to Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning

I encourage you to read this summary How to Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Student Learning by the masters in the field at Washington University: Agarwal, Roediger, McDaniel,and McDermott.  The summary clearly explains what retrieval practice is, how it improves memory and learning, and how to do in your classroom.  It represents a perfect blend of research and best classroom practices!

The WESOL News Report



Recently I was in Florida visiting adult education programs. At Westside Tech of Orange County Schools, in Orlando, I met Maria Wells, an outstanding teacher with a bevy of creative ideas. This one was my favorite.

The WESOL News Report

Maria Wells At Westside Tech.ESOLIn every class Ms. Wells randomly calls on a student to orally report on a news event of his or her choosing. The student must be able to answer the classic news-report questions (who, what, where, when, why, and how) as well as cite the source. She calls it the WESOL News Report!

This activity gets students to regularly read  informational text, practice their speaking skills, and develop their media literacy. The random assignation keeps them all on alert and reading up on news events every class day.

Smart Practice: Using Repetition to Improve Memory


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We forget 90% of what is taught in class within 30 days.

Over a hundred years ago the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885) came to this conclusion after painstakingly exposing his human subjects to list of words.   He also discovered that most of this forgetting occurs just hours after being exposed to the new material.   It is called the curve of forgetting.

When we encounter new information, neurons in our brain activate, but the stimulation lasts only up to 90 minutes unless it is reactivated (Squire, Kandel, 1999).  We begin to commit the new learning to memory when we first practice it, but for learning to endure in our memory, we must return to it at intervals and in different ways over weeks, months, and even years.

Quick Learning

A popular model in education is “teaching to mastery”.  We often interpret this to mean that students need to practice a language point intensely until it is burned into memory. Indeed, while students are practicing, they demonstrate an easy fluency with the material.  That is because it is active in their working memory.  Teachers and students alike prefer this intensive kind practice because it produces rapid, if ephemeral, gains. Quickly students gain confidence in their control of the material.  It feels familiar and known.  If tested immediately after intensive repetition and in a way that simulates the rehearsal, students score well.

Quick Forgetting

It turns out, however, that intensive repetitive practice leads to quick learning AND quick forgetting.  (Dunloskey, 2013).  If students are tested on that same material just a day later, their scores drop precipitously. The challenge is to have students put the material aside and then return to it. Inevitably they will have forgetten some of the material, and that is ok.  The effort they make to retrieve and reconstruct the information each time they practice it anew will strengthen their memory.

Interval Learning = Long-Term Learning

Practicing material at intervals over time is more effective than practicing material intensively in a short period of time. (Cepada 2003.) Students who practice at intervals retain their knowledge and skills for a longer period than those who practice it intensely all at once, even when controlled for total time spent practicing the material (Dunloskey 2013). This means one hour of intensive practice is less valuable than four intervals of 15 minutes each.

Intervals can be as short as five minutes, or twenty-five minutes.  This way you can get students retrieving something they practiced a couple of activities prior in the class.  But then ideally the intervals should occur at longer and longer lag times over the ensuing days, weeks, and months.  Between each interval, students begin forgetting the information.  Then, when students make an effort to retrieve that information, they strengthen their memory of their learning.

Lesson Planning         

Repetition and spirals.

Repetition and spirals.

Built-in Reviews:  Class Warm-Up

At the beginning of class, ask students what they learned in the last class.

Have students briefly identify the material studied in textbook and notes to update any previously absent students.

Built-in Reviews:  Class Recap

At the end of class, ask students to tell you what they learned in class.  This may be the first time they are returning to a topic.

Student Organization:  Study Calendars

  • Hand out weekly calendars or have students use their cell-phone calendars.
  • On the first class of the week, ask students to schedule at least four times they will study English outside of class.

Student Organization: Data Speaks

  • At the start of each week, ask students to look at their calendar and to count the number of times they studied English outside of class the previous week.
  • Then test student retention of the material presented and practiced in the previous week.   To test, you can use a section of your textbook’s unit test, or a simple dictation of questions or prompts to which students write responses.
  • At the top of the test, have students write the number of times they studied the previous week. Quickly, students will recognize the relationship between studying at intervals and their retention of knowledge and skills.

Frequent Assessments

Simple and challenging assessments are essential to developing memory of learning.  Make sure you do these regularly and recycle previously learned material.

Dictation:  Site the Setting

  • Dictate two lines from a conversation students learned in previous lessons.
  • Have students identify who the speakers are and where they are talking.  For example:

A:  May I help you?

B:  Yes, I’d like a coffee and a sandwich.

Who:  An employee and a customer.

Where:  A restaurant.

Dictation:  Quick Quiz

Dictate questions that ask students to recall previous learning.  For example:

What are three kinds of over the counter medicine?  

How many colors do you see in the classroom?  

What are the four seasons of the year?

What occupations are in restaurant work?

Dictation:  Word Works

  • Keeping a running list of words students are studying.
  • Dictate recently learned words to test spelling.  Every time add a few words from previous units.

Correct the Errors

  • Write common errors into sentences on cards- one per card.
  • Distribute the cards. In pairs student find the error and write the sentence correctly on a piece of paper.
  • Check their work.  If correct provide the pair with a new error on a card.

A Thousand Words

  • Project an image that contains items students have learned in previous classes.
  • Give pairs of student 3 minutes to generate as many words as they can.
  • Review the lists together.

Getting Organized: Student Binders and Homework Papers



Class time is so precious; I hate to waste it on students’ looking for papers, so I try to limit the papers and keep them organized.  Here are some ways to keep the chaos contained. 

Use Binders

  • Binders are great because students can add and subtract papers, and reorganize as needed.
  • Go for the slim binders.  They’re less expensive, and, the tight space forces students to clean through their papers more frequently.
  • Create a few sections, not more than three.  You don’t want to make it too complicated.  It’s supposed to save time and focus effort, not become the focus of effort!
  • Bring out the recycling bin:  Regularly encourage students to go through their binders and get rid of papers that are they are not going to look at again.  My criteria questions are:  Is this paper important?  Why?  Will I study it again?
  • Binders are a tool for test prep.  Before every test, have students go through their binders and decide what they need to study.  They can tag the important papers with stickies.  (And any extraneous paper can go in the recycling bin.)

A Sample Binder from My Class:

Up front:  Before the first section

a.  Name and number.

Student copy and complete the information in the front of their books.

This book belongs to _________.

If found please call _______________.

b.  Class calendar We circle the days of class and write in any important holidays, projects, or field trips.

c.  School numbers.  

Person to call when absent.

Person to call for homework assignments (for example: a learning buddy).

School computer password.

School cancellation number.

Section 1:  Class Notes

This is the current content unit we are studying at the moment. Students can place all current class notes, handouts, homework and writing work in this section, from front to back.

Section 2:  Word Study

Here students maintain their vocabulary lists and spelling lists.

Section 3:  Study Again

This section has all the highlights from previous units.  Because we know recycling is essential and that students need to touch on old learning to keep it active, I encourage students to study these pages intermittently.  To ensure students do the studying, I integrate material from prior units in tests and quizzes.

What about homework assignments?  

Students put a bright little sticky on each homework assignment whether it is in the textbook or on a handout in their binder.  They place the sticky so it sticks out like a tab.  This makes it super easy for everyone to locate homework papers at home and in class. At the end of each class, as when getting the next class assignment, students remove the stickies from their finished homework and re-paste the their new assignment pages.

For more Organizing Tips check out:

Getting organized for the new school year

Brain-based Research: Strengthening Learning and Memory



         “If you’re just engaging in mechanical repetition,

 it’s true, you quickly hit the limit of what you can retain. 

However, if you practice elaboration,

 there’s no known limit to how much you can learn.”

~ Brown, Roediger, McDaniel (2014)

Elaboration is essential for you to commit new learning to memory.  Elaboration is when you explain new information in your own words.  Once you begin to add examples and details, or make connections to other experiences and knowledge, you are enriching the new learning and making it more memorable and more transferrable to new contexts. Thinking Please wait
laboration involves the thinking strategies of paraphrasing, summarizing, creating analogies, answering questions, and describing connections.  Elaboration activates the frontal lobe of your brain and brings your new learning to a higher level of awareness and articulation.

Let’s learn something new, and then practice elaboration.

1.  New Information:  

  • The Spanish word sobremesa has no equivalent in English.
  • Sobremesa literally translated means on the table.
  • Definition of sobremesa: the time spent after a meal when people linger at the table to talk.  In Spain the sobremesa phase of a holiday meal can last for hours.
  • Example sentence:  The most important part of the day for my family is the sobremesa because we just slow down for a bit and talk about what is going on in our lives.  

2.  Elaboration:

  • Retell:  In your own words what does sobremesa mean? Where and when does sobremesa happen?
  • Connect to your life:  Do you have a sobremesa after meals in your home?  If so, how long does the sobremesa last? If not, do you think you would like the tradition of the sobremesa in your home?  Why?  Why not?
  • Connect to other knowledge:  Why do you think sobremesa is a Spanish word and not an English word?  What does it tell you about Spanish culture?

Elaboration is a low prep and very effective way for teachers to get students to practice and enhance their learning.  It can take many forms:  It can be done individually, in pairs, or in groups. Simple ESOL elaboration activities are: explaining material to a recently absent classmate; relating new material to situations in one’s own life; writing an outline or summary of the new learning; organizing the new learning in a graphic organizer; or applying the material to a new context in a role play.

The key to elaboration is that the student does the work.  The student must make the effort to make meaning and add layers of experience and thought to new information for the new knowledge to be long lasting and transferable.   To achieve elaboration, you must restrain yourself from too much teacher-talk.


Brain-based Classroom Activities:  Elaboration

End of Class Reflection:  What did you learn in class today?

  • At the end of each class, have students put away their notes and books and for five minutes write on a separate piece everything they learned in class.
  • After five minutes of writing, have students look at their class notes.  What did they remember?  What did they forget?  Have students write the material they forgot in a different color on their papers.
  • Then ask, What is most important to you?  Why?  When will you use it?

Retell and Reconstruct

  • After reading a text or listening to a conversation, have students retell the information in pairs.
  • Then have them work individually to reconstruct the text/conversation in writing.
  • Have students read the text or listen to the conversation one more time (with their pencils down).
  • Have them write any corrections or new details into the text in a different colored ink.

Mark the Margins

Have students review their class notes at the end of class and mark  their notes with the following symbols:

I understand.

I don’t understand.

+ I want to practice more.

Before leaving class, have students write on a paper and hand in to you:

  • Something they learned.
  • One question they have.
  • One thing they want to practice more.

Brain Based Research: Teaching with Many Modalities


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“Our senses are designed to work together, so when they are combined . . . the brain pays more attention and encodes the memory more robustly.”

~ Medina 2014

Multimodal Learning

Study after study show that memory improves when more than one sense is stimulated at the same time.  The early pioneer in multimodal learning, Edgar Dale found that people learn better from pictures and words than from words alone.  In more recent years, Richard Mayer has established that learners who receive input in a variety of senses have better recall than learners who receive input that is only visual or auditory. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.  (Medina 2014)  Furthermore, people who receive information via multiple modalities are more creative in their problem solving by 50% to 75%  (Newell, Bulthoff, Ernst 2003).

The ultimate expression of simultaneous and multimodal learning is learning by doing.  When we learn by seeing and hearing, we remember 50% fourteen days later.  But we remember 90% if we actually experience it.  (Dale 1969)   This means that simulations, such as role plays, are very effective in helping students remember the new language they learned.

All the Senses and All the Brain

Language, the subject of our teaching, is quite a brain-stimulating subject.  Language activates many parts of the brain. In fact, different lobes of your brain specialize in processing different aspects of language. (Zadina 2014).  You process sound in a different location than you process visual information or motor information, so hearing the word cat, seeing the word cat, seeing a photograph of a cat, and saying the word cat all stimulate different parts of your brain.  If you engage all these different senses you are more likely to remember the meaning of cat because you have an enriched experience of the concept of cat and you have more pathways to that concept.

Using Expressive Pathways

“Very simply, saying a word aloud leads to better memory than does reading a word silently. “  

~ Colin MacLeod (2012)

Within the four language skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, there is also a hierarchy of impact on memory.  Reading and listening are receptive pathways.  Speaking and writing are expressive pathways.  When we reread material aloud (using an expressive pathway) our memory of that information is stronger than if we read it silently (using our receptive pathway).  This is called the “production effect”  (MacLeod 2013).  While we cannot always prompt learning experiences that integrate all the senses, we should remember to give our students many opportunities to use their expressway pathways in class.  Invite them to speak, enunciate, discuss, print, write, type, and draw as much as possible.


Using Multiple Senses to Stay Stimulated 


“Our sensory receptors become aroused when a new stimulus begins, but if the new stimulus continues without variation in quality or quantity, our sensory receptors shut down from their aroused state.”

                                                          ~Pierce J. Howard  (2000)

In his popular book, The Owner’s Manual for the Brain Howard points out that our brains need variety.  We need to add novelty and variation for our neurons to fire until they wire.

Using multiple modalities is a way to add stimulation to student learning.  For example: if you have introduced words in print on the board, introduce them again in typeface on a computer screen, or have students practice “skywriting” the words with their fingers in the air, or have students type the words and “dress” them with the computer tools of font, color, and WordArt to express the word in graphic text.  Have students listen carefully for the beginning or end sound of each word.  Use gesture to demonstrate stress and rhythm. Introduce the words again with pictures from Google images or have students draw their own illustrations, or have students use their cell phones to photograph an example of the word.

Classroom Applications

Multisensory Checklist

Complete a checklist at random intervals to evaluate how much of the visual medium you use in class.   If you haven’t check an item off in a while, figure a way to integrate into your next class.   (See The Multisensory Checklist for Teaching Language: )

Dramatic Dialogues

  • Make sure your students get multiple exposures to a dialogue from a variety of media: audio print, video.
  • Give students multiple opportunities to practice the dialogues in a variety of dispositions:  sitting, standing, with propos, whispering, shouting, with gestures.
  • Make sure students use the new language they learned in a role play.  You can add layers to their sensory learning by videotaping their role plays and sending them to the students to watch and transcribe short sections.

Multisensory Spelling Practice

  • Sound: Students repeat a word and consider its number of syllables and syllable stress.
  • Print: Students look at the printed word and consider how the letters and the sounds correspond.  Are there letters that are silent?  Are there sounds that have no corresponding letters?
  • Movement: Students “write” the word on their desktops with their index finger.

Silent Read and Repeat 

This silent step allows students to focus on the mechanical aspects of pronunciation: the movements of lips, jaw, cheeks, and tongue.

  • Read a line aloud to the class.
  • Have students read it by mouthing the words (saying them with no voice).
  • Have students then read the line aloud.

[Thanks to Marc Helgesen for this great idea! ]

Additional links to multi-sensory teaching ideas:

Brain-based Research: Building on Student Knowledge



“Students must connect new knowledge to previous knowledge in order to learn.” 

~ Ambrose  (How Learning Works. 2010)


Why are login passwords so hard to remember?  Because eight-character strings of digits, symbols, and letters do not carry inherent meaning. Our minds cannot hold on to meaningless or arbitrary information. We remember what we can understand. The better we connect our previous experiences and knowledge of the world, the easier it is to learn new information. 


Learning Grows More Learning

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Research has shown that the more knowledge a student has, the easier it is to learn (Brown, 2014). Why?  Because learning is the process of connecting new information to previous knowledge.  Our previous knowledge is organized into mental models- summaries of knowledge about various topics. If new learning does not relate to anything we already know, we struggle to interpret it and give it meaning. We struggle to connect with it.  

This has enormous implications for educators.  Students with less background knowledge of a topic have a harder time making sense of new information.  They have no mental model to structure their thinking. In various studies in the early 1990s, researchers determined that readers without background knowledge read much more literally because they assume that all information comes from the text (Cromley 2000).  Essential critical thinking skills –such as inferring and concluding – are not available to a reader who cannot “read between the lines.” If we educators are going to help students grow their knowledge, we need to first prepare them by making explicit connections to their life experience and knowledge, before we delve into the new material.  


Activating the Neural Network 

There are many ways to prime students’ mind to new learning.  In 2009, a study determined that taking a pre-test before learning information increases learning by a dramatic 33%, even when students’ initial answers are wrong.  The theory is that by getting students to consider a question before providing the answer activates their learning schema (neural network).  When students finally do learn the information, they experience that “aha” moment of understanding. (Richland, Kornell and Kao).  


Transferring Knowledge 

In order to strengthen students’ learning, educators need to underscore the connection of classroom learning to life experience. In one study, researchers divided students into two groups.  One group wrote a summary of the days’ learning; the second group identified just one way the day’s learning related to their lives.  The students in the second group outperformed the students in the first. (Zadina 2014).  Relevance matters.  


Classroom Applications      

As language teachers we have the great advantage of teaching content that is immediately relevant to our students’ lives, but sometimes we need to underscore the connections between classroom learning and life experience. 


KWL: Know–Want to Know—Learned

  • As you introduce a new topic, ask students what they already know about this topic.  Have students write all the words they associate with the topic.  
  • Then ask students what more they want to know about the topic.  As you move through your lessons, make sure students are returning to those initial questions and trying to answer them with their new information.
  • At the end of the lesson, ask students to summarize what they learned.


Test: Before and After

  • At the beginning of class, ask students a few questions they will be able to answer by the end of class. 
  • Have students write the questions and their first answers in their notebook. Then have students fold the page so they don’t return to the question immediately.
  • At the end of class, tell students to go back to the questions and answer them again. They can then discuss their answers in pairs.


Connect Inside and Out:  Why, When, and Where

Make sure students understand how the learning inside the classroom connects to their lives outside of the classroom..  You can make this connection explicit by brainstorming with students what situations they will use the learning in their daily lives.  Ask:

  • Why are we learning this?  
  • When and where will you use this outside of class?