Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
STELLA  Home Standards Standards Statements Standards Keywords STELLA Narratives Research on Standards STELLA Sitemap  

1.2 Teachers know their subject

1.1 Teachers know their students

How well does the teacher know the individual learner and his/her capabilities?

How does the teacher justify the knowledge, skills and understandings he/she most values in the teaching and learning of language and literacy?

  Memorisation: an ESL activity
Year 7
Vivienne Tellefson


I am an ESL teacher. Chief responsibility - to fast-track students second language learning. Chief methodology - scissors. Yes, I am sure you have seen us before class furiously cutting and chopping texts and shoving them into envelopes for students to later sort, sequence, reconstruct, reorder or in someway actively process. Committed to explicit teaching of linguistic structure and features, we tend to be identified for our directed reading and writing tasks and for our modelling of task and text. At times we can be creative, though I suspect we are not generally known for this.

An ESL teacher's repertoire will often include drama techniques such as role-play, mime and dubbing activities or experimenting with kinaesthetic forms of learning such as tracing spelling or physically reprinting punctuation on a text. I have seen some wonderful lessons where visualisation techniques or music have been used to extend students' language, confidence and imagination. In fact, many of the approaches advocated by the cooperative learning and multiple intelligence experts have been practised by at least some ESL teachers ever since the 60s when communicative second language teaching replaced more decontextualised approaches. However, the fact remains that that some of us are too shy or too structured to move away from more controlled forms of teaching.

In one way this narrative will do little to dispel the view that the ESL teachers inhabit the more structured and traditional end of the language teaching continuum. However, I hope that it reinforces why we cannot always begin where we want to end. My own experience suggests this. While initially I thought that every lesson should involve more creative and adventurous strategies, over time I have realised the importance of balance and careful staging. I have come to see that more routine and structured tasks also have a role. I now know that part of the struggle to be an effective ESL teacher involves putting aside my own teaching and learning preferences to work with and extend on the strategies the ESL students bring with them to the Australian classroom. Like the learning of language, exposure to more creative and active forms of learning has to be incremental and take place in a supportive environment. Most of all, new approaches need to be explained and even 'sold' to ESL students.

Forgive this lengthy preamble to the real topic of this narrative, but I wanted to explain why I have chosen to reflect on the use of memorisation in language learning.


Memorisation has for mainly good reasons taken a back seat in education. Quite rightly, drills and other forms of decontextualised language learning have become discredited as staple teaching strategy. However, this does not mean there is no role for memorisation techniques. The work of Glen Cappeli and others who study the relationship between the brain and learning have revived the importance of memory... and in doing so have come up with more creative ways than drills. In ESL there is a techniques called memorising structures. It is advocated by the prolific ESL writer Mario Rinvolucri& and may I add that I have found nearly everything that Rinvolucri recommends to work extremely well.

The memorising structures technique is as follows. The teacher writes a poem on the whiteboard. The example given in Grammar Games, and the example I often use in its place, both demonstrate the conditional tense.

From Grammar Games
My old man's a white man
And my poor old mother's black
If I ever cursed my poor old man
I take my curses back

If I ever cursed my poor old mother
And wished she were in hell
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well

The poem I most often use:

Hold on to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken winged bird
That cannot fly

Hold on to dreams
For if dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow
Langston Hughes

Students sit in a circle. The teacher reads the poem aloud. Careful attention is paid to pronunciation, intonation and fluency. The meaning of new words is discussed and clarified. The students take turn in reading the poem around the circle - but after each reading two or three words are rubbed out. In the end, the last student is left to "read" the poem from a blank blackboard. That student is then invited to reproduce the poem on the board. At this stage the teacher remains silent. It is up to the class to fill in gaps or to suggest changes in spelling or grammar.

I have to say I love this activity. The students do too! I use it with each new class I have particularly when I am introducing a new linguistic structure. I use it not only because it is fun but also because it works.

In my Year 7 classroom

For this activity to work well, order is everything. The job of the first student chosen to 'read' is the easiest - at this stage only a couple of words have been erased. The main challenge this time is Mohanen, a Somali boy with a learning difficulty who cannot read above grade 1 level. Not far above him in terms of reading ability are two girls, one a Christian from Iraq and the other a Muslim form Iran. They have become best friends in the seven weeks they have been at the school. (These types of friendships no longer surprise me in the way the closeness of two Sri Lanka boys, one a Tamil and the other a Sikh, did when I first arrived at the school.) Due to war and time spent in refugee camps, one of the girls has missed more school years than she has attended. Still, she is fabulously motivated to learn. Back to the poem. I realise it will be important for these three students to hear the poem several times before they have their turn. This sort of activity is also a chance for them to shine in ways they cannot in activities where written English is required.

In the end I decided to begin with Kaveeta who provides an excellent model in pronunciation and confidence for the other students, especially the quietly spoken Quach who follows next. Quach fills in the blanks with ease - it is the final 's' she misses:

Q. Hold on to dream
For if dream die

Me Great remembering. Now my turn. Hold on to dreams. Your turn.
Q Hold on to dreams

I am thrilled when she not only gets it right immediately after the correction but also again in the next stanza.

Houma and John go next, followed by Krishnan who has only been over from Indonesia about six months. His reading is shy and nervous but accurate except for the understandable mispronunciation of 'barren' as 'bar-ren'. Next it's time for Mohanen, the boy who cannot read - the fact there are only half of the words left on the whiteboard matters very little. By now he has heard the poem five times. This is his best chance for success. With the lines that are repeated within the poem he does well. With the others he struggles. The class quietly prompts him. He feels proud at the end. The two girls who are also literacy students follow next, remembering the words if not always the pronunciation. Their 'frozen' and 'broken' have a short instead of a long 'o' sound. One also pronounces the final sound in 'winged' as 'ed' instead of a 'd' and 'field' as 'filed' but they, like me, are pleased with their achievement.

By the time it is Saad and Toai's turn, there are only one or two words of each line remaining and the task is getting harder. The boys manage well but I have to keep quietening Ali who is finding it hard to keep his 'superior' knowledge to himself and who I decide to allow to go next. Soon after Ali it is John's turn. John, very newly arrived from the English Language Centre, is originally form China. His pronunciation is not as distinct as the other students, but he recalls every word and at the end is even more surprised than his classmates that he has delivered such an extended piece of spoken English in front of them all.

Fatuma is the final student. Originally from Somalia; she is bright and feisty. Her voice is clear and strong as she 'reads' from the blank whiteboard. While Fatuma struggles with written English, especially its more academic forms, she does not let it affect her enthusiasm to learn and to participate. I still marvel at the fact that the Somali language has only had a written form since the 1970s. Fatuma reads, loudly, confidently and accurately. And of course the class applauds loudly and confidently as she finishes.

In stage two of the activity, Quach is called to the white board and the class helps her to reconstruct the poem. There is much valuable student directed linguistic discussion:

  • About the use of the timeless present
    You don't say "For if dreams they died"; you just say 'die' because it means all the times.
  • About English spelling
    No, don't put 'Brocken'. Just put 'k' not 'ck' - I don't know why, just put it. It's like 'spoken'.

Sometimes the students look like they won't get it right. At other times they seem to be taking much longer than other groups have. However, no matter how hard it is, I maintain my silence because I know it is their talk which is producing the greatest learning. Without their deliberations, an accurate finished product would be worth little.


I have chosen to write about the memorising structures strategy for the STELLA project because for me it demonstrates some of the key principles in ESL teaching.

Language Focussed: This activity does more than immerse students in language or require that they use it. The aim is to provide controlled and meaningful practice in a new language structure - in the examples above the conditional - but of course many other structures can be learned and practised in this way. What happens at the end of the activity is also important. I know I am generalising here but where an English teacher's next step may be to have student reflect on the role of dreams in their and own and other people/ lives, the next step for an ESL teacher may also involve students independently producing their own texts using the language structure being studied.

Repetition: Repetition is necessary to language learning. These days I guess it is trendier to talk about recycling of language but really the underlying principle remains the same. One of the biggest challenges for ESL teachers is to build in sufficient repetition but to do so in ways which are interesting and challenging. Repetition is tightly connected to confidence. It was good to throw out the decontextualised and monotonous drilling of the past but it's important that in doing so we don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

Participation: ESL students can often opt out. The memorising structure activity demands active participation of all students. Students know after the first turn exactly what is expected. They have a model to follow and feel guided and supported.

Accommodation of different levels: It is easy to stage this activity so that less proficient students have an earlier turn and therefore have far less to remember and deliver. Interestingly though, the students who do perform best in this activity are often students who come from strong oral cultures and learning backgrounds where story telling has played an important role in education. These are students who often struggle with written work.

Collaboration: ESL students often come from a learning culture where individual work is valued over group work. I find this a useful and supportive activity in promoting the value of group work to the students.

Promotes self/peer correction: This activity moves students from rote learning to reproduction of the text and beyond to a totally student centred self-correction concluding segment. This emphasis on self-correction adds an important dimension. In this activity students have responsibility for peer and self-correction. The teacher's silence enforces this role. Put crudely, the best way for students to learn grammar and take responsibility for correction is for the teacher to "shut up" and yes this is hard for us to do! Of course there may be a need for a teacher to intervene right at the end if the text the students decide is the correct one still retains errors. However, in dozens of times doing this activity, I have found that by working as group and on their own that students do produce an accurate text.

Bridging: The memorising structure activity builds on students own learning background - most are probably used to memorising but it adds a new dimension - students have to reconstruct and self correct. The starting point is a technique students are familiar with - but the activity also moves them to a freer more student centred Australian form of education. I come back again and again to Ausubel's observation:

If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to one principle, I would say this, 'The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.'

The needs of ESL students are those of non-ESL students plus more. Understanding not only their cultural but also their learning backgrounds is an additional challenge for all who teach them. I'm glad that ESL teachers have been invited along to the conversation about professional standards because I think we will have some specific things to add. Meanwhile excuse the many generalisations in this narrative - of course there is huge overlap and agreement between the work of ESL and English teachers and my characterisation of the two is limited. I just wanted to remind myself as much as others that while the goals of mainstream and ESL teachers are very similar, the paths we travel to reach them will often need to differ.

STELLA  Home Standards Statements Standards Keywords STELLA Narratives Research on Standards STELLA Sitemap
Australian Association for the Teaching of English A L E A ~ Australian Literacy Educators' Assoication
Department of Education & Training (Victoria) Education Department of Western Australia