Vol. 6. No. 2 A-2 September 2002
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Memory Enhancement in Language Pedagogy: Implications from Cognitive Research

Farzad Sharifian, PhD
Edith Cowan University, Mt Lawley, WA, Australia


This paper reviews a number of sub-paradigms in cognitive research on memory enhancement and explores some insights that they may have for theory and practice in English language teaching (ELT). The research reviewed in this paper has made rigorous attempts to discover perceptual and processing strategies that may enhance retention of information in human cognitive storage. For example, it has been found that generation of stimuli by learners, rather than simple reading, enhances retention. The research findings reviewed in this paper provide language teachers with insights about how the human memory works and how its efficiency may be increased.


This paper reviews research on memory enhancement carried out by cognitive scientists, and presents some insights emerging from this research for English language teaching (ELT) theory and practice. The basic premise underlying this attempt is that instruction of any sort is concerned with the human cognitive system, and thus an understanding of how the cognitive system works contributes to the effective design and implementation of instructional materials (Brian & Eastmond, 1994). As Brunning, Schraw, and Ronning (1999) put it: "There are very few educational decisions to which the cognitive issues of memory, thinking, and problem solving are not relevant" (p. iv).

The main storage mechanism of the human cognitive system is memory, and a major concern of language instruction is with how to enhance learners' memory skills. This notion has been well researched by cognitive psychologists (Alt, 1999), although the majority of studies have focused on memory in L1. However, the results with L2 learners do not appear to conflict with L1 results (see, for example, Sharifian, 2001a). For other cognitive processes in bilingual speakers, research has thus far revealed that as the level of proficiency in L2 increases, cognitive processing largely approximates that of L1 (Sharifian, 2002).

Traditionally, several strategies, called mnemonics, have been proposed for memory enhancement. Some of the most popular mnemonics are pegs, loci, first-letters, and keywords. These mnemonics allow for elaborate encoding or storage of new materials and strong memory traces (Brunning, Schraw, and Ronning, 1999). Pegs are well-learned items of any type on which to-be-learned information can be hung. The method of loci involves learning a very imaginable location--like one's house--well and visualizing it many times so that various parts of it, called drops, can be imagined easily. These drops must be learned in an order: for example, the door first, the furniture next, and then the dining room. The items to be remembered are then associated with these drops. At the time of recall, a simple taking of this mental tour evokes the images of the memorized items. The first-letter method involves using the first letters of the items to construct acronyms or words in order to remember them (Boltwood & Blick, 1978). Keywords link an L2 word with an L1 word that sound alike in some way (e.g., Dutch kreeft sounds like the English craft). Therefore, (craft) is the keyword for an English speaker learning Dutch. Keywords can also use interactive images (e.g., kreeft means lobster, so the learner might visualize a lobster on a craft (boat)).

These methods are mainly to be used by learners when attempting to memorize items that are unrelated either to each other or to the current knowledge of the learner. The following section reviews more rigorous and systematic research carried out on various aspects of memory retention and its relation to presentation and perception of linguistic stimuli. The findings of cognitive research on memory can provide teachers with insights about the nature of memory and memory enhancement. [-1-]

The Generation Effect

The generation effect refers to the finding that learners are more likely to remember the items that they have generated in one way or another, either totally or partially, than the items they have just read and memorized (e.g., Kinjo & Snodgrass, 2000; Moshfeghi & Sharifian, 1998a, 1998b; Slamecka & Graf, 1978; Snodgrass & Kinjo, 1998). In a classic study, Slamecka and Graf (1978) consistently found across five experiments that a generated word was remembered better than a read word under a variety of generation conditions (e.g., generating a semantic associate, a categorical associate, an antonym, a synonym, or a rhyme to a stimulus word), and under a variety of test conditions.

The generation effect has also been obtained with sentences (Anderson, Goldberg, & Hidde, 1971) and texts (Einstein et al, 1984). Einstein et al. (1984), for example, found that recall of a fairy tale was significantly better if subjects were required to fill in deleted letters as they read the fairy tale, as opposed to a straightforward reading of the passage for comprehension. In two studies with learners of English as a second language, Moshfeghi and Sharifian (1998a, 1998b) obtained a generation effect, demonstrating that different degrees of generation entailed differential retention and recall. That is, the results of the tasks that require higher degrees of generation are better retained and recalled. They concluded that generation should be considered a matter of degree rather than an "either/or" phenomenon.

Research has also demonstrated that self-generation of cues (i.e., one or a few words) for the paragraphs of a text either during learning or at the onset of recall facilitates the retrieval of a text's contents, whether or not the cues are inspected during recall (Sharifian, 2000, 2001a; van Dam & Brinkerink-Carlier, 1988, 1989, 1990; van Dam, Brinkerink-Carlier, & Kok, 1987). Sharifian (2001a), for instance, found a facilitative effect for self-generated cues on the written recall of narrative texts in learners of English as a second language. Self-generated cues may simply be notes that a reader makes during reading or a list of short cues (one or more words) remembered for every paragraph. The list may be produced prior to the recall of the whole text or immediately after reading the text. Developers of language curricula as well as language teachers may benefit from these memory effects in the design and implementation of materials for language learners. Sub-processes of language learning may all be fostered by allowing for maximal generation of stimuli on the part of learners. [-2-]

The Isolation Effect

The Isolation effect (IE), also referred to as "the von Restorff effect," refers to an improvement in memory retention for an item when it is placed among a set of items that are semantically homogenous with each other but at odds with the new item (Dunlosky, Hunt, & Clark, 2000; Hunt, 1995). For example, if the word car is inserted into a list of vocabulary items that pertain to breakfast, such as bread, butter, cereal, eggs, coffee, etc., the memory for car is enhanced. The isolation effect is a very robust finding, spanning numerous variations and replications.

Dunlosky, Hunt, and Clark (2000) show that neither salience nor rehearsal is necessary for producing an isolation effect. It is only the context of similarity into which the different item is placed that counts in obtaining an isolation effect. The element of isolation in IE has been obtained by introducing a difference in attributes such as color, size, shape, voice, meaningfulness, underlining, noise, borders, and so forth (Cimbalo, 1978). Language teachers and materials developers may draw on this finding in designing and implementing language activities.

The Time-of-day Effect

Research has also revealed changes in the functioning and efficiency of cognitive processes according to the time of day at which they are carried out (Broughton & Ogilvie, 1992, 1990; Monk, 1991). Maury & Queinnec (1993) found that at 6 p.m., more words were recalled from a beginning of the list, whereas at 2 a.m., more words were recalled from the end of a list.

Research has also shown differences in comprehension and general memory for a text at different times of a day. Oakhill (1986a, 1986b, 1988) found that immediate recall and recognition of sentences and texts involved more maintenance of superficial linguistic forms (i.e., holding them in short-term memory without elaboration) in the morning and elaborative and integrative process (elaborating information in long-term memory and integrating it with prior knowledge) in the afternoon. This simply means that in the morning the surface linguistic forms, which are usually retained in short-term memory for a limited period of time, were remembered better, while in the afternoon the semantic features, which are mainly retained in long-term memory, were remembered better. Lorenzetti and Natale (1996) examined the occurrence of different strategies of comprehending written texts at different times of the day. They used methods of immediate free recall, question answering, and filling-in for investigating inferential production. They found that recall of superficial linguistic information of a text was better in morning trials, while inferential production was greater in afternoon trials.

The Serial-Position Effect

Serial-position effect refers to the experience that in memorizing a list of items or events, the first few items are remembered best, the last few next best, and the items in the center are the hardest to recall (Frensch, 1994; Healy, Havas, & Parker, 2000; Todd & Roediger, 1995). The higher recall for the first items on the list is called the primacy effect, and the better recall on end-of-list items is called the recency effect. Serial position effects have in fact been found in a variety of tasks, but the effects vary in the breadth of their extent (Healy, Havas, & Parker, 2000).

Material developers and teachers may benefit from these memory effects in organizing to-be-learned materials. They may, for instance, present the most complex items at the beginning of and the next most complicated at the end of the lesson or the list. Alternatively, extra attention may be directed to the middle items. [-3-]

The Spacing Effect

Research has shown a superiority in recall when the repetition of an item is spaced rather than massed during study (Dempster & Farris, 1990; Kelly &.Rubin, 1998; Mizuno, 1998; Bahrick, et al, 1993). This finding has been known as spacing effect. The spacing effect is a very robust finding which "has been observed in virtually every experimental learning paradigm, and with all sorts of traditional research materials" (Dempster & Farris, 1990, p. 97). In an experiment (Glover & Corkill, 1987) the participants listened to a brief lecture, with either a 30-minute interval or a zero-lag between two presentations. Later testing showed memory superiority for the spaced presentation of the lecture.

Additionally, in another study by Dempster (1987), 38 uncommon English words and their definitions were presented three times, either with each repetition of any given word separated by every other word, or with each repetition of word massed in succession. In addition, the words were presented either with or without sentence contexts. In three experiments, spaced presentations yielded substantially superior levels of vocabulary learning than did massed presentations. In an experiment (Bahrick & Phelps, 1987), a surprise retention test was administered to 35 adults who had learned and relearned 50 English-Spanish vocabulary word pairs under various conditions of spacing eight years earlier. The spacing manipulation was found to have a large effect on retention. Participants who had relearned the vocabulary items at 30-day intervals were able to define two to three times as many Spanish words as informants whose relearning occurred at 24-hour intervals or less.

In designing an effective syllabus for language teaching, the spacing effect may be considered in sequencing and optimally phasing in new materials. It can also be used by teachers in decisions they make about best timing their lesson reviews, quizzes, and activities such as writing summaries about previous lessons, etc.

The Modality Effect

The modality effect refers to the research finding that auditory presentation of stimuli shows memory superiority over their visual presentation (Glenberg & Fernandez, 1988; Jakimik & Glenberg, 1990; Neath, 1997). Glenberg and Fernandez (1988), for example, tested memory for the order of occurrence of a series of items and found superior accuracy for items heard rather than seen. Jakimik and Glenberg (1990) also found superiority for auditory over visual resolution and comprehension of temporal anaphors (e.g., former/latter, first/second). Frankish (1989) believes that this superior memory effect for auditory presentation is thanks to the prosodic features of the oral language, which facilitate storage and retrieval of suprasegmental units. [-4-]

Research has also been conducted concerning the effect of single as opposed to dual mode presentation of stimuli. The results show that dual-modality presentation (e.g., auditory text and visual diagrams) can result in superior learning than single-modality presentation (e.g., visual text and visual diagrams) (Kalyuga, Chandler, & Sweller, 2000; Tindall-Ford, Chandler, & Sweller, 1997).

The Self-Reference Effect

The self-reference effect refers to the research finding that free recall of linguistic items is superior when those items have been processed with reference to the self rather than others or other things (Bellezza & Hoyt, 1992; Forsyth & Wibberly, 1993; Singh, 1995; Symons & Johnson, 1997). Singh (1995), for example, used incidental recall as the measure of memory and examined the self-reference effect in three experiments. The results found a facilitative effect for self-reference on retention across different types of materials, tasks, and affective states: "Self emerged as a strong cognitive schema that mediates and regulates behavior in many ways" (Singh, 1995, p. 237).

The self-reference effect has been obtained repeatedly under various conditions, such as with instructions to create mental imagery (Brown, Keenan, & Potts, 1986), and with prose passages (Reeder, McCormick, & Esselman, 1987). Bellezza and Hoyt (1992) found that mental cues that referred to "self" enhanced free recall. Mental cues are words or phrases that are used to facilitate free recall. An example of a mental cue that refers to self would be "my room." Bellezza and Hoyt conclude: "[S]elf plays an important part in what we learn and recall . . . "(1992, p. 51). Forsyth and Wibberly (1993) obtained a self-reference effect for oral presentation of adjectives in classroom conditions. The self-reference effect can best be employed in developing materials and exercises for language learners. In introducing new teaching points, language teachers may ask students to relate to-be-learned items to their self-schemas and formulate examples that refer to the self.

The Bizarreness Effect

The bizarreness effect refers to the superior recall of stimuli that have bizarre, atypical referents (e.g., McDaniel & Einstein, 1986; Weir & Richman, 1996). This enhancement of bizarre, relative to common, sentence recall is believed to arise from an increase in cognitive effort (Imai & Richman, 1991). The following is an example of a bizarre sentence, taken from Worthen and Marshall (1996):

The butterfly examined the biologist using the microscope.

Readers may need to spend some cognitive effort in constructing images and mapping them from one domain to another in order to visualize the above scene. This increase in mental effort appears to lead to a lasting retention of the visual and linguistic features which are associated with this process. This principle may account for a number of effects obtained during memory experiments, such as the generation effect.

In terms of the implications that findings such as the bizarreness effect have for the teaching of languages, it may appear that drawing on such findings would work against the principle of "authenticity" of materials presentation. It is, however, an understanding of how the human memory works that is intended in presenting the findings of memory research here. Such an understanding may only contribute to the effectiveness of instruction if other factors such the contexts of social situation are geared toward the best use of these findings. [-5-]

The Encoding-Context Effect

Reviving the environmental context in which items have been learned aids has also been show to aid recall (Parker, Gellatly, & Waterman, 1999). That is, memory performance is enhanced when learning and testing take place in the same or similar environment(s). It seems that contextual information is stored along with memories, and provision of this information or the contextual elements to which they refer help activate those memories. This memory enhancement effect has been reported for the physical as well as emotional context. Jerabek and Standing (1992) found that even visualizing the future testing room during learning, rather than other scenes, enhanced recall. Research has also shown that in general, recall is higher when emotional state and mood at test match emotional state and mood at study. It has also been shown that people learn more about events that match their mood state (Mecklenbraeuker & Hager, 1984). This finding has implications for the theory and practice of language testing. The degree of familiarity with the physical context of testing places some test-takers at an advantage, rendering the assessment more challenging to others.

Processing-Difficulty Effect

Several studies have found an inverse relation between processing difficulty and subsequent memory performance, in that processing difficulty has shown to enhance memory (O'Brien & Myers, 1985). This is in line with the general observation made above that the amount of cognitive effort expended to encode information appears to be directly related to the recall of that information (Walker, Jones, & Mar, 1983). O'Brien & Myers (1985) found that participants in their study took longer to comprehend a line of text when it contained an unpredictable target word, but this increased processing time facilitated recall and recognition of the unpredictable word. They proposed that when readers encounter concepts that are difficult to integrate, they will reprocess earlier portions of a text in an attempt to integrate the unexpected concept with the text and if successful, this reprocessing will improve memory for selected portions of a text. Walker et al. (1983) used a self-paced reading paradigm in which participants read a series of short paragraphs and were later cued to recall the final sentence of each. It was found that recall was significantly improved when more processing was required to correctly interpret the anaphoric relationship expressed in the final sentence.


Several directions in memory research have been reviewed, along with their implications for the field of language pedagogy. These studies have focused on determining perceptual and processing strategies that can enhance memory. Both theory and practice in language pedagogy may benefit from the insights gained through cognitive research on memory. Such insights may be drawn on in formulating theoretical principles and methodological techniques for effective instruction and evaluation. The findings may also prove beneficial in optimizing schedules and programs as well as in developing multimedia plans and materials. [-6-]

A major trend arising from a number of these studies is that an increase in cognitive effort may lead to better memory. As an implication for teaching, this may somehow seem counterintuitive to language teachers, as the ultimate aim of instruction is to facilitate and simplify the task of learning for learners. This issue in fact arises from the fact that learning involves more than one cognitive process. In fact, learning is an umbrella term covering various aspects of perception, comprehension, storage, and retrieval. Cognitive and neurological research shows that these aspects of learning do not necessarily share all their sub-processes. For instance, while comprehension may require simplification and integration of to-be-learned materials with the already existing schemata, retention may be enhanced by presenting materials within a dissimilar context or by increasing the amount of cognitive load on the part of learners. For learning to take place, after all, comprehended materials should be represented and retained in the long-term memory. It is, thus, advisable to consider the findings of research on various aspects of language processing in developing principles and strategies for language teaching.

The above remarks however, are not meant to deny the impact of factors that fall beyond the scope of individual on human cognition in terms of both content and processing. Research, for instance, has shown that cognitive conceptualizations and processes involved in the production and perception of language may be informed by cultural systems and practices (e.g., Malcolm & Sharifian, 2002; Sharifian, 2001b). While individual is the locus of cognition and cognitive activities such as learning, the ultimate level of representation and processing clearly extends to cognition at the group level.


The author wishes to thank Maggie Sokolik and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions and comments on the earlier drafts of this paper.


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About the Author

Farzad Sharifian, PhD, is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Language and Literacy Research and also a Lecturer in Applied Linguistics program at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He has carried out research and published in several areas of psycholinguistics and cognitive linguistics.

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