Teaching memory skills

Written by: Jonathan Hancock | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Memory champion and school leader Jonathan Hancock has always been amazed that more schools don’t focus on memory skills. He argues why they should and offers some ideas for memory games and other approaches

Like it or not, primary schools are increasingly judged on their pupils’ ability to remember. The latest primary national curriculum requires children to retain facts and figures about the humanities, know all their times tables, recall technical terminology about English, learn new languages, master complex calculation methods – and sit formal tests in which they have to work independently and perform under pressure.

The children who do best are confident in their abilities to engage with many different forms of information, extract the key elements, present it in different ways – and remember it, so that they can not only work with it in lessons but also utilise it in assessments and exams. The techniques they use to do this involve creative thinking, but also a very logical and organised approach that they can turn on whenever they want. They can reflect on their learning, help others to start using the same techniques, and get into habits that will serve them well for the future.

These are techniques that have been practised for thousands of years – and still most teachers I meet don’t use them, and many haven’t even heard of them.

I went into teaching after a decade of writing, training and performing in the field of memory, and from the start it seemed obvious that I’d need to talk to children about how to remember as much as what to remember.

But I quickly found that this did not come naturally to them, and it wasn’t something that other teachers were doing. Even year 6 children seemed to think that the only ways to learn something were to read and think about it, practise it – and then hope it would stick. They’d never been shown any other approaches.

So I started saying things like “how are you going to remember that?” and “what can we do to make sure we don’t forget?”. I showed my class how to start thinking up evocative images that would remind them of key facts and figures.

And I challenged them to use age-old memory methods like linking bits of information into stories or arranging them around familiar mental journeys.

I found it wasn’t hard to excite children about the possibilities of doing amazing things with their brains. It didn’t hurt that I’d twice been in the Guinness Book of Records for it myself, and the children in my first classes relished the challenge of memorising lists, linking words and their definitions, mastering instructions, reciting poems – even giving whole presentations from memory. I gave them tools to help them remember, and the confidence to put them to use.

For me, the content of the primary curriculum provides plenty of rich opportunities for exploring learning and practising remembering. Children start to build key skills and amass some knowledge, although I think many of the specifics may not be embedded fully until children are older and have more of a wider context into which they can be slotted. But learning these things for a while – and committing to memory the specific terms, facts and methods required for SATs – gives them a chance to train their memory skills and to get into some useful habits.

I am passionate about teachers teaching learning: showing children the range of supporting behaviours like concentration, co-operation and stamina, but also letting their pupils in on the mechanics of memory and the tried-and-tested techniques for taking control of it. These combine creativity and chaos – funny, strange, energetic images – with order and structure as those images are shaped into scenes and stories or arranged around “memory palaces” in the mind.

You start the children on sets of random information – words, names, numbers or ideas chosen just for the purposes of practice – but then guide them to use these same skills for the real information explored in lessons or required for exams.

For example, it is not hard to teach even young children how to memorise a list of random words or phrases – for example, a list of television programmes. You show them how to decide on a memory-jogging image for each item, something easy to picture, maybe colourful, noisy or smelly, that clearly identifies the original information; then you get them to imagine they are walking around the rooms of their home and finding one of these reminder images in each one.

This approach supports the mental processes through which strong memories are stored. It works, and children love the feeling of being able to go back through the rooms in their head, rediscovering the images they put there – and recreating the original list from memory, forwards, backwards and inside out.

If the child takes an imaginary walk into the hallway of their house and finds a football match being played there, they will know that the first title on the list is Match of the Day.

There’s a yellow cartoon family sitting on the sofa in the living room? The Simpsons must be show two. When they see Simon Cowell at the cooker they know that The X Factor is next, and they also know what it feels like to be in control of storing and recalling memories in a speedy, fun and highly effective way.

Crucially, they can just as easily invent memorable scenes to represent scientific terms and their definitions or foreign language words and their meanings, or visualise a building they know well decorated with imagery about the things to remember when analysing a poem or the steps in a method of calculation.

Learning is easier when children are relaxed and having fun, and these memory techniques lend themselves well to games – which I’ve always found to be great for sharpening key mental skills and inspiring children to push themselves further. Some games for the classroom include:

Play ‘pairs’

This game is sometimes called Pelmanism and helps to get your class thinking about how visual and spatial clues can help them remember the location of pairs of cards. Maybe they can link cards to objects near them in the room, think up ways to remember corner cards, or even use the rows and columns like co-ordinates to rediscover cards seen earlier in the game. Within the same activity they experience the importance of concentrating, paying attention and focusing on key details. Before long they often talk about particular techniques they are using to increase their chances of winning.

Play the ‘tray game’

This works even with very young children. Put out a set of items on a tray, let the children look at them for a while, then secretly take one away and see who can spot the thing that’s gone. Once again you will discover how easily children can be inspired to talk about their own personal memory “tricks” – and, sometimes, to reflect on why they forgot a particular thing. Celebrate children’s instinctive enthusiasm for finding ways to make learning easier.

Play ‘Granny Went To Market’

In this game, children compete to remember everything on a shopping list that they create themselves, item by item. Once you’ve done some memory training with them, your pupils will find it very natural to connect the items in some way: maybe to the players who chose them in the game, or to the next thing on the list, so that each item is linked into an imaginative story or displayed around a familiar place in their mind.

Teaching memory

Memory really is something that can be taught. In these games, children can be shown how to think up creative reasons “why” certain cards might be in certain places. They can visualise objects connected in ways that mean they will also know when one of them is missing. And they can quickly learn to weave highly memorable stories from the items in Granny’s shopping bag.

These same games can also be very useful ways to absorb curriculum knowledge and skills.

  • Pairs of cards could contain dates and the corresponding events, foreign words and their translations, science definitions and the matching vocabulary. See how much of it the children know by the end of the game.
  • For tray game items you could use ingredients in a recipe, equipment for an experiment, or simply cards printed with some of the facts, figures, images or ideas you want your children to recognise and remember.
  • For “Granny Went To Market”, you could choose the things on the list and make them the real words, names, numbers and instructions you need the children to know. They will even remember them in exactly the right order.

With the right kind of guidance, children can use memory games to delve into the way their memory works, practise the central strategies, and memorise real, important, useful material. Many children relish competition and push themselves to show off what they can do. Games are also opportunities for your pupils to talk about memory, with their friends and with you.

The benefits are soon seen back in lessons. Children start describing how they are going to make sure something sticks in their mind. You introduce them to new information and they take responsibility for actively learning it, confident that the effort will be worth it.

Memory training can’t be an add-on to life in school. It needs to be integral to lessons and developed within as many different parts of the curriculum as possible. Even young children can become aware of their learning processes and be kitted out with a range of techniques for using their memories brilliantly. And what a fantastic platform that will provide them for all the learning to come. 

  • Jonathan Hancock broke his first memorisation world record at the age of 16 and went on to be the World Memory Champion. He has written many books about memory, for children and adults, and is the memory consultant to television programmes such as Channel 4’s Child Genius. Currently acting headteacher of a primary school in Brighton, Jonathan is also the founder of the Junior Memory Championship, an annual event for year 6 children. Registration for the 2017 training programme and online competition is open at www.juniormemorychampionship.com


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