Memory & Learning (Part 1)

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Although we can teach our children the different components underlying literacy acquisition (phonological awareness, alphabet code, orthographic knowledge), this is only a part of the equation.  It is not sufficient just to introduce and explain a concept.  Children need to learn this material and this requires them to be able to firstly store information in their long-term memory and then quickly and accurately retrieve this information on demand.[divider]

Any educational psychology text will show that we remember best if:

  • New knowledge is linked to existing knowledge.
  • The different components of a program are integrate.
  • Information is presented in a pictorial and story format.
  • As many senses as possible are used.
  • Multiple opportunities are provided for rehearsing or practising the information.

Information-processing research using neuro-imaging and time sequencing of the activation of different brain show that the brain’s potential for learning is associated with its ability to successfully recognize patterns already existing in the brain and relate this to the incoming information (see for example Sjöström, Rancz, Roth, & Hausser, 2008).  This means you need to be constantly aware of ways that you can reinforce and build on your child’s current knowledge.  So, for example when I introduce digraphs, I say the letter sounds /s/ and /h/ make /sh/ rather than the letter names ‘s’ and ‘h’ because saying the sounds links their knowledge of the common sound represented by the letters of the alphabet singularly, to this new pattern of sound representation.

However, it’s not sufficient just to link new knowledge to existing knowledge.  You also need to make sure that all the different components of what your child is learning are interlinked.  The importance of doing this is clearly demonstrated in Conrad’s (2009) study in which it was found that children were better able to spell words they had practised reading and to better read words they had practised spelling. The lessons focused on orthographic understanding of the words and it was also found that generalisations were made to new words with a similar orthographic pattern.  So whether your child has a spelling or a reading problem, this research indicates that you should be working on developing both reading and spelling skills, with a specific focus on teaching the underlying orthographic knowledge embedded in individual words.  To assist in this interlinking, I design activities so the same concept is practised is different context. For example, after a particular grapheme has been introduced students will see the grapheme is single words, in paragraphs, in nonsense word syllabification exercises and in comprehension activities.  In addition, once a concept has been introduced it will be continually used throughout the program and into the next program.

The brain’s ability to remember pictures and stories better than individual words is well established and, again, current research continues to support this view.  For example, in an experimental study, Shmidman and Ehri (2010) taught English-speaking pre-schoolers 10 Hebrew letters. The children were randomly divided into two groups.  The experimental group were taught the sound each letter represented by embedding the letter shapes in drawings of objects that had a similar shape and began with the same sound. For example, an English equivalent would have been relating ‘a’ to ‘apple’ because the ‘a’ can be made to look like an apple and ‘apple’ begins with the /a/ sound.  The control group were taught the letters with objects that had no relationship to the sound of the letter. For example, ‘a’ for ‘ant’.

Compared to a control group, the children in the experimental group:

  • Learned the letters quicker.
  • Remembered them better a week later,
  • Were less likely to confuse the letters and
  • Were better at using this knowledge in reading and spelling tasks

I use this strategy when I’m teaching the sounds of the alphabet by choosing a linking picture that not only begins with the sound, but also has some relationship to the shape of the letter.  I also use pictures to help students remember the common graphemes to represent a particular sound and then link this to a story.  For example, the three common /ay/ sounds are ‘ai’, ‘a-e’ and ‘ay’.  These are represented by a picture of rain, a cake and a tray.  The underlying story is the rain is falling on the cake making it all soggy and the cake is sitting on the tray.

Your challenge!  Next time you are teaching your child a concept, think of a way to link the concept to your child’s existing knowledge, think of different ways to practise the concept and think of a way to represent the concept in a pictorial format.


Conrad, N.   (2008).  From Reading to Spelling and Spelling to Reading: Transfer Goes Both Ways.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 100 (4), 869

Eggen, P., & Kauchak, D. (2010). Educational psychology: Windows on classrooms (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Ltd.

Shmidman, A., & Ehri, L. (2010). Embedded picture mnemonics to learn letters Scientific Studies of Reading, 14 (2), 159