Connect, Grow, Thrive

ETAS Journal Editors' Choice, Number 12 (August 2016)

Wake up your inner elephant!

Jane Revell

ETAS Journal, Volume 33 Number 3 (Summer 2016), pp. 26-28

Anything to do with elephants immediately wakes me up. If you’ve read The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, you will also be more than fascinated by these magnificent, intelligent animals. After Anthony’s death in 2012, two herds of elephants he had saved and worked with over the years walked for 12 hours to the gate of his compound. They hadn’t been near his house for one and half years but stayed for two days to mourn before returning to the bush. That’s memory and more.

In her delightful article, Jane Revell uses the metaphor of the elephant and its astounding ability to remember to introduce us to her beliefs about memory. She describes ways of helping students remember what they have learnt and how we as teachers can train our memories, too.

Revell starts by describing her four beliefs about memory: as a crucial component in learning anything at all; the visual memory as a key component, this sense being faster than the others; the importance of visualisation for other things besides learning, e.g. in setting and achieving objectives; ‘use it or lose it’, the brain is a muscle that requires exercise as much as any other muscles – to stop it getting flabby!

The author supports these beliefs with six practical suggestions on how to retain information. These include Kim’s game, which can be played with a picture in a coursebook, a list of words, objects, and so on, making students ‘see things in their mind’, really visualising. She also proposes playing memory games, asking students to remember something from a past lesson, or recycling information within 24 hours. And, of course, being physically active, connecting mind and body, such as with mingling activities and running dictations.

The teachers are equally involved in this process. Jane Revell recommends that we convince ourselves of our good memory and test ourselves regularly, too, play memory games, do crosswords or Sudoku. What’s more, she claims we should move! Sitting around for long periods is not good for anyone, neither for our students nor for us. Amongst her list of qualifications, I see she is also a Pilates instructor, which involves being present, concentrating, being mentally and physically aware and active. And finally, she asks us to think back on what we have just read and what we remember!

Revell’s article is amusing but also thought-provoking. She backs up her ideas about visualisation and memory with practical examples for teachers to apply in the classroom – or for that matter, for anyone wishing to wake up their inner elephant and keep their marbles!

Caroline Grünig

Editorial Board, ETAS Journal

Wake up your inner elephant!

Jane Revell

Pre-reading think

What do you think the title of this article means? What’s with elephants?!

Now read on to the end to see if you’re right.


Elephants are said to have an amazing memory, so they’re a good metaphor for an article which is all about enhancing our brain power. An elephant’s exceptional memory is what enables it to survive when times are tough. Not only can elephants apparently recognise all the other members in their family herd (and there might be as many as thirty of them) but they know exactly where each one is at any given time. It’s like keeping track of all your friends at a crowded music festival! And, very importantly, they can remember how to find their way back to sources of food and water even though they may not have used them for a long time – a useful skill to have when the current sources have dried up.

One final interesting thing about elephants is something that they share with humans, great apes, and dolphins. But, if you don’t know what that is, why don’t you explore online and find it out for yourselves!

Four of my beliefs about memory

Your beliefs about memory may be very different from mine – and that’s fine. But just so you know where I’m coming from, here are some of my beliefs …

1) Memory is a crucial component in learning anything at all.

That includes languages. All learning involves an element of remembering, whether it’s remembering ideas, facts or procedures; or remembering words, meanings, grammar structures, or how to pronounce something.

2) The ability to visualise is key component in being able to remember things.

We store information using all our internal senses: images, sounds, feelings, smells, and tastes. But when it comes to retrieving memories, visual memory is said to be quicker than the others. We are able to access a picture in an instant but it can take a moment longer to connect to a spoken word, sound, or feeling etc.

3) Visualisation is extremely important for many things besides learning.

The ability to visualise is a great asset in taking exams, for example, because it enables you to find information in your head very fast. Having a ‘photographic memory’ is the extreme example of this. (This is always assuming the information went in there in the first place of course – you can’t retrieve what’s not there!)  Research has shown that visualization is also extremely useful in many different fields, including: setting and achieving objectives; competing and winning at sports; helping you cope with serious illness (and sometimes even recover from it).

4) Use it or lose it!

This is the one about waking up your inner elephant! Our memory is like a muscle. Like any muscle, the more we exercise it, the better it works. We stop exercising it and what happens? It gets flabby! The language classroom is a great place to exercise our memory. There are a lot of simple things we can to do keep our students (and ourselves) in good shape mentally and help them to learn. Simple exercises and games that can be played in the classroom (and outside it), that are beneficial and fun and that don’t take up too much time.

Helping our students to use it or lose it

So what kinds of things can we do to get our students exercising their brains, and in particular, practising the skill of seeing things in their heads?

1 Play variations of ‘Kim’s Game’.

Kim’s game is a well-known exercise used to train observation and memory skills, and originally comes from Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. It is brilliant for practising visualization, because it really forces people to see things in their mind in order to recall them.

This is the simple idea of ‘now you see it … now you don’t’. Students look at any picture in their coursebook or on a screen. It can be an ordinary picture, a photo, a painting … or an object, a list of words, even just a sentence. Anything. They look at it for a while and then stop looking and recall as much as they can by talking about it, answering questions, writing, drawing, or miming.

2 Ask them sometimes to remember information rather than find it.

We often ask students to find answers in the text and that’s great because it’s an important skill to develop. But just sometimes, you might ask them instead to remember the information and then check back to see if they were right. It’s only a slight change of emphasis, but it’s an important one for developing confidence in remembering. I’m not suggesting you do this every time. Just sometimes.

3 Ask them to remember at frequent intervals.

Surprise your students with sudden memory games, asking them to recall something they learned a few days or weeks or months before.

  • How many musical instruments can you remember? At least eight?
  • How many countries beginning with M? At least five?
  • How many past tenses with three letters? At least ten?

You can do this as a competition between individuals, pairs, groups or teams, and it’s a nice idea for students to score points for words that nobody else has thought of. (Do the second one of those tasks right now … then check online.)

4 Recycle sooner rather than later!

We know recycling is important but perhaps we don’t always stress that importance enough to students? It is said that for information to move from our short-term to our long-term memory, we need to recycle it within 24 hours or we’re in danger of losing it. So students need to be advised to recap what they’ve learned the very same evening of the day they’ve learned it (as well as periodically in the future). A good argument for convincing them of the value of some kind of homework?

5 Keep them physically active … and relaxed.

We don’t learn well – we don’t remember well – when we sit on our backsides for long periods of time. (We don’t do our back any good either, but that’s another story!) Mind and body are connected: when our body slows down and gets sluggish, our mind does too. So we need to allow our students to stand up and move from time to time to help their learning process. Classroom activities such as mingles or running dictations are great. So are occasional ‘de-stress’ activities like this one.

6 Remind them how powerful their brain is.

We sometimes forget just how powerful our brain is and we often have limiting beliefs about our ability to remember things, especially as we get older. What is one hundred billion? It’s the number of brain cells that we have. That’s a lot of cells and an enormous amount of brain power. Remember that! And remember to remind your students too. And yes, some people say that we have fewer brain cells as we get older but they also say that we can reverse this process … if we use those cells!

And remember …

The activities above don’t just enhance students’ ability to remember words and utterances in a foreign language. They enhance their ability to remember things beyond the classroom as well, both in learning other things but also in ordinary everyday life.

A couple of hints to help students see pictures in their mind

If a student tells you that they can’t see internal pictures, these ideas might help:

  1. Have them close their eyes – to cut down visual distraction on the outside.
  2. Get them to look up at the ceiling – to access the ‘visual part’ of their brain.
  3. Tell them to pretend they can see pictures. Trying too hard and getting stressed tends to be counter-productive. 

    It’s amazing how liberating it can be to fake it.

Helping ourselves to use it or lose it

1 Convince yourself you have a good memory.

Stop shooting yourself in the foot!

'Oh my god, my memory’s so bad.' 'I’m terrible at remembering names.' 'I think my memory’s going.' 'My memory’s getting worse and worse.' And so on.

If we go around telling ourselves – and everyone else – how bad our memory is and that we can’t remember things, then what happens? We don’t remember things! It tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So begin to notice when you say something like that and override it with: 'Wow, my memory is so terrific. It’s getting better and better.'

You don’t believe it? Doesn’t matter. Say it anyway. Over time it will help.

2 Test yourself regularly.

Ever read a book, reached the end, and thought: 'What was that about? I can’t quite remember!' Make it easier for yourself by reducing the task and practising with smaller chunks. At the end of every chapter, take a moment to think back and run through the chapter again in your mind. Make notes if you find that useful or do a mindmap. (I’m talking about non-fiction books here, not novels.)

3 Play lots of memory games.

Recent research suggests that playing brain games and doing regular memory exercises can delay a decline in our thinking skills in later life and help to protect us against Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases. Got young kids or grandkids? Play games like Pelmanism with them. (You know the game where you spread cards face down and turn them over to find pairs?) It’s a terrific memory game. And of course there are lots of games both online and offline that you can play by yourself or with other people. Crosswords? Sudoku? They’re all helpful.

4 Keep physically active.

Your students shouldn’t be sitting for long periods … and neither should you! Get plenty of exercise: walking, cycling, swimming … belly dancing! Whatever works for you. If you’re stuck in front of a computer preparing lessons, then make sure you stand up from time to time and move around. As with the memory games, exercise is now thought to help us keep all our marbles for longer!

A word about paying attention

I mentioned this above – see belief 3. Sometimes it’s not that we don’t remember. Sometimes – very often – it’s that we don’t take in information in the first place because we’re not paying attention. So there’s nothing to remember! Like with names. It’s often not so much that I’ve forgotten someone’s name, but more that I didn’t take it in at the time. (Perhaps because I was thinking about something else?!)

So what can we do about that? Well, we can – if we want to – begin to notice when we’re ‘absent’ like that. We can practise being more ‘present’ and listening a bit more carefully at such moments. But we can’t make that choice for our students. We need to engage them and get their attention from the word go. I’m sure you’ve all got plenty of techniques for doing just that, so here are just two.

  1. Use a ‘You First!’ approach: Show them an interesting picture (or video clip) and – without saying anything about it yourself – ask them to jump in the deep end and tell you what they think. If they struggle with language, that’s great. It will establish a real need for them to learn and will tell you at the same time what you need to teach. You can also use this technique with a text or an article. Look back at the beginning of this article!
  2. Get them to find out information for themselves. We pay more attention to – and remember better – information that we are actively engaged in finding or creating ourselves. Getting students to explore online is a very good way of doing this. Can you find two examples in this article?

As Benjamin Franklin said: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.”

And a final task to end with …

Think back

How many of the ideas for helping your students can you remember? How many for helping yourself? Which two ideas did you find the most interesting or useful?

Author’s note: Many of the ideas in this article are based on theories of Accelerated Learning and psychological theories which apply to learning in general, and not just language learning in particular.

Additional Sources

Hermery, D. (1991). Sporting excellence: What makes a champion? London, UK: CollinsWillow.
Jensen, E. (1994). The learning brain. New York, NY: Brainstore Inc.
Minninger, J. (1997). Total recall: How to maximize your memory power. New York, NY: MJF books.
O'Brien, D. (2014). How to develop a brilliant memory week by week: 52 proven ways to enhance your memory skills. New York, NY: Watkins Publishing.
Rose, C., & Nicholl, M.J. (1997). Accelerated learning for the 21st century. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

About the Author

Jane Revell has been involved in English language teaching for over 40 years. She has taught English and trained teachers all over the world and has written many ELT books, children’s stories, radio and video materials for the BBC, as well as innovative personal development books for teachers, including the acclaimed In Your Hands: Handing Over (with Susan Norman, 1999) and Success over Stress: Seven Strategies for Radiant Living (2000). She has also written (with Jack Scholes, 2012) Sucesso nos Exames – a book published by Disal Editora in Portuguese. Jane is also a certified international NLP trainer, a qualified Pilates instructor, and a lead author of Jetstream, the new adult course published by Helbling Languages.