Brain-friendly Teaching in Practice: Nick Bilbrough Introduces Memory Activities for Language Learning

Memory, or rather its quirks and limitations, in language education is sometimes like the weather in that old joke: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it. Yet memory limitations affect every aspect of what we as teachers and programs are trying to do. In the last few years, “brain-friendly” teaching, “brain-targeted” teaching and “neuroscience-informed” teaching have all been tossed around. In this blog, I’ve covered several books that deal with this (here, here, and here, for example). There are programs and resource sites like the Neuro Education Initiative at John Hopkins University, The NeuroLeadership Institute (associated with author  David Rock), USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute,  Harvard’s Mind / Brain / Behavior initiative, and an Annenberg Learner Resource called Neuroscience and the Classroom.  But none of these are by or for language teachers specifically. I’m sure there are  teachers who putting all this new knowledge to good practical use in the classroom, and I’m equally sure that much of what is being sold as “brain friendly” is what has always been done by good teachers anyway. But if you visit a lot of language classrooms, you might be amazed at how brain unfriendly some are.

In my job as a teacher trainer, I just don’t see all that many approaches and activities that show an appreciation for the finickiness of human memory. There are, as I see it, two possible reasons for this. One–a failure to take note of the mountain of research and how it sometimes screams out the need for pedagogical change–I would like to lay squarely at the feet of language teachers and language teaching programs. The other–a general lack of published materials and accepted classroom techniques–has and continues to be a problem; but Nick Bilbrough’s 2011 book Memory Activities for Classroom Learning begins to correct this problem. Much of what has worked in language classrooms over the years has done so because it has been sensitive to the cognitive limitations of learners and has leveraged the affective and social elements of content and classrooms. What is needed is a new lens, a new way of interpreting  successful activities that will inform the selection of activities in a task sequence or syllabus. That’s what this book does.


Memory research has advanced greatly in the past few years and Mr. Bilbrough does a good job of summing up and presenting what you need to know in short executive summaries at the beginning of each unit. If you don’t know why Ebbinghaus, or Craik & Lockhart, or Sweller are important for  your job, or  if the terms phonological loop, visio-spatial sketchpad, and episodic buffer don’t mean much to you, this book will provide a good introduction. And if you are familiar with all these, you’ll find the way Mr. Bilbrough turns this theory into actual classroom activities very interesting. It is my belief that even if you don’t use any of the ready-made activities directly from the book (most of which are very well-chosen by the way), your perspective on your own approach in your classes will change. Because once we start to think of why some things are better held in working memory or why some things are more likely to be stored in long-term memory, we’ll naturally feel the need to adjust our explanations, our pace and timing and selection of activities. Learners and teachers both want variety in lessons; but they both also want to see learning happening. This book will help you understand and apply some ideas for making things easier for learners to remember, which means easier to learn.

I think Mr. Bilbrough has done a very nice job identifying the key points connected to memory and how it affects the learner and the classroom. If you look at his unit headings, I think you will agree. There is enough flexibility here in the topics covered to meet the needs of teachers who are wedded to textbooks and those who use a more Dogme-ish approach.

  1. Mental Stretching
  2. Making Language Memorable
  3. Retrieving
  4. Repeating and Reactivating
  5. Memory Techniques and Mnemonics
  6. Learning By Heart
  7. Memory Games

This book is a nice start. I think that Cambridge may want to revisit many of the wonderful old books in the Handbooks for Language Teachers series and reorganize some of the content in line with more recent research and pedagogy. Books on affect , arts integration, skill mastery and transfer,  learning environments, challenge, fun, formative assessment, etc. are all needed. But for the time being, Memory Activities for Language Learning is a step in the right direction. And if I may be permitted to expand on my suggestion a little, a little more attention to relevant research would be a good idea, I think. One problem with this book is its sporadic use of citations. Some areas provide good references, others are devoid of references, and at least one reference is kind of puzzling. I love Chip and Dan Heath’s books, but calling them “educational psychologists” gives them more academic gravitas than they warrant. Teachers who are interested in finding out more about research and findings in memory will get precious little help from this volume beyond those good unit introductions to the basics, I’m afraid. The choice of online resources is also disappointingly limited.

But these criticisms are very minor. I highly recommend this book. Every language teacher should read the chapter intros and browse through the extensive list of suggested activities.

A year ago I wrote this post on working memory that you may find interesting if you are looking to further explore the topic of memory and learning.