The International TEYL Journal
FREE Materials for Teachers   |   CertTEYL Certificate Course  |   FREE Monthly Newsletter
Return to journal index and home page.

Memorization Isn’t A Lot Of Hocus Pocus

By Robin Brown-Frossard, ESL Teacher and Mind Management Trainer


When people learn a foreign language (L2) we have discovered through recent research that each student uses different thought processes in different forms according to the task demanded and in function of their personal preferences. Most of the time, these methods happen spontaneously, but sometimes they simply do not occur so easily. The student is then faced with either a success or a failure that can neither be explained nor changed. We often say, "This person has or doesn't have an ear for languages." And a teacher's advice will be, "You have to try harder." But since the processes occurred unconsciously - by magic we could say - the person can not try harder. He or she does not know how it happened. There are several areas in language study where we find such a marked difference between those who can and those who cannot, for instance in pronunciation or in the memorization of vocabulary.

This paper concentrates on the memorization of vocabulary. The first half of this thesis explores a revolutionary way of considering memorization. The second half applies this knowledge to the memorization of vocabulary by the target group of children, from five to seven years old, learning an L2 at the beginner's level in a non-immersion environment. There are different ways of working with these children, as pedagogues, in order to help them change the spontaneity of vocabulary memorization to a conscious act that they can understand and implement whenever they have the motivation of a project to do so.

Act One: Memorization

Efficient learning is a simple story of five conscious acts

In his vast research, the French philosopher, pedagogue and author Antoine de La Garanderie, has analysed and structured the "how to" of the learning process in a rather revolutionary way. His work is presented in several books and is too vast of a subject to be integrally treated in this paper. However, a brief presentation of some of his research will greatly inspire this paper's exploration of efficient vocabulary memorization.

In his theory called "Gestion Mentale", roughly translated as Mental or Mind Management, La Garanderie helps us to understand that all learning can be analysed as conscious acts of the quest for knowledge, and classified into five different learning phenomena: attention, memorization, comprehension, reflection and imagination. "In the pedagogical relation, the transmission of knowledge can only happen if, the person who is destined to receive it, executes an act of receptivity. So that knowledge can be acquired, there must be an act of learning." (La Garanderie, 1997, p. 11).

La Garanderie qualifies these learning acts as being "absolutely" necessary; learning without them is inconceivable. We use these phenomena every day, and it is everybody's capacity to modify these acts of knowledge that permit them in the day to day life to adapt and to survive. These processes are integral, automatic parts of people's consciousness, and they should be conscious, integral parts of an educational process.

How to constitute the object of knowledge in our thoughts

According to La Garanderie, when we learn something, we are processing sensorial information about an object of knowledge into mental images that we work and rework in order to construct, understand and integrate this object. When we remember something, it is not the object itself in its real concrete form that enters our head and fills our brain, but rather it is the presence of the images, of the various pieces of information about this object, that we have mentally constructed. Thus when we observe an object with our senses, we form the mental images of this object and by considering these images, we are gaining knowledge and learning about the object.

This process of mental imaging is called "évocation" by La Garanderie, evocation, which we can understand by examining the English verb evoke: "bring or recall to the conscious mind" (Soanes and Hawker, 2005). Neurologically speaking, a human being has the capacity to form mental images that mirror the paths of sensorial acquisition. However, there are three main types of evocation: visual, verbal-auditive and kinesthetic (or tactile). Each person is born with the capacity to use the three codes, unless there is neurological damage. But during early childhood one of the forms is used more frequently and becomes our standard mental process that allows us to understand the world around us ("codage dominant"). We call it our predominant code. Starting with this code, we can then use any of the other codes to help us learn.

There are then several mental habits or comprehension parameters that we establish ("paramètres de compréhension") that influence the qualities of our predominate process. For instance there is the need to be the actor in our mental images, or the need to be an impartial observer, witness. Another example would be the need to experiment in order to discover truths, applicative, or the opposite the need to know the truth and then to apply them, explicative. And of course, the goal of our evocation: the why of processing this information, which Garanderie calls the learning project, which might alter the coding and the parameters of our thought processes. All of these mental choices influence our processing of an object of knowledge and thus create differences from one human being to another.

When people learn through one of the five conscious acts, they use their predominant code and their comprehension parameters that will allow them to process sensorial information into mental evocations that will serve their learning project.

La Garanderie has not just refined another "learning styles" theory. While both learning styles and Mental Management deal with three types of coding - visual (sight), kinaesthetic (body, sensation, motion), and auditory (sound), even though La Garanderie adds the notion of verbal (speaking) - the difference comes when we look at what stage in the learning process these codes are looked at. Learning styles looks at the conscious, subconscious and the unconscious states. La Garanderie maintains that learning takes place when the conscious state uses the predominant code with a specific project that uses a learning phenomenon. What happens in the thoughts themselves, what are the forms of our evocations…this is the realm of learning for La Garanderie. Many times learning styles stays with a predominant code in the perception phase - for example a visual conscious learner needs diagrams and pictures. Mental Management says no. People with a predominant visual code can learn with any form of perception. However, they must use the visual code in their evocations to start understanding the information and work with it. Consciousness is essential.

The importance of conscious acts when learning efficiently

It is now clear that the five learning acts are active in everyday life. We are perhaps unaware of the phenomena because we are used to doing it so often. When we stop at a red light with our cars, we do so automatically. It is because we have already done this time and time again. The first time that we drove a car, perhaps we did not pay attention to the red light at the crossing. But then we were stopped by our instructor who made us consciously comprehend that the red light meant stop. And today, several thousand of stoplights later, there is no need to consciously think. Our bodies immediately react.

But what about learning? When we are at the beginning of our formal learning experience, just as the student driver, we need to consciously set into motion the five learning acts. As we advance in our education, certain acts that we repeat often become "automatic" and those that we do not use are put in reserve, although we never lose them. It is important to remember that for our target group of children from five to seven years old, we are at the beginning of the formal learning process. The students are also beginners in the L2 acquisition process, once again at the start.

It becomes necessary to not only introduce children in this target group to the L2 in a manner that is appropriate for their age, but also to help them consciously produce the learning acts that will help them acquire the L2 knowledge.

The mental act of memorization

It would be very interesting to contemplate the five conscious acts because La Garanderie gives us many insights and truths that change our way of teaching forever. However, this paper limits itself to the act of memorization. It is important to recognize that most often a student must comprehend before memorization can occur. This paper assumes that the students have understood the objects of knowledge.

What is memorization? Is it learning something "by heart"? Or is there a larger sense to the term. What is its goal? Does everyone proceed in the same matter? Is there a right or a wrong way to memorize? These are just some of the questions that we could ask. There are countless others. One thing that we can certainly say is that memorization is an emotional subject. Some people are allergic to it; some swear by it; nobody is indifferent.

"(Memorization) 'opens' the future to the learning act." (La Garanderie, 1997, p. 157) It is one of the acquisition steps that is irrefutably linked to time. "The past will not be memorized unless, at the moment that one lives it as the present, one gives it the essence of being found again in the future." (Ibid, p. 157). Perhaps an example will help us to illustrate this complicated thought. When we decide to memorize the word "cat", as we pay attention to and understand the meaning of the word, there is a project to save the word in our memory for a future utilisation, for instance when I will explain to my grandmother who lives in New Zealand that I received a "cat" for my birthday. How I "save the word" or memorize it will depend upon my predominant code, my parameters of comprehension and my project of future utilisation that I will have for the word - in this case an oral reproduction of the word.

Memorization is simply this - an act of learning that keeps the evocations of the object of knowledge available for future access and utilisation. The image that La Garanderie (1997) uses is that of a path, a bridge to the future (p. 158). This is the essence of memorizing, and what characterizes this learning act - the future. For some people it could be learning a text by heart - saying the same exact words or reading in one's evocations the same exact words. But it could also be remembering in one's own words the summary of the information acquired - learning a kind of lesson that one has condensed. It could also be classifying the information synthesized into a schematic design. These are all types of memorization, which enlarge the act and bring us back to its essence of sense - an act that carries the past learning into the future.

Act two: Memorization of vocabulary in the target group

Our target group?

What are the development stages of a child from age five to seven that is learning an L2 for the first time in a non-immersion environment?

This is the period when a child first encounters "formal obligatory education". A child who enters school for the first time has his own learning habits - as we have seen in the discussion of La Garanderie's method - but has little formal education as to the means to acquire this knowledge in the school setting and in a group. It is an important period when teachers help the children discover new information or encounter new experiences. But learning can happen only when "a person who does not have the knowledge has the means of acquiring it" (La Garanderie, 1997, p. 9).

Teachers of this age group have the moral obligation of helping the students discover and experiment the five learning acts, in a manner that respects each child's code. How a child is introduced to the acts will influence the rest of his or her academic experience.

In terms of the subject studied, recent research highlighted has shown that children in this age group learn an L2 in a similar manner as they learn their L1 (Cited in "CertTEYL Course"). In his article for Science News, Bruce Bower ("Brain roads", 1997) cites research by the neuroscientist Joy Hirsch that there is evidence that children even use the same areas of the language centers of the brain, Broca's and Wernicke's areas, for L1 and L2 learning.

A non-immersion environment means that the only assured contact that the child will have with the L2 is the class time. Specific L2 learning activities will be done during class time. Of course there are always parents who will help their children encounter the L2 outside of the classroom, or families that live in an international context. But not every student will have access to this extended contact with the L2. Thus for this paper, it is assumed that the child will have no other L2 stimuli.

Since memorization is acquiring knowledge now and assuring that there is a bridge for this information to the future, because of a future project, then this future project must come from the classroom. An artificial future need must be created that motivates the children. If during the class, they have a specific future need that motivates and inspires them, they will take the time to stock the information they are learning in order to find it in subsequent classes. If there is no future need, then they will simply understand it and experience it, but will not remember it.

Is it possible to memorize vocabulary without understanding it?

The other four learning acts will not be presented, but it is important to briefly mention that if knowledge is not efficiently understood, then it will be difficult for a child in the target group to memorize it. An adult might be able to by-pass the comprehension stage, and learn things "by heart" but not a young child. And in terms of La Garanderie's discoveries, this type of non-understood knowledge could never be linked to anything since it is empty of meaning.

Thus it is important to examine what types of activities can help the children, in the target group, understand the English vocabulary, and how to give them meaningful learning experiences to nurture this understanding.

Since there are three predominant codes, it is important that when understanding an object of knowledge, that a child has access to these three sensorial inputs - vision, hearing and touching. A child should never be isolated to only one sensorial input because of his predominant code. A rich sensorial experience will ensure a depth in the evocations of this object. It is true that at this age, children are very centred on their own bodies and their own experiences. If we return to our example of the vocabulary word "cat", a rich learning experience could be created by having each child look, hear and touch a cat. Simply seeing a flashcard will have less effect. It is not as linked to the child's body. Of course not all of our vocabulary objects are as easy to bring into the classroom. We can imagine what would happen when learning "elephant" or "lion". But there are always creative ways to use masks, theatre, miming, arts and crafts and picture books to substitute the real object, and to create complete learning situations rich in information.

The next step would be to help the child evoke the cat, creating and working mental images of the cat that will be based upon the sensorial experiences. It is rare that time is given in the classroom to this type of purely mental work, and it is this aspect of La Garanderie's work, which is revolutionary, in terms of other methods. It is essential to do this evocation; otherwise the learning experience remains in the sensorial context and does not enter the mental realm. Surprisingly, children are very avid for this type of experience even though they have no formal training in it. Perhaps it is their proximity to the imaginary world. Once initiated in evocation, they willingly take the time to make any object of knowledge exist in their thoughts.

It is important to remember that a child has the right to use his or her predominant code and parameters of comprehension or the evocations will not be useful. There is neither a right nor a wrong way to evoke. There is a basic and a complete way to do it. The more codes the children use, the greater their understanding of the object will be. However, it is important that each person starts evoking with his predominant code.

And now, memorization!

It is a good idea to recall La Garanderie's definition of memorization seen in Act One of this paper: an act of learning that keeps evocations of an object encountered in the past, available for future utilization. How can we as pedagogues create an artificial need for L2 vocabulary that will motivate the children in the target group? There are three event criteria in order to ensure its success. An event should be: accessible, personal and fun.

The first criterion is accessible. The activity must be at the right difficulty level for a child from five to seven years old. For arts and crafts, you can use projects with paper, cardboard, fabric, glue, blunt-nosed scissors, paint, felt pens, coloring pencils; the important criterion is that the child is able to do it alone. A game should not be too complicated, for instance dice with points on them to show the numbers if the children are five years old and dice with written numbers if they are seven. Another consideration is that children in this age group sometimes still put things in their mouths (plastic-coating can be necessary to ensure a long-life to the material).

The activity should also arrive at a personalized end result. This means that there should be some basic guidelines, but if the children want to paint their cats purple instead of brown, then they should be able to do so. Children in this group have very active imaginations, and they have personal ideas about the size, shape, color, etc of their projects. Of course guidance is needed. As it is a group activity, everyone should do the same project. But children will be proud and invested in their work if they have had a say as to how it has been done. They will keep it proudly and show it to everyone. And they will use it time and time again.

The activity MUST be fun; this is obligatory. Since the children have no need for the L2, the activity that will bring them to memorize their vocabulary has to be fun, or there will be no motivation for them to do it. Children like to move, they like to be special, they like to imagine. A fun activity involves all of this and much more. What were the games that you liked to play when you were this age? And your brother or sister? Do you have a niece or nephew? You can observe the games that children play at the local park. Or watch some of the TV shows that are produced for this age group.

There are infinite possibilities. This paper examines one idea that can either be used directly in the classroom, or as a model for individual ideas. The only pre-requisites are the three criteria and that the knowledge solicited is information that has been learned in the past and projected to the future.

A pirate's treasure chest

An example of a memorization activity for L2 vocabulary memorization is the pirate's treasure chest. Both boys and girls dream of being pirates. They are emblematic figures of complete freedom (as the Lost Boys in Peter Pan) where children can be as un-adult like as they want to be (accessible). It is the summit of having fun (fun). There are very few rules for pirates. And since no child has probably ever seen a real pirate, they are anything that we can imagine them to be (personal). When considering the three criteria, pirates are a hit.

One of the main accessories for pirates is a treasure chest. In reality their activities and efforts are all geared towards the project of discovering and keeping a chest filled with treasures that they will "treasure" all their life. Here is La Garanderie's idea of a project of an activity in the future. Each item put into the chest is stored for a reason and stored in time. Whenever the pirates want to look/touch/talk about a treasure, they must consciously open the box and pull out a treasure. If it is a necklace, they can wear it. If it is a diamond-studded mirror, they can look at it and use it to prepare themselves for battle. If it is a sword, etc. These are the phenomena of activities with the objects. And when they have finished, they will put the treasure carefully away in their chest in order to conserve it for another possible future use.

And what if our pirates were our students, and the treasure chest our memory? This is a game that children will love to play. First, you spend time making individual treasure chests for each child that will be carefully stored in a bigger class treasure chest (made either by the teacher or by the entire class). Be sure to write English in big letters on the chest, since in theory a child can have a treasure chest for each field that he studies. The individual treasure chests can be made out of shoe boxes and decorated with many different things - fake jewels, fancy borders from the fabric shop, special pictures cut out of magazines, painted, and any type of decoration will do. You should be able to close each box, so that the items put in them will remain inside.

What are the treasures? They are the vocabulary words! At the end of each lesson, the child can receive a card of one of the words that was worked on during the class. Sometimes it might be necessary to spend two classes before making the card. A maximum number of cards is five per theme to start with. It could be simply a pictorial representation of the vocabulary word learned in a flashcard format. Or for children who are seven years old, it can also have the word written on it. Upon receiving the card, the child can decorate it as described during the comprehension section. You can make a big fuss about how beautiful the card is, since this is the child's English treasure. Be sure to say the word often, describing it, showing it and touching it many times. Encourage the children to do likewise. Each child can show his or her card to the class.

Have the children dress up with a pirate accessory (a bandana, an eye patch, a black vest, a hat, etc). Once they are dressed have them close their eyes and you can "hide" the cards in the classroom. While still sitting, have all the children open their eyes. Then one by one, they can go and find their treasure. Or if it is a small well-behaved class, they can search all together. But be careful about safety. After all, they are no longer children; they are pirates! Once they have found their treasure they can come back, declaring to the other pirates what treasure they have found, and sit together "in the ship". They can even sing a special pirate's song.

Let the children reconnect a short moment with their evocations of the card. Then create a "memory ceremony". Have each child solemnly put the card in his treasure chest, while saying the word. Afterwards you can say a made-up pirate's code when you close the class treasure chest.

The next class, you can devote time to symbolically accessing these vocabulary words. At first you can use the pirate accessories, to bring back the learning experience of the game. Have each child pull out the card, reconnect with his evocations and name it. Then put it back in the treasure chest. This game of accessing, using, and restocking is a metaphor of the memorization process. If children know that they will be playing the game, they will try to remember the words. If they do not remember, ask fellow pirates to help their shipmate. And then the first child, if needed can later help another. Sometimes having the group as a resource can take some of the stress out of reproducing the word. But the more the activity of being pirates participates in the game, the less stress there will automatically be.

Some children will want to take their cards home. You can plan for this during the school vacation periods, carefully explaining to the parents that it is important that the cards come back to the classroom intact. A good idea would be to give an instruction sheet to the parents explaining types of games that they can play at home with the cards. Some ideas are hide-and-seek, memory, or go fish.

Infinite variations

Can it only be a pirate's treasure chest? There are countless examples of other metaphors. If you have a class with only girls, you might want to use the idea of a princess' jewelry box or a fairy's magic cavern. If there are only boys and they like cars, why not a mechanic's tool chest? A fisherman's tackle box? A hairdresser's styling tray? A doctor's medicine bag? The list can go on and on. As teachers, we can learn the areas that interest our students, and capitalize on this in order to create metaphorical learning games that they will be motivated and enthusiastic to play.

It is important to play a game enough times so that the repetition can help the children learn the idea of accessing stored information, contemplating it and producing it. But while repeating is important, it is equally important not to overplay a game. You can always use a game for a certain period, and then switch to a different one. Always transfer the old cards to the new game, in order to symbolize that the words are never lost. And remember, it is only if the children have a project of future use that they will store the vocabulary word. If they do not need it later on; they probably will not memorize it.

Is this type of activity only good for the target group?

The activity of the memorization pirate's treasure chest was presented for the specific target group. If you are teaching older children, it is important to consider 4 different aspects.

  1. What forms of the vocabulary words are needed? (pronunciation, meaning and spelling)
  2. What types of production of the vocabulary will be preferable (reading identification, auditive recognition, oral reproduction, writing)
  3. What are the types of arts and crafts activities appropriate for the age group, to determine how to make the word representations (flashcards, three dimensional objects, etc.)
  4. What are the students' interests?

Once all of these questions have been answered, you can weave them together to create an accessible, personal and fun game.

Are the children 11 years old? How about a board game, where special squares let the player access their word bank for extra points? Are they 9 years old? The memorized words can be used to tell a group story, where each child pulls a card and adds an element to the story. The list can go on and on. Once you have played these types of games, the students can even make up games of their own with the treasure cards. Thus they are also active participants in the decision-making process.

In conclusion

La Garanderie has helped us remember that memorization is when a person learns something in order to use it in a future activity. It is a learning phenomenon that all students encounter again and again throughout their schooling and throughout their life. It is what allows us to constitute a learning bank of knowledge that is ready to be used at any later date. It is what allows us to automatically stop at each red light, as well as know that 4 x 5 = 20, and that our dog's name is Spot. And yet how many people say that they cannot or that they do not like memorizing?

When memorization returns to this primary task - storing information consciously for a future utilisation - it becomes essential to the learning process. It also looses its complexity and becomes a simple tool. If it is introduced in an appropriate manner, as suggested in this article, it is neither artificial nor boring. It can even be fun and motivating. It has many different variants and possibilities that are limited only by our age and by our imagination. And learning how to do it is useful not only for learning a L2 but also for learning anything at all.

How do we teach our students the way to memorize? As La Garanderie has helped us to discover, we help the children find a learning project that will use vocabulary words in the future. We accompany them as they discover and understand these words. With our activities, we encourage them to personalize the information and appropriate it. Then we guide them in an activity that imitates how to store information, access our evocations of it, and use the information in the future for the goals of our memorization projects. The fact that all of these actions are conscious makes the children the authors of their own memorization projects. When I have consciously done something, I can do it again and again.

As ESL teachers working with children, we can help our students discover the possibilities of memorization. We then become true pedagogues by playing with this process. The once "magical" act becomes a game to be learned, a process to be repeated, and an action that can be infinitely varied. Instead of the" hocus pocus" of only a few magicians, memorizing a foreign language vocabulary becomes a process that each child has experimented and controlled. It returns to the everyday activity that memorization is. And yet it goes even further. By playing with it, children start to discover, imagine, plot, the countless possibilities make it an inspiring and motivating process. Hocus pocus? No, memorization is simple child's play.


Bower, B. (1997) Brains show signs of two bilingual roads [Electronic version]. Science News, Vol. 152, No. 2, July 12, 1997. Retrieved February 27, 2006, from

CertTEYL Online Course (2006), Module 1, Section 2: First Language Development. Retrieved February 27, 2006, from [Note: Only accessible to course participants.]

La Garanderie, A. (1997). Critique de la Raison Pédagogique[Critique of Pedagogical Reasoning]. Paris: Èditions Nathan.

Soanes, C. & Hawker S. (2005). Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English, Third Edition [Electronic version].

Comments and questions? Please contact us.

The International TEYL Journal is owned, published, and copyrighted © 2006 - 2012 Advanced Teacher Training.
All rights reserved. Online ISSN 1705-6276 Print ISSN 1705-6268 CD-ROM ISSN 1705-6284