Review: Memory – What Every Language Teacher Should Know

Memory – What Every Language Teacher Should Know is an independent published book by Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti. Both writers are very experienced MFL teachers, curriculum designers, materials writers, bloggers, etc.


The aim of the book is ‘to provide a readable introduction to memory, one key component of the science of learning, and to relate it to language teaching’. The authors summarize a range of research from cognitive science, neuroscience, educational psychology, and psycholinguistics, relating this directly to the teaching of an additional language. Here are the topics covered:

Each chapter begins by outlining the key concepts covered…

Each concept is introduced in an accessible way.  The authors include quite a few references to research but pages aren’t bogged down with these – they stick to key points. Most chapters include info boxes which provide concise summaries of key research and their possible implications. The authors also suggest classroom activities which they feel link the theory to practice. Naturally, these help to keep the resource relevant and applicable for practitioners. Chapters end with a half-page(ish) summary of key points, some reflection questions, and references for further reading/viewing.   

For the most part, the content in each chapter provides an excellent overview of each topic, and a great springboard to further reading. I concede here that ‘memory’ is not an area of research I know *loads* about (*ahem*, I probably should know more…). The topics covered that I had perhaps learnt a bit more about before (working memory, phonological memory, error correction) seemed well-summarised. It didn’t surprise me given the authors overall position (I’ll come to that) that Skill Acquisition Theory was referenced in the section on working memory (slightly contradicting some comments in the intro). I thought the section on phonological memory was quite strong, with important references to phonological memory difficulties and dyslexia, and some reference to the importance of inner speech (I maybe expected more reference to proprioception, unless I’m out of date with that one?).

There were certain topics covered that I come across a lot in more mainstream educational resources rather than ELT ones – the old cognitive load theory and retrieval practice. It was good to see them related directly to language learning. Summaries of the worked-example effect, guidance-fading and expertise-reversal effect, as well as the general types of cognitive load were a good inclusion as I feel these are less covered in language teaching circles (well, not in my earlier training I mean).

In particular, it was interesting to see cognitive load theory related to the design of communicative tasks. That said, I’ve read another review of this resource that was quite damning of the way the authors covered certain topics, including cognitive load theory. See Geoff Jordan’s blog for a more detailed chapter-by-chapter overview of the book and critique from someone more versed in the field of memory and SLA.

I felt the summary of declarative vs procedural memory was one chapter in which there were perhaps more assumptions made than in others. The framing of the declarative vs procedural debate in a section on ‘automaticity revisited’ was, I feel, a nice route into a complex topic: the authors mention that there is disagreement as to whether ‘the interface can be crossed’, they state that they believe it can, they offer only a few references to back that up, and then in the summary mention that ‘most researchers believe declarative knowledge can become proceduralised in certain circumstances’. I’m not sure that’s the best handling of that topic – I was fine with their own stance as it is a debatable topic which for a language teacher I guess you’ve got to believe ‘something’ and have that underpin your practice, but I’m not sure that ‘most researchers’ are in agreement with regards this issue. If so, I think more reference to research there would have helped. I’m no expert on that topic though, so might have missed the mark!  

Anyhow, I’m getting a bit blow-by-blow here myself – let’s just say that there’s plenty more of interest after the declarative vs procedural bit, some of which reinforces the ‘importance of explicit learning’ viewpoint of the authors so yes, is nuanced but interesting (the bits on making it stick, remembering vocab, learnability), and a little bit on emotional factors affecting memory which wasn’t exactly a curveball (I expected motivation to pop up), but was actually felt quite BOLD! Growth mindset was in there – will it age well? Has it aged well? Anyhow, I thought brief discussion on learning dispositions like adaptation, curiosity and so on was a change of pace. Ha, after all my unavoidable reification of memory models, learning dispositions suddenly felt more concrete than they normally would to me!

The final two chapters in this resource are useful. They bring all the findings together into practical suggestions for teachers. The first chapter is about shaping a ‘memory-friendly curriculum’. As you can see, lots is covered in a short space…

And there’s some familiarity here from an ELT point of view – remember Ellis and Shintani’s Principles of Instructed Language Learning…?

Anyway, there are some aspects of this curriculum design that I may take forward to my EAL practice. It’s not all relevant, but some of the more general tips in this section about making language comprehensible will serve as good guidance for our subject teachers.

The final section of the resource includes 12 clear principles for apply cognitive science to language teaching. Ha, I feel like you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t with a principles list – someone is bound to say that some of the suggestions are pithy but overall there is some useful guidance (I’m only screenshotting the first couple, not really fair on the authors I guess).

A few criticisms

There are occasions when certain overviews are a bit *too* summarized – I said that the authors don’t go citation heavy, but sometimes I’d have preferred a little more so I can follow up on things…

(Sorry, my screen shots here are really skewed haha.)

… and you get the occasional ‘evidence suggests XYZ’ without really going into the evidence. I mean, that’s what you’re getting in an overview resource really, but there were just a couple of times (like in the part about the importance of ‘noticing’, as the nature of this is debated) when I’d have liked to know what evidence is being referred to. I mentioned this already though with the declarative vs procedural memory chapter.

And there are some occasions when I felt that the suggested classroom activities didn’t always link well to the chapter content – or perhaps needed some explaining as to how they did relate. Generally speaking, they seemed to align in some way.

That said, I think it is an excellent resource for introducing teachers to key research into memory, the implications of this research for instructed second language learning, and ways in which we might design classroom activities in light of this evidence.

What I liked

There are two things I really liked about this resource. One is the honesty of the writers. The introduction sets exactly the right tone and expectation for what follows, and addresses what is bound to be the ‘elephant in the room’ for most readers – whether language learning is largely implicit or explicit. They make their position clear, and while there are some bold claims (‘Some researchers… and most teachers, believe that, with enough practice, explicit knowledge can become implicit’), the authors take a stance:

‘…we make the assumption, supported by a good deal of research, that [explicit learning] can help students become proficient second language users’.

Look, I’m not saying that gives the authors license to cherry pick research (not saying that’s the case, just that it would be possible given they’ve taken a stance). However, it does mean you can perhaps gauge what ‘take’ you’re getting, and when you might need to delve deeper. Stating what they believe from the outset is valuable for the reader for sure.

Something else I like it the authors’ willingness to critique current practice within their specific context. Rather than debate the value of explicit teaching/learning, which is an ongoing and unlikely-to-be-resolved-any-time-soon debate, the authors have a go at making explicit teaching/learning as it exists more efficacious. They criticize textbooks (coursebooks) on the grounds that grammatical syllabi may conflict with what learners are able to process, and suggest a ‘less is more’, intensive practice approach. They point out further deficits in textbook approaches that use semantic clustering of vocabulary items, suggesting a thematic approach aligns more with research findings. They favour a lexicogrammar approach (based on evidence related to studies into memory) and advocate building a curriculum around communicative functions. They suggest an evidence-based model of language instruction (MARS-EARS) which draws together findings from iSLA and cognitive science, with stages designed to ease cognitive load, prompt noticing, flood input, aid retrieval, and develop automaticity.

It’s been thought through. And it makes sense when you consider the specific context the authors are working in (MFL and instructional language learning).  As a writer under an MFL remit at present, I recognize certain constraints and approaches which MFL teachers are fighting against – Smith and Conti suggest an evidence-informed +1 on some existing coursebook materials I’ve reviewed for sure. No doubt the MARS-EARS model would have its detractors. That said, I’ve heard it get highly praised by international school MFL teachers I know who have shaped their curriculum with one of this book’s authors (Gianfranco Conti) as their consultant. Seeing as I don’t teach MFL, it’s hard to really put the model into practice, but I do view it as a reasoned and fairly principled attempt at curriculum enhancement within specific contexts.


If you’re looking for a highly accessible introduction to research into memory and language learning, this is definitely it. For the most part, this reads like an honest attempt at mediation from two experienced practitioners, helping teachers to become more informed and make principled pedagogical choices based on evidence. As with any overview resource like this, further reading may be required before judging whether the content is reliable, although the authors are forthcoming with regard to their own position and beliefs, which certainly helps.

Rating: 4.5/5

Categories: General, reviews

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8 replies

  1. Thanks for this. One quick question if it’s not too much trouble – the photo of Chapter 16 refers to planning a vocabulary and grammar curriculum.

    While I appreciate these are not the focus of the book in question, is there an indication of what they mean by “vocabulary” (e.g. word lists) and by “grammar” (e.g. verb tense and aspect)?

    (That is, there’s a difference between learning a phrase such as “have a considerable impact on” or “be at the end of (one’s) tether” and “considerable”, “end”, “impact” and “tether” as a list of items; likewise, the grammar of defining versus non-defining relative clauses and inversion (e.g. “At the end of the lane stood a little house”) is considerably different from the use of present perfect simple vs past simple for instance).


    • That’s a very good question in this context. They mention alot about how the teaching of vocab and grammar should be approached in the book, but ultimately less about the selection of specific items. However, there is a bit:

      Vocab selection:
      Importance of core vocab which consists of high-frequency words and chunks (including sight words), and high-surrender value words/chunks with most potential for usage (thats quoted btw)
      Encourage knowledge of word families and morphological relationships between parts of speech
      Focus on 500 most frequent word families in first year, 500 next most frequent in second year…

      Then there’s a bit on the things around that content, like ‘consider all dimensions on vocab knowledge’ like form, meaning , pron, use, depth, fluency, plus there’s a list of general guidelines for a department to consider (how to teach the words, how and when to recycle, etc). Ultimately though, the points on word families, frequency and surrender value are the main points on vocab content.

      Re: grammar selection:
      Actually, no. They reiterate the importance of lexicogrammar approach in that the grammar emerges from the chunks used in communication. There’s some guidance on choosing grammar points (how useful is it, how frequent, how complex, is it a structure likely to be acquired slowly over time, how useful would knowledge of the structure be with regards to assessment(!), but there is no specific list of grammar points as such. BUT, then there is reference to ‘a communicative curriculum’, which the writers favour, and they do then list a set of communicative functions that are worth covering.

      That bit is the only bit that has clear, concrete examples of what to cover in the curriculum. Examples include: describing and identifying people/objects/phenomena, creating questions, expressing feelings, making arrangements, comparing and contrasting, describing routines, describing past events, indicating agreement etc. So there are potentially hooks for ‘grammar’ within that. But, it seems they favour something ‘action-oriented’ and move away from grammar syllabus.

      Hope that gives a bit more context, but potentially more questions than answers? Ha

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for getting back to me and also for the reply itself.

    Although it would be unfair to expect a book of that kind to address these issues (it’s not what it’s trying to do as you explain), it’s quite striking how familiar (not including “high-surrender value” ; D) what they say is, certainly in the vocabulary, but also in the grammar section.

    You’ve given it a good rating and noted that it’s only intended as an introduction and it’s certainly caught my attention.

    But only focussing on the selection as you’ve summarised, certainly with vocabulary, there is nothing there that hasn’t been standard practice for what must be getting on for three decades now, if not much longer.

    On the one hand that’s sensible – it most likely reflects the experience of much of the audience their book is aimed at.

    But on the other, and this is a downside of that kind of approach. The kind of teacher that would be most likely to be aware of, and interested in, reading the book is – I imagine anyway – also most likely to also be a teacher who already thinks about vocabulary selection in terms of utility, frequency, spelling vs. pronunciation, word families, etc.

    And if that’s the case then that kind of approach runs the risk of simply rubber-stamping a kind of quality mark (together with some rebarbative and often unnecessary jargon) on what those teachers are quite often already doing.

    Take the practical advice in the final sentence of the first paragraph in the “Performance versus learning” screenshot in your “A few criticisms” section. And the paragraph that follows it:

    “This implies that genuine progress is not easily observable in a single lesson, as the skill and knowledge displayed in that lesson may be forgotten next time.”

    I mean, this may sound harsh, but do we really need “science” to tell us this?

    (OK, I think my “Grumpy Old Man” alarm has just gone off so will stop here!”)

    Despite everything I’ve said, I’d be interested in seeing what they have to say.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! No, we don’t need science to tell us that – it certainly feels like we need science to affirm it in many ways at the moment! This ‘cog sci’/‘science of learning’ etc movement that dominates mainstream education does seem to be creating ‘certainty’ where once there was ‘reasoned intuition’ (Pete making up phrases here, trying to avoid the use of ‘common sense’ as I don’t have it). AND they have this interesting habit of making absolute truths with approaches or methods that are invariably context bound. Walkthrus is a good one to read on that front – they have this approach called something like a hub model (I’ll have to double check) where the ‘good practice’ is at the centre of it, and our teaching contexts adapt that yet keep hold of those central tenets of good practice. Probably worth noting that under the topic of questioning they see ‘cold-calling’ as a central tenet – I wonder how many EAL classrooms they’ve been in?!

      Anyway, I’m digressing. You’ve knocked the nail on the head in that what they say is not necessarily innovative. The question is, again you point out, is it innovative within that specific context? I would argue yes it could be. I’m currently working on projects within an MFL team in which a coursebook is still lockstep on the grammar front, there is confusion when vocab is not clustered semantically, there is no real ‘input flooding’ as Smith and Conti refer to it, there’s no systematic recycling of content, items aren’t really chunked, exploring word families isn’t a thing, skills are practiced rather than developed, so on so forth. In such a context, it is hard to argue with what Smith and Conti put forward – it does not revolutionize, yet it might (probably? Possibly?) be an enhancement.

      The vocabulary suggestions in Chapter 16 are a let down in some ways, as they don’t practice what is preached (I mean, unless there’s a suggestion that a thematic approach also hits high frequency vocab – not clear enough but suggested?). However, we just don’t have enough evidence from the book to go on there, and I’m not sure the intention was ultimately to build evidence towards an all encompassing foolproof syllabus design based on the evidence presented. It does, however, nudge *with evidence* away from grammar-based syllabi. On the evidence of my recent work and on conversations with MFL colleagues, I’m not so sure even that’s an easy claim to make in the context. That said, you’re the textbook man – you’d be more in the know than me on current trends…

      Liked by 1 person

      • “it certainly feels like we need science to affirm it in many ways at the moment!”

        Thanks again for the reply – but what makes you say that about the science? (i.e. is that your general feeling or did you have a specific event or trend in mind?)

        “they have this interesting habit of making absolute truths with approaches or methods that are invariably context bound”

        Yes, I suppose – although that’s not really their fault, I don’t think, insofar as they are often writing for non-experts so what’s gained in clarity is lost in nuance and subtlety.

        “Walkthrus is a good one to read on that front”

        Thanks – never heard of him/her so that’s another one for me to look up.

        Very interesting to hear that you’re working with MFL, not just EFL/ESOL.

        And yes, I suppose you’re right to point out that there are still what are arguably less desirable features in a range of language teaching materials (and language teaching classrooms) still around that would benefit from a book of the kind you’re reviewing.

        “you’re the textbook man”

        Oh, I’m not.

        I have written and still do write materials, but not the kind that you regularly work on. You’ll be much more up-to-date on all that than me.

        Anyway, thanks again for your time and replies.


        • ‘Yes, I suppose – although that’s not really their fault, I don’t think, insofar as they are often writing for non-experts so what’s gained in clarity is lost in nuance and subtlety.’
          Very true – that was me also being grumpy in that I’m currently writing a non-expert type book too (though pedagogy related) and I’m also making ‘truths’ of rather context dependent techniques/tips etc. I’m finding it surprisingly difficult to state anything about teaching with complete clarity in a context-free way. Proving how little I probably do know about most aspects of teaching, but also making me realise how hard that can be – and why I should probably stop critiquing other authors on those grounds! I’m envious I think! Clarity is (quite clearly) not one of my strong points.
          ‘but what makes you say that about the science? (i.e. is that your general feeling or did you have a specific event or trend in mind?)’
          So, ‘needing science to affirm it’ probably wasn’t the best way to phrase what I mean. But I guess I’m alluding to what feels like a strong movement in mainstream education (back?) to explicit/direct instruction. Personally, I wouldn’t argue against the value of explicit teaching/learning to some extent – I just feel when you are dealing with language learning as a (largely or at least partly) implicit process, the ‘I do, we do, you do’ of your approach to Science and Maths as the key to unlocking learning is… not suitable when applied to ‘all disciplines’. Where the science affirming bit comes in for me is just how much the ‘science of learning’ has gone in favour of such approaches and away from an exploratory, emergent, you know, co-constructed type nature. Perhaps in ELT we remain more open to eclectic approaches? It feels like it. In mainstream education, it seems (see that Walkthrus again) that we are reducing learning to predictable tried and tested methods which veer towards explicit instruction, lockstep (linear?) progress, ‘mastery’, a certain form of testing etc. And… as I’ve suggested with this book, it’s seeping into (or perpetuating in?) language teaching in a mainstream context. There feels a need for science to affirm what is already done (as you said), and its maybe stifling reform/larger scale curriculum enhancement.
          However, it might just be right, and clear evidence-based practice that is suited to all disciplines. And I’m needlessly fighting against it. I don’t know. I’m not mentioning that as a critique of this book in any way, more just ‘a pattern’ I guess, that I feel is limiting as a teacher. And any alternatives away from what cog science affirms (confirms?) seems a bit scoffed at. Arrrgh I’m not explaining it well – but I’m willing to try!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks, Pete.

            I’m conscious of taking up too much of your time so I’ll try and draw this one to a close, but (that said) …

            “I’m finding it surprisingly difficult to state anything about teaching with complete clarity in a context-free way”

            I would humbly suggest that it shouldn’t be so surprisingly difficult – the situations in which language teaching takes is bewilderingly vast and varied and it’s not that much less vast or varied even if you narrow it down to a region (Europe, South Asia) or institution type (private/public; primary/tertiary, etc.).

            Still, that’s an opportunity to think about fundamental principles and you’re in a good a position as anyone, better more likely, to write well on that.

            I look forward to reading that when it comes out.

            Liked by 1 person


  1. Materials writing news and views, March 2023 – ELT Planning

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