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Making learning stick: Strategies for lasting knowledge

Learning a language is a cumulative and dynamic process that involves acquiring, processing, and retaining vocabulary and structures. However, the challenge for us teachers lies in making this learning stick — ensuring that the knowledge acquired stays with our learners for the long haul. In our classrooms, where we teach mixed classes (in terms of students' attainment) and where new language (receptive and productive) is constantly added and adapted, it is crucial to teach our students strategies that enhance the retention of the old and new language and promote lasting understanding.

Here, I will explore some effective methods I use in my own classroom to make learning stick.

  • Active Engagement:

One of the most powerful ways to make learning stick is through active engagement. Passive learning, where new language is simply just presented and not extensively modelled and practised via all modalities, often results in quick forgetting. I teach new vocabulary and structures through sentence builders. The reason I teach it like this is:

The new vocabulary is introduced within a structure, so my students can see how the word behaves in context of the structure within the sentence which makes it more memorable and 'sticky'.

I use a whole repertoire of interactive strategies, engaging my learners through hands-on activities, and interactive exercises which enhances retention. This encouragement of active participation creates neural connections that reinforces the learned language.

To see what type of activities I use, have a look at an example of my lesson sequence here: Lesson sequence

EPI / G.Conti - lesson's sequence example

  • Retrieval, Repetition and Spaced Learning:

Repetition has long been recognized as a key element in memory formation. However, it's not about mindlessly repeating language but strategically spacing out the repetition and retrieval over time. This concept, known as spaced learning, involves retrieving language learnt and practised at intervals, allowing the brain to consolidate it more effectively. Spaced learning has been shown to significantly improve long-term retention compared to cramming.

Here is my post on Retrieval Practice and how I embed it in my classroom: Retrieval Practice in Language Classroom

Examples of retrieval practice tasks

Example of retrieval roulette:

  • Mnemonics:

Mnemonic devices are memory aids that help learners recall information more easily. Techniques such as acronyms, rhymes, or creating memorable associations can make learning both fun and effective. By connecting new language to familiar concepts, learners create mental hooks that facilitate retrieval.

Recently, I have asked my colleagues on the Teaching German Facebook group to share some of their favourites and here are some of them:


1. Genders and prepositions:

  • rese / nese / mrmen - to remember definite articles for Nominative / Accusative and Dative case.

  • DOGWUF - durch, ohne, gegen, wider, um, für - for prepositions that take the Accusative or FUDGEBOW - für, um, durch, gegen, entlang (a postposition!), bis, ohne, wider

  • The mixed (two-way) prepositions can be memorised by reciting them to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”: an, auf, hinter, neben, in, unter, über, vor, zwischen.

2. For verb endings (present tense)

  • bEST TEN out of TEN (e, st, t, en, t, en) or

  • est(ablished) 1010 or

  • Every STupid Tortoise ENjoys Toilet ENtertainment or

  • Every STrict Teacher ENjoys Telling off ENdlessly or

  • Elephants STir Tea ENthusiastically To ENjoy

3. Pronunciation of -ei / -ie sounds

  • “When I and E go walking, the last one does the talking”

4. Word order and subordinate conjunctions

  • WEIL is so VILE that the verb runs a mile

  • WOW DAD (weil, obwohl, wenn, da, als, dass

  • Tickle Me Pink - Time, Manner, Place

5. Modal verbs and future tense structures:

  • SWOSI (subject - werden - other stuff - infinitive) and SMOSI (subject - modal verb - other stuff - infinitive)


  • BANGS - adjectives which go before the noun: Beauty, Age, Number (ordinal), Greatness, Size

  • CROISSANT - Connectives, Reasons, Opinions, Infinitive expressions, Subject pronouns, Star phrases, Adjectives/Adverbs, Negatives, Tenses (can be used for other languages too)

  • AVOCADOS - Adjectives, Verbs, Opinions, Connectives, Adverbs, Descriptions, Originality (can be used for other languages too)

  • A donkey says y en - order of pronouns

  • STuPiD - consonants which are usually not pronounced at the end of the word


  • DOCTOR PLACE - use of the verbs ser (Date, Occupation, Characteristic, Time, Origin, Relation) and estar (Position, Location, Action, Condition, Emotion)

  • DISHES - irregular subjunctives: dar, ir, ser, haber, estar, saber

  • My Big Dog Poops Under Trees - qualifiers: muy, bastante, demasiado, poco, un poco, tan

  • Real-Life Application:

Linking theoretical knowledge to real-life scenarios reinforces learning and promotes its retention. Simulations, and practical exercises provide learners with opportunities to apply what they've learned in authentic scenarios. This not only solidifies understanding but also cultivates problem-solving skills. Therefore, opportunities such as pen pal projects, linking with schools from target language countries, use of wakelet, padlet, Flip, role plays in the classroom, market place, trips creating scenarios within the classroom can be invaluable.

  • Visual Aids:

Humans are highly visual creatures, and incorporating visual aids into learning materials can significantly enhance retention. Dual coding and infographics can simplify complex information and make it more digestible. Visual representations stimulate different parts of the brain, making it easier for learners to remember and understand the content.

Here is more on dual coding in language classroom: Dual Coding

Some examples of dual coding

  • Continuous Feedback:

Timely and constructive feedback is essential for the learning process. It helps learners identify areas of improvement, correct misunderstandings, and reinforce correct information. Incorporating feedback loops, quizzes, and assessments ensures that learners stay on the right track, promoting a deeper learning and understanding of the material.

More on feedback, please click on this link: Feedback

In conclusion, making learning stick is a multifaceted endeavour that requires a combination of effective strategies. By actively engaging learners, incorporating repetition, leveraging mnemonic devices, emphasizing real-world applications, utilizing visual aids and providing continuous feedback, teachers and learners alike can enhance the retention and application of vocabulary, grammatical structures and the language acquired.


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