David Crabtree: In one ear out of the other

How can I teach English to a learner who seems not to listen properly?

David Crabtree

At a recent teacher’s meeting, I asked colleagues how many had learners in their classes who seem to miss part or all of instructions. The response was unanimous; everyone had someone and the conversation soon included descriptions of particular individuals and their difficulties in class. As we continued, the meeting filled up with descriptions of pupils who do not see tasks through to completion, or frequently lose their place in complicated tasks that they eventually abandon, or forget the instructions and thereby go off-task.

In each case, the reason for such behaviour in class was generally attributed to a short attention span or a belief that these are pupils who are easily distracted. When asked about achievement, it was also these same learners made poor academic progress. This may seem obvious - poor classroom learning behaviour and the link to lowered rates of attainment - but is there something else?

Inclusive classrooms

As part of a research project to develop inclusive approaches to teaching in mainstream classes, I have been able to work with teachers to investigate and develop ways to enable learners who find classroom learning challenging to become more successful. Within the project and as part of their professional practice, teachers tried out a range of different approaches, reflected on the impact and measured changes in pupil performance. We discovered that not only did those pupils identified with specific learning needs improve but also, so did other pupils in the class. What worked well for the few also helped the many.

Learning differently

For learners with unseen learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia AD(H)D or a Speech and Language problems, classroom learning is difficult. It is not that they do not learn or that they do not want to learn; it is simply that they learn in a different way than the majority.

The brain holds memory in various parts. Neural pathways are the links in long-term memory that allow us to process knowledge, make thoughts and thereby make sense of things. The brain uses different strategies to put the bits together and file them in long-term memory. Learned information is stored in long-term memory to be available for recall.

It is only when knowledge is stored in long term memory is it actually learned and available for recall. In order for information to be learned, it must pass from working memory to long term memory. To be successfully received into long term memory it needs to be appropriately presented.

Working memory does not store knowledge and disposes of information relatively quickly. When the brain disposes of information from working memory, this results in catastrophic loss; it cannot be recalled.

Approximately 70% of children with learning difficulties in reading obtain very low scores on tests of working memory. Poor working memory is a feature in dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia AD(H)D or a Speech and Language problems along with other specific learning difficulties. Such learners suffer from catastrophic loss of information from working memory. Low working memory is rare in children with no special educational needs.

Working memory

Working memory capacity increases with age during childhood. Young children typically have very small capacities that increase gradually until the teenage years, when adult capacities are reached that are more than double that of 4-year-old children. Differences in working memory capacity between different children of the same age can be very large. In a typical infant class of 30 children, at least three of them will have the working memory capacities of the average of a pre-infant child and three others to have capacities close to adult levels.

In secondary, the same is true but the gap can be even wider. Although working memory capacities increase with age, for some it does not do so at the same rate as others. Therefore, as they grow older, some pupils will lag behind more or more.

Every individual has a different capacity for working memory. This relatively fixed capacity may be greater or less than that of others. Consequently, a particular activity may be well within the capacity of one person but exceed that of another. In this way, the learning behaviour around instructions going in one ear and out of the other is to do with working memory.

Much of what happens in the classroom takes place in working-memory.

What methodologies can be used in whole-class teaching?

Successful learning for many learners requires methodologies that ensure learning transfer and reduce the loss from working memory.

One term we coined for learning transfer into long term memory was ‘stickability’. This term worked for us because it encompassed supporting learners to ‘stick’ to a task as well as helping learning ‘stick’ in the long term memory.

At its simplest, Stickability is reworking schemes of work and lesson plans to make them clear and visible to all learners so they always have a visual check to know where they are.

Stickability classroom tools

The main Stickability tools are learning journeys and activity routes.

  • The learning journey is a visual map showing the main things which are going to be learned and, for this, we found visual representations to be better than words.
  • The activity route is a simple visual tool to identify the main stages of an activity to ‘remind’ the learner of where they are and what needs to be done

Other tools used within this overall visual outline were such things as:

  • Breaking down tasks and instructions into smaller components whilst ensuring that each chunk is linked clearly to the learning journey and/or the activity route
  • Repeating information as required

Can this idea be developed for a whole school approach to SEN?

As part of a whole school approach, it is relatively simple to identify those children who have limited capacity in working memory. The tests for working memory are easy to administer, they can easily be built into other classroom activities and sometimes they can even be introduced as games. Therefore, by focusing on working memory it is relatively easy to identify children at risk and adapt teaching for them and/or the whole class accordingly.

General guidelines can be applied such as:

  • Monitoring those children who are at risk of working memory loss to identify warning signs of memory overload
  • Supporting learners by minimising memory load
  • Encouraging pupils to request information when required.
  • Increasing the meaningfulness of the material
  • Using memory aids wherever possible such as ‘useful spellings’ on white boards and cards, number lines, printed notes or even Dictaphones to store information that needs to be remembered.


Submitted by ESLinsider on Tue, 09/22/2015 - 20:14


I thought increasing the meaningfulness of the material was a good point. The content is as important as the language. Images work. I read somewhere that your brain processes images 60,000 times faster than words.

Research and insight

We have hundreds of case studies, research papers, publications and resource books written by researchers and experts in ELT from around the world. 

See our publications, research and insight

Sign up to our newsletters for teachers and teacher educators

We will process your data to send you our newsletter and updates based on your consent. You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of every email. Read our privacy policy for more information.