On Memory & Fluency

Years ago, fresh out of Teachers’ College and testing myself in the trenches, I was faced with the task of putting students into their correct classes / levels.

I was working in then newly liberated Czechoslovakia in the cinderella city of Karlovy Vary at a new private language center. I wore many hats and the director would rush at me between classes and introduce me to new students. She’d ask me to speak with them and tell her what class they should be in. It was organized chaos! I mean, I only had at most 10 minutes between classes and that was filled with other stuff. (by the way, here is a previous blog post about this)

Necessity being the mother of all inventions, I came up with a system that I believed would work. Then, I knew very little about how working memory works – I was just winging it and trying to get by. But over time, I’ve refined the level test I gave then and thought through its implications.

The “quick” 2 min. test went like this.

  1. Give the student a simple story to read.
  2. Test their comprehension with simple questions that got more difficult
  3. The more correct answers they got – the higher their level.
  4. . If in doubt, show them a picture and ask them to state vocabulary in it. The better their knowledge of difficult (low frequency) words, the higher their level.

It really did work. It took me only a few minutes. While the student(s) were reading, I’d be photocopying or doing other things. After, I’d tell the director (also the owner) what level of class the student(s) should be in.

Now flash ahead 20+ years. I’m the director of a large online language learning platform. Schools that purchased our platform would also ask about a “placement test” that could be done quickly online. I’d often suggest my “Memory Level Test”. I also formalized the test and it was used by hundreds of students at an online school in Japan. Results were cross-referenced with students’ TOEIC test scores. The test validity held up.

So what was going on here? What actually is the relationship between short term, working memory and second language fluency?

My theory, proven through much testing and cross-validation is that the higher the ability of students to recall factual information in the L2 – the higher the students’ 2nd language fluency. As students become more fluent, they become more able in the second language to retain in short term memory given factual information in the 2nd language (or stronger are the synapses immediately developed to record the 2nd language factual information). Read this research report detailing the “reading span (memory) test” and how well it aligns with learner 2nd language fluency.

Further, if the students do try to translate, they still will be unable to do so quick enough to enter enough information into 1st language memory. So it is important that you don’t explain the student will be questioned after the reading.

Want to try this out with your own students? Validate it roughly yourself? HERE you will find some stories and scoring sheets to use.

1 to 4 correct – beginner 5-6 correct intermediate 7+ advanced level.

I’ll also end by mentioning that this relationship between memory and fluency would be an important research topic to take on for those out there looking for a research thesis or topic. Lots to discover here. Also would be cool to have an online version of this test. Students self select their level then test. We see if the test validates their own selected level.

What’s your take? Is there a relationship between “recall” of factual information and a student’s 2nd language proficiency? Would you use this type of test at your school or university?


Also published on Medium.

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