TESOL Connections

2017 TESOL Advocacy and Policy Summit

This past June, TESOL International Association held its annual TESOL Advocacy and Policy Summit, bringing a record crowd of 110 TESOL professionals from all over the United States, including representatives from 31 affiliates, to Washington, DC. The summit equips TESOL professionals with the tools to become influential advocates on behalf of English learners and embed knowledge of key education policies. 

This past June, TESOL International Association held its annual TESOL Advocacy and Policy Summit, bringing a record crowd of 110 TESOL professionals from all over the United States, including representatives from 31 affiliates, to Washington, DC. This year’s summit was supported in part by TESOL’s strategic partner, the American Federation of Teachers.

With the purpose of equipping TESOL professionals with the tools to become influential advocates on behalf of English learners (ELs) and embedding the knowledge of key education policies, the summit provided attendees with 3 days to learn from policy experts, network with other TESOL professionals, and understand effective advocacy techniques and strategies. The summit culminated in more than 140 meetings with senators, representatives, and staffers on Capitol Hill.

The first day of the summit concentrated on policy updates and breakout sessions from a number of key organizations, including TESOL International Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Migrant Legal Action Program. Following opening remarks from TESOL International Association President Ester de Jong and Executive Director Christopher Powers, both of whom stressed the importance of collective advocacy, the summit began with a detailed legislative update. The update touched on significant legislative issues facing all ELs, such as the fiscal year 2018 federal budget proposal and its effects on the Every Student Succeeds Act and Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, providing attendees with a wealth of policy information from the very start.

Following a productive networking lunch, where attendees from 30 states engaged in lively policy discussions, the afternoon offered a series of breakout sessions focused on the rights of immigrant students, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Summit on the Future of the TESOL Profession, and lessons learned from state-level advocacy efforts in Florida. The busy first day concluded with a general session that introduced various advocacy techniques, skills, tips, and other helpful information to attendees.

The summit continued bright and early on Monday with general sessions committed to providing attendees with updates from the U.S. Department of Education. Recently appointed Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director José Viana and Deputy Director Supreet Anand of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the U.S. Department of Education gave participants a full update on current OELA initiatives and progress reports for ELs across the nation. Additionally, Deputy Director Chris Coro of the Office of Career, Adult, and Technical Education provided helpful information on his office’s current initiatives and the implementation of Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act across the United States.

The morning continued, packed full of breakout sessions from the U.S Department of Homeland Security’s Student Exchange and Visitor Program, the Migration Policy Institute, the National Skills Coalition, and American Federation of Teachers. To conclude the summit’s policy sessions, Diane Staehr Fenner, author of Advocating for English Learners: A Guide for Educators, gave a luncheon keynote highlighting the leadership skills needed to advocate for ELs during challenging times.
Following Staehr Fenner’s keynote, attendees spent Monday afternoon preparing for their meetings on Capitol Hill, where they learned about current legislation in Congress affecting ELs and TESOL educators, and tips on how to effectively hold meetings and discuss EL issues with members of Congress and their staffers. Throughout the afternoon, participants worked in small groups, often with peers from the same state, where they strategized for their meetings on the Hill.

On Tuesday, summit participants descended on Capitol Hill, meeting with their representatives in the House and Senate. Many participants from the same state met with their representatives as a group, in a concerted effort to advocate on behalf of ELs and fellow educators from their home state. After crisscrossing the Capitol grounds and logging several miles while walking throughout the hallways of the House and Senate office buildings, participants gathered for one last dinner, where they shared their experiences after a long day of advocating.

Recounting her experiences from meeting with her California representatives in Congress, Danielle Pelletier enthusiastically said,

I’m hooked! I’ll be back next year….I was amazed at how accessible Congressional offices are. This whole experience made me feel like I was being really helpful and participating in our democracy by sharing my story with [my elected officials].

Continuing the theme of civic responsibility, Brian Lemos of Colorado noted, “Walking away today gave me a renewed sense of hope in our country’s participatory government and its system of checks and balances.” Other participants had equally positive experiences after their meetings, including Alan Seaman of Illinois, who noted, “I really got the sense that the staff really cared about the issues.” Finally, Leslie Kirshner-Morris of Pennsylvania commended the summit training and information she received for her successful meetings. “It was the preparation that made the job easier,” she said.

For more highlights, photos, and videos from the summit, be sure to visit the 2017 TESOL Advocacy and Policy summary page. Information about the 2018 TESOL Advocacy and Policy Summit, including the dates and location, will be announced soon!

Quick Tip: 3 Ways to Connect STEM and Language Learning

by Deborah Cortez

Read about three ways to actively engage preK–12 English language learners in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) while providing a rich and engaging environment for language development. These activities emphasize hands-on, inquiry-based learning. 

For English language learners (ELLs), science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) activities can create an engaging environment for language development. In San Elizario Independent School District (ISD), our student population is 99% Hispanic, 96% economically disadvantaged, and 50% limited English proficient. We emphasize hands-on, inquiry-based STEM learning from preschool through high school, and we have found that this approach is benefiting our ELLs in a variety of ways.

Here are three ways to actively engage students in STEM while providing rich opportunities for English language development.

1. Host a STEM Expo

Each year, we hold a STEM Expo in our elementary, middle, and high schools. We invite students to submit an “invention,” which they create using components that already exist, or an “innovation,” which they create from scratch. Because we do not want to limit their creativity, we encourage our students to think about what they perceive as needed based on their own passions. In addition, we do provide websites and encourage them to watch shows like Shark Tank so that they can see how the process works. Students can work on these STEM projects individually or in pairs or small groups. Working in pairs or groups is particularly beneficial for ELLs because it allows them to speak and listen to English in a friendly, low-pressure environment. This hands-on, collaborative learning also makes academic vocabulary come to life.

In the spring, the winning students from each school present their STEM invention or innovation to a panel of judges at a district-wide competition. This helps ELLs further develop and refine their English skills, and it builds their confidence in a supportive, fun environment.

2. Use the 5E Model of Instruction

In Grades K–8, we use a digital STEM curriculum called STEMscopes, as well as a Spanish version of the program that’s available for Grades K–5. Each unit is developed around the 5E model of instruction—Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate—with additional modules for intervention and acceleration.

In the Explore portion of each unit, students conduct inquiry-based science investigations. For example, in one fifth-grade investigation into light, students used various tools, such as mirrors and a laser pointer, to test refraction and reflection. During the Explain phase, students collaborate in groups and use interactives to share their explanations of the Explore activities. In the Elaborate phase, students are challenged to extend their conceptual understanding and apply their skills through cross-curricular connections to reading, math, engineering, and other areas. Our teachers say that the Explain and Elaborate phases are particularly helpful for ELLs, and that students are now more willing to participate and take chances with vocabulary in the classroom.

3. Use Engineering to Promote Scientific Inquiry and Literacy

As part of the 5E model’s Elaborate phase, our K–6 students also participate in an engineering project once every 9 weeks. These “engineering connections” give students the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned to real-world problems through group design projects. In one engineering connection focused on mixtures, fifth graders are asked to design, construct, and test a filter system to remove impurities from dirty water. Our projects come from STEMScopes curriculum, but you can find ideas for other projects on websites like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA. Students research, brainstorm, explore, build, test, and adjust—which provides many opportunities for language development. In fact, students enjoy these projects so much that many showcase them at the STEM Expo.

Hands-on STEM learning creates a natural environment for language development. It gives students opportunities for reading, writing, listening to, and speaking English and exposes them to academic English, which is essential for college and career readiness.

Deborah Cortez is the science and math instructional officer for San Elizario Independent School District in Texas, USA.

Teaching Literature Reviews to EAP Students

by Jen Spearie
Writing a literature review is a daunting task for any writer. The process offered in this article helps your ELLs become more comfortable and confident with this form of writing. 

Writing a literature review is a daunting task for native speakers, much less English language learners (ELLs). In a recent English for academic purposes (EAP) course preparing graduate students for research in their respective fields, I used Swales and Feak’s (2012) Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Although I found the text extremely useful, there was a very brief and incomplete section on writing literature reviews.

Thus, I devised the following process to familiarize students with the conventions of literature reviews, to help them analyze their own research to find the appropriate organizational style, and finally to enable them to write their own literature reviews. The objective of this sequence of classes was to assist students in creating a literature review with a clear narrative thread rather than simply listing and summarizing a number of sources. By following a step-by-step process, students will begin to feel more comfortable and confident with this type of writing. Students will complete this process in brief with a number of shared sources and then will repeat the same process in more detail for their own sources related to their field of study.

Class 1: Literature Review Basics


  • Students will learn to identify the characteristics and purpose of literature reviews.
  • Students will be able to differentiate annotated bibliographies from literature reviews.

3–4 academic articles from different disciplines that each contain a literature review. Upload them on the course webpage. If you are not in a lab class, you can bring copies for each group.

1. Break students into groups of three or four and ask them to skim the articles to address the following questions (30 min):

  1. Where does each literature review begin and end?
  2. Highlight the sources mentioned in each literature review (citations).
  3. How is a literature review different from an annotated bibliography?
  4. What do you think is the purpose of a literature review?
  5. “A literature review should tell a story.” What do you think this means?

2. Use the remaining class time to review the group work and share their responses.

Class 2: Organization


  • Students will learn to recognize organizational styles of literature reviews.
  • Students will be able to identify connections between sources on a topic.
  • Students will determine an appropriate organization for a literature review and justify their choices.

5–6 short summaries or abstracts of sources on the same topic. I used summaries of academic texts on pp. 341–342 in Academic Writing for Graduate Students (Swales & Feak, 2012).

1. For this lesson, I adapted a portion of Academic Writing for Graduate Students (Swales & Feak, 2012). Spend time explaining the various organizational styles of a literature review. If possible, use the sources from the previous class to point out some different organizations of literature reviews. (20 minutes)

  1. General → specific
  2. Specific → general
  3. Problem → solution
  4. Chronological order (time or sequence)
  5. Themes/factors/subtopics (listing)
  6. Cause and effect
  7. Stages or process
  8. Other (combination of the above)

2. Break students into groups of three or four and ask them to read the summaries of the sources. (30 minutes)

3. Ask students to try to find connections between the sources. Which ones would they group together and why? Be sure to mention that sources can be cited in multiple places in a literature review depending on relevant topics.

4. Tell students they will need to choose an organizational style for their literature review. They should create an outline of the literature review and explain which sources they would cite for each section.

5. As a class, discuss the connections and ideas for organization and then vote on the best one. Write or type your class outline for the literature review and save it on the course website (see Appendix A for an example).

Class 3: Group Composition (Part 1)


  • Students will write a portion of a short literature review.
  • Students will practice paraphrasing and reporting information from sources.
  • Students will synthesize texts using comparison and contrast.
  • Students will correctly use in-text citations.


  • The outline of the literature review (from Class 2)
  • The 5–6 short summaries or abstracts (from Class 2).

1. Divide up the literature review sections (from Class 2) into groups and ask each group to be responsible for writing a one- to three-paragraph section. If you have a large class, you might ask two to three groups to work on the same section. (50 minutes)

2. Students should focus on introducing each source with the correct citation information, reporting/paraphrasing the information from the sources, and connecting the sources with transitions. They can also use comparison and contrast to highlight the similarities and differences between the sources.

3. Collect and upload each group’s section to the course website. If you had multiple groups work on the same section, keep those paragraphs together.

Class 4: Group Composition (Part 2)

Students will write introductory, transitional, and concluding sentences of a literature review.

Literature review sections written by students (from Class 3)

1. Read the group literature review sections from Class 3 and compare and contrast the paragraphs on the same topic. (20 minutes; see an example in Appendix B)

2. For each section, the group should choose the paragraph(s) that they find to be the strongest.

3. Once each group has chosen the sections of the literature review, they will need to connect them. Ask each group to write an introductory sentence that signals the beginning of the literature review and mentions the topic of the sources. Next, write transition sentences connecting the individual sections of the literature review. Finally, write a concluding sentence that signals the end of the literature review and that may point to the researcher’s topic or a gap in the previous research. (30 minutes)

4. Each group should now have a complete literature review. Collect them and upload them to the course webpage. (See an example in Appendix C)

Homework: Ask students to complete a synthesis matrix for their own sources (See Appendix D).

In following classes, students can use their individual articles and research topics to repeat this process in more detail. They can use the synthesis matrix to help them to organize the information from their sources before they write the literature review.

These steps should help to demystify the process of writing a literature review for your EAP students. After completing these activities, your students will feel more confident with the basics, organization, and composition of this assignment. They can then successfully apply this new knowledge when writing on a topic relevant to their own fields of study.


Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2012). Academic writing for graduate students (3rd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Download this article and the appendixes (PDF) 

Jen Spearie received both her BA in English and MA in English (rhetoric and composition) from Illinois State University. She has taught for more than 10 years, including teaching English as a foreign language in Thailand and China, where she received her TEFL certification. She currently teaches at the Center for English as a Second Language at Southern Illinois University. Jen's areas of professional interest include teaching composition, English for academic purposes, and materials development.

Developing Language Awareness Through Mobile Surveys

by Victoria Surtees
Learn how you can use mobile surveys to collect data for critical in-class discussions about where, with whom, and how your ELLs use English in their daily lives. 

As a practitioner working with study-abroad students in Canada, I often wish I knew more about what my students were up to when I’m not around. I ask myself questions like: Do they have enough opportunities to use English in meaningful ways? Are they encountering and negotiating cultural difference? Are they being supported by their peer community? Like many instructors working with young adults far from their homes (often for the first time), I feel responsible for ensuring they benefit from the cultural and linguistic opportunities surrounding them. A few years ago, my concerns spurred me to undertake a small research project on out-of-class interactions with 12 undergraduate study-abroad English learners in Montreal. I thought if I could get study-abroad learners to report details about their experiences outside the classroom, I would have more insight into critical intercultural incidents that I could then discuss in my classroom. But how could I make sure my participants would actually take down details about their interactions? Notebooks? Diaries?

I decided to take a risk. Instead of using diaries or interviews as other researchers had traditionally done (Jackson, 2008), I asked students to use their own mobile devices to report their language use. Their task: to complete a 3-minute mobile survey each time they spoke English for a period of 10 days. After training them briefly to use the electronic survey, I set them loose in the world and crossed my fingers that I would get some usable data. What I ended up with was astounding.

My 12 participants submitted more than 800 surveys. What’s more, they didn’t just include public interactions like ordering pizza; they reported interactions I never thought to ask about. Every student reported moments when they failed to communicate or felt powerless. One participant described how a girl turned him down for a date. Another student described how she argued with her roommate about who ate the last of the yoghurt. After the project was finished, the students told me that via their participation, they had become more aware of features of their own English use. For example, one student noticed she only spoke to nonnative speakers. Another noted she spoke about the same number of limited topics, over and over. I started to think that perhaps this project could be used for more than just finding out what my students talked about. This kind of data could be easily used to fuel critical discussions about who is responsible for miscommunications or why some interactions are more difficult than others. It is in that spirit that I share my procedure and rationale, in the hopes that the creative readers of this forum will transform my project into a language awareness activity for their students.

Why Use Mobile Devices Instead of Paper Diaries or Logs?

The ubiquity of mobile devices in daily life makes them ideal research tools. Mobile devices are essentially invisible; they are already a part of many young people’s everyday lives and can be integrated seamlessly and inconspicuously into their daily practices (Bachmair & Pachler, 2015). Consider the sheer number of social network updates and SMS conversations that today’s youth engage in. Students use mobile devices to record and share all aspects of their lives with others, especially their noninstitutional activities (think Instagrammed dinners). Because I was interested in learning about informal everyday situations, asking students to use devices on which they already recorded such details seemed ideal for this project. My hope was that they could complete entries on the bus, in their houses, and at parties without drawing undue attention. What I did not expect, however, is that the use of personal devices seemed also to encourage the sharing of more intimate or vulnerable moments when they felt powerless as additional language speakers.

My Mobile Survey

For this project, I used a mobile survey platform called Survey Gizmo to create a short questionnaire that would be accessible from all devices and platforms, including Smartphones, tablets, and desktops (other mobile survey tools would likely also work well). My original intent was to obtain information on the social functions of the language students were using (e.g., how often they apologized or complained and which was more difficult). Therefore, my survey aimed to record the contexts, frequency, and relative difficulty of different interactions in study-abroad students’ daily life. I included the following questions:

  1. What happened? What did you say? (open-ended)

  2. Location (open-ended)

  3. Who were your conversation partners? (open-ended)

  4. How well do you know your conversation partners? (1–5 scale)

  5. Were any of your partners native speakers of English? (yes/no/I don’t know)

  6. How easy was it for you to speak English in this situation? (1–5 scale)

  7. In one week, how often do you use English to say something similar?(1–5 scale)

  8. Comments (open-ended)

These questions could be adapted to focus more narrowly on interactions in specific contexts (e.g., service encounters) or a particular kind of language (e.g., swearing).


Once I had created the survey,I recruited 12 undergraduate study-abroad students who were studying abroad at an English-speaking university in Montreal. They were from various first language backgrounds and had come on a one or two semester–long exchange. I then invited them to a group training session. Each person practiced using the survey and completed a trial entry. We also discussed the kinds of information that were good to include. For example, we watched video clips of friends interacting and practicedbeing specific about the kinds of language that was being used (e.g., instead of I talked about music use I explained what music I liked or I told her I didn’t like that music). Sufficient training was critical for gathering detailed information about their interactions. It also meant I didn’t have to include lengthy instructions in the mobile survey, which made it faster (and more attractive) to complete.

For 10 days following the training, the participants submitted surveys using whatever mobile device they desired. Some students preferred tablets and some smartphones, but they all tended to submit entries in small batches several times a day. The surveys took from 1–6 minutes to complete. Each time a survey was completed, the data were sent to a master account where I could monitor the times and number of entries submitted. The data were also automatically entered on a spreadsheet for easy analysis.

A week following collection, we met again as a group to discuss which kinds of topics or acts, such as apologizing or complaining, were easiest and which were most difficult. We critically reflected on why some might be more difficult than others, which led to discussions of cultural difference. Once I had all the data, I grouped survey entries by difficulty rating to see if there were patterns in the features of interactions which were rated difficult. I also grouped the interactions by location (e.g., residence or public) and by interlocutor type (e.g., peer or professor) to investigate how their English use was distributed. In this way, I was able to map out my students’ language use and understand the factors that made interactions challenging for them.

Creating a Language-Awareness Project Using Mobile Surveys

What stood out in this project is that by completing entries, students became more aware of patterns in their English use and were able to think critically about cultural differences. The practice of systematically recording details about interactions afforded them some distance and allowed for an analytical space that instructors could harness to explore critical language issues.

I believe that by asking students to analyse their own data (instead of the researcher), the power of this activity could be further enhanced. Here are a few ways this mobile-survey project could be modified as a course project to promote students’ awareness about their own and others’ language practices:

  • Students could choose entries in which miscommunication occurred, discuss why there was a breakdown, and rewrite the interaction.

  • Based on the data they collected, students could reflect critically on the different kinds of English used for different activities and with different people.

  • Students could choose an interaction rated as easy and one rated as difficult and discuss what aspects of the context made them rate it that way.

  • Students could be asked to produce maps of their interactions.

  • The survey could be modified to investigate a particular type of encounter or language, such as insults. Students could gather their observations in small groups and present on their experiences.


In many contexts, the quantity and quality of students’ English experiences outside the classroom are often the lens through which they perceive success or failure in language learning (Benson, Barkhuisen, Bodycott, & Brown, 2013). Bringing a critical discussion of those experiences into the classroom via data collected with mobile surveys could be one way to encourage them to consider the complex language issues they face in their daily lives.


Bachmair, B., & Pachler, N. (2015). Framing ubitquitous mobility educationally: Mobile devices and context-aware learning. In L.-H. Wong, M. Milrad, & M. Specht (Eds.), Seamless learning in the age of mobile connectivity (pp. 57–74). New York, NY: Springer.

Benson, P., Barkhuisen, G., Bodycott, P., & Brown, J. (2013). Second language identity in narratives of study abroad. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jackson, J. (2008). Language, identity, and study abroad: Sociocultural perspectives. London, England: Equinox.


*This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of InterCom, the newsletter of TESOL International Association's Intercultural Communication Interest Section.

Victoria Surtees is a PhD candidate and instructor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia. She works primarily with undergraduate study-abroad students and teacher candidates specializing in TESL. The project described in this article was part of her master’s research and was presented in 2014 at the Conference of the American Applied Linguistics Association in Toronto (presentation available here). In her PhD research, she continues to use mobile devices in innovative ways to explore students’ out-of-class experiences.

Smoked Silver: How Schematic Patterns Affect Vocabulary

by Amanda McCracken
Introducing and connecting vocabulary to students' familiar schematic patterns helps build brain pathways and improve motivation. Try these activities. 

When I asked students in my introductory listen/speak class what the color of my coat was, I expected to hear “grey.” Instead, one of them replied “smoke silver.” Really? I thought to myself. These students barely knew their primary colors, but one of them knows “smoke silver”! I thought for a moment, and it came to me, “Aha—you like cars, right?” I asked him. A smile spread across his face. This student knew a great number of poetically blended colors based on his knowledge of and passion for cars. And so I escorted my five 18-year-old boys outside to apply colors to cars, a much needed reprieve after an hour in the classroom.

My expectations were blown away, but, more important, I was reminded how critical it is to teach students in familiar schematic patterns. We only recognize what those familiar schemas are when we pay attention to their answers and ask the right questions. I could quote and make reference to philosopher Kant, or psychologists Piaget or Bartlett, or educational psychologist R. C. Anderson (see this page on schema theory). However, we as teachers know and live these theories. We have to remind ourselves that the context in which we are introducing new vocabulary has to be made relevant for our students.

In fact, the need-to-remember component in the Involvement Load Hypothesis (Laufer & Hulstijn, 2001) is strongest when it is intrinsically motivated. In addition, by introducing and connecting vocabulary to a student’s already familiar schema, we help build brain pathways that are more likely retraveled (more accessible based on expertise and experience).

Activities to Elicit Familiar Schema

Word Squares

Having students create “word squares” is a good way to increase students’ personal connection to words (Cobb & Blachowicz, 2014). In one of the four squares, students write the word in the context in which they found it. In the second square, students write the definition. In the third square, students draw a picture (or some nonlinguistic representation) that to them represents that word. And finally, in the fourth square, students uses the word in a sentence that is personally important to them.

Self-Directed Learning

Teachers can increase student interest in learning vocabulary if students are given the authority to choose a few of the new words. In my experience, students actually choose harder words than those on a graded reader list—and they learn them. Students can also be asked to rank the vocabulary list in order of words most important to them. Asking students to discuss in groups why they chose their top words helps reinforce the meaning and relevance of the words (Jing & Jianbin, 2009).

Collocations Brainstorming

I also like to give students a new vocabulary word and have them, in groups, brainstorm collocations on a giant piece of paper (so it looks like a giant web). Let’s imagine the word is diligent. In knowing the definition, this makes one student think of the word discipline, which makes another student in the same group draw a connection to the famous Barcelona soccer player, Lionel Messi, which in turn makes another student in the group draw a connection to the word success. The more personal connections they can make to the words, the more memorable the words become. Then we compare each group’s web and cross out duplicate ideas. Whichever group has the most remaining unique collocations is the winner. I find that this sort of collocation brainstorming helps students in their writing, too, by increasing their awareness of the impact of word choice.

Connecting Senses

Can they think of a collocation associated with a personally familiar smell? When the sense of smell is triggered (perhaps even by word association) in the olfactory bulb, the nearby amygdala (where emotional memory is encoded) is triggered (Zald & Pardo, 1997). If smells trigger past emotions, then can’t we posit that we remember images tied to emotion? And if we can do this, then we will remember the words associated with those images, too.

Paint Swatch Sentences

One game I created (inspired by the “smoke silver” comment) uses paint swatches. Students choose a swatch and then are asked to use two or three of the color names in a sentence (but not as a color). This asks them to think beyond the literal meaning of the word(s) and to be creative. Associating a color with a new word makes it more memorable. Students then vote on whose sentence is the cleverest. For example, one student wrote (using the three colors from the swatch in Figure 1): “The Big Surf that flooded Beachside Drive reflected a Tahitian Sky.”

Word Retrieval and Episodic Memory

The significance of the “smoke silver” comment was reinforced that same week, when I visited a memory care center for residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia to do massage. What do patients with memory loss and ESL students have in common? Word retrieval and the impact of experience on memory, specifically episodic memory.

I rarely talk to “Betty,” one of the full-time residents who is not my massage client, though she has seen me in passing perhaps four times a month for the past couple of years. However, this particular day I greeted her and asked her how she was doing. “I’m fine, thanks,” she replied, “Did you change your hair color?” I had just recently added red and blonde highlights. I was shocked; even close friends hadn’t noticed. Cheryl, whose dementia stems from depression and not Alzheimer’s, can’t tell you when she last had a shower or where she lives, but she recognized a change in my hair color. Apparently hair or color was part of a past schematic pattern that primed her to notice even a subtle difference in my hair color.

Knowing the past experiences (e.g., marriage, family, professions, war) of a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s can be a schematic pattern through which they can be reached. Similarly, tapping into our students’ interests is key to helping them remember and retain new vocabulary.


Cobb, C., & Blachowicz, C. (2014). No more “look up the list” vocabulary instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Jing, L., & Jianbin, H. (2009). An empirical study of the involvement load hypothesis in incidental vocabulary acquisition in EFL listening. Polyglossia, 16, 1–11.

Laufer, B., & Hulstijn, J. H. (2001). Incidental vocabulary acquisition in a second language: The construct of task-induced involvement. Applied Linguistics, 22, 1–26.

Zald, D. H., & Pardo, J. V. (1997). Emotion, olfaction, and the human amygdala: Amygdala activation during aversive olfactory stimulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 94(8), 4119–4124. 

Download this article (PDF)


Amanda McCracken is an instructor at the International English Center (IEC) at the University of Colorado. She is also the editor and founder of the ESLevations Journal at the IEC. McCracken’s work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Runner’s World, Huffington Post, Elle, and Al Jazeera. She is also a certified massage therapist.