Milk Danger Rabbit

Monday, December 10, 2012

Here’s a list of random words:












Ten random words that came off the top of my head. Now, I’m going to give you a couple of instructions; please go along with this, otherwise we’ll all look daft.

–       Okay, cast your eyes down the list again and take ten seconds to remember them. GO! 10-9-8…


–       Next, scroll down so you can’t see the list and try to remember them. In order, top to bottom.


Done? Fairly easy? Scroll up and check, if you want to.

–       Now, again without peeking at the list, and try to remember the words but in reverse order, bottom to top. GO!


A quick question – how easy was it to remember the list forwards? And how about backwards? Why? TELL YOUR PARTNER. TWO MINUTES. Sorry, force of habit.

It is genuinely easy to remember a list of ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred words in order if you use a simple technique. You put the words into consecutive pairs and then combine those pairs to form an image that is personalised and memorable to you. In this instance, MILK partners DANGER, then DANGER is twinned with RABBIT, RABBIT goes on to form a couple with VAN, and so on.

Most importantly, to increase the likelihood of retention, the more outrageous, amusing, unusual, colourful, bright or surreal the images are, the more likely they are to stay in your memory and be easily accessible in the future.

This is how I would remember the above list:

  • I first imagine a bottle of MILK throbbing green with radioactive waste, and a flashing red DANGER sign slapped onto its front.
  • Next, I visualise DAN Snow and GERi Haliwell getting married in giant RABBIT costumes.
  • Then comes a disgusting, obese, giant RABBIT, squeezed uncomfortably into the driver’s seat of Postman Pat’s VAN, which is phutting along with smoke coming out of the bonnet.
  • And so on…

Try it. Go on, give it a go. And, once you’ve done this list, ask someone to give you another ten random words and use this technique to remember all ten, in order, top to bottom and bottom to top. Go on…


What, I hear you ask, has this got to do with teaching? Well, near the end of a CAE class earlier this year, my class expressed a sense of annoyance that, even at such a high level of competence, they were still making errors in their use of prepositions. I took the linking system, described above, that I had previously used so successfully in the pub to look like some sort of memory GOD, and introduced the class to a different approach to remembering dependent prepositions.

There’s a big list of these at the back of the New English File Advanced Teachers Book. I gave them a few minutes to test themselves on which preposition–verb / noun / adjective combinations they could name correctly. The class was soon filled with the collective huffing of students giving up.

So I took them through the initial memory technique. As we did at the top of this page, I showed them a list of ten words to see if they could memorise and recite it, top to bottom, bottom to top (most struggled with the former, all struggled with the latter).

After this I explained and demonstrated to them the linking technique and got them to repeat the challenge with a new set of ten words. Suddenly, they were able to do it. And it is this linking technique that gives learners the chance to see and to personalise the language before – who knows – it becomes more firmly part of long-term memory. It engages the Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad in creating and storing the images, and the Episodic Buffer in the movement and ‘storyline’ of your linked visuals.

The key is is to use exactly the same visual for each preposition or adverb, every time you use it. Here are the ones that I would choose:





 And so on…

IMPORTANT: when you demonstrate this to your class, you have to emphasise that they shouldn’t use your visual – they have to create their own, and they can use English or their L1. As long as there is some rhyme or reason why they have chosen their image, and that then becomes the stock image for that word, they can use anything they like . After all, an owl is ostensibly unrelated to the word ‘to’, until you think of the noise our avian friends are said to make, according to English speakers.

After establishing a firm, bright, personalised visual, you then need to link the image to the verb or adjective. Here’s a couple of examples of how it could work:

Depend on: I visualize a swimming pool, where all the people are larking around at the DEEP END. There is an enormous switch stuck on the ladder up to the diving board. When the lifeguard flicks it, the electricity comes ON causes everyone to leap out of the pool, clutching their backsides like in ‘The Beano’ when Gnasher bit them on the cheek (left or right, lower).

Worried about: I’m trapped on a roundABOUT, feeling increasingly anxious that I’ll never be able to get off. I exaggerate the feeling of worry until it gets almost unbearable.


Relate to: It’s the Owl Olympics, and we join it midway through the 4 x 100m relay…


How you lead in to this is up to you. You could give the learners the list of dependent prepositions from NEF Advanced. Alternatively, you could provide them with a doctored text, or better still, use previous examples of student writing, and ask them to decide if the particles are correct. Since first trying this technique with my old CAE class, I have come to see that it is best to start from a text, rather than a gap-fill type exercise. But then, isn’t it always?

I’m well aware of the limitations inherent here, but will try to answer the main points here:

Many verbs can take more than one particle.

 I know this system is not a bullet-proof means to an end. But what elements of language learning are? There are always exceptions to ‘rules’, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to visualise more than one verb / adjective – preposition combination.

There are some learners who struggle with imaginative tasks full-stop.

As long as you don’t spend too long on it, this shouldn’t leave the less visual or inventive students cursing the day they walked into your class. There is an opportunity, too, for them to uncover this ability with practice and, from experience, I have known some learners, who claim to be devoid of all imaginative capabilities, have found it rather helpful once they have ‘got’ the idea.

Does it really impede understanding if a learner uses the wrong particle in their utterances or writing?

Well, for the most part, no. And the more we go down the ELF road, the more you could argue that concentrating on this particular area of accuracy is perhaps a moot point. However, I think that it can actually be motivating: learners often give up hope entirely of ever ‘cracking the code’ that dictates where and when prepositions are to be used. This is often because they get stuck at word level, staring at cold, dark, unknowable particles on an unforgiving page. If we can give them another way of ‘seeing’ these connections, why not do so? Additionally, a large percentage of learners are not content simply to get their message across, but also want to do so accurately.

There are over 100 prepositions in English, if you include such valuable beauties as ‘athwart’ and ‘betwixt’.

Yes, there are. But this is just nitpicking, isn’t it? When is the last time you used ‘atop’ in a sentence? Focus on frequency, brothers and sisters.


This technique can be adapted in any way. Collocations with ‘make’ and ‘do’, for example, can be made more fun and memorable for learners. Certainly more so than my early attempts to compare ‘make’ to the act of creation, and to liken ‘do’ to something less enjoyable.

It’s also easy to use this system with common nouns, prepositions of place – at school, in class, on the bus etc. Just keep the same visual as before for each preposition and you’re away. Textbooks present – and teachers at some point will draw – pictures to represent prepositions of place, so this process I have outlined takes that idea of using images and allows the learner to personalise and store this visualexis (I MADE A NEW WORD!) in new and memorable ways.

One last thing – the whole process might seem so time-consuming as to be unworkable. But a little effort made early on in establishing the principle means that the students will have a bank of visual, memorized links to revisit over the course of their future learning. This is a system that, with a little thought and effort, can be adapted and personalised by any language learner to give them another string to their bow.



Have you seen:

Cornelia and The Shell: Memory, Language and those Unforgettable Romans


Silly Grammar

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