by Marc Anderson

What Science Tells Us About Maximizing English as a Second Language Learning


When it comes to maximizing your studying, what can we learn from science?  A lot. Check out these 10 scientific proven tips to help you with your ESL studies and school/work presentations and boost your confidence:  1) study right before you fall asleep; 2) review the information first thing in the morning; 3) get a sufficient amount of sleep; 4) tell yourself a meaningful story using a variety of sentence patterns; 5) write out important information to visualize; 6) read information out loud; 7) quiz yourself or have others quiz you; 8) try spaced repetition; 9) eat a healthy diet and exercise; and 10) persevere to build optimal performance.

1.     Study Before You Go to Sleep. It is good to study right before you fall asleep. During sleep, your brain strengthens new memories so you increase your chance of remembering the important stuff right before an exam. Apparently while sleeping, the brain secretes chemicals that help secure memories. So plan your studying accordingly and include some study time in the evenings, right before bedtime.

2.     Review the Information First Thing in the Morning. Another scientifically backed technique is to review the information first thing in the morning when you just wake up. That’s when the brain has the greatest possibility of absorbing new information.  Let’s face it… it will probably be a lot easier to get up earlier in the morning if you get a good night’s sleep. So that’s a win-win situation.

3.     Get a Sufficient Amount of Sleep. Many of us try to stay up all night before an exam or when a paper is due for a class or project. But pulling an all-nighter is linked to impaired cognitive performance and an increased chance of stress.  It would be wiser to get a sufficient amount of sleep the night before the exam or presentation, and to pace your work load out the days/weeks leading up to this.

By following this practice of being well-rested, you will be developing a healthy habit that when repeated will most likely become a pattern.  By making sleep a priority in your life, you will have to shift your studying to other time periods throughout the day/week. You will most likely reduce the urge to cram, you will feel less stress, and you will undoubtedly perform better in the long run.

4.     Tell Yourself a Meaningful Story. You can talk through the information in your head (vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, pronunciation, etc.) and turn it in to a story to help you better remember.

Along the same lines as a story is the idea of using some type of acronym (invented saying of letters) or an acrostic (using letters to spell out a word or story) so you can remember the information better.  Examples include: PEMDAS for the sequence in solving or evaluating math equations:  Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction. The story that goes along with this acronym can be made up. For example, Philip (P) wanted to eat (E) his melon (M) but he did (D) not have any (A) spoon (S) ; ROY G. BIV for the colors of the visible spectrum:  Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet; and IPMAT for the stages of cell division:  Interphase, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, and Telephase; and My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nothing for the order of the planets from the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Rhyme also is something you can try. If something is hard to remember, see if you can rhyme something with it or something that will jar your memory.

Research also shows that if you attach meaning and significance to what you need to

learn, that the memory is enhanced. You could think about the information over and over

in your head to internalize it or verbally explain what it means or why it is important to

you, to other information, or to the world. The new jargon in reading education today refers to this as relating the information to self, to other learning, and to the world. This way it has more meaning, and you are more apt to remember it, as well.

Typewriter What is Your Story

5.     Write out important information to visualize. It helps to write out the information several times and to visualize what you wrote. Research shows that you are more apt to store the information for a longer period of time when you write it out. Perhaps you have tried this tactic with spelling words or new vocabulary, i.e. covering them up with your hand and continuing to write them until you have mastered the words or written out the meanings and double-checked them with our notes to see if they are accurate. That is precisely how this technique is done.

Summarize a paragraph or a skill. Write it out. Then rewrite it again until it is easy for you to remember. This is a great way to add new words and expressions to your own speaking vocabulary. It is a great way to utilize the power of words.

6.     Read Information Out Loud. Similar to #4 (talking the information in your head), research also supports the idea that you read the information out loud. This helps you to see the information and to hear it. Not only is it helpful to read the information out loud, but you should repeat it out loud often, in many settings until you know the information thoroughly. Then plan to continue to use the information so you maintain the memory of it.  Eventually, this will become a part of your language repertoire. And you can build on this language to gain more language skills. You will be on your way to fluency!

7.     Quiz Yourself or Have Others Quiz You. Another technique in increasing memory is to either quiz yourself or have someone quiz you. Then isolate the parts that are still difficult for you and continue to work on those until you have everything down pat.

Have another quiz time to include the entire scope of the skills and concepts you are working on and you will be surprised at what you have mastered. Continue to quiz until you have mastery over an extended period of time. Then move on to new material.

8.     Try Spaced Repetition. Try “spaced repetition”, a relatively new technique in learning. This process involves breaking up the information into smaller pieces of information and then reviewing these over a longer period of time. For example, if you were to study certain vocabulary words for an ESL test, it would be wiser to study a few each night and then to keep reviewing those until you have gotten through the entire list, than it is to cram all of the vocabulary words into one or two nights of studying.

Research findings indicate that there is a steep drop off in retention after one hour and then again another steep drop off after 24 hours. That is why after immediately learning something, you can retrieve it from your short-term memory, but you often “forget” everything the next day or over time. Haven’t you heard some people say that they studied so hard and they knew the material, but when they went to take the test, they forgot it all? Or do you know of the person who said they studied for X amount of time, so how could they do so poorly?

Just remember it is not how long you study that counts, but how efficient you study. So if you repeatedly study the information at random times for a significant amount of time over an extended amount of time, and then use what you learned, this will increase your skills and strengthen your retention. Think of a piano player and how he/she masters music. Think of a runner and how he/she improves their running time. Think of someone who has lost a great deal of weight… how was this accomplished?  These are real-life examples of spaced repetition.

In a recent study about the brain, it was proven that the participants could learn new words in less than 15 minutes. The Journal of Neuroscience in its article about

Dr. Yury-Shtyrov reported how 16 subjects were exposed to both familiar and made-up words. After being exposed to 160 repetitions of a fictitious word over a 14-minute period, the subjects’ brains formed new memory traces that were identical to those of the already familiar words. These neuroscientists concluded that the new neural networks resulted from nothing more than listening to novel words. They challenged learners to go a step further and read, repeat, and study words in context to have even more rapid growth in language learning.

So what’s with the value of repetition in learning and specifically for ESL learners? Enough said.

Kids whispering over white background

9.     Eat a Healthy Diet and Exercise. Try eating more of a healthy diet and exercising. Believe it or not, this really helps. Omega-3 fatty acids are known for their brain boosting potential. So add fish, nuts, and olive oil to your diet.  Additionally, chewing gum and black tea have both been shown to have some soothing effects and reduce anxiety before an exam. And try going for a walk or some type of physical exercise to stimulate your brain and reduce anxiety before the big test or presentation. You will feel better and look better, and most likely your performance will be better, too.

Scientists have found that about 2.5 hours of exercise per week helps to maintain or increase productivity in study and work. In other studies, regular, low intensity exercise like yoga or walking on a treadmill, in a gym, or outside remarkably reduced sleepiness and increased overall energy. Yet another study found a 5-10% improvement in cognitive functioning for those who exercised regularly. It doesn’t take much to start to see results. You might want to check out some articles about healthy living (diet and exercise) and implement 1-2 suggestions into your present life style.

10.  Remember, Perseverance Builds Optimal Performance. There is some scientific evidence that when you have to try really hard to learn something and remember it, then the information will be more securely anchored. So perseverance really does pay off.  And even though the learning is hard, getting through it is what counts. And this builds skills and concepts along with a higher level of ability.

Cognitive scientists value testing (regular practice tests or quizzes) as an effective tool to learn. So even though tests are hard and most of us don’t look forward to them, they have a large impact on learning. These scientists value tests as more than an assessment of the present functioning level of the student and that particular skill/concept. They view test taking as the process of retrieving a vocabulary word, key concept, etc. and therefore altering the way the information is stored in your brain.

And the more you retrieve this learning skill/concept it is easier to retrieve in the future. You allow the learning to be transferred into long term memory. So you have learned. Your ESL skills have improved. Your presentation skills have improved. You have moved towards optimal performance. So when the learning gets tough and the mistakes increase (and I am sure this has), remember you can get through it and rise to a higher level.

Persevere. Don’t give up. You can do it!


So when it comes to learning, I think you will agree that the field of science has offered some pretty helpful insights on how we really can learn better. And this knowledge does indeed have implications for ESL study. Whether you are taking an exam, finishing up a project, or preparing something for work – the techniques are applicable to help you boost your memory and maximize your learning and productivity. And who doesn’t really want to be more productive? As ESL learners, we want to learn how to listen, speak, read, and write English better.

Do you have another tip that has helped you or someone you know boost his/her memory? How about a comment on any of the tips described in this article? Please take a few minutes and share this with our readers and with me. I would love to hear from you. As always, I will do my best to help you with your ESL learning. So write and let me know what I can do for you. Or what our online teachers can do for you. I’ll be waiting.

man thinking thoughts

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.