How to Remember More Than an Elephant, Learn Faster than a Trained Monkey, and Kill the ESL Learning Slump

Question: What do electricians, plumbers, and Robert Marzano, an educational theorist, have in common?

Keep thinking. I’ll give you a few minutes. Do you give up?

Did I hear you say, “They are experts in their respective fields of work?” That’s right! As a student or teacher, and more specifically an ESL student or ESL teacher, it would be important to know what Marzano has to say about how it is best to learn. How can you best be a confident learner? So do you want to know more?

Well, Marzano discovered a learning strategy that has the highest probability of making an impact on achievement…

                                                                                                             No matter your age

                                                                                                         No matter what you study

                                                                                                 At a whopping 45% gain in learning

He found that the ability to identify similarities and differences has the highest probability of making an impact on achievement.

Well, if you’re like most people, you probably are wondering what this strategy means. And you probably are wondering about the impact on ESL learning. That’s what this article is about: the learning strategy of identifying similarities and differences that involves the four skills of comparing, classifying, creating a metaphor, and creating an analogy and how this can impact your ESL learning.

Illustration depicting cutout printed letters arranged to form the words anything is possible.

4 Skills to impact ESL learning and retention

1.    Comparing - noting the similarity or dissimilarity between

Example: You listen to how you say a certain letter sound or word and you compare this to the way a native speaker’s pronounces that same letter sound or word. Then, you make adjustments to your speech based on this comparison. Your ESL speaking ability improves. You repeat this long enough and you will have retained the new skill.

2.    Classifying - arranging in classes or categories based on shared characteristics

Example: You hear different greetings in casual and formal speech. You discern when to say casual phrases (Hey, what’s up? / How’s it going?) from when to say more formal phrases (Hello, Mr. __, it’s nice to see you again / Good morning, Mrs. Jones). Your ESL listening skills improve. You use these words and phrases correctly, over a period of time, and you will have retained the skill.

3.     Creating a Metaphor – thinking of a metaphor (a figure of speech containing an implied comparison in which a word or phrase primarily is used of one thing and is applied to another)

Example: You read literature for understanding of the author’s intent. It is not just the meaning of isolated words (e.g., in the line “All the world’s a stage” by William Shakespeare, he does not want you to take the expression literally as if the world is a stage). Rather, metaphors are imagery, a means to express how something is or what something is like, in relation to something else that is quite different but similar in at least one aspect.  Shakespeare used this phrase “All the world’s a stage” to mean “Life is like a play – we merely go through the stages of our life acting it out.” When you create metaphors, your ESL reading skills improve. You have a better grasp of vocabulary and you have better comprehension. If you create metaphors for something you have read or learned or even for something you want to remember, you are more apt to retain it.

4.    Creating an Analogy – thinking of a comparison of two things based on their being alike in some way

Example: You write that your strong working relationship between your boss and you is the same as that of a relationship between a musical conductor and his/her fine-tuned orchestra. Your ESL writing skills improve. The word choice is expanded and sharpened. Your writing is crisp and creative. You can express yourself more easily and in a way that appeals to the audience.

Adorable baby sitting wity two little yellow chickens isolated on a white background

3 Suggested ways to identify similarities and differences to help with retention and boost ESL skills

1.    Use of graphic organizers to classify and compare, and to build understanding and retention

Graphic organizers are tools used to compare and organize information. These examples of a Comparison Matrix, T-Chart, and a Venn Diagram may help you with your ESL skills no matter if you are at home, school, or in the workplace. Graphic organizers encourage the learner to think. They foster understanding of key vocabulary and concepts that help to build ESL understanding. By using graphic organizers, you can visualize key points, draw conclusions, and build memory.

What do the graphic organizers tell us?

If you look at these examples, you will better understand the value that they bring to learning.

Comparison Matrix

By making a comparison matrix, you must first read and research some information. Then you need to think of what information is most relevant and how to organize it in some chart form. Then you must read the information again to copy what is most important to the chart. After the chart is completed, you can visualize some important points and more easily compare the information rather than if it were only in a text format.

In this case, you can readily see that 4/5 companies in the world that generate the most revenue based on last year’s statistics (2013) are oil and gas industries. You can also see that the top five companies all have revenues of over 400 billion and of these five, two of them have headquarters in the US and two have headquarters in China. The remaining company has headquarters in Europe.  You can also see that the number of workers vary from under 100,000 to over 2 million. So just by doing this exercise, you focus on some pertinent information while composing the matrix. This process utilizes many language skills. And when you are finished, you have some level of retention of the material. Now if you review this information from time to time, you will have better retention. And if reviewed enough, you will store this information in your long-term memory.



The next example uses a simple T-Chart to list various physical activities and how many calories are expended for each activity executed for an hour duration. You can see the range of calories more than doubles from the least calorie burning activity of walking (245 calories) to that of running (560 calories) per hour based on an individual’s average weight. Again, by reading and researching the information, and by classifying the information via a chart, you can readily compare the information. By reviewing this chart, you will have better retention of the information and with continual review, you will be able to store the information in long-term memory.


Venn Diagram

The final example of a Venn Diagram helps the learner grasp different types of verbs: linking and helping verbs and within these two categories, forms of “Be” verbs. A Venn Diagram such as this can help you understand a larger concept (i.e. verbs) as it attempts to break up the information into pieces that you can more easily understand (i.e. types of verbs and how they are alike and different).  It helps you see the main idea and the details. Again, by classifying the information, you can compare across the Venn Diagram and better understand the information and have a better chance at retaining the information.

Venn Diagram

2.    Use of Metaphors to build understanding and retention

Metaphors are the use of language put together to help understand something. Metaphors are generally composed thing(s) that are close and familiar, and are used to explain something that is more difficult or unknown. They can also serve to summarize a concept so you are more apt to understand the main ideas and details of that concept.

Metaphors are valuable tools in language, particularly when people need to communicate complex, dry ideas. Because metaphors nearly always depend on familiar physical objects as their vehicles, they make abstract concepts more concrete and sensory-rich. They build understanding and create vivid language that is crisp and exciting.

For example, a common metaphor is “time is money”. This means that time is very valuable and useful. Another metaphor would be a tree to symbolize words:  the roots are the root words, the trunk is the base word, and the branches are the suffixes (word endings). In both of these examples, if you think of the objects (money in the first example and a tree in the second) you can apply some of these attributes to a deeper or unknown concept (time and root/base/suffixes of words).

You might want to give this a try sometime. To build understanding and retention the next time you read or hear something that you want to remember, try thinking of a metaphor that would help you frame the information so you are more apt to retrieve the information from your memory and you can use it again and again.

3.    Use of Analogies to build understanding and retention

The English language is filled with analogies whether you listen, speak, read, or write English.  They help to make the message more interesting and memorable. They attract an audience.

Analogies are also used to measure your ability to understand the English language in various standardized tests:  PSAT, ACT, SAT, GRE, TOEFL, FCAT, etc. To understand analogies, you need to have both reasoning ability and vocabulary skills. An analogy mirrors the relationship between two words or two concepts. They can be created about any cognitive area. Common types of analogies include the basic opposite or antonym analogy (example: buy is to sell as import is to export) to those that include synonyms that are slightly different, action to result, part to whole, uses, places, measurement, product to producer, and degree of intensity.

Much of the content for marketing, PR, and sales uses analogies. You most likely stumbled across some blog titles that used analogies (example: 5 Way SEO Is Like Being in High School; and How Running a Marathon is Like Running a Business; How Learning English Online is Like a Trip to McDonalds).

ESL learners can develop their own analogies to help them retain any type of

information. By doing so, you utilize higher level thinking to create just the right

combination of words. This process fosters the ability to retain the information for

a longer period of time, especially when it is reviewed and used.


By focusing on similarities and differences, we can understand vocabulary and concepts more clearly. In turn, we can better remember important information. By utilizing graphic organizers to help us compare and contrast, along with creating metaphors and analogies, we move toward a higher level of cognition and retention. This can only help learners of any age and ability level. What’s more… it has implications for ESL study and moving forward in our language learning. So come on. What are you waiting for? Build your memory. Exercise your mind. Get out of that ESL learning slump!


I’m curious to know if you have used any type of graphic organizer to help you understand and remember information. Or how about sharing a metaphor or an analogy that helps you to comprehend a skill or concept? Thanks to educational theorists like Robert Marzano we can see the value in applying certain skills to learning and specifically the purpose behind identifying similarities and differences.  Do write to me using the comments section below and let me know how we can help you learn ESL and move forward toward meeting your English language goals.

Happy smiling cheerful young business woman with notepad, isolated on white background

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