Poetry pictured. Memory Strategy 4(a) and why Gove was wrong.

Pictures are remembered better than words. Infinitely better.

That is simply a fact. Personal experience – remembering a face but forgetting a name – tells us this, but there is no shortage of irrefutable research evidence either. This paper from Grady et al provides a useful summary and of course Tony Buzan, founder of mind-mapping, has written extensively about the superior power of the visual image over the written word in relation to memory. Cited by both Grady and Buzan is the seminal work of Ralph Haber  – several decades ago now, his experiments with visual stimuli demonstrated that our “recognition of pictures is essentially perfect.”

Whilst humans’ ability to recall pictures better than words is undisputed, proven beyond doubt, the reasons for this are still debated. Grady suggests that, “pictures automatically engage multiple representations and associations with other knowledge about the world, thus encouraging a more elaborate encoding than occurs with words.” Put simply, we are more inclined to link a picture with something we know already so that it transfers into long-term memory.

For Buzan, and I look more closely at mind-mapping in Strategy 5, to follow, it is therefore “ludicrous” that 95% of note making/taking is done “without the benefit of images.” (The Mind Map Book, 2010)

Whilst I hesitate to wade into the traditionalist versus progressive debate, this being a post in a practical series about memory-friendly pedagogy, I do think it’s worth highlighting an irony at this stage. It seems to me that those who advocate the primacy of knowledge over skills have a tendency to simultaneously frown upon the very methods that strengthen retention. Of course, Gove set the tone for this in his 2013 ‘Importance of Teaching’ speech, which is as blinkered as it is pompous.

After dismissing all group work as ‘children chatting’ when they should be ‘attending to an expert’ in order to acquire knowledge (because it’s that simple folks) he singled out some history activities for direct criticism.

They included studying the battle of Hastings by re-enacting it on a field with softballs, spending 3 lessons making castles out of cardboard boxes, making plasticine models to represent Hitler’s main aims as Fuhrer and recreating life on a slave ship by making pupils gather under their desks.

Gove’s scorn is palpable, but I wonder – would students have remembered more if they had listened to him for an hour? Could it be that, sitting in the exam hall, confronted with a question about Hitler’s aims, those plastic models, with all of their associations, were helpful? According to the research on memory, the answer to this is yes, almost certainly.

Except .. if the plasticine activity took so long that students simply didn’t have time to learn enough about Hitler’s aims.

The way we deploy time is a judgement call we make daily as teachers, of course. But what we must not do is dismiss the visual because it seems, in this brave new world of knowledge and rigour, somehow frivolous or inferior to linear notes. Given that our verbal memories are puny compared with our visual, that would be sheer folly. I think two principles need to guide our work in this area.

  1. The verbal content that students find most difficult to recall is the content they need to translate into a visual form, whenever possible.
  2. The learning goal, acquiring and retaining that content, is much more important than the aesthetic value of the image(s) created to encode, so we mustn’t be sidetracked.

There’s actually a third principle which I’ve alluded to in all of my posts about memory, which is that we should share with students the theory behind our practice. If we want them to draw pictures in English (or create models) – when they probably think they should be writing – they deserve to know why. In addition, we can foster a growth mindset in our students by helping them to see that memory isn’t fixed. Like London taxi-drivers, they can grow their memories exponentially through visualisation. So, here’s what I will be telling mine.

What to tell my students about pictures

Humans have an excellent ability to remember pictures. Decades ago, a researcher called Haber showed that we can remember 2,000 magazine pictures with 90% accuracy over a period of several days. Try doing that with words. You couldn’t. It’s not surprising though, when you think about evolution. Our ancestors, wandering miles a day in pursuit of game, would need to remember multiple landmarks to find their way back home again. So remembering the visual environment would have been vital for their survival. Haber showed that we have retained this remarkable memory for pictures – even though our survival no longer depends on it.


So how can we harness all of this astonishing potential in English? Well, one simple strategy is to use ‘the mind’s eye’ as much as possible. If you visualise the poems we study, if you create pictures in your head as we read them, you will both understand and remember them better. That’s something we will practice with the next one we explore.

Another thing you can do is create pictures that will represent the key elements of a poem – key elements that your super-powerful visual memories will enable you to retrieve in the exam to then translate back into words. There’s every reason to turn a concept into a picture whenever you can, if you need to remember it – especially if you feel you’re on very unfamiliar ground. Again we’ll be looking at how to do this.

In my next posts (Memory Strategy 4b and 4c) I’ll be suggesting how we can use pictures to enable students to remember not just a poem’s narrative, which is likely to be recalled anyway, but also higher grade band insight relating to its form, structure (4a) imagery, tone and themes (4b). In the meantime, any thoughts or suggestions you feel able to make through Comments will be gratefully received and shared soon.


Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

4 thoughts on “Poetry pictured. Memory Strategy 4(a) and why Gove was wrong.

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