12 ways to give memory skills a boost and prepare for SATs

Boy with string tied on finger
A good memory could be your child’s biggest asset when he’s preparing for SATs, tackling times tables or rehearsing for the school play. Here’s our guide to getting those synapses firing.

1. Mnemonics

Memory aids such as acronyms and acrostics can be a really useful tool in remembering information, particularly in the case of lists or groups of facts: remember learning ‘Every nice boy deserves favour’ when learning to reading music? Research shows that mnemonics are most helpful if they have a personal meaning, so encourage your child to get into the habit of thinking up his own keywords to help him retain groups of information.

2. Rote learning

Learning parrot-fashion may be considered old-school, but it’s a great way to embed information in the memory, particularly for times tables and other maths basics. Experts believe that rote learning is the key to a child being able to achieve automaticity, and reciting them out loud is particularly crucial.

3. Memory games

Light-hearted memory games such as Kim’s Game (where you lay out a selection of items, let your child study them for a minute, then remove one and ask him to identify what’s missing) and Shopping List (a group game where each person in turn says, ‘I went to the shops and I bought…’ and names an item of their choice, but also has to repeat their friends’ choices in order) will help to give your child’s brain a workout and build memory skills.

4. Attention grabbers

‘Curiosity increases attention and memory,’ says Dr Judy Willis, author of How your child learns best (£14.19, Sourcebooks), so make learning fun and attention-grabbing, for example by making posters about your child’s current topic, or acting out a story scene that he needs to commit to memory. ‘Memorable events make memories,’ Judy adds.

5. The loci method

A tried-and-tested memory technique to teach your child, the loci method involves him creating a journey in his mind, and visualising the things he needs to remember at key points along the route. For example, he might picture his walk to school, and visualise one object at the end of the front path, one at the bus stop, another at the pedestrian crossing… When he needs to recall the info, he mentally retraces his footsteps and should remember each item as he gets to its location.

6. Puzzles

Number and maths puzzles such as code breakers, crosswords and hangman can help to improve your child’s working memory. This ability to hold information in our mind and manipulate it over a short period of time is crucial in many classroom and exam situations, including mental maths and spelling tests.

7. Chunking

It’s much easier to remember facts when they come in manageable packages, so encourage your child to break large amounts of information down into smaller chunks, rather than trying to commit a vast stash of data to memory all in one go.

8. De-stress

Creating a stress-free environment for your child will help to improve his memory. ‘Stress sends the brain into fight, flight or freeze mode, and prevents information flowing to the part of the brain where long-term memories are created,’ explains Judy. Try playing calming music while he’s working, letting him curl up on the sofa with his books rather than sitting at a desk, and giving lots of praise.

9. Colour

Many children are visual learners, and rely on visual cues to help cement facts in their memory. ‘Encourage your child to use coloured pens to emphasise the key information that he needs to learn,’ suggests Judy. ‘Use green, orange and red in order of importance, like a traffic light.’

10. Summaries

If you have things to remember, chances are you automatically scribble down a few key words to help yourself, and the same technique could work for your child, too. ‘Writing summaries of new information in their own words helps children build permanent memories,’ Judy explains. ‘To make these more meaningful, the summaries can be in a format that suits their learning style, such as diagrams or sketches.’

11. Sleep

Getting enough sleep is crucial for many reasons, but recent research shows that one of its primary functions is to fix memories in the brain, so make sure your little night owl is going to bed at a reasonable time.

12. Breaks

‘Neurotransmitters – the brain transport proteins needed for attention and memory construction – are depleted after just 10 minutes spent on a task, so schedule regular brain breaks where you change the learning activity to allow the brain to replenish,’ says Judy. This could be having a stretch, singing a song, or playing a computer game for a few minutes – all it takes to refresh the brain’s memory processes.