Motivating Students With Language Memories

English teachers have at their disposal a tool often overlooked: the students’ inborn urge to learn and use language.

Fascination with language begins the day we’re born: every babble and coo is testament to the inner drive to form sounds and eventually to match those sounds with meanings. In other words, we are born ready and eager to speak and write words. Teachers can use this inner drive to motivate students to write.

Motivating from the Memories

To my perennial amazement, every time I prime my students’ early-language memories, they come back with some delightful short narratives. Then, with these memories as a tool to dig up what’s already inside of them, we proceed with the writing curricula.

As a means to bring back that dormant love and wonder of language, I have found surprising success using Paule Marshall’s wonderful essay, “Poets in the Kitchen” about early language memory; along with a classroom exercise, leading up to a scare-free writing assignment.

Poets in the Kitchen by Paule Marshall

African-American writer, Paule Marshall (nee Burke) was born in 1929, in Brooklyn, New York, to immigrants from the West Indies. Her West Indies ancestry enlivens and informs much of her marvelous prose, and especially “Poets in the Kitchen.”

Marshall sets her narrative essay in the tenement kitchen of her childhood home, where the writer overhears her Barbadian-born mother and friends ‘talk the talk’ that combined the cadence and musicality of West Indies with the English of Brooklyn New York, in the 30’s.

The essay is a tribute to the mamaloschen – the mother tongue – and a testament to the impact of early language memories to adult use of language. Students usually love Paule Marshall’s essay, and the process of remembering their own early language recollections begins.

Every Student has a Poet’s-in-the-Kitchen Memory

Motivating students

I set the stage to help them find those early memories of language. This usually requires an entire class session. Then I send them home to write a narrative, modeled loosely after Marshall’s: Be sure you have a setting, and you know who was there, and what was happening.

Here are some of the prompts I use for this early-language memory assignment:

Can you recall a time in your childhood when you became aware of the language being used around you? Did you overhear adults talking in the car or around the dining room table? In the living room? At barbecues? What did the conversation sound like, to your child ears? Perhaps you were in your bedroom, overhearing adults talking. How did you feel? Perhaps you recall watching something on television, that really tickled you about the language being used? Or was it while you playing a game with older children? Can you imagine hearing language around you and finding it fascinating? Do you remember wanting to be able to talk like that?

Sample Early-Language Memories

Here are some of results of this assignment from my own students, college students taking my course in building vocabulary.

Wonder of the Spoken Word

When I think back to my first memories of the wonders of the spoken word, I first think of playing with my sister.

I remember molding play dough and then trying to get her attention. “Wauren,” I called, saying her name the only way I could pronounce it. “Wauren!” I cried again, finally getting her attention.

With a reminder from my mother and a chuckle from my dad in the background, the memory fades.

Leslie R.


I became aware of words early in my childhood, sitting on a pile of rocks from the construction going on around my great grandmother’s house. The heat in the early evening forced us to go outside. Since housing in the cosmopolitan city of San Francisco wasn’t equipped with air conditioning, the coolest place was outside, where you could feel the breeze. There I listened to men shouting, talking, joshing as they worked.

Pat C.


I became aware that language was wonderful when I was a little kid. I remember watching “Batman, the Animated Series.” In one episode, The Joker had tied up Batman and was laughing. Then Batman said something. I can’t remember what he said, but whatever it was made the Joker go crazy.

Batman didn’t even have to throw a punch to hurt the Joker. He just beat The Joker with words. The fact that Batman hurt the Joker that badly with words was shocking.

Isaiah A.


Language was introduced to me with a new understanding when I had children. Actually hearing those first wonderful words or sounds from my children has become something I anticipate with excitement.

Crying was my children’s first form of communication. It was a way to let me know that they were hungry, in pain, sleepy, lonely, or over-stimulated. Sometimes they cried for no reason. Maybe crying was a way they released tension.

I love hearing those first signs of random sounds – the coo’s, the ‘mama’ and ‘dahdah,’ and of course the schwa sound to soothe their gums when new teeth were budding.

These formative years of language reassure me that the more I communicate back with my children, the more I reassure them to trust in the comfort of my voice; and as they mature, the cries and other sounds they make will become easier for me to ‘read.’

Marilyn W.

Write Because You were Born to Use Language

If in more extensive assignments, they write too stiffly, or self-censor too much; if they’re, blocked or indifferent, I remind them: Pull out your early-language memory. Go there again. Write because you can, because you were born compelled to use language.