Learning vocabulary with the whole brain


In recent years exciting discoveries have been made in neuroscience as well as cognitive psychology. These findings help explain how the brain works and how we can learn new things more efficiently.

In a nutshell they all agree that we need rich,meaningful, multi-sensory input that can be linked to previously existing knowledge in our brains. The following picture shows a brain that is exposed to such input. It sees, hears, moves and feels all at the same time. Neural networks created under such conditions will be long-lasting and efficient.



Networks of Meaning

The ISM Model

According to Ahsen’s ISM model (Ahsen, 1984)  our memory stores “multisensory images” consisting of Images, Somatic responses and Meanings (ISM). These three elements are constantly interacting and interlocking. In general it can be said, that what has been experienced personally is most memorable and will have the most visual and somatic elements attached, followed by richly imagined input, and lastly by input that has only been understood form words. (Stevick, 1996, S. 49)


  • visual stimuli, things we have actually experienced
  • mental images, things we have actively imagined
  • imagery derived from descriptions in words

Somatic response

  • our body’s reaction to the sensory images (skeletal, muscular, endocrine changes…)
  • may be very strong or fleeting and negligible, depending on the input


  • includes the full spectrum including lexical meaning, expectations, involvements, purposes
  • example: What does the word “bakery” include for you? What do you see… hear… smell… taste…feel…?


Neural Activity: Let’s look inside the brain.

Watch the following animation of neural activity in the brain. See how impulses go back and forth in all directions. Keep these images in mind when presenting new vocabulary or ideas to your students. How can you trigger this kind of activity in your learners’ brains?


VMIs: Voice Movement Icons

The research of Manuela  Macedonia  shows that meaningful multisensory input leads to better learning of new items. When we

  • hear a new expression,
  • understand its meaning,
  • see the item or scene  or create mental images for it
  • use our own muscles to pronounce the new expression ourselves
  • use movements or gestures that are in some way related to the message

we have created extended  neural networks in our brain that will help us recall and use the new expression efficiently.

For more information follow these links:

Macedonia: Mit Händen und Füßen

Macedonia: Learning a Second Language Naturally

Macedonia: Voice Movement Icons


How to create multisensory images in the learners’ brains

Dos and Don’ts

  • students select useful phrases from meaningful contexts
  • never teach single words or wordlists
  • when writing vocab always write phrases rather than individual words
  • discourage learners from writing vocab lists in the traditional 2-column vocab-books
  • practice collocations
  • use all the senses (speak and hear, visualize, move, associate)
  • make learners say the new phrases out loud several times
  • when writing vocabulary use lots of space for each new item so learners can add collocations, sample sentences, doodles etc.
  • translating a phrase is often more helpful than long and complex definitions in the target language


Practical examples for the classroom

go to: Learning vocabulary with the whole brain


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