Thursday, 29 December 2016

Ways I am using Retrieval Practice

‘…the retrieval effect means that if you want to retrieve knowledge from your memory, you have to practice retrieving knowledge from your memory.’ 1  

Retrieval practice while not being a panacea is now a well-edupublicised approach across the Twitterati. Here are some simple ways I have been adopting retrieval practice in the classroom.

1) Lag Homework/Classwork Feedback/Free Recall Tests: Marking the students’ books I make a note of what they couldn’t do so well earlier on in the term or year and write a Memory Task (MT) in their book. Depending on how well or how not so well the students have grasped previous ‘learning’ from my interpretation of what they have written down in books I write a task to complete to redo or rexplain something. For example, if we covered how to write a short paragraph in the present and perfect tenses in French last term I might write,

‘MT: Please write as much as you can about what you do in your free time and what you did last weekend.' 

Or simply I might walk around the class while the students are working and deliver an impromptu free recall test, ‘Write all you can about how the imperfect tense works’, for when the students have finished (if I haven’t used extension retrieval practice tasks as per number 5 on this list below).
I’m also thinking of getting students to use card to go back to earlier sections in their books and simply cover up explanations we might have noted down, previous exercises or written pieces and asking them to redo them on a blank page or on separate paper before then comparing the up-to-date version with what they did before.

2) Syllabus retrieval practice: I tried the following with a Year 11 student I was mentoring once having downloaded the exam specifications, past papers, mark schemes, specimen papers and examiner reports for all of his subjects; called up the specimen papers for three or four subjects and scrolled down to the ‘Subject Content’ section. Then, simply, I would use a mix of elaborative interrogation with him reading the key idea out before then adding ‘why is this true?’ to the end of the key idea and then him answering his own question as well as he could.

Then, not allowing him to see the specification I would ask a series of fairly generic, ‘content-free’ prompts (with Geography being an erstwhile A-Level Geographer I did sometimes venture into more specific Geography prompts and with other subjects if I had a little more knowledge of them then I dared to venture into domain-specific questioning in more depth). So, looking at the outgoing AQA Geography spec I might have asked something relatively straightforward (for me that is, to think up) like ‘How does the vegetation in temperate deciduous forest adapt to the climate and soils?’

As an aside and to show how potentially useful a technique this could be I might then look at a past paper with the student and hold down ‘ctrl + f’ to do a search on the paper to find an example of the content that was just tested…and a quick search on the 2014 past paper reveals the following question,
                ‘4 (a) (ii) Explain how vegetation in hot deserts adapts to the climate.
                 [4 marks]’

3) Pre-testing: To make it more accessible I have used multiple-choice questions and not free-recall tests to test the students on the content coming up. Forgive the self-promotion but sometimes I have used an activity from Fun Learning Activities in MFL ('Fast-Forwarded Learning') where I film myself ‘teaching’ to an empty room a part of the syllabus to come and the task for the students is to work out an answer based on this ‘Fastforwarded’ aspect of the course to come when I play it to them.

4) Free Recall Takeaway Extension Tasks: I’ve only recently been trialling this but at the start of a term or with a new class I project a list of potential extension tasks which must take place on a blank page in books, totally from memory. The students make a list of these tasks at the back of their books in the first lesson or first lesson back and we practise using these throughout the term. So, there might be a list of 10-15 Free Recall Extension Tasks which students copy down and then choose different ones throughout the year when they’ve finished working in class. Things like, ‘Write out everything you know from memory about how the future tense works’ and ‘Write out the main groups of adjective endings and an example for each.’

5) Paired-retrieval practice: To lower the stakes I always used to use this activity with students in pairs to test their retrieval pretty much when they came into the classroom. By projecting the list of key vocabulary which had been practised a previous lesson or two/three lessons prior I covered up the meanings and called out a time limit for each pair in the class to write as many meanings down as possible. The winning pair after the meanings were shown once the time limit elapsed won the language trophies on their desks for the rest of the lesson. I used to use this activity once the students had just finished practising the vocabulary in the same lesson but found that retrieval strength was too high so that the students could easily recall meanings. Good for self-efficacy perhaps but less beneficial in terms of creating the conditions towards making more durable learning.

6) Magic-Whiteboard Retrieval: Similarly, I might project a list of ‘Takeaway Retrieval Practice Tasks’ and ask the students to ‘Go To The Walls’ having chosen a task from the takeaway and complete it on Magic Whiteboard stuck up around the room.

7) Learning Mat Retrieval: Asking the students to write & draw all that they can from memory from the previous term or year on a double page spread in books.

1 James M. Lang, (2016) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. loc. 523. 

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Interleaving, Distributed Practice & The New Spec Writing Paper

‘Interleaving refers to the practice of spending some time learning one thing and then pausing to concentrate on learning a second thing before having quite mastered that first thing, and then returning to the first thing, and then moving onto a third thing...and so forth.’ 1

When I was an NQT and RQT I used to adopt the blocked practice schedule of teaching French with my Year 11s and leaving time from about March before the exams to revise with the class. So, the schedule used to be a simplified version of something like this,  

Obviously the issue that the students’ learning was supposed to fit into nice, chunky modules while all along assuming that all of the students would understand all of the grammar and retain all of the language before taking an end of module test which tested only that topic’s content before moving on to the next blocked topic was almost like a macrocosm of the 20 minute window of progress in lessons and progress fitting in nice one hour lesson chunks where students have the sense of a warm, fuzzy cognitive ease and an engendered fluency illusion. It didn’t allow anything to be really embedded of course and certainly not to beat The Forgetting Curve.2 What the students could retrieve in lessons being a poor indicator for what they could achieve in the final exam.  

The issues with this as a learning schedule for the students are obvious and nothing new in Edublogosphere I would imagine. The reason why I’m mentioning it here now is just to show that the impact it had on my revision with the students was disastrous and how it is informing what I am doing this year in terms of preparation for the Year 10s who will be faced with potentially troublesome linear exams.

This quote from a very interesting blog from Dawn Cox sums up the issues as to not building in forgetting time well in my view,

‘…we need to forget following the text book from the beginning to the end, and start planning for learning, not for teacher comfort or convenience.’ 3

Dawn Cox on the same blog refers to an innovative way of incorporating planning a curriculum around deliberate recall.  

Thanks to this innovative approach I have used this to replicate how I am going to apply what I believe will be a very difficult skill for the students to master when they come to do their final exams in languages; the one-off writing exams. The plan is to do the following with the Year 10 students and use the mocks at the end of Year 10 to review,

The idea is that when the first topic of Me, my family and friends has been covered I will be introducing low stakes, free recall tests on practising writing on this topic alongside free recall tests on the topic of Home, town, neighbourhood and region as we progress through this next topic.

As the My Studies topic goes on I will test retrieval through getting the students to complete low-stakes, free recall writing tasks on the My Studies topic alongside free recall writing tasks on the previous two topics and the same with the Free-time activities topic. Then to allow for more effortful retrieval through inducing some forgetting by leaving the first two topics when into ‘Spring a’ but continuing with the tests on the My Studies and Free-time activities while introducing more low-stakes’ tests as part of practising on the Social issues (Healthy/Unhealthy Living) and Life at school/college topics.

By ‘Spring b’ the idea would be that as the Travel and tourism topic starts up, in the normal, humdrum of class teaching (and as part of homework) there would be low stakes’ free recall tests on; Me, my family and friends, Home town, neighbourhood and region, Social issues (Healthy/Unhealthy Living), Life at School, Customs and festivals in Spanish-speaking countries/communities.        

All of the tests will come from the practice pack (please let me know if you would like these) which the students will have access to.
For instance one of the sample assessment material AQA questions for the writing paper is:

Tu amigo español te ha preguntado sobre tu tiempo libre.
Escríbele sobre tus intereses y actividades.
•  música
•  deporte
•  cine
•  restaurantes.
Escribe aproximadamente 40 palabras en español.’
So, one of the practice writing tasks to be used alongside this task when in the topic of Free Time will be:

‘Tu amigo español te ha preguntado sobre tu escuela.
Escríbele sobre tu escuela y tus asignaturas.
•  asignaturas
•  uniforme
•  profesores
•  planes para el futuro
Escribe aproximadamente 40 palabras en español.’

While wary of my cognitive bias I think that preparing the students through adopting some of these Desirable Difficulties by varying the conditions of practice particularly in preparation ahead of a one-off writing exam should help towards promoting students’ self-efficacy (see the epic Gianfranco Conti blog4 on that).  

1 James M. Lang, (2016) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, loc 1246.
3 Dawn Cox, (2016) ‘Deliberate recall – don’t just leave it to chance’, missdcoxblog (blog) See
Dr Gianfranco Conti, (2015) ‘Self-efficacy – the most neglected motivational factor in foreign language instruction’, The Language Gym (blog) See

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Retrieval Practice, Generative Learning & The New Spec Writing Paper

In Learning as a Generative Activity: Eight Learning Strategies That Promote Understanding, the authors, Logan Fiorella and Richard E. Mayer, define generative learning as,

‘…helping learners to actively make sense of material so they can build meaningful learning outcomes that allow them to transfer what they have learned to solving new problems.’1

One of the strategies described to foster this benefit of generative learning is self-testing. Testing as a means to learning is quite à la mode in the edublogosphere now, referred to also as retrieval practice. Retrieval Practice has its own website ( courtesy of @poojaagarwal and even a great guide to read over.

As regards to boundary conditions for self-testing, Fiorella and Mayer say,

‘In general, free-recall, cued-recall, or otherwise open-response practice tests appear to be more effective than practice recognition tests, such as a multiple-choice test.’2

According to the authors the reason for this could be because of a generation effect that occurs when a learner is forced to generate an answer being more powerful than the effect generated by the learner having to only recognise the correct answer from a choice.

I’ve started trialling setting output tasks where, after handing the books back, I give the students 10-15 minutes to do a free-recall test on the formation of a tense, for example, without looking back at any notes or text books.

Allowing for time for students to write all that they can about the present tense, for instance, and then taking the books in later to identify common misconceptions and to see how each student has interpreted the tense (I sometimes provide prompts like its formation, irregulars and meaning in English) has allowed me not only to use testing as a way of hopefully making the retrieval of everything to do with the tense more accessible in future but also to focus on seeing how well the students have made sense of the tense and developed a meaning of it in their own words.

It’s been a subtle shift from the traditional Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time which focuses on students correcting and redrafting work solely without much of a reference to using this time to promote generative learning outcomes through practice testing of concepts which were covered in previous lessons. The students have responded fantastically well to this and we have also adopted these free-recall tests as extension tasks in class; students going to a blank page and writing all that they can about a tense covered last week, term or year.

This is something that in terms of preparing students for the one-off writing exam I am considering using with more frequency next year. Not only these free-recall types of testing to do with previously taught grammar concepts but interleaving topics with free-recall tasks which focus on students writing under real-operating conditions-see Gianfranco Conti’s blog on 16 tips for effective grammar teaching in the foreign language classroom.3

The writing exam is the area that I have been looking at recently. The following below are a set of writing tasks which mirror the types set by AQA. I will write about some simple ways that I will be using these to promote retrieval practice and support the students ahead of this one-off exam in a future post. If anyone would like me to email them these practice tasks please let me know.


1Logan Fiorella and Richard E. Mayer, (2015) Learning as a Generative Activity Eight Learning Strategies That Promote Understanding, New York, Cambridge University Press. p. vii.

2Logan Fiorella and Richard E. Mayer, (2015), p. 119.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Exam Paper Modelling (1)

Exam Paper Modelling (1)

A key aspect of modelling for me has been how you want students to answer an exam question. This type of modelling relies on students having the correct procedural knowledge of how to ‘beat the task’ and the key vocabulary (factual) knowledge in their long-term memory so that on the exam day they can rely on both of these types of knowledge freeing up the space in their working memory to actually focus on what they have to do; the problem to be solved.

Drilling and practising the procedural steps of how to beat the question on the exam first relies on the teacher’s direction instruction on how to do so.

A while ago, I had a trainee teacher in my lessons and it was only after seeing him complete a past reading paper with the rest of the students that I thought how much more useful it would be for me to complete the paper too as if I were a student, putting myself in their situation at the same time as students doing the task.

This was the expert acting as a novice. This was putting myself into a position where I would treat each question on the exam paper referring to my own knowledge of not just what vocabulary I had taught the class but what vocabulary I knew that each student in the class knew.

Since then, every final exam paper that my students have completed for their GCSEs I have completed as soon as I can after the exam as well, as if I were a student in my own class, measuring what it is that I would and wouldn’t know had I been a student being delivered a diet of my own teaching and learning methods. David Didau in The Secret of Literacy refers to having made it a maxim that when he sets a task for a class, he also completes it.1 (Didau, 2014:36)   

Looking below. It is a question based on a common type of question on Edexcel’s current Spanish Higher Reading paper. The question is adapted from a past paper.  

The ‘live’ modelling procedure that I would follow (and talk through to the students) when teaching a class how to tackle this question could go something like this:

1) Identify where the Spanish word for ‘coast’ (‘la costa’) is in the text and underline this on the text on the paper & write ‘coast’ underneath.

2) Go backwards in the text so that you are reading the words that come before ‘coast’ and identify the first verb you read (‘vivimos’) and the first time phrase (‘ahora’). Circle both of these words.  

3) Re-read the verb and time phrase that you have just circled and decide what tense these are in.

4) Put a cross in the correct box according to the tense that you think the verb and time phrase is in.

5) Repeat steps 1) to 4) with B, C and D. Note that there may just be the verb and not the time phrase to help.   

Read Susana’s email.

Querida Sarah:

Estamos en Málaga. Antes vivíamos en un piso pero ahora vivimos en una casa cerca de la costa en un pueblo pequeño.

No tengo amigos aquí pero la próxima semana voy a empezar las clases en el instituto y espero conocer a otros estudiantes. Será todo nuevo.

Por suerte este sábado voy a ir de compras donde vivía antes.



What happened before, what happens now, what will happen in the future?

Put a cross in the correct box.

Example: Málaga
A     Coast
B     Shopping
C     School
D    Flat

The same procedural knowledge of how to tackle exam questions can of course be modelled for any of the questions on any exam paper with most questions having their own distinct procedures to follow in order to ‘beat the task.’ The questionnaire-type tasks commonly found on the AQA higher reading papers in the past few years have been ones which I have a set of planned procedures that I practise with the students and try to ensure that they have embedded these procedures in their long-term memories. It is the same sort of thing as the cognitive modelling of past papers that John Tomsett talks about in his brilliant blog.
Willingham refers to successful thinking being reliant on four factors:

‘…information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and the amount of space in working memory. If any one of these factors is inadequate, thinking will likely fail.’2 (Willingham, 2009:18)

Provided that other areas are accounted for (in this case, knowledge of verb tenses & time phrases) in students’ long-term memories, ensuring that exam-related procedures of how to tackle a question on an exam paper are embedded in students’ long-term memory should go a long way to promoting successful exam-thinking.


1Didau, D. The Secret of Literacy: The Secret of Literacy: Making the implicit, explicit, Independent Thinking Press, 2014, p.36.

2Willingham, D.T. Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009, p. 18.



Wednesday, 30 September 2015

My article from Teach Primary...

Continuity Announcement! Are we all speaking the same language?

In primary and secondary schools there are concerns over transition from KS2 to KS3 with regard to language provision, pedagogy, choice of language, investment and students’ proficiency, to name but a few.

Is this 1974 or 2015?

To a number of language teachers’ chagrin, the first paragraph here could refer to the 1974 Burstall report into an evaluation of the primary French pilot project [LU1] ( circa 1960) or to aspects of the latest Language Trends Survey …

The 2014–2015 Language Trends Survey pointed out that;

‘Some 44 per cent of responding primary schools report that they have no contact at all with the language departments of local secondary schools. This is a slight improvement on the 46 per cent of primary schools which said they had no subject-specific contacts with secondary schools in 2013/14.’[1]

The survey also reported the following;

‘The issue of providing suitable progression from primary school emerges as another challenge for state secondary language departments. A total of 66 per cent of responding schools marked the topic as either ‘a major challenge for our school’ or ‘quite challenging’.’[2]

Peter Hoy, writing a report for the Council of Europe in 1976, summarised a number of potential barriers to success with regard to programmes delivering early modern language teaching. Financial constraints were up there, of course (quelle surprise), along with the supply of teachers, support for the teachers and the importance of continuity.[3]

I think it’s fair to say at this point that concerns like these are not entirely new or surprising to us now.

Let’s start with continuity. For continuity, read ‘… suitable progression’. It’s not just continuity of the language studied from KS2 to KS3 and the logistical difficulties in trying to ensure that the students continue with the same language when they begin KS3 but continuity of the vocabulary, grammar and pedagogical approaches of the teachers involved at both primary and secondary school.

The question is, ‘Are we  teaching children the language that they want and need to know?’ Looking at the Programmes of Study for KS2 and KS3, can we identify which language we want students to be able to use when they arrive in secondary school, no matter what topic they begin with in Year 7?

This may seem like a simplistic approach at first but consider, what is the generic language that can transcend topics which students arriving at secondary should use with a level of automaticity that would allow them to participate spontaneously in any lesson? I’m talking about language that students start to use from the first day in KS2 to communicate in the classroom with their teacher and other children. The type of language that will carry them through and ensure progression, as this language will continue to be needed in the classroom at KS3. There’s an excellent blog on the
types of phrases used by @amacleanmfl on Twitter.[4] Memorising phrases like ‘On dit que’ and adapting them by changing the ‘On’ to another name would certainly help to satisfy the KS2 Programme of Study requirement to, ‘write phrases from memory, and adapt these to create new sentences, to express ideas clearly’.[5]

Doing this at KS2 would support the KS3 Programme of Study’s requirement that;

‘Teaching … should build on the foundations of language learning laid at key stage 2. It should enable pupils to understand and communicate personal and factual information … with increased spontaneity …’[6]

This would then allow for some continuity no matter what topics are encountered during KS2 and the start of KS3.

The summary of the Language Trends Survey also concludes;

‘Financial constraints and other pressures have led to the cessation of previous joint working between primary and secondary schools …’[7]

There goes a plan for a discreet TLR being introduced for primary and secondary MFL teachers to lead on transition at KS2–KS3 then.

However, now we do have something which is different from the 1960s and ’70s; an army of Team MFL primary and secondary teachers sharing good practice. In spite of financial concerns it is even more essential that primary and secondary teachers foster the esprit de corps by sharing resources and ideas. The MFL Twitterati, TeachMeets, the Primary Hubs, ALL and so on are all fabulous ways of collaborating and supporting a smoother transition.

There are some great resources and tips out there which can help to bring closer collaboration and bridge the gap between KS2 and KS3 and ensure that financial constraints and fears over students’ progression can be overcome. The ease with which we can now network, more effectively than we could in the past, aids this. For instance, have a look at the fantastic Clare Seccombe’s (@valleseco) blog if you haven’t already.[8] This blog in particular helps to support pedagogy.

Identifying the common themes across the KS2 and KS3 Programmes of Study, getting students to practise language which can be used no matter what the topic and more TeachMeets and Primary Hubs, involving both primary and secondary teachers, will help to make for a more productive transition.

Using Twitter (@jakehuntonMFL by the way ... ) as a means of empowering professional networks, using evidence-based practice to promote the areas of pedagogy that work for students in KS2 and KS3 and sharing this as much as possible are the main differences between now and forty years ago. Sign me up to as much of this stuff as possible please … I’m just off to create my own ‘ks2langstransition’ hashtag.

[1] Language Trends 2014/15 The state of language learning in primary and secondary schools in England, p. 66.
[2] Language Trends 2014/15 The state of language learning in primary and secondary schools in England, p. 102.
[3] Jane Jones and Angela McLachlan, (2009) Primary Languages in Practice: A Guide to Teaching and Learning, Maidenhead, Open University Press, p. 10.
[7] Language Trends 2014/15 The state of language learning in primary and secondary schools in England, Executive Summary, p. 5.


Friday, 21 August 2015

My own pedagogical to-do list this year…

Inspired by the amazing Tom Sherrington’s post here on his own pedagogical to-do list I thought I’d write about my own areas that I wanted to work on this academic year…so here goes,

1) Testing as a means of improving learning. I want to include more ways of incorporating these ten benefits of testing and how they can be applied to languages.  

2) Using more live modelling. In Fun Learning Activities, with FLA 28 ‘Seeing Double’ I have recorded myself doing ‘live modelling’ and played this to the class and I now want to do more live modelling as referred to in the excellent ‘Making Every Lesson Count: Six principles to support great teaching and learning’ and talk through what I’m doing as I’m doing it; starting with paragraph-building will be the first step.

3) Finding ways to use metacognition on listening past papers; the blog that I’ve read a good dozen times I reckon was John Tomsett’s blog on metacognition. I’ve been doing some of this on a past reading paper (the AQA 2015 higher reading paper if anyone’s interested, am happy to share this…) but what I’d love to do is to focus on the sounds, breaks in utterance and model my own thinking of what is being said on the paper while trying to predict what mistakes the students will make and why).

4) Trialling some ‘Micro-listening enhancers’ as referred to by Dr Gianfranco Conti in his wonderful blog. The listening paper has often been a paper I’ve always felt was a little less under my control as I wanted it to be in terms of preparing students more effectively on the phonological level of the target language so I’m going to be starting more of a phonological focus sooner rather than later in the students’ learning.   

Four things will do for now I think, any more than this and you just end up not really doing any of them as effectively as you want…

Monday, 17 August 2015

Progress in MFL-UKEd Chat Mag Article...

My article from July's edition of UKEdChat Magazine...

When I was an NQT I remember getting into a flap about having to cover the course. I must make sure that I have got through the textbook! I must make sure that I have covered all of the language on the scheme of work (which was the textbook), including that language on transport! What happens if ‘gare routière’ comes up on the reading paper? I must teach them this content. It was a familiar pathway; make sure I cover the curriculum. At that time I wasn’t aware of the difference between learning and performance (there’s an excellent David Didau blog on this, with reference to Soderstrom and Bjork); just because students showed me at the end of the lesson that they could recall vocabulary knowledge or apply knowledge of a grammatical rule I had imparted during the lesson didn’t necessarily mean that I had done my job. ‘Great performance in today’s lesson guys!’ I used to shout as the students were leaving, not really understanding the true meaning of performance and just applying my own brand of teacher cum pseudo football manager encouragement-speak by using this language. In other words, just because the students could recall and apply language I had taught in that lesson there and then didn’t necessarily mean that they would be able to retain this knowledge and then apply it later on in the course. I was as far away from Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve and the fluency illusion as referred to by Carey as those students who had been taught ‘gare routière’ in Year 10 and were expected to recall the meaning of it in their Year 11 GCSE reading paper. 

Nowadays, though, we talk about spaced practice, testing students’ retrieval as a means of learning, nothing having been learned if there has been no change in long-term memory, interleaving different topics and vocabulary instead of teaching using massed or blocked practice strategies.

All of these strategies involve practice and testing, so that students can retain language in their long-term memories and apply it. It is how we get the students to practise and how we test the students so that they can do this over the longer term that is key. Hattie refers to being ‘motivated by knowledge gaps, but put off by knowledge chasms’.

With low A level and GCSE take-up in mind, the MFL Twitterati are after you!

The wonderful MFL Twitterati, being the army of like-minded practitioners that they are, have shared some excellent apps about how to get students to both practise and test their retrieval of the language. Apps like Memrise, Quizlet, Duolingo, Zondle etc. work well as a means of testing the students with the view to making longer-lasting and more durable learning. I am enjoying incorporating these more and more into my own practice. I’ve also been using VFLAs; Vocab Fun Learning Activities which involve immersing students in as much vocabulary and short phrases as possible, practising all the language in ways that engage the students before then covering up their meanings and testing students’ recall. VFLAs like Penalty Shoot-Out, Verbal-Volley and Bob-Up are designed to get students to practise in a competitive environment before testing students’ retrieval all with the aim of moving the focus away from students’ performance to their learning over time.

Spaced practice and spaced retrieval of key long-term memory essential language will give students the confidence to avoid a case of the ‘gare routières’ which befell and befuddled me in my NQT year. Have a look at the new draft GCSE specifications, which language do we want students to recall with automaticity by the time they sit the exams in the summer? Interleave the practice and testing of this language no matter what the topic is.