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Retrieval Practice in Languages Classroom

 What is ‘retrieval practice’? Is it just the newest trend in education or is there more to it? On social media you have probably seen a lot of people recently talking and commenting on ‘retrieval practice’. To understand what retrieval practice is all about, first we need to understand how we learn and how our memory works.

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark are often quoted for defining the learning process as a change in long-term memory, ‘if nothing has been changed nothing has been learnt’.

How learning happens (diagram by Oliver Caviglioli)

Environment affecting learning    Embedding into long term memory-   Recall of new learning             reusing information.            

if not revised or used learning gets forgotten

Environment – classroom learning environment – teachers need to ensure high levels of focus, concentration and attention from students – study habits – keeping it simple to avoid cognitive overload.

Working Memory – cognitive system with limited capacity – only about 5 chunks – can hold information only temporarily (18-30 seconds) – information processing in working (short-term) memory is necessary for storage in long-term memory – cognitive overload leads to information loss – small steps are essential – builds on prior knowledge.

Long-Term Memory – classified as a vast store of knowledge with unlimited capacity – holds information in schemas and from where we can retrieve information back to working memory when needed – includes prior knowledge and experiences.


To understand the importance of retrieval we need to have a look at Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve:

Through his research Ebbinghaus concluded that the rate in which our memory decays depends on the time that has elapsed following our learning experience as well as on how strong our memory is. Some degree of memory decay is inevitable, but as educators, how do we reduce the scope of this loss?   


Retrieval practice could certainly be the answer to it.

There have been many studies and books published on the topic of retrieval in the past, but also fairly recently. If you want to have a deeper look into this topic you could look at the research study conducted by Roediger and Karpicke, Dulonsky’s ‘Strengthening the Student Toolbox or read the book ‘Retrieval Practice’ by Kate Jones (click on the picture). Her new book ‘Retrieval Practice 2’ is coming out soon.

In her book Kate Jones defines ‘Retrieval practice’ as ‘The act of recalling learned information from memory (with little or no support) and every time that information is retrieved, or an answer is generated, it changes the original memory to make it STRONGER!

She talks about ‘Retrieval storage’ referring to how well information is embedded in the long-term memory and about ‘Retrieval strength’ which refers to how easily information can be recalled in short-term memory when/if needed.

So what are the benefits of ‘Retrieval practice’? (Kate Jones)

  1. Retrieval practice aids later retention – ‘every time you retrieve a memory it becomes deeper, stronger and easier to access in future’

  2. Testing identifies gaps in knowledge – shows students what they know (can recall from memory) and what they don’t know

  3. Testing causes students to learn more from the next learning episode – studying after test will be more productive and effective

  4. Testing produces better organisation of knowledge – helps students to connect and structure knowledge

  5. Testing improves transfer of knowledge to new contexts – making links between new and existing knowledge is  a central aspect of learning

  6. Testing facilitates retrieval of material that wasn’t tested

  7. Testing improves metacognition – involves self-monitoring and links with point number 2

  8. Testing prevents interference from previous material when learning new content – refers to the act of using a test to prevent proactive interference, which can occur when content is studied in succession.

  9. Testing provides valuable feedback to teachers – test outcome is a reason to have a flexible lesson plan

  10. Frequent testing encourages students to study more – students know a regular retrieval will take a place every lesson and can prepare for it

Tom Sherrington published really good guidance in the form of  Retrieval Practice Principles which lays out various alternative methods of reviewing students’ knowledge and understanding. For more information look here.

Languages Classroom

However, I would like to have a look at how we can use retrieval practice in Languages classroom and how we have implemented it in our department at our school. I will also provide some examples of Retrieval Practice tasks in Languages classroom that we use.

I think it is a fair comment to say that in the languages classroom we have always used some form of retrieval. All language teachers know how important the recall of previous learning is and this has been our practice for years even if it was just in the form of routine vocabulary tests. 

Language lessons follow on each other and require students to learn and memorise chunks of vocabulary and structures on a daily basis which retrieval practice covers naturally so this is not something we need to additionally incorporate into our lessons as it has always been there in some kind of shape or form. However, we can always improve on how we conduct retrieval and on the tasks we use.

Researching ‘retrieval practice’ has made me pause and think: Does it not get boring doing the same type of vocabulary tests over and over again usually testing only what was taught the previous lesson? Same format every lesson? Waiting to test the knowledge of one entire unit at the end of the unit in an end of unit test? 

We have often noticed that students do fairly well in their end of unit test but not so well in their end of year test! The reason being we have not revised/retrieved all knowledge consistently throughout the year which is often the problem with GCSE exams! Students end up ‘cramming’ revision just before their exams! Schools start intensive ‘intervention’ programmes (often after school) in year 11!!! Regular retrieval should take place from the moment students start to study the subject in order to secure the highest possible retention.

We all strive to motivate our students to keep them interested and engaged, to ensure they progress and learn, but we are also busy and do not want to add to our massive work load even more!

Well, investing some time into planning our retrieval tasks will pay off in the long term. In our department we have decided to share the work load. We have looked at what types of tasks we would like to use – we were convinced that varying the ‘diet’ is important to keep the interest going and we came up with the ideas you can see below, all which are now an integral part in our lessons – each lesson will start with some type of retrieval practice across all year groups – it is not just about year 11 revision!!

Using our Sentence Builders (E.P.I. methodology by Gianfranco Conti) I have created cards based on our SB on Quizlet – for an example of my Quizlet cards, click here. This is one form of our retrieval quizzing. Other great tools that can be explored are Quizzes, Plickers, Learning Apps , Flippity or Google forms. 

Flippity examples – flashcards + randomizer (click on the pictures)

We also use Retrieval Roulette (see resources page) that I have seen mentioned on Twitter and I have adapted it to suit our subject. The beauty of it is that it generates a new quiz every time you press the F9 key – all you need to do is type in your questions and answers. The games question grid generator is from, based on an idea by Jonny Hemphill and developed from a spreadsheet by Adam Boxer.

Here are some other examples of tasks inspired by Kate Jones (some templates collated by and other various posts on social media – if I haven’t mentioned you, please let me know and I will edit) that we use:

It is essential that your tasks include not just knowledge from the last lesson, but also knowledge from previous week, month or unit to ensure interleaving. It is also useful to have prepared possible answers for quick checking on students part. I spend around 10 minutes on retrieval, but there might be a time when I want to spend more time on it (usually before summative assessment is due) – a half of my lesson or even a full lesson, so I make sure I plan this into my lesson sequence.

As Kate quotes in her book, retrieval practice should be regarded as a learning strategy, that should be used throughout the academic year not just as simply a revision strategy. It should include interleaving (mixing and combining multiple topics and concepts to improve learning) and spaced practice (spreading out revision over period of time) – the most effective revision strategy as suppose to mass practice (cramming just before an exam).

Final words – to make sure our  GCSE students are optimally prepared for their exams I support them by helping them plan their revision as some students are not so great at organising themselves. At the start of the academic year I give students a week by week timetable of what they need to revise each week interleaving all their GCSE topics in manageable sections. This timetable is signed by the parents (I believe involving parents in the process is invaluable) and checked by the classroom teacher every week. I also discuss with my students what effective revision strategies look like and how to study. I will provide more information and examples of this practice in another post. 

I hope you find some of these ideas of use for your own practice and your feedback is always welcome.

For more on RP, you can watch my webinar on Embedding Retrieval Practice in Languages Classroom which I have presented for the Association for Language Learning – ALL. 


1 Comment

Nov 28, 2023

Bravo and thanks for your support and contributions to - I cant wait to hear how you get on next week. On the "Does it not get boring" inquiry -

Students are more "with you" when you share your knowledge of why retrieval is important (as you do here on the blog). Tell the students, teach them the why and the how I say. As long as the activities are low stakes - with high retrieval rates, then the students will build in confidence, and you will reach some of the most "hard to reach" students. With success, comes motivation. You can also add more challenge, or offer less cues. Great stuff!

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