This post aims to give an introduction to what is meant by ‘retrieval practice’, the theory behind its development and popularity in teaching, and suggestions for further reading.

In a nutshell

‘When we think about learning, we typically focus on getting information into students’ heads. What if, instead, we focus on getting information out of students’ heads?’ (Agarwal 2017)

This quote was brought to my attention by the brilliant blog theidealteacher (https://theidealteacher.com/low-prep-retrieval-practice-ideas-languages) and sums up the essence of retrieval practice.

Rather than trying to cram more information into the students’ brains, retrieval practice involves trying to pull the knowledge out! This process of having to recall knowledge has been proven to improve retention.

Research & background

Studies undertaken by Roediger and Karpicke found that students that did a ‘brain dump’ (writing down everything they could remember) performed better in a subsequent test than those who simply were given the chance to study/review the material beforehand. You can read more about these studies here https://www.retrievalpractice.org/strategies/2018/4/26/two-cognitive-scientists-you-need-to-know

Spacing & interleaving

It is often said that to be most effective, retrieval needs to be 1) spaced out and 2) interleaved. So firstly, to beat Ebbinghaus’ famous ‘forgetting curve’, learning should be spaced out over time, not crammed all at once. Secondly, different topics should be mixed up and combined to ensure maximum retention. This is because memory is context-dependent. This means that in MFL, for example, high-frequency phrases, useful vocabulary and key verbs all need be practised across many different topics so they can be transferred effectively. Here is a nice selection of key points on interleaving in MFL from Conti https://twitter.com/gianfrancocont9/status/1257318101160300545?lang=en

You could keep a note of what vocab/subtopics/chunks/grammar points/communicative functions you have practised in your lesson planning documents, or even use a planning matrix to map out when you will recycle different topics to ensure spaced, interleaved retrieval practice.

What retrieval practice actually looks like in a lesson

Retrieval grids and templates like the one below from retrievalpractice.org are all the rage in teaching.

However, I would be wary of generic ones designed for subjects other than MFL, with the exception of very basic ‘grids’. Although they might can be shiny and fun, they often contain activities better suited to retrieving ‘declarative knowledge’ as opposed to ‘procedural knowledge’ – talking about the language as opposed to actually practising it! That is not to say there is no benefit at all to declarative knowledge, but it’s a complex debate that merits some further reading: https://frenchteachernet.blogspot.com/2020/11/what-is-skill-acquisition-theory.html

Retrieval goes far beyond just grids – pretty much any listening, reading, speaking or writing task can be a form of retrieval practice.

I am currently working on a blog post researching and compiling different retrieval activities to use at the start of a lesson to revise previous topics. I will explain some of the advantages of each one alongside useful tips, variations and potential caveats to consider.

Where can I read more on this topic?

Non-subject-specific:

In relation to MFL:

  • The chapter ‘teaching lexical retrieval’ in ‘Breaking the sound barrier’ (Conti and Smith) offers a very thorough guide to essential principles to bear in mind that will aid retrieval.
  • I recommend chapter 2 of ‘Making every MFL lesson count’ (James A. Maxwell) for an introduction to different retrieval activities in MFL.
  • A blog post from Steve Smith offering deeper reflections on ‘spacing’ https://frenchteachernet.blogspot.com/2021/08/expanding-spacing.html
  • For more general reading on memory and cognitive science for MFL, the book ‘Memory: What Every Language Teacher Should Know‘ explores the implications of what we know about memory for the language classroom. I am actually yet to read this book properly so cannot say more than that for now, but their other books are essential reads for MFL teachers, and this one has received nothing but positive reviews on Amazon, so definitely worth a read!

Thank you for reading – any suggestions for further reading or questions on any of the above are welcome in the comments section.

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