The title of this post should perhaps have been ’25 ideas for retrieval starters that can also be used as plenaries or simply basic lesson activities’ but it was less catchy… The only reason I have specified ‘starters’ is because I personally love to start a lesson with retrieval of previous material.

The purpose of this post

This post is especially aimed at trainees who have heard this buzzword and are looking for any of the following:

  • Lesson starter ideas
  • Understanding how ‘retrieval’ fits into the MFL context
  • How to design effective retrieval tasks – methodological principles to bear in mind
  • A variety of example retrieval activities that can be used as starters, or simply as consolidation activities or plenaries

This post may also be useful for more experienced teachers looking to add to their repertoire of activities. At the bottom, I have also included links to several eye-catching templates for those of you with a penchant for PowerPoint…

MFL contextual considerations

  1. It is easy to overstate the importance of retrieval practice within MFL teaching. The term has become very trendy on #edutwitter but its full value can only be found when students have processed the target language items enough times across different skills for them to actually be retrievable. Getting to that point in the first place is no trivial task! What you to do ensure the memory is formed in the first place is therefore equally as important. As highlighted by prominent MFL experts (eg. Conti and Smith), lots of extensive processing of input (that is comprehensible, structured, patterned, flooded etc.) is needed first of all!
  2. Additionally, as pointed out by LearningLinguist in this useful blog post https://learninglinguist.co.uk/revisiting-retrieval-practice/, retrieval practice is much more than starters and grids, and is embedded in many different ways in our MFL lessons and curriculum. As mentioned by Conti in various tweets/Facebook posts, MFL teachers have been doing retrieval practice forever, and one of its best forms is good old translation! The activities below all involve translation in some shape or form.
  3. Finally, I would suggest that you may want to avoid hastily adopting non-MFL-specific retrieval ‘templates’, since the common tasks and question types may lead you to focus excessively on ‘declarative knowledge’ rather than ‘procedural knowledge’ – to what extent to be want to be talking about the language when we could be using it? To learn more about this distinction and surrounding issues, see this very helpful post: https://frenchteachernet.blogspot.com/2020/11/what-is-skill-acquisition-theory.html

Background

If you’re new to this topic, click here to read a post I wrote recently introducing the theory behind retrieval practice and why it’s important.

A checklist of principles

My knowledge of how research informs MFL pedagogy is essential to how I like to design retrieval activities. Thanks to the work of experts like Conti and Smith in their various blogs and books, it could be suggested that retrieval tasks should do any (or several) of the following:

Present language in chunks, not individual words – we don’t really learn words in isolation, and teaching in single words is less efficient. (Proper explanation available here: https://frenchteachernet.blogspot.com/2019/02/the-curse-of-single-word-vocab-learning.html )

Be completed under time pressure, as this is more likely to promote fluency.

Provide opportunities for language to be practised across different topics, not always in the same sentences, since memory is context-dependent, so you cannot assume students will be able to automatically transfer their learned phrases to new topics.

Require thorough processing of language – quick comprehension tasks that only require students to pick out a few words in a text are less effective for retrieval as they only involve skimming or scanning. Favour tasks that force students to process entire sentences or texts in detail.

Involve deeper processing of meanings – tasks that get you to compare and contrast words and phrases and their connections (eg. Sorting into categories, synonyms, antonyms, positive vs. negative connotations, odd one out etc.) require deeper semantic analysis which is said to improve chances of retention.

Be completed across different skills – practising a subtopic/unit receptively (through listening and/or reading) is not enough, it must also be practised productively and repeatedly in different contexts.

Involve some aural input at some stage to reinforce all learning through listening – this could be because it is a listening task, but it doesn’t have to be. It could simply involve students having to read language aloud during an L2 to L1 translation activity, or the teacher reading each answer aloud after it has been given by a student.

Require the students to speak in TL – does not necessarily mean spontaneous speech, but translating orally is also beneficial. Reading aloud and repeating aloud have multiple benefits for acquisition (see https://gianfrancoconti.com/2018/03/16/my-favourite-read-aloud-task-and-how-i-use-them/)

Suggested activities

Receptive starters

The following activities can be used for retrieval starters from the target language into L1, ie. When you want students to recall the English translation of target phrases or sentences in reading or listening. This is preferable in earlier stages of teaching a unit of work, when students have not yet processed the language enough through listening and reading to be able to produce it in the TL. You can read more about this principle of receptive processing before production in the book The Language Teacher Toolkit by Smith and Conti, or on their blogs gianfrancoconti.com or frenchteachernet.blogspot.com.

  • Retrieval grid containing key chunks / short sentences to translate
    • ADVANTAGES: Visually engaging, more accessible than long translation sentences. Grid layout also allows for easy organisation of language by topic, subtopics or by communicative function.
    • TIPS & CAVEATS: Add time pressure to the activity by using an onscreen timer, or turning it into a race or game using one of the variations below.
    • VARIATIONS: Involving a points system and colour key to cover different units can create a more ‘gamified’ feel to motivate certain learners. Some teachers take it further by turning it into a ‘connect 4’ activity – this could either consist of identifying 4 chunks that have a link and being able to explain the link (deep processing!) or by simply completing the translations of 4 boxes in a row. A ‘roll and retrieve’ grid is a good option when you’ve just got chunks rather than sentences – students in pairs roll a die to get the coordinates of a chunk to translate, then repeat.


Thanks to MissS7 on TES for sharing these templates:

Thanks to Dan Haste on TES for this one:

  • Quickfire L2 to L1 aural translations on MWBs
    • ADVANTAGES: Mini whiteboards offer an instant snapshot of what students can remember. Students often enjoy using MWBs and many teachers argue that students are less afraid of making mistakes as it doesn’t feel as permanent or serious as committing ink to paper. Planned carefully and done regularly, this activity can boost students’ confidence in listening, and it also promotes retention of correct grammatical structures, word order etc. as it is an example of a Listening-as-modelling (LAM) activity (you can read about this on Conti’s blog or see a useful blog post on other LAM/RAM activities here https://fraubastowmfl.blogspot.com/2020/10/receptive-processing-phase-lamram-conti.html)
    • TIPS & CAVEATS: Maintaining pace can be tricky when doing this for the first time. Checking individual MWBs can take time which could create opportunities for chatter or boredom. For trainees, I would also recommend using MWBs only once you have developed a good relationship with the class and confident classroom management, and be sure to clarify expectations for MWB usage before starting the activity. Once students know the routine, it’s straightforward.
    • VARIATIONS: A harder version would be ‘delayed translation’ (A Conti/Smith activity) – insert a 5 or 10-second timer in between uttering the sentence and students writing. They have to hold it in their heads during the pause on a ‘phonological loop’ – awesome for retention!

  • Quickfire quiz/translations on Whiteboard.fi or Mentimeter
    • ADVANTAGES: these sites allow you to assess students’ answers in real time so you can offer feedback. It’s basically the exact digital equivalent to mini whiteboards.
    • TIPS & CAVEATS: Same as previous activity – pace is key!

  • Song challenge
    • ADVANTAGES: It’s a basic table to see how many vocab items students can remember. You quietly play a TL song in the background whilst they fill it in, and they have the duration of the song to do as much as they can, creating a sense of urgency whilst also exposing them to a bit of culture! It might generate a brief discussion on song suggestions for independent exploration. I also find that when I do this activity, students focus on the task immediately and don’t distract each other – the music seems to have a calming effect!
    • TIPS & CAVEATS: As mentioned before, it is preferable to use chunks rather than individual words. Read why: https://frenchteachernet.blogspot.com/2019/02/the-curse-of-single-word-vocab-learning.html  It is often said that songs with lyrics are detrimental to concentration/study, but that is usually because the words and messages tend to distract you, whereas a TL song is unlikely to contain that much comprehensible input for KS3 or KS4 learners, meaning it will just sound like a pleasant stream of nice TL sounds as opposed to words and sentences that could distract them!
       
      Thanks to morganmfl.com for sharing this idea that she got from a course in London. Here is an example from her site:
  • Jumble orally in pairs (without L1 translation)
    • ADVANTAGES: Requires recalling the L1 meaning of the L2 chunks, and subsequent task of reordering the sentence – reinforces word orders and collocations. Can be done with individual words or chunks in boxes. I would suggest whole chunks in boxes at earlier stages of the teaching sequence, and then individual words once students have a better grasp of any word order issues.
  • Short translation sentences into L1 using the site Carousel Learning
    • ADVANTAGES: Esmeralda Salgado of mflcraft.blospot.com recommends Carousel Learning ‘because students do not get immediate feedback but they are presented with the right answers at the end of their quiz’. Students are then required to decide if it is correct or not, which is arguably powerful for taking ownership over mistakes and improvement. Esmeralda also shared this informative video from Jane Basnett on using this site https://www.loom.com/share/add230f54f1e4df89616f589a968f0ee
    • TIPS & CAVEATS: This could end up being quite a long starter if you put in too many sentences, so be selective with what chunks you want to practise so that the exercise has a clear focus and gives you an accurate picture of progress.

  • Basic gap-fill
    • ADVANTAGES: As well as requiring recall of meaning, this task can also be used to help draw attention to grammatical features, such as matching correct verb ending to subject, or using adjective agreement to help work out what could go where. This task can also be used to promote proofreading skills – encourage students to read their completed sentences and translate them back into L1 in their heads to check they make sense.
  • Odd one out / vocab-sorting grid
    • ADVANTAGES: Deeper processing = stronger retention. Also feels like a game!
    • VARIATIONS: alternatives could be a grid containing pairs of synonyms, antonyms, or ‘connect 4’ phrases belonging to the same subtopic/category. These all require higher order thinking skills.

      Thanks to the blog theidealteacher.com for this example:

Productive starters

The following activities can be used for retrieval starters from the L1 into the target language, ie. When you want students to produce the target language in writing, speaking, or a translation task. I have tried to put the more closed/narrow/structured targeted activities at the start, and the more open ones (with less scaffolding) towards the end, to reflect order of difficulty.

  • Any of the grid ideas at the start of the above section, but only containing L1 content instead, for students to translate into L2.

  • First letter translation
  • Song challenge
    • See description in previous section – this can also be used from L1 to L1 and first letters could be provided as an extra clue.
  • Replace the chunk
    • ADVANTAGES: This involves providing a few short sentences with certain words or chunks highlighted or underlined, and getting students to ‘replace’ the chunk with an alternative that would fit. This task therefore involves recalling L1 meaning of sentence, then retrieval of other L2 phrases.
    • VARIATIONS: To add challenge, the task could be a competition or a race to give as many chunks as possible that would work as replacements.
  • Quickfire L1 to L2 aural translations on MWBs
    • Same as activity previously mentioned in this post, but this time sentences are from English into the Target Language.

  • Short translation sentences on the website Carousel Learning
    • Same as activity previously mentioned in this post, but this time sentences are from English into the Target Language.
  • Spend the chunks
    • ADVANTAGES: It involves first recalling the L1 meaning of the L2 chunks, then putting them into a sentence, like the example below, so also provides writing practice and chances to retrieve other vocab, verbs or constructions.
    • TIPS & CAVEATS: You could provide useful conjugated verbs on the side as extra support.
    • VARIATIONS: You could also use wheel of names to generate chunks one-by-one, with students doing this activity live, sentence by sentence on MWBs, offering a chance to compare individual sentences and offer live feedback. Here’s a great video from Esmeralda Salgado on using Wheel of Names https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZGcc96kyTo
  • Gap-fill no options
    • ADVANTAGES: Simply providing gapped sentences for students to fill not only gets them to recall language, but it can also be used to draw attention to certain grammatical features by giving metalinguistic clues eg. ‘What kind of word can only fit in this gap?’
    • VARIATIONS: Instead of a gapped sentence, you could provide several sentence starters that need to be turned into a sentence. You could even do this variation through listening – you read out a sentence starter, and students note on MWBs a possible ending.

  • Upgrade my sentence
    • ADVANTAGES: Providing a few ‘boring sentences’ in TL gets them to think about how they could improve the sentence in some way, either by replacing banal vocab or by adding more details. Good for building exam-skills and promoting metacognition.
    • VARIATIONS: You could give this activity a particular focus, such as connectives / opinions and justifications / time phrases / comparisons etc.
  • BYOV (Bring your own verbs) – my silly new title for an activity I previously called ‘verbs only’
    • ADVANTAGES: This simply involves showing students a TL question similar to one they could get in a speaking exam or a bullet point from a writing question. Instead of writing a full sentence answer, students must simply note down as many phrases (that include a conjugated verb) as they can think of that could each form the basis of a response. I find this activity useful for preparing for writing, as it encourages them to start their sentence by thinking of verbs that they know. This can help avoid the problem where students think of ideas or vocab first without considering whether they can correctly use the necessary verbs to create those sentences.
    • TIPS & CAVEATS: You could provide a set of suggested verb phrases in English for extra support.

  • Cops & robbers retrieval of key chunks on a given topic
    • ADVANTAGES: You give students a key question or subtopic, and they have to retrieve as many chunks or vocab items as they can from memory.
    • TIPS & CAVEATS: This is technically only 50% retrieval practice, as half of it is stealing info from peers, but a useful revision task nonetheless!

      I have adapted the template below from MissS7 from TES:
  • Conti retrieval routine grid
    • ADVANTAGES: This template gets students to focus on one chunk at a time, and then elicits further language on the same topic – excellent practice to prepare for producing extended sentences through writing or speaking. It also revises key questions!
    • VARIATIONS: It could be timed and turned into a competition in pairs (as suggested by Conti in the GILT Facebook group)


Expansion and fluency retrieval starters – one of my CPD goals for now!

The aim here would be to increase the speed of retrieval so that students can produce the language in real-life conditions. For the moment, this is an area that I have not yet fully explored, and am hoping to incorporate gradually into my teaching sequences.

You can read about some of the main activities used in the EPI methodology at this stage of the teaching sequence, such as ‘the 4, 3, 2 technique’ and ‘marketplace’ here https://gianfrancoconti.com/2017/03/04/en-route-to-spoken-fluency-via-task-repetition-the-4-3-2-technique-and-market-place/

Miscellaneous ideas:

  • Textivate and SentenceBuilders.com are two superb subscription sites that can turn your text into snappy activities, many of which would make excellent retrieval starters.
  • 5-a-day mixed retrieval slide – I love the variety of this template containing 5 different question types. It allows you to mix up different activity types – translation, verb conjugation, perhaps even a pronunciation/phonics task, or vocab sorting tasks.

    I found these colourful templates on TES from Emmamfl

Miscellaneous templates

Thank you for checking out this post. If you found it helpful, then do share it. If you have any thoughts, questions or suggestions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment!

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