I spend a lot of time encouraging my students to ‘dig deep’ and as a result they know exactly what I mean! I invariably say it when a student, or group of students, are experiencing a ‘block’ on a word or phrase that I know they have encountered and that I am fairly convinced they would know if they read or heard it. Generally these words or phrases are present in the students’ passive language but have either not yet made it to their ‘active’ language or they were once active but haven’t been used for a while. Whatever the reason, I never give them the word. I make them remember it! So a quick game of hangman, use of synonyms or antonyms, word association or most commonly, some acting (by me!) always follows. This is definitely a regular occurrence in my classroom which encouraged me to explore ways to ensure students can ‘activate’, and importantly keep active, as much vocabulary as possible.
This is where retrieval practice comes in. A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the concept of retrieval to improve revision; both how we revise with students and how they revise independently. There’s a lot of in depth and quite complex research on retrieval practice but two things really struck me as a language teacher.
The first was the notion of repeated testing. Evidence shows that repeated ‘testing’ can enhance retention more than repeated ‘studying’, and that this has been demonstrated by Karpicke and Roediger in the context of language learning. I have to admit, and I imagine it is the same for most teachers, that I am not a fan of the word ‘test’. However, I believe that there are so many creative and innovative ways to ‘test’ learners’ vocabulary, and grammar, acquisition without them feeling that they are constantly being ‘tested’ so I felt quite comfortable reflecting on how I could take this first idea forward.
The second was the notion of recall. However, not just recall from the previous class or last week’s class but recall from what had been learned 3, 6 or 9 months ago. This really got me thinking as I imagine that, like me, most language teachers rely on regular vocab quizzes in a variety of forms to check retention. But how many of us start a class with a warm-up vocab activity on a topic we studied 3 months ago? Or use an exit-pass to review future stems when we are in the process of teaching the perfect tense? I certainly hadn’t ever done this. I hadn’t ever considered continuous testing on previous topics whilst simultaneously working on new material. I always try to encourage the transferability of vocabulary, especially verbs, but I hadn’t ever specifically ‘tested’ learners on topic specific vocab that we had covered weeks or months before. In fact, I was a little worried that this may cause confusion and destabilise the students. However, I’m all for taking calculated risks so I decided to try it anyway!
And yes, it was a surprise for the students. However, they worked together, ‘dug deep’ and eventually did it. After this I tried to regularly move backwards – it did seem to work. It certainly kept the students alert and engaged too, but I needed a way to keep this ‘fresh’ in my daily practice.
It was actually thanks to an idea I saw on Twitter about Challenge Capsules that made me think of creating a ‘’retrieval’ box.
I filled it with a variety of vocabulary related ‘challenges’ such as ‘Note down 5 adjectives that you could use to describe your family’, ‘List 8 key words from the sub-topic – ‘l’engagement politique’, ’Note down synonyms for the following words…. and now the antonyms’ as well as more traditional style vocab quizzes. (I have to say though that I love the ‘freer’ style vocab activities which always guarantee that instead of reviewing 10 words chosen by the teacher you end up reviewing over 20 fantastic words that students have collectively recalled.) I also asked my students to help me fill the box. They loved having ownership of learning activities and as well as encouraging them to immerse themselves in an in-depth vocabulary review by creating ‘tests’ for each other, it saved me some time too. Win, win!
I think that this really worked and it encouraged students to engage in a regular challenging recall process to ensure that they retained, kept active and ‘owned’ their language. I have therefore revived my Retrieval Box and am determined to keep looking back, as well as forward, this year!