I think that retrieval practice and the research that has gone into it has made me realise how, me as a leader, should look at all the details of teaching to improve performance of our children.
We have many children who enter our school working below national level in speaking etc. Many of the children come from difficult backgrounds and they find making progress in school difficult. Don’t get me wrong we normally have around 10 children in each year group who will make some progress in each year group regardless of the teacher; they seem to have an innate ability to make things stick. To only have 10 children make progress isn’t enough and anyway could those children make more? What about the rest of the children? Don’t they have the right to a good learning and to have knowledge about the world that we live in?
Before going to teach in year 2 I had always worked in year 6 and spent a couple of years in year 4. When I was in year 6 I was always using test questions to review learning and giving them tests on stuff they’d learnt weeks before to make sure that they could remember it. At the time, I didn’t know that what I was actually doing was retrieval practice. I have a suggestion for most schools across the country- check out what your year 6 teachers are doing because I bet they are making stuff stick by doing lots of mini quizzes etc to see what their year 6’s know. I kept having these conversations with a colleague of mine and we kept saying imagine if every year group did this. Just imagine if every teacher quizzed their pupils on a regular basis then just think of the progress. By the time the pupils got into year 6 they would have a good idea about how good they were and what their own weaknesses were. The year 6 teacher wouldn’t have to waste time teaching them exam technique. I know this because I’ve been there.
Anyway I digress a little. I was asked to go into year 2 (teaching 6 and 7 year olds). It took me a little while to adjust to the children touching my shoes and children crying. Finding empathetic side took a little bit of retrieval but I got there. Before going into year 2 people would often tell me their too young to do this, their too young to do that; never have I been so determined to prove these people wrong. I decided that I would do what I did in year 6.
I set up regular testing. And yes I use the word. The children didn’t mind because they knew after talking to them that it was for their benefit. Anything they got wrong I assured them that I just needed to re-teach it for them. I wasn’t going to shy away from the word test because the children are going to have tests all their life and I don’t want them thinking of that word in a negative contexts. We as adults think of tests as bad because of our personal experience and I wasn’t prepared to put my experiences on them. I did have one boy who would cry all the time at the thought of testing. Again after talking to him and explaining that it didn’t matter. After a few weeks he changed his opinion completely; I had won over a 6 year old boy scared senseless by the thought of doing work independently and having to think hard by himself. Now he would cheer whenever I said the word I’m testing you to find out what you know about a subject. In fact the whole class did. All the tests were low stakes. I created tests in a number of ways:
I used Socrative (multiple choice questions is what I preferred);
I used testbase questions
I used this method in maths at first because that was easy to do. To start off each lesson I would quiz the children about work that did the day before. I would write say 5 questions on the board but then in the middle of those questions I would ask them a maths question on something I’d taught them 6 weeks ago. To start off with this would throw them but eventually they grew accustomed to it. This method of teaching was not only taken from Barak Rosenshine but it is also taken from E D Hirsch. My main influnce without a doubt has been the Learning Scientists and their great work. This method of teaching maths has stuck with me and has seen amazing results with the children I teach. If you forget the results the greatest accomplishment is that the children are not scared about tests nor are they worried about working independently. They can see the benefits. They know what they are good at and understand the importance- remember these children are 6 and 7.
I began to apply this method of teaching to spelling. Like most other teachers, I would give out the weekly spellings and tests them on a Friday and collate the scores. When it came to independent writing the children would get those spellings wrong even though they got them correct in the test. I decided enough was enough. Each week I would give out the spelling list as normal. I would test them at the end of the week. That was not the end of that list though because every day I would bring out an old spelling test and test them alongside their new spellings. A spelling session lasts around 30 minutes and it looks a little like this:
Teach spelling rules/phonics/morphology
Give them an activity that encompassed new spellings, common spelling mistakes and old spellings
Test the children on a mixture of old and new spellings.
I think this method has worked well and the local authority inspector couldn’t believe how good the spelling ability of the children actually was. In Daniel Willingham’s book ‘The reading mind’ he tells us of the importance of spellings and this proved the case because the reading improved astronomically as well. In my class reading ages improved by around 2 years per child. Obviously some were well above 2 years progress and some were below. No one actually scored below 18 months progress. I have to say i do have a fabulous team working with me in my class.
The next phase of introducing retrieval was in my teaching of theme lessons (history and geography). I’m going to cut to the chase on this one. I made socrative quizzes that I used at the start of each session. Sometimes I hadn’t taught the lesson to some of the questions but I still went through the answers. Again I told the children it didn’t matter because they were learning. On a number of occasions the children would say when we got to the lesson of a question they didn’t know the answer, “Oh that’s the answer to that question!” When the children did the quizzes it made the children think of more than just the question but the lesson they were involved in. So much more information was brought to the forefront of their minds when answering the simple multiple choice questions and so more stuff would stick. I have also experimented with brain dumps. Sometimes the children required prompts. I would say things like what were the houses like in London at the start of the great fire of London? The children would then draw a picture. I have used retrieval to compare different environments. I couldn’t believe the quality of work when I asked the children to draw or write everything that was different and similar about Antarctica and the Sahara desert.
Thinking more about retrieval has made me a better teacher and as a result the children have benefited. I have helped to rewrite our whole curriculum with retrieval at the very heart of everything we do. Every year group begins a topic now with retrieval from a topic taught in a different year group. Socrative quizzes have now been set up for every year group. Brain dumps are expected in all year groups from year 1 up to year 6. I believe that the amount of information that our children will be able to access to create stories and know about history, geography and spell correctly will be amazing.