Rosenshine and Retrieval Practice in a Primary School Setting

Well I am 6 months into my journey using retrieval practice, so I thought I would write a blog to follow up my previous musings about embedding retrieval practice across the curriculum. The research I based my work on came from reading Tom Sherrington’s excellent book Rosenshine’s Principles In Action and Kate Jone’s equally good book Retrieval Practice. I also used Oli Cav’s Dual Coding With Teachers as an excellent source of inspiration. All three books are well worth purchasing. Before I begin, one important thing to mention, which I was guilty of at the start in my enthusiasm to crack on, is that heavy focus on retrieval of prior learning should not over shadow the delivery of that knowledge. To ensure a novice learner can successfully encode and store that knowledge is crucial to enable retrieval to happen. Creating lessons that usefully use the limited storage capacity of a young child’s working memory is paramount to the success rate of later retrieving that knowledge. Reducing cognitive overload in lesson delivery goes hand in hand with revisiting and the ability to retrieve that knowledge.

As I previously mentioned, retrieval practice was an area I had seen discussed and consistently used within the secondary sector but hadn’t filtered into primary school settings. I’m pleased to say that I am seeing many more primary school teachers  embracing and understanding the importance of it, but it still is a very different lion to wrestle in a primary setting compared to secondary. These are a few of the things that I have felt helped me manage the enormity of it.

The Primary School Conundrum

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The biggest issue I faced when I sat down to plan last summer was how on earth to tackle the enormity of retrieval across a vast and varied primary curriculum, when time is precious and so many subjects are covered. My knowledge of topics previously taught was ok (as I have worked across most year groups in school) but deciding which content was the most important to recap and which year groups to focus on was huge. How does one review science knowledge taught when it is a lesson covered once a week? How do you apply retrieval in more creative subject areas such as art and music?

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My biggest tip is to not try and do everything at once. You can’t possibly try and tackle all subjects straight away and the children will find it as overwhelming as you do. I started with maths as it was easy to add into our daily routine at the start of the lesson. Four questions that focused on last year, last term, last week and yesterday. I also decided it would be impossible to try and cover all the leaning from every year group so kept it to content from year 4. As mentioned in my previous blog, I didn’t create resources and slides, and simple wrote the questions live under the visualiser or popped them up on the white board for them to use. The children, far from hating the testing, really enjoyed it and would actively take part in the process by informing me which content they were still unsure of that they wanted woven into the questions I gave them. The low stakes nature of the tests allowed all children to feel comfortable and they knew the science and reasoning behind why we were doing it as I felt it was important for the children to understand how their memory works. They take great delight in telling visitors who  come into the classroom about their 4 memory slots and how they need to review material to ensure they remember it. Understanding purpose is paramount to active engagement with learning. 

The results for November data drop one in maths showed a considerable improvement between the number of children reaching the pass mark. My teaching of the subject was the same but I now was consistently undertaking daily retrieval in the maths lessons. You obviously can’t compare a cohort from one year to the next but on paper, they both are very similar children in terms of ability, gender and SEN ratios.

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By the March, I had 87% of the class already reaching the expected standard or above. Unfortunately due to school closures I am unable to know what the class end data would look like but I’ll take those figures with bells on.

Once the routine of maths was up and running, I started to branch out into our literacy lessons. I think it is very important we don’t force a text book approach to how we deliver our retrieval sessions. What works for one subject, may be unsuitable for another. There is a danger to fit a model to roll out and I personally feel variety and reflection of delivery, adapting and changing to suit your class, is far more important than trying to force a model across all areas. In literacy lessons for example I will use the low stakes quizzing as part of my canon of techniques but also use drama, dual coding, games and group work. This approach helped me when I started to roll out into other subject areas. I decided that each lesson would start with retrieval of some form even if only taught once a week. To begin with, science and humanities subjects I kept it to content we had done from year 5 but eventually I started putting questions in that pulled on their knowledge of year 4 work. retieval model

Using a knowledge organiser effectively is a great way for children to independently focus on key areas to remember. Again, reiterating the point I made at the start, how we present that information to a novice learner is vital to ensure they successfully can access that material. By using icons and creation of their own images, children can more readily access the content given.

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Before the school closures, I was looking at ways to make retrieval of art skills previously taught workable and not time consuming. This is something I will be experimenting with when we get back into the classroom.

My take home messages from my journey are as follows:

  • Make sure how knowledge is delivered to a novice learner is weighted as equally as how knowledge is recalled in your pratice.
  • Focus on one subject to begin with.
  • Make sure all children are actively involved.
  • Make sure you vary your method of delivery to ensure work load is managed and an understanding ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ is applied.
  • Involve the children within the marking and reflecting of their work.

We did that last year!

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After reading Tom Sherrington’s Rosenshine’s Principles in Action, I was acutely aware that there was one area in my teaching that was not as consistent as it should be. Retrieval practice. I have always dropped in sessions around retrieval to make sure I was checking on the prior learning and utilised end of unit assessments to identify gaps, but how often did I revisit that knowledge? How often did I look back at areas which I felt the children were secure in to see if they still were 2 months later? Was I looking at prior knowledge from the academic year before? Were the lessons I taught with central ‘doing’ activity backed up enough with retrieval sessions to remind the children of the knowledge they had acquired in that session?

I am notoriously hard on myself and spent a few days feeling a bit of a failure for not thinking about this before, but after I stopped beating myself up, I started to get quite excited about the new academic year. I spent the summer reading the research behind why it was important and found it fascinating looking at how the struggle and challenge to recall knowledge is in fact strengthening our memory and enabling us to identify gaps. The more I read, the more I realised there was definite changes I needed to make to ensure the knowledge I carefully planned and lovingly executed was locked away in their long term memory and not filtered out over the years. I dedicate the time to lovingly prepare, plan and execute these lessons and now knew I needed to give that same love and commitment to retrieval practice.

The first thing I knew I wanted to do was make it a daily exercise in maths and English sessions, and each other subject would start with a retrieval session before the lesson began. I also decided I wanted to look at what the children had learned the year before to really make them stretch, challenge and strengthen their memory. Historically I know I have been guilty of doing the odd oral retrieval sessions in topic lessons and because Jack, John and Margaret can tell me 6 habitats, I mentally tick off in my head ‘ We’ve nailed that’ as a class. I wouldn’t do that in maths or English so shouldn’t do it in topic work. The final thing I felt was paramount was to share with the children the reasoning why I am doing it and how it will help them so knew I wanted to share the language of cognitive science with them.

So began the new academic year. Maths. Lesson one. I started with 3 questions under the heading ‘something I did last year’. My fresh-eyed eager new year 5s looked at me with disdain and I could see a mixture of puzzlement, frowns and the odd ‘huh’ comment. Then one child put her hand up and in her politest voice said ‘Miss Eccles, we’re in Year 5 now, We did this last year.’ I smiled to myself and said ‘I know, I’m just doing an experiment’ and the children settled down to answer the work. When we marked together, more than half had gotten 1 or 2 questions wrong and this is where I could step in with my spiel about long term memory, retrieval and cognitive science. I haven’t had a single child question why we are looking at historic learning ever since.

I have found the key to effective retrieval is mixing it up a bit and doing it in a variety of ways. The easiest way to deliver retrieval practice is through little tests. You can identify gaps and see which children really need more help. Interestingly I found some of my able mathematicians were not able to recall old knowledge. The power here was that the child could identify that and it made them more determined to improve and have active ownership over their education. Much to my shock, the children adored low stakes testing. It isn’t threatening. Is just a few key questions, and because it is delivered in a ‘high challenge low threat’ environment they relish it and have that ‘yaaaaaassssssssss’ hiss buzz around the room when they mark their work. They understand why it is important, how it will benefit them and see the tests as completely normal.

The maths daily retrieval has become a bit of a game. I don’t premake the questions. I do it there and then under the visualiser with the children. Have a running dialogue with them.. ‘What shall I pick from Year 4’… When they cry out ‘NOOOO’ to a suggestion I tell them ‘I’m now 100% going to give you that juicy one because if we can’t pull it out of our memory today, we will by the end of the week.’ High challenge low threat. When marking, I silently show the children my thought processes and how I work the problem out, and I now have children beg to come out and be ‘silent teacher’ to do the same. The retrieval practice has become so much more. It has become engrained, inclusive and an exciting component of the lesson, that not only secures the knowledge, it allows the children to become peer mentors and their confidence and self-belief to soar.  I do find it ever so slightly disconcerting seeing my mannerisms spookily acted out by the children and sit there thinking ‘is that really what I do!’ The power of modelling personified.

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As mentioned earlier, I do like to mix up retrieval and find dual coding vocabulary helps the children remember the words, as does drama play around that word and matching images through games. These are all useful exercises. Those oral sessions where you ask questions can still be used but it imperative to ensure all children are answering, which can be achieved by simply giving them all a white board to record their responses on.

Another excellent retrieval exercise that works well is holding a celebration of the learning at the end of the topic, where all their books are put out and they walk around and share and discuss everything they have done. The buzz and bubble of excitement is tangible but ultimately the conversations you can hear are around the knowledge they have acquired. The ultimate retrieval demonstration is the class assembly where knowledge is visible and transparent to parents and peers. A sure sign the knowledge has been retained when it can come out under pressure.

Adopting this approach to retrieval practice has completely changed my teaching and ‘we did this last year’ is a moment I won’t forget. IMG_6878.jpg