Retrieval doesn’t always have to mean a test.

Flashcard activities may challenge the busy teacher’s capacity for forward planning; they may be a faff to count out and then to count back in again; they may even test our good relations with colleagues in repro. BUT, they are worth the hassle. That’s one of the takeaway messages from Benedict Carey’s excellent How We Learn, summarised through an interview with the author here.

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In a nutshell, Carey (and more recently Peter Brown in Make it Stick) demonstrate that retrieving knowledge from memory interrupts forgetting, strengthens neural pathways and that periodic retrieval practice therefore leads to lasting learning. It’s research that has a wonderful whiff of the common-sense about it, which is why I think the best teachers have always acted upon it – even if intuitively.

I was privileged to work with @LincolnAndy a few years ago, in a school that ‘faced challenging circumstances’, to use the jargon of the time. Andy’s GCSE French results were outstanding, consistently the best in the school. Keen to figure out what he was doing, I found that it was flashcard activities that made both his practice and that of his highly consistent team distinctive.

Once I visited the classroom to find no Andy in it – but still every student was engrossed in purposeful flashcard flipping activity. It’s an image I’ve never forgotten.

Clearly, to master any academic subject, not just MFL, learners must acquire a new language of key words, so flashcard activities have huge potential across the curriculum. Whilst I’ve been thinking about how to make more systematic use of them in English (that anthology again), I’m confident that the flashcard activities suggested below would be potent in most if not all curriculum areas.

Essential Vocabulary

There must be well over a thousand words that we could use for poetry analysis, from alliteration to antimetabole – and when I look at some of my daughters’ annotated GCSE work, I do believe that things can get a bit out of hand in this regard. Deciding on the essential vocabulary for poetry appreciation (in this case) is an important starting point and, as in all things, less is more.

There’s scope here to develop inclusive practice too. Any specialist speech and language teacher will give you chapter and verse on the huge barrier to access that, for example, scientific vocabulary represents. A dartboard approach helps – words at the centre targeted by all (and passed onto the SEND team for pre-teaching) with distance from the centre representing increased difficulty.

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A Flashcard Starter Strand

With that important proviso established, I’ve attached my complete set of flashcards for anthology learning here – words on one side, definitions and short illustrative examples from Edexcel’s Conflict cluster on the other. Another teacher’s may be different; it’s important to decide what students need to learn before generating the word bank. For example, I would need ‘villanelle’ if Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle featured in the Conflict anthology. (I read an examiner’s report recently which expressed dismay that barely any candidates used this term when discussing that poem.)

I think the vocabulary lends itself to a starter strand approach; most of the words do not refer to complex concepts and some will always be reinforced in the context of the lesson’s poem anyway. So a little and often approach is best, especially if it’s structured according to effective retrieval principles – as in the examples below.

Initial Flashcard Activities

For this initial activity, which should be repeated over a series of lessons to introduce the terminology – or remind students of it – I am grateful to the late, great Paul Ginnis. His ‘Toolkit’ is jam-packed with memory-enhancing strategies, references to ‘learning styles’ notwithstanding.

The one I’m sharing here is dubbed ‘Hide ‘n’ Seek’ and its strength lies in the fact that it engages learners in trying to solve problems (in this case, what keywords mean) before discovering their solutions (the definitions). Research tells us that cognitive struggle makes for richer learning and that errors are positive so long as they are promptly corrected in the mind of the learner. Ginnis’ strategy enables all of that – in a game-like way. Furthermore, it promotes generic reading skills – such as how to make an informed guess by focussing on affixes or root words.

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‘Hide ‘n’ Seek’

Tell students they will be working in pairs and give each a set of cards. Key words need to be face up and the cards ordered in rows.

  • Student A looks at the first card and attempts to define the key word.
  • The card is then turned over. If Student A was correct, it remains turned over. If the definition was incorrect, it is reversed and the definition hidden from sight.
  • Student B now attempts to define the next key word along the row and the process is repeated.
  • The activity continues until all of the cards have been turned over – i.e. defined correctly.
  • Learning occurs effortlessly in this game with the answer that the learner has trawled through prior knowledge to find compared to the answer on the back of the card. Corrective feedback is immediate.

Many other related activities suggest themselves here – such as a version of pairs where students compete to collect cards – but of course they collect them not by pairing them up but by articulating definitions correctly. An important rule though: each player must choose a different card from the one before, otherwise the strategy is closer to simple verbal rehearsal (a memory strategy explained in this post) than retrieval.

Effortful Retrieval

Cognitive science tells us that the greater the effort to retrieve learning, the more that learning is strengthened by the act of retrieving it. Students should therefore periodically test each other by going through the flashcards ‘cold’. According to the principle of spaced retrieval, memory will be strengthened if time between these paired drills is gradually increased.

Importantly, any terminology that individuals discover they are unable to recall should be recorded in books or planners and taken away for further work – with the teacher obviously monitoring this activity.

Routines such as this instruct learners in the art of effective revision – that is, practising recall rather than passively rereading and highlighting (a pointless waste of time for most) – and identifying for further work the difficult areas whilst also revisiting those that have been secured, so they stay secure.

A starter strand such as this will mean that students will not have to cram terminology at the end of Year 11 – and I think it will also reduce the device-spotting that examiners complain about year on year. My hunch is that candidates do this when the terminology is at the forefront of their minds, rather than being a language that they have learned over time; that they own.

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