Improving recall in GCSE English language and literature: some practical suggestions

fluencyImage: @jasonramasami

In 2014, my students performed much better on the poetry paper of the AQA English Literature exam than on the modern texts paper. In 2015, the outcome reversed: this cohort achieved higher marks on the modern texts paper than the poetry. The main cause of this inversion of fortunes was simple: in both cases my students had shown more competence when answering questions on the content they had learnt most recently.

That memory weakens over time is a fact of life. That English teachers need to find more robust and creative ways of arresting this natural deterioration is a fact brought about by the transition to terminal language and literature GCSE exams.

In Building Background Knowledge: Research on What Works in Schools (2004), Robert J. Marzano, distils the research evidence into improving student memory into three principles:

1. The meaning of the new content needs to be deeply processed.
2. This new learning needs to be connected to what is already known – the technical name for this is elaboration.
3. Students need multiple exposures to this new content.

The practical suggestions that follow take heed of this advice but are also supported by a wider body of research into learning and retention too. While I have only scratched the surface of this evidence base, and while I cannot claim that these strategies will work everywhere, I think I might be able to claim that they are reasonable ‘best bets’ based on what we know now. (Please see the references at the end of the post.)

What is unlikely to work?

The worst thing we can do is to bury our heads in the sand, cross our fingers, and hope that kids will miraculously remember everything on the morning of the exam after a night of heavy cramming. Instead, we need a structured approach to the curriculum, units of work and individual lessons that moves beyond the traditional ‘blocked’ topic-by-topic approach. It is also worth noting that many of the revision methods our students default to – reading back through notes and revision guides; highlighting key information – are very inefficient strategies. They create an ‘illusion of fluency’, a cognitive slip-up we are all prone to making – in the moment of reading we feel like we know it, but this fleeting mastery slips away all too quickly.

Initial teaching

Despite the sheer quantity of content we must cover, we should resist the urge to zip through the course too swiftly. The first step in ensuring good recall is providing students with plenty of opportunity to think hard and deeply about new content. They will also need lots of opportunity to connect the new stuff to what they already know. In teaching terms, this means lots and lots of questioning and practice. As always, one of the tricks will be working out which sections of text, which quotes, which words, which images and which concepts to put under the microscope – and, on the other hand, which to put to one side.

The curriculum

In year 10, our students will cover almost all of the literature component – this will include regular opportunities to read non-fiction texts from a range of eras as well as regular creative and rhetorical writing practice. In year 11, we will regularly return to each of the key texts so that we can revise, improve any weak areas and explore them in an ever-deepening focus. The aim will be to bring everything together so that the key background knowledge is in place and we can concentrate on exam skills. At present, we have left our year 11 plans very open: this will allow us to be responsive to the needs of students in light of the fact we have not taught the courses before and do not yet know what the main sticking points will be. Our course includes half-termly assessments – based on exam-style questions – and two exam-hall mocks for each paper over the two years: eight in total.

Fortnightly revision lessons

We will also be ring-fencing an hour per fortnight in year 10 for lessons that focus purely on revision so that we can continue to revisit material in a structured way. I think these lessons will be best spent if the time is split between retrieval practice – to memorise key information such as quotes, concepts and vocabulary – and promoting deeper understanding of sophisticated ideas and interpretations. So, for instance, when revising An Inspector Calls, we will start by using a range of retention tasks (see below) that cover points from across the whole play and follow this with a much deeper focus on one aspect of the play – Priestley’s characterisation of Gerald Croft, perhaps, or Priestley’s use of different theories of time, depending on the needs of the class.

Retention Tasks

The evidence that retrieval practice – the testing effect – is a more effective form of revision than reading back over notes is compelling: using your memory improves it. Most of the tasks that follow use retrieval practice as a guiding principle, but some also take into account the importance of making connections and elaborating on knowledge. Not only are they useful in revision lessons, but also as short tasks sprinkled liberally into day-to-day lessons:

  • Memory platforms. It is always a sensible idea to begin lessons with a review task. A good trick is to mix questions that look back to the previous lesson with questions that look back much further too. So, if you are studying a Shakespeare play, ask students to not only recall the scene you looked at last lesson, but also both a the scene you looked at last week and an idea from a poem you looked at the beginning of the year.
  • Mixed questions. Similarly, dropping in random short questions on previous content is a useful habit to get into. Whenever you are putting together a list of questions, pop in a couple of wildcards to keep your students on their toes. Even more effective is to create questions that forge links between texts – e.g. Mr Birling refuses to listen to the Inspector’s warning. How does Scrooge’s response to the ghosts make him a very different character from Birling? These are crackerjack questions: they compel the answerer to make connections, to think carefully about meaning and to retrieve previous content in the process.
  • Quiz apps and online platforms. I have just been introduced to two. Quizlet allows you to create digital flashcards, is sublimely simple to use and allows students to use it on their desktops and mobile devices at home.  I have created a set of flashcards for An Inspector Calls here. Lat week, David Didau introduced me to Memrise, a quiz app designed around the principles from learning science. I have since used it to learn all the capitals of the world and all the U.S. state capitals. It is particularly useful for vocabulary definitions and memorising key words in quotations. I am in the process of putting together a series of questions on An Inspector Calls – here.
  • Flash cards. These are far more efficient than having students write down answers. They can test themselves – and each other – quickly, get immediate feedback and can be used in a variety of ways. I am experimenting with them to help students to learn quotes this year.
  • Connection tasks. Give students lists of key words – characters, themes, concepts – and ask them to create mindmaps that explore the links between them. The less obvious the connections, the better. This can work within and across texts.
  • Self-quizzing. Ask students to look through their notes (or a revision guide) and create a series of questions. In a week or two, get them to answer them without looking back at their notes. encourage them to continue this revision habit in their own time.
  • Essay plans. Planning essays means retrieving knowledge and connecting it. It is often more efficient to have students spend a lesson planning a number of responses to different questions under strict time conditions than it is to have them answer one question in full.
  • Mix ’em up. There are an endless array of retrieval tasks you could set students. It is important that students are encouraged to use a range of formats and have lots of exposures to content . This will help to crystalise the knowledge so that it is useable in new contexts. It’s no good getting 100% on a quiz app test but not being able to remember this in the alien environment of the exam hall.

Writing practice

And finally. Retrieval is only a means to an end. The task of shaping knowledge into extended written responses is a more complex one. Our students will need regular and repeated practice to do this. Furthermore, in both langauge and literature papers, they will face unseen texts. As these draw from a huge range of topics, there is no discrete knowledge to learn. Instead, the best we can do is to unpick the exam skills with a fine-toothed comb, give them ample opportunity to read and annotate unseen texts and cross our fingers in the hope that their background knowledge is broad enough to comprehend the contexts they have been given.


I hope you have found this useful. Any comments or further ideas would be gratefully received.

Thanks for reading.



Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014)

Benedict Carey, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens (London: Macmillan, 2014)

John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan and Daniel T. Willingham, Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational
Psychology, Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1) (2013): 4–58. Available here.

John Hattie and Gregory Yates, Visible Learning and the Science of How We
Learn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014)

Robert J. Marzano, Building Background Knowledge: Research on What Works in Schools (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2004)

Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009)

#TLT15: Achievable challenge: walking the fine line between comfort and panic

scale up

Image: @jasonramasami

What follows is a write-up of my #TLT15 presentation on ways of challenging students without making the content unachievable. Enjoy.


In 1997, Strack and Mussweiler conducted a study into what is known as the ‘anchoring effect’ – the finding that we tend to let the first piece of information we receive about a subject influence our subsequent judgements about that subject. In their study, participants were asked whether Mahatma Gandhi died before or after the age of 9 or before or after the age of 140. Participants were then asked to guess how old Gandhi really was when he died. Even though the two original questions were plainly absurd they had an interesting effect on the later estimate: the average guess of the ‘before or after 9’ group was 50, the average of the ‘before or after 140′ group was 67.

The anchoring effect is a robust finding from experimental psychology which has been reliably replicated in various contexts. I believe that the finding acts as useful guidance to teachers. To truly challenge our students, to prime them for success, we must ‘anchor-in’ high expectations from the very off so that achievement can be measured by adjusting up or down from this point. Similarly, if the anchor is set too low so that content is less stretching, then, needless to say, success will be adjusted up and down from this inferior position.

As teachers, therefore, we need to ‘scale up’ our expectations, to encourage our students to aim for more. Yet this is not enough in itself. Handing our year 7s a copy of Shakespeare’s King Lear to read for holiday homework is unlikely to yield much success. Most probably, it will lead to despair and confusion. Challenge, therefore, needs to be achievable.

In our book, Making Every Lesson Count, Shaun Allison and I argue that challenge should be the driving force of everything we do as teachers, yet we also argue that it is not enough on its own. Through clear and carefully structured teaching, challenging and abstract subject content can become concrete and learnable. Challenge, we believe, should be the ethos at the heart of all planning:

expert teaching

Unfortunately, much that is promoted as good differentiation practice – personalised plans, worksheets at three different levels, etc. – is unmanageable and sometimes counterproductive. Differentiation, I think, is best understood as responsive teaching. Set the bar high for all students and then respond to student needs as and when they appear. This is a skill and an art – the best differentiation lies in knowing the students, knowing the subject and being fully prepared to adapt, adapt, adapt

Drawing on Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?, cognitive load theory and on Carol Deck’s mindset theory, Shaun and I have attempted to conceptualise three zones a student might be working in at any time in a lesson:

challenge zone

It is the ‘struggle zone’ we must be gunning for our – even if it is near impossible for 30 students, with their complex differences in prior knowledge, to all be there at once. As Professor Robert Coe states, “Learning happens when people have to think hard.” Having every student thinking deeply (and accurately) must be our learning Shangri-La.

So how do we create a challenging classroom climate?

1. Use single and challenging learning objectives. ‘All, most, some’ objectives can unintentionally ‘anchor-in’ low expectations; they send a subliminal message: I think that some of you aren’t clever enough to do this. By expecting all kids to aim for the best, we give them the opportunity to surprise us. Many do. That’s not to say, however, that some will not need extra support – they most certainly will.

2. Plan for what students will be thinking about. I spent the early part of my career planning lessons in terms of what I would be doing and what the students would be doing. Yet the evidence, as Professor Coe’s suggests, would seem to point to a third option: it is thinking that leads to learning. “Memory is the residue of thought,” as Daniel Willingham has famously pointed out.

3. Use scaffolds judiciously and with subtlety. Scaffolds, supports and worked examples allow students to practise at a stage beyond their current capability. We must use them carefully, though. If we let the scaffold do all the thinking for them, their learning might be little more than an illusion, much like the cathedral of air below.


4. Use ever-decreasing scaffolds. Over lessons, explain, model and guide to start with and then let students have a go on their own. Over schemes of work, consider the bedrock of knowledge needed for mastery and then gradually give them the chance to apply it independently. Over the year, scaffold heavily at the start and then begin to dismantle bit by bit.

5. Consider the balance between surface learning and deep learning. Some people dislike this distinction, pointing out that extensive ‘surface knowledge’ – knowing the facts about a topic – should not be considered inferior to ‘deep-knowledge’ – how we relate, link and apply this knowledge. I would agree – see here, for instance. Nevertheless, skilled teachers are able to judge perfectly when the right time is to switch from one to the other – and when to switch back again.

6. Create benchmarks of brilliance. Drop the anchor and set the status-quo in place by asking students to do something that truly challenges them very early on in their time in your class. See here for more details.

7. Remember that challenge is a long-term venture. It is a misunderstanding to consider challenge just in terms of individual lessons. In reality, these are only stepping stones to longer term goals. Often our plans will need to be torn up so that alternative routes can be forged. As long as the destination remains sharply in focus, how we get there and how quickly we get there become of less importance.


Sometimes, however, we can get challenge wrong – very wrong. These are mistakes I have often been guilty of and am still learning from:

• Relying on challenging individual lessons and tasks without a suitably challenging curriculum.

• Too much focus on progression; too little focus on expansion. (Do listen to Tim Oates on the importance of ‘understanding the same construct but in a wider range of settings.’)

• Substituting simplicity and clarity for unnecessary difficulty (which then overloads the working-memory). A classic example from my own lessons is asking students to look up the definition of new words in the dictionary. The definitions are much harder to grasp than they are from a clear explanation and subsequent practice.

• Continually asking for more without considering a child’s sense of self-worth. (See Sutton Trust report – What Makes Great Teaching?)

• Ignoring the building blocks of knowledge and going straight for the jugular – the ‘as-the-crow-flies’ error. Often, paradoxically, teaching that builds towards challenge is slow, methodical and goes back as well as forwards.


My #TLT15 session ends with these two questions:

1. How might these ideas translate into your school and teaching context?
2. Are there any gaps, inconsistencies or tensions in the ideas I have presented in this session?

Your comments are more than welcome.

Many thanks for reading.