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)

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