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Jake Hunton

Jake Hunton is head of modern foreign languages at Heart of England School in Solihull and believes in combining passionate, engaging and fast-paced teaching with a focus on the highest achievement for all students.

Click here to read Jake’s insights on teaching approaches, research and challenging misconceptions in education in his interview with The Learning Scientists.

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Publications by Jake Hunton

Fun Learning Activities for Modern Foreign Languages

Students learning modern foreign languages often comment that it is…

Exam Literacy

In Exam Literacy: A guide to doing what works…

Author Blog

December 29 2016

Ways I am using Retrieval Practice

‘…the retrieval effect means that if you want to retrieve knowledge from your memory, you have to practice retrieving knowledge from your memory.’ 1  

Retrieval practice while not being a panacea is now a well-edupublicised approach across the Twitterati. Here are some simple ways I have been adopting retrieval practice in the classroom.

1) Lag Homework/Classwork Feedback/Free Recall Tests: Marking the students’ books I make a note of what they couldn’t do so well earlier on in the term or year and write a Memory Task (MT) in their book. Depending on how well or how not so well the students have grasped previous ‘learning’ from my interpretation of what they have written down in books I write a task to complete to redo or rexplain something. For example, if we covered how to write a short paragraph in the present and perfect tenses in French last term I might write,

‘MT: Please write as much as you can about what you do in your free time and what you did last weekend.' 

Or simply I might walk around the class while the students are working and deliver an impromptu free recall test, ‘Write all you can about how the imperfect tense works’, for when the students have finished (if I haven’t used extension retrieval practice tasks as per number 5 on this list below).

I’m also thinking of getting students to use card to go back to earlier sections in their books and simply cover up explanations we might have noted down, previous exercises or written pieces and asking them to redo them on a blank page or on separate paper before then comparing the up-to-date version with what they did before.

2) Syllabus retrieval practice: I tried the following with a Year 11 student I was mentoring once having downloaded the exam specifications, past papers, mark schemes, specimen papers and examiner reports for all of his subjects; called up the specimen papers for three or four subjects and scrolled down to the ‘Subject Content’ section. Then, simply, I would use a mix of elaborative interrogation with him reading the key idea out before then adding ‘why is this true?’ to the end of the key idea and then him answering his own question as well as he could.

Then, not allowing him to see the specification I would ask a series of fairly generic, ‘content-free’ prompts (with Geography being an erstwhile A-Level Geographer I did sometimes venture into more specific Geography prompts and with other subjects if I had a little more knowledge of them then I dared to venture into domain-specific questioning in more depth). So, looking at the outgoing AQA Geography spec I might have asked something relatively straightforward (for me that is, to think up) like ‘How does the vegetation in temperate deciduous forest adapt to the climate and soils?’

As an aside and to show how potentially useful a technique this could be I might then look at a past paper with the student and hold down ‘ctrl + f’ to do a search on the paper to find an example of the content that was just tested…and a quick search on the 2014 past paper reveals the following question,

                ‘4 (a) (ii) Explain how vegetation in hot deserts adapts to the climate.
                 [4 marks]’

3) Pre-testing: To make it more accessible I have used multiple-choice questions and not free-recall tests to test the students on the content coming up. Forgive the self-promotion but sometimes I have used an activity from Fun Learning Activities in MFL ('Fast-Forwarded Learning') where I film myself ‘teaching’ to an empty room a part of the syllabus to come and the task for the students is to work out an answer based on this ‘Fastforwarded’ aspect of the course to come when I play it to them.

4) Free Recall Takeaway Extension Tasks: I’ve only recently been trialling this but at the start of a term or with a new class I project a list of potential extension tasks which must take place on a blank page in books, totally from memory. The students make a list of these tasks at the back of their books in the first lesson or first lesson back and we practise using these throughout the term. So, there might be a list of 10-15 Free Recall Extension Tasks which students copy down and then choose different ones throughout the year when they’ve finished working in class. Things like, ‘Write out everything you know from memory about how the future tense works’ and ‘Write out the main groups of adjective endings and an example for each.’

5) Paired-retrieval practice: To lower the stakes I always used to use this activity with students in pairs to test their retrieval pretty much when they came into the classroom. By projecting the list of key vocabulary which had been practised a previous lesson or two/three lessons prior I covered up the meanings and called out a time limit for each pair in the class to write as many meanings down as possible. The winning pair after the meanings were shown once the time limit elapsed won the language trophies on their desks for the rest of the lesson. I used to use this activity once the students had just finished practising the vocabulary in the same lesson but found that retrieval strength was too high so that the students could easily recall meanings. Good for self-efficacy perhaps but less beneficial in terms of creating the conditions towards making more durable learning.

6) Magic-Whiteboard Retrieval: Similarly, I might project a list of ‘Takeaway Retrieval Practice Tasks’ and ask the students to ‘Go To The Walls’ having chosen a task from the takeaway and complete it on Magic Whiteboard stuck up around the room.

7) Learning Mat Retrieval: Asking the students to write & draw all that they can from memory from the previous term or year on a double page spread in books.


1 James M. Lang, (2016) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. loc. 523. 

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August 27 2016

Interleaving, Distributed Practice & The New Spec Writing Paper

‘Interleaving refers to the practice of spending some time learning one thing and then pausing to concentrate on learning a second thing before having quite mastered that first thing, and then returning to the first thing, and then moving onto a third thing...and so forth.’ 1

When I was an NQT and RQT I used to adopt the blocked practice schedule of teaching French with my Year 11s and leaving time from about March before the exams to revise with the class. So, the schedule used to be a simplified version of something like this,  

Obviously the issue that the students’ learning was supposed to fit into nice, chunky modules while all along assuming that allof the students would understand allof the grammar and retain all of the language before taking an end of module test which tested only that topic’s content before moving on to the next blocked topic was almost like a macrocosm of the 20 minute window of progress in lessons and progress fitting in nice one hour lesson chunks where students have the sense of a warm, fuzzy cognitive ease and an engendered fluency illusion. It didn’t allow anything to be really embedded of course and certainly not to beat The Forgetting Curve.2 What the students could retrieve in lessons being a poor indicator for what they could achieve in the final exam.  

The issues with this as a learning schedule for the students are obvious and nothing new in Edublogosphere I would imagine. The reason why I’m mentioning it here now is just to show that the impact it had on my revision with the students was disastrous and how it is informing what I am doing this year in terms of preparation for the Year 10s who will be faced with potentially troublesome linear exams.

This quote from a very interesting blog from Dawn Cox sums up the issues as to not building in forgetting time well in my view,

‘…we need to forget following the text book from the beginning to the end, and start planning for learning, not for teacher comfort or convenience.’ 3

Dawn Cox on the same blog refers to an innovative way of incorporating planning a curriculum around deliberate recall.  

Thanks to this innovative approach I have used this to replicate how I am going to apply what I believe will be a very difficult skill for the students to master when they come to do their final exams in languages; the one-off writing exams. The plan is to do the following with the Year 10 students and use the mocks at the end of Year 10 to review,

The idea is that when the first topic of Me, my family and friends has been covered I will be introducing low stakes, free recall tests on practising writing on this topic alongside free recall tests on the topic of Home, town, neighbourhood and region as we progress through this next topic.

As the My Studies topic goes on I will test retrieval through getting the students to complete low-stakes, free recall writing tasks on the My Studies topic alongside free recall writing tasks on the previous two topics and the same with the Free-time activities topic. Then to allow for more effortful retrieval through inducing some forgetting by leaving the first two topics when into ‘Spring a’ but continuing with the tests on the My Studies and Free-time activities while introducing more low-stakes’ tests as part of practising on the Social issues (Healthy/Unhealthy Living) and Life at school/college topics.

By ‘Spring b’ the idea would be that as the Travel and tourism topic starts up, in the normal, humdrum of class teaching (and as part of homework) there would be low stakes’ free recall tests on; Me, my family and friends, Home town, neighbourhood and region, Social issues (Healthy/Unhealthy Living), Life at School, Customs and festivals in Spanish-speaking countries/communities.        

All of the tests will come from the practice pack (please let me know if you would like these) which the students will have access to.
For instance one of the sample assessment material AQA questions for the writing paper is:

Tu amigo español te ha preguntado sobre tu tiempo libre.
Escríbele sobre tus intereses y actividades.
•  música
•  deporte
•  cine
•  restaurantes.
Escribe aproximadamente 40 palabras en español.’
So, one of the practice writing tasks to be used alongside this task when in the topic of Free Time will be:

‘Tu amigo español te ha preguntado sobre tu escuela.
Escríbele sobre tu escuela y tus asignaturas.
•  asignaturas
•  uniforme
•  profesores
•  planes para el futuro
Escribe aproximadamente 40 palabras en español.’

While wary of my cognitive bias I think that preparing the students through adopting some of these Desirable Difficulties by varying the conditions of practice particularly in preparation ahead of a one-off writing exam should help towards promoting students’ self-efficacy (see the epic Gianfranco Conti blog4 on that).  

1 James M. Lang, (2016) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, loc 1246.
3 Dawn Cox, (2016) ‘Deliberate recall – don’t just leave it to chance’, missdcoxblog (blog) See https://missdcoxblog.wordpress.com/2016/07/11/deliberate-recall-dont-just-leave-it-to-chance/
Dr Gianfranco Conti, (2015) ‘Self-efficacy – the most neglected motivational factor in foreign language instruction’, The Language Gym (blog) See https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/05/30/self-efficacy-the-most-neglected-motivational-factor-in-the-foreign-language-classroom/

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