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Retrieval-Based and Spaced Learning: Two Strategies to Support Word Learning


Preschool teacher and student reading a book

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

​​Sometimes, tried-and-true teaching methods are just that – effective and for good reason. However, in the past that reason may not itself have been tested. That's why the new article: “The Advantages of Retrieval-Based and Spaced Practice: Implications for Word Learning in Clinical and Educational Contexts," is so significant.

In this article, Katherine Gordon, Ph.D., Director of the Language Learning and Memory Laboratory at Boys Town National Research Hospital®, has taken the outcomes of dozens of research studies with individuals who have language disorders and synthesized them to make a case for two of the oldest teaching methods and their use in classroom education.

Retrieval-based practice and spaced practice are effective learning strategies for children and adults with typical development. However, students who know fewer words can struggle to understand classroom content and miss out on a lot of important information. This is especially the case for students with language disorders, including students with developmental language disorder (DLD).

A key question of Dr. Gordon's review is whether proven teaching methods support vocabulary learning in children with language disorders. The answer to this question is “yes."

An essential part of the solution is to use teaching strategies that help children learn words during the lesson and remember the words long-term. Without this, educators are pouring water into a leaky bucket. Children may show good learning in the moment but quickly forget the words once the lesson is over. 

Tried-and-True: Testing and Flash Cards

During retrieval-based learning, the teacher asks the student to retrieve something that they learned previously from memory. However, this strategy does not need to use formal testing to be effective. Retrieval-based learning can occur anytime a teacher asks a student a question about key information.

Learning with flashcards is a common and familiar form of retrieval-based learning. The teacher is not just testing the student's knowledge of the information, but also supporting the student's ability to learn the information. By actively trying to remember the key information during a lesson, the student is more likely to remember that information when the lesson is over.

In the research reviewed by Dr. Gordon, it became apparent that word learning is achieved most effectively through effortful retrieval (testing) instead of passive listening for students with language disorders. 

Key Components of Retrieval-Based Learning

The literature reviewed by Dr. Gordon showed that retrieval-based learning benefitted adults and children with language disorders and promoted better learning and retention of the material over time. Most of the retrieval-based learning articles Dr. Gordon reviewed shared three key components.

1. Opportunity for Effortful Retrieval of the Material Early in the Learning Session

Learners do not like to be asked to remember information they've only heard a few times.

When teaching vocabulary to individuals with language disorders it seems logical to present the key words many times before asking the student about it. However, testing the student's memory for words early in the learning session produces better results. This may seem counterintuitive as students are likely to get the answer wrong if they are asked questions early in the lesson, however, trying to remember key information and getting an answer wrong can actually benefit learning if the student is given feedback. In general, students become more engaged and more aware of what they are getting from the lesson if they are asked questions early and often.

2. Providing the Correct Answer Promptly and Explaining it Thoroughly

As mentioned above, students are more likely to learn information after getting an answer wrong. They can become aware that they do not yet know the information fully and put in more effort to learn it.

3. Providing the Learner Multiple Chances to Retrieve the Learned Information

A vital element in this third aspect is having the learner retrieve information multiple times, even if they answered it correctly the first time. Repeated retrievals of learned words increased the chances that the information learned would be retained even after a delay.

Cram for That Exam? Not the Best Way to Study.

Spaced practice has been strongly shown to support learning in individuals with typical development. In her review, Dr. Gordon found that spaced practice supports word learning in individuals with language disorders.

When you think of spaced practice learning, think of your parents or junior high teachers telling you, “It's better to study it for 20 minutes every night than to cram for an hour before the test." Recent research demonstrates that they were right. 

Spaced practice occurs when the same information is presented multiple times, but those presentations are spaced across time. A common example is a student studying with flashcards every day the week before an exam. In this way they introduce a space in time between each time the cards are studied.

Like retrieval-based practice, spaced practice is beneficial because it makes the student put in effort when trying to remember the key information. If a student is asked a question directly after they hear the information, it may be easy for them to remember the information. However, if asked a question after a delay, even a delay as short as 10 minutes, they must work harder to remember the information.

Educators and clinicians can introduce spaced practice during a lesson by asking about each key word at the beginning of a lesson, providing information about the key words in the middle of the lesson and then asking about each key word again at the end of a lesson.

Spaced learning can also be introduced across lessons. For example, students can be asked about words they learned yesterday or earlier in the week. Combining retrieval-based practice and spaced practice can be particularly powerful. By spacing out opportunities to retrieve information, educators can increase the likelihood that students, including students with language disorders, will remember the information long-term.

Learning that Lasts

To change the educational outcomes for individuals with language disorders, it is important to get past pouring water into the leaky bucket. Individuals with language disorders need to develop strong mem​ories for words that they are taught in lessons for them to be able to use those words in the classroom and in their everyday lives.

As all educators realize, meaningful word learning does not occur in one sitting. Learners need to be exposed to words repeatedly to commit them to memory. Using retrieval-based and spaced practice over repeated classes or language therapy sessions, is the best way to help students learn and remember words. Children with language disorders enrolled in therapy can receive retrieval-based and spaced practice that is more tailored to their individual needs.

For more information about how spaced and retrieval-based practice can be used to support vocabulary learning, read Dr. Gordon's full paper here:

Dr. Gordon is continuing this research line to learn how to further optimize these learning techniques for the benefit of children with language disorders. By giving educators and clinicians the tools to support vocabulary learning that lasts, they can best support academic success for individuals with language disorders.