Tell Me Your Favourite Word…: Generative Retrieval for English

There is sometimes, I feel, an assumption that retrieval practice in the English classroom begins and ends with quotation gap fills or basic factual recall. Those making this assumption are often the same people suggesting retrieval practice doesn’t work for English. It does, of course. And it’s crucial to remind ourselves that you can’t think with what you don’t know and so a sophisticated analysis of Macbeth without automatic recall of key images is going to be tricky, to say the least!

Yet, there is certainly some truth to the idea that gap fill exercises, whilst useful, are not the most stimulating and don’t really tap into the kind of affective, connective, synoptic thinking that does to a large extent characterise the study of English.

Here, then, is one exercise that I’ve used a lot and that is squarely in the territory of retrieval practice, but equally encourages students to make links within texts and to consider well-worn images anew in really interesting ways. It also has the great benefit of requiring zero preparation from the teacher. You could conceivably arrive to lesson with no plan and no resources and still have a really meaningful, stimulating and productive lesson. And it all begins with this: Write down your favourite word

OK, Tell Me Your Favourite Word…

Imagine the following: your students enter the classroom and are met with the below on the board

Write down your favourite word or image from [text currently being studied] and explain why this is your favourite

You might give them 5 to 10 minutes to do this in the fashion of a typical starter or Do Now. They can pick any word or image and will be expected to justify it in whatever manner seems interesting to them. It’s completely low stakes and upholding that favourite maxim of the English classroom: there’s no right answer. There is a joy too in privileging genuine student response. It also requires some initial retrieval since they need to remember, without notes, a favourite word or image. However, given that it’s their favourite one would hope this doesn’t present too much difficulty…yet.

Once you’ve given the class time to do this then the real fun can begin. The below are 12 things you could do next, all based around this initial and very straightforward question. You might do just one of the below ten activities, thus slightly extending the Do Now, or you could even stack multiple of them turning it into an entire lesson of retrieval. For example, you could opt for just (1) or (6) or go from (1) to (4) to (7). You might run each one with multiple students in the room or prefer to mix it up. This might be pre-planned or perhaps even better decided responsively in the moment.

What Happens Next…?

  1. Probe why a given student chose the word or image they did: A simple one to start the list, but not always necessarily what you’d do first after students have completed the initial task. Simply ask a student what word they picked and why, and then follow up with a couple of questions. You might then move around the room and repeat the same conversation with a couple of students and perhaps invite some others to comment. You’re guaranteed to encounter words that you didn’t think were that important, such is the joy of teaching English.

  2. Ask one student for the word/image they selected and then ask another student to justify why the first student may have chosen it: Now it starts getting really fun. There are a couple of benefits to this. First, the student being asked to justify has to think on their feet and use their knowledge of the text to consider the significance of a word or image they may well never have considered before. They are reapplying pre-existing knowledge to consider the text potentially in a new light. However, it’s also really beneficial for the student that chose the word because, inevitably, they’ll hear new things to think about for their favourite word. You might then go back to the student that chose the word and ask them to develop the justification it or to outline what else they had.

  3. Ask a student to connect whatever word they chose to another word of their choosing and explain the connection: This is always an interesting one and the connections students make in the moment is invariably interesting. I reserve the right to ask the student to explain a connection to a further word or to get another student involved to continue the chain. You can build up quite a long chain in this way, moving around the classroom, always with the next word connecting in some manner to the previously stated word. The aim, though, is that students are rehearsing their knowledge of the text and being asked to consider connections they may otherwise not have considered.

  4. Ask two students for their words and ask a third student to connect them in some way or for all to write down a possible connection: The third student in this scenario is doing a lot of cognitive heavy lifting by being asked to consider a connection between what is likely to be two disparate words or images from within the text. It is likely the two words may not have been considered next to each other before and so by thinking about them in this new, realigned context the student is able to reframe their previous conception of the image. The alternative, of course, is that the two words are already naturally connected, but this is good too as it allows further rehearsal of familiar lines of argument. I’ve found this task to be especially productive and stimulating and so, if wanted to maximise ratio, have often also asked everyone in the class to consider the possible connection between the two words.

  5. Specify a given theme or idea and ask for hands up as to whose words connect to that idea and then ask someone to explain why: Let’s say you’re teaching Macbeth, you might ask for hands up for those words/images that connect to kingship or the supernatural. Once you have a set of hands in the air, you can probe in what ways those words and images connect to that specific theme. You could also, like with (2), ask another student, perhaps one that didn’t raise their hand, to explain how the given word connects to the theme.

  6. Specify another word from the text and ask for hands up as to whose word connects to that word and then ask someone to explain why: For this you might want to select your own word or image from the text and then repeat more or less the same routine as the one outlined in (5), but now in relation to the chosen word. You could also, rather than selecting a word from the text itself, pick a commonly used and text-specific tier 2 word and then again ask student to think whether their chosen word or image connects in some way to it.

  7. Ask a student for their word. Ask students to keep their hand up if they feel their word connects. Gather 4 or 5 and then ask everyone to write a short analysis that explains ways they connect: If you’re concerned some of the above are not maximising your ratio (although of course any could and should be involving more than just one questioning cycle) then introducing some writing always helps! After asking four or five students for their word, already connected to the first one you cold called, you should have around 5 words on the board that are all linked in some manner. You can then ask students to write down in a single paragraph an explanation as to how they connect, either without any teacher prompt or, if you prefer, with a question attached. You can then use this as a springboard for further questioning: ‘what was the main way you connected the words? Did you connect them in a different way?’

  8. Ask two students for their words and ask everyone to write down all the ways they could connect those two words: This is a slightly simpler version of the above, but by narrowing the words in this way you might find students are required to be even more creative in their connections, coming up with ever more inventive and original points of intersection. As ever, and with ratio high, you could then transition into a class discussion about these two words, how they link, and what that might reveal about the wider themes of the given text.

  9. Ask a student to read out their original justification. Ask students to raise hands once they think they know what the word was, based on the justification: There’s a couple of things going on here. First, you’re cold calling a student to read out their response and given students know this is a possibility you’re much more likely to illicit more detailed responses in the first instance. You’re also exposing all students in the class not just to the words or images that might have been picked, but the original analysis and justification. Students might not have considered that word to be significant, but now they’ll be exposed to at least a couple of reasons why it might be. By asking the student to read out their response, you’re normalising the idea that having an evaluative view on the work is a good thing and should be valued and shared. Finally, by asking everyone else to consider what the attached word or image might be, you’re encouraging them to be very attentive to the student’s justification as well as making them dig through their own knowledge of text to consider what is being discussed. Once you feel you have enough hands raised then you can cold call a couple of students to see if they’re right. If not, this might lead to even more interesting discussion!

  10. Write an exam style question on the board. Ask students to raise their hand if think their word could be used during the answer to this question. Take a sample. Using the words as a point of reference plan the answer together: This is a good way to redirect focus back on the exam and also to demonstrate that students can often use the knowledge they already have, which is invariably more than they think, to answer an exam question. It also forces everyone to really condense and focus their thinking, given you are attempting to do this with just a handful of words or images. And, as with all of these tasks, you are considering the ways in which they link together.

  11. Show call one student’s word and justification under the visualiser to the class. Ask everyone to then continue to justify in writing the significance of that word but without repeating any points in the original justification: Another good one to raise ratio and get everyone thinking and writing. As with (9), there’s a few different useful things happening when we do this. First, the anticipation for a possible show call, as with a cold call, helps to cultivate engaged accountability and help to hold students to a standard. Second, students get to see one of the written responses and the teacher is able to initially talk through their reaction to it, which is useful both for the student whose response it is and the class. Third, presuming not everyone had the same word, the class now needs to continue in writing the justification, recalling its significance and rehearsing familiar lines of argument. It’s also helping scaffolding as you are also tacitly providing a starting point for those who might find extended writing a little trickier. If you first student you call on has picked a particularly obscure word or image and you feel students may find it difficult to continue the justification then you could always cycle through a couple until you come across one that you feel will work well.

  12. Sample 5 words. Ask students to rank them according to their significance and write down their justification. Then discuss reasons and assumptions and different ways of ordering them according to underpinning ideas: This always generates some really interesting discussion. By ranking you are encouraging students to evaluate and think about the textual significance of certain words, which forces them to consider not only what we could say about a given word or image but their relative analytical interest. Inevitably, the rankings, to some extent an artificial task as no image is inherently more significant than another, will vary, often wildly, across a class. This means you can set up some fascinating debates around why student opted for a specific ranking, teasing out in doing so what we could be saying about a given image and how it connects to other ones.

All of these tasks, in one form or another, reframe retrieval within the English classroom, as far more than just factual recall, although factual recall certainly shouldn’t be denigrated! They provide opportunities for students to rehearse familiar arguments and lines of enquiry, but also to recalibrate their understanding of a given word or image by asking them to consider it in a new context. It also privileges genuine student response by valuing their personal preferences as it begins, after all, with their favourite word or image.

The tasks provide opportunities for both written analysis and lots of debate. They also could extend to an entire lesson by stacking different tasks next to one another or be used just at the start, but either way it requires very little, if any, preparation from the teacher.

And it begins with the most simple of ideas, perhaps something too often overlooked: tell me your favourite word.

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