Using Retrieval Practice to Learn Vocabulary in the  Elementary School Classroom

Using Retrieval Practice to Learn Vocabulary in the Elementary School Classroom

By: Yana Weinstein & Megan Smith

We were recently in England (June and July 2017) talking with teachers all over the country. One teacher at ResearchED Rugby asked us to write more about effective procedures for using retrieval practice (and other strategies) with younger children. While much of the research has been done with older students (e.g., those attending university), there is research on the effectiveness of various strategies with children. Today's blog is about some of this research.

Nicole Gossens and her colleagues (1) examined vocabulary learning in 9-year-old children in the Netherlands. Other published studies had already shown that retrieval practice can be beneficial to younger children learning vocabulary (2), (3). However, those studies involved learning vocabulary words in isolation. Gossens and colleagues extended this research by investigating how useful retrieval practice would be for elementary school children learning vocabulary in situations that are much more similar to the actual classroom.

Across the two very similar experiments, 244 nine-year-old-children participated. The experiment had three different sessions:

In Session 1, the children were taught 15 words and their definitions (e.g., "A pile in the garden with vegetable, fruit and garden waste, is called a compost pile"). They then practiced using and defining them (the exact way this happened differed between the two experiments, but those details did not affect the results or conclusions).

The following 15 words were studied (though they were actually studied in Dutch, here are the English translations):

compost pile
recycling
artificial manure
water vapor
pollution
environment-friendly
aluminum
cement
power station
dynamite
granite
iron ore
rock
shank 

In Session 2, which took place on the next day, there were three different conditions. Each child did one of the following things:

  • pure restudy: they copied parts of the definitions and/or the words (e.g., given "A pile in the garden with vegetable, fruit and garden waste, is called a compost pile", fill in the missing parts of "A pile in the garden with vegetable, fruit and garden waste, is called a com________".)
  • elaborative restudy: they picked out words that were semantically related to the target words (e.g., which of the following are related to compost pile? "to manure, plastic, delicious, orange-peels, mailbox, and dead leaves")
  • retrieval practice: they wrote down each word based on a short cues (e.g., com________".)

In Session 3, which took place a week later, the children took both a fill-in-the-blank followed by a multiple choice test on the vocabulary.

Taken separately, each experiment did not produce enough evidence to determine which of the three conditions was best for learning. However, when data from both experiments were examined together, there was an advantage of retrieval practice in the fill-in-the-blank test, both over pure restudy and over elaborative restudy (which did not differ from each other). There was no such advantage on the multiple-choice test, but the authors warn that since this test always came after the fill-in-the-blank test, and because children generally scored very well (over 90%) on the multiple-choice test, those results should be treated with caution. 

What did the authors conclude? They concluded that retrieval practice effects can be found in realistic situations with young children, but this may not be as easy as finding the effects in the lab. The authors also noted that while teachers often use "elaborative study" exercises for vocabulary learning, this may not actually help students perform better on a regular vocabulary test.

If you liked this blog, see this blog about scaffolding retrieval practice for younger children.


References:

(1) Goossens, N. A. M. C., Camp, G., Verkoeijen, P. P. J. L., Tabbers, H. K., & Zwaan, R. A. (2014). The benefit of retrieval practice over elaborative restudy in primary school vocabulary learning. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 177-182.

(2) Metcalfe, J., Kornell, N., & Son, L. K. (2007). A cognitive-science based programme to enhance study efficacy in a high and low risk setting. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19, 743-768.

(3) Gossens, N. A. M. C., Camp, G., Verkoeijen, P. P. J. L., & Tabbers, H. K. (2014). The effect of retrieval practice in primary school vocabulary learning. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28, 135-142.

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