Classroom Research on Retrieval Practice and Spelling
By Megan Sumeracki
Over the last couple of months, a few of our readers have requested that we write more about spelling instruction. While we do have a couple of digests about teaching spelling (Digest #37, Digest #38) and a guest blog by Holly Shapiro, our reading expert, we have yet to write a brief overview of a study on spelling. So, in today’s blog, I’m covering a series of experiments by Angela Jones and colleagues (1) investigating the relative benefits of retrieval practice and rainbow writing on learning to spell.
The authors conducted a series of experiments with second-graders in their classrooms. The students learned age-appropriate spelling words that they had not yet learned in the school year. The students learned some of the words using retrieval practice, and other words using rainbow writing. Retrieval practice is practice writing out the spelling words from memory, while rainbow writing involves copying the spelling words in different colors to create a rainbow.
The authors make a point to explain why they selected these two learning techniques. Retrieval practice has a great deal of experimental evidence to support its effectiveness at promoting learning. (We know our readers will be very familiar with retrieval, and you can find all of our blogs tagged with “retrieval practice” here.) Rainbow writing is a newer technique and there is almost no evidence examining it’s effectiveness! It is very similar to copying, which is a strategy for helping students learn spelling words that has been used often. The authors report that this approach has been promoted by a number of spelling programs (e.g., Scholastic Corporation). Finally, the authors also noted that three of them have children in school around this age, and all of them have seen their children using rainbow writing.
The students in the three experiments practiced the spelling words in these experiments across two days in their classrooms. On both days, the students used rainbow writing to learn 10 spelling words and used retrieval practice to learn 10 different spelling words. Each day, the students practiced the words using one strategy for 10 minutes, and then switched to the other strategy.
During rainbow writing, they were given crayons and a worksheet along with the spelling words printed and they copied the words several times in the colors they wanted. For 10 minutes.
During retrieval practice, the research assistant read the words out loud and the students wrote the spelling on a worksheet from memory. The research assistant wrote the correct spelling on the board and the students corrected their worksheets. Then, they started again with a new worksheet to repeat the process, and continued doing this for 10 minutes total.
After doing this across the two days, the students took a spelling assessment over the words one day later. In one experiment, there was another assessment 5 weeks later.
(Research design note: the authors made sure that the spelling words and order of activities were counterbalanced, so that across all of the different students each list of 10 words was learned using both strategies and in both orders. This ensures that the results aren’t due to one list of words being easier than the other, or because one strategy was used before the other!)
The results showed that students learned more spelling words using retrieval practice than rainbow writing. This was true across all three experiments, and even for the assessment that occurred 5 weeks after learning. In the second and third experiments, the students took a pre-test to see the relative learning gains of the two strategies. Both strategies produced learning, but the gains from pre-test to final assessment were much larger for retrieval practice compared to rainbow writing. In the third experiment, students increased their performance by an average of 9% from pre-test to the final assessment using rainbow writing, and an average to 34% using retrieval practice.
Based on these studies, it seems that retrieval practice can be used to help promote learning of spelling. Interestingly, the second-graders reported liking retrieval practice just as much, and sometimes more than rainbow reading!
(1) Jones, A. C., Wardlow, L., Pan, S. C., Zepeda, C., Heyman, G. D., Dunlosky, J., & Rickard, T. C. (2016). Beyond the rainbow: Retrieval practice leads to better spelling than does rainbow writing. Educational Psychology Review, 28, 385-400.