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The benefits of Retrieval Practice in Early Years Foundation Stage

Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) describe the time in children’s life between birth and age 5. This period is fundamental to their development, which makes quality teaching practices crucial to helping them acquire essential abilities that prepare them for future learning and success.

One of the first effective strategies that comes to mind when you think of education is Retrieval Practice – but does it only apply to older students, or does it actually promote memory development for younger children?

Book Retrieval Practice CPD


What is Retrieval Practice?

Retrieval Practice is any activity that forces students to recall previously learnt information that has been stored in their brain. This can take many forms, from quizzes and past papers to multiple choice questions, to something as simple as answering a question or using a flashcard.

Research has consistently shown Retrieval Practice to be effective in helping students learn and remember information. However, one of the main issues with it is that research seems to have focused mainly on its impact on older students.

The benefits of Retrieval Practice for EYFS students

Until recently, it was hard to tell whether Retrieval Practice applied to younger children. However, research suggests that not only does it help EYFS students learn, it actually has benefits beyond learning and improving memory for them.

To test this, researchers had students learn the name of different toy pigs. Some did so through an expanded form of retrieval practice, whereas others either had a reward incentive or were in a control condition. Likewise, in the second experiment of the study, students either had to learn the name of different soft toys either through retrieval or another presentation of the names (i.e. re-studying). In both conditions, retrieval practice was far more effective (with retrieval being found to be about twice as effective as the other conditions).

So as well as the learning gain, why else might retrieval be beneficial for younger students…

Improving self-confidence

When young students find that they can call to mind what they have learned again and again, they build self-confidence. Building self-confidence in children during EYFS is essential as it pushes them to try new things and try again when things don’t go as planned. It further motivates them to face challenges head on in the future.

Boosting attention

Keeping children’s attention on the task at hand is easier when it involves Retrieval Practice. Learning to maintain attention is integral during EYFS, as children develop the skill to focus on tasks and complete them quickly. This puts them on track to be successful learners throughout their school career and later life.

Indicating gaps in students’ learning

Because it is hard for young children to communicate what they do or do not understand, Retrieval Practice techniques can make gaps in their knowledge much easier for you to identify. For example, if you ask a student to list items that fit in a certain category but they are unable to, it allows you to recognise that they need extra help in this area of knowledge.

How to use Retrieval Practice with younger students

Of course, adaptions are needed when applying any cognitive science strategy to a particular cohort. A number of retrieval practice strategies for older students may involve an element of writing down the answer. These would obviously be less applicable here. Here are some ideas to help you do so…

  • Use more verbal retrieval practice activities
  • Ask specific retrieval questions (instead of general ones)
  • Provide corrective feedback

Retrieval Practice is thought to be helpful, even when feedback is not given. However, the impact is magnified when it is. For example, research has shown that young students who were given feedback on their incorrect answers were less likely to repeat their mistakes in a later recall task.

Good feedback involves being specific on what exactly the student did right and wrong. It is also important to not give too much feedback at any one time, as this will leave your students confused and unsure of what was said.

Final Thoughts

So, is Retrieval Practice worth the effort of implementation with young children? In an ideal world, we would like to see more research on this. However, given a) the wealth of evidence supporting the use of retrieval for learning as a general strategy and b) the emerging positive evidence from young students, we see no reason at this stage not to think it would be of help.

The science of learning CPD workshop for teachers

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