A few months ago I took part in an action research project experimenting with knowledge organisers and retrieval practice activities with my Entry 3 ESOL class. Aside from the project itself, I discovered a world where people blog about education and ESOL. Excited but also nervous to join this world, here is my first blog, which is a reflection on the project.
Knowledge Organisers and Retrieval Practice Activities
Knowledge organisers are a bit of a thing right now, and plenty has been written about them. Briefly, they contain the key items of knowledge which students need to know as a minimum for a particular unit of a particular subject, organised on a single piece of A4 in such a way that students can self-test and memorise the information. Retrieval practice activities come from cognitive science research into learning and long-term memory, showing that the more practice the brain has at retrieving items from memory, the better they are remembered. Knowledge organisers go hand in hand with this as they can be used in and out of class in various ways which require the students to practise remembering the information on them.
Why I got excited about trying out knowledge organisers and retrieval practice activities with my ESOL class
I started teaching ESOL in 2001 when the Core Curriculum first came out. Even then, I was puzzled by the focus on skills, with grammar and lexis included within a few sub-skills almost as an afterthought. I understand this is due to the ESOL Curriculum being based on the Adult Literacy Curriculum, which of course has very little need to address vocabulary and grammar as it is for speakers of English as a first language.
Over the years I have reflected on the limitations of a skills-based curriculum. Of course there are students who need to practise skimming and scanning skills, but more often I find myself faced with learners for whom no amount of practice reading newspaper articles for gist will help them understand what they’re reading, because they don’t actually know what any of the words mean. A shift to raise the importance of structure and lexis – the ‘knowledge’ element of language if you like – alongside skills practice seems to me long overdue.
Another reason for my excitement was the solution knowledge organisers provide to the problem of how learners record and learn new language. I have experimented over the years with lexical notebooks and various ways to get learners to record language items which come up in class, such as advance organisers and gapped grammar reference sheets. Always with very little success. On balance, I have found the time needed to train students to organise and use their notebooks effectively would be better spent actually learning some English. A knowledge organiser gives them the language they need to know in an easily accessible place and the retrieval practice activities make sure they actually learn them.
As I learnt more about knowledge organisers and how to use them for retrieval practice I felt that this was the next logical step in the direction my teaching practice had been heading for the last few years, but also, paradoxically, it felt like a radical shift in mindset.
How I produced a knowledge organiser for my ESOL class and how I used it for retrieval practice
I decided to base my knowledge organiser on the Entry 3 speaking and listening exam my learners would be taking (we use Trinity). I looked at the exam syllabus and identified the words and phrases which I felt would be essential for successful completion of the tasks, and put these together as a table.
Here is what a section of my knowledge organiser looks like:
After some false starts, I settled into planning lessons in the way I usually do, except the focus of the lessons was the content of the knowledge organiser. Homework was to use the knowledge organiser for self-testing ready for a low-stakes test which I would give them next lesson. The test would usually be a section of the knowledge organiser with various words missing for the learners to recall. I also incorporated into my lessons activities and quizzes reviewing content of the organiser, often as a ‘do now’ activity or a warmer. The tests, activities and quizzes were on a cycle, with the same ones repeated at intervals.
Crucially, this was alongside, not replacing, more ‘normal’ lessons – reading texts, comprehension exercises, discussions etc. But also there are these key items of language which everyone knows, and I know everyone knows, and which we keep coming back to and using in different ways and different contexts.
Choosing the right content is essential, but also very difficult. In ESOL we have the whole of the English language to choose from. I chose the language needed for exam tasks but topics or functions could easily underpin the choice of content.
Finding a way to make the knowledge organiser quizzable without relying on translation is also hard. I suggest my learners also write a translation and self-quiz from that, but for the class quizzes and tests I blanked out columns of the table so learners were using the images, or half of a sentence to practise recall.
Another potential pitfall is to care too much about the presentation of the organiser. Many teachers, myself included, seem seduced by the potential of technology to create beautiful and well-crafted materials. But the content is key. Preparation time is much better spent getting the content right rather than tweaking cell sizes.
The results of my action research project
My students generally responded well to the knowledge organisers with comments such as:
“Everything I have to know is in the yellow page and I can find it.”
“When I write on the white paper you can’t remember which day… the yellow paper is clear.”
In an attempt to get some more quantitative data, I assessed the students according to the Trinity criteria at the beginning and end of the project. Obviously this was a subjective assessment, but what I did find was that there was a significant and unexpected improvement in the assessment criteria covering grammatical accuracy and range of structures. Tentatively, I concluded that memorising chunks of language which exemplify a target structure might be a more effective way of learning grammar than other more traditional methods. But that’s something to explore in a different project.
How my teaching has changed since the project
Bizarrely, I feel the changes I have made are relatively small and a natural progression from what I was doing previously, but in general my teaching has changed dramatically, and for the better.
In general, my planning and my lessons feel more streamlined. There’s more focus and a greater sense of purpose. There is still space to go off at a tangent, but I no longer get the frustrating feeling that an activity is a waste of time or that panic of not knowing what I’m going to teach and scrabbling around in textbooks for something that’ll do.
I repeat content much more than before. I’ve relinquished the idea that each lesson has to be something new and exciting and fresh. I repeat quizzes, drills and some homework sheets; I use the same discussion questions but change the groupings; I show the same pictures to elicit the same language again, and then take it further; I revisit texts to squeeze more language out of them; We rehearse and repeat role-plays until key functional phrases are memorised.
I’ve always given my students a test every lesson, but often this would be whatever vocab happened to come up in a reading text, or whatever happened to have been presented in a testable format on a worksheet. Now I put more thought into what I’m going to test and when – which items they need to know off by heart and when they’ll need to use them by. The items are already in a testable format on the knowledge organiser so all I have to do is tell the learners which section to learn for the test.
In addition to the action research project I’ve tried some Dogme-style lessons for the first time this year. Surprisingly, knowledge organisers and retrieval practice activities complemented this approach quite well, perhaps because they are also ‘materials-light’. After a free and organic Dogme-style lesson, I take all the emergent language, select the most useful, and put it into a self-quizzable table using images or synonyms or whatever, and this then goes into the testing and retrieval practice cycle along with my ‘official’ knowledge organisers.
In general I rarely give my students anything that can’t later be revisited and quizzed.
Do knowledge organisers have a place in ESOL teaching?
In my opinion, the answer to this is a cautious yes. Whether you produce a knowledge organiser or not, the process of thinking about your group, and specifying which words and phrases you want them to be using at the end of the lesson / week / term or whatever, can radically change your teaching for the better. I’m not in a hurry to recommend ESOL departments across the country to start rolling out standardised knowledge organisers across all their courses. The nature of ESOL learners with their very different needs, different exam boards and syllabuses and the lack of any defined ‘knowledge’ at any one level makes this too complicated. I also think that it is the thinking process which the teacher goes through which is important, and which you wouldn’t get if you were simply handed a document to work with. Having said that, putting together a knowledge organiser is hugely time-consuming and, depending on what stage you’re at with your teaching, there might be other things you could do with your time which would have a bigger impact.
Retrieval practice activities, however, I think we should all be doing, and probably already are. Short snappy quizzes which force students to recall language items encountered last lesson, repeated lesson after lesson and mixed together in an endless cycle.
Above all, it does not have to be a choice between skills and knowledge. For too long, it seems to me, the emphasis of ESOL teaching has been on skills development at the expense of grammar and vocabulary. I’m merely advocating redressing that balance, not swinging the other way. My lessons these days are split roughly 50-50. The first half of the lesson has a language focus, and the second half will be based around a written or audio text, with plenty of speaking and some writing integrated into this broad structure.
Tips for ESOL teachers thinking of trying knowledge organisers
- Plan and teach in the usual way but use the knowledge organiser to decide the content of the lesson.
- Focus on getting the content right and not on how nice the document looks.
- Include blank space for learners to add items that come up.
- Teach the students how to self-test using the knowledge organiser. Practise doing this in class time.
- Print the knowledge organiser on coloured paper.
- Don’t be afraid of over-learning and repeating the same quiz.