‘Remember and Remember and Remember’: How I’m boosting recall and retention of ‘Macbeth’ by Zoe Taylor

In the past few weeks, I’ve been working with my Year 11 class on recall and retention of key quotations from ‘Macbeth’- keeping in mind Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning for Literacy’ and Hattie/Donaghue’s Learning Strategies. Essentially, I wanted to do the following with my class:

  • Increase student retention of key quotations
  • Increase student knowledge and understanding of the whole text
  • Boost confidence with low stakes ‘easy win’ testing, especially where my more challenging students are concerned
  • And finally- get the balance right between surface and deep learning by establishing a ‘rhythm’ to the lessons. Or, as ‘Visible Learning’ puts it:

If you turn too quickly to the next set o’ facts, without giving students sufficient time and tools to go deeper, they will quickly learn that surface learning is what you value, and in turn, surface learning is all you will get.’ ( Hattie, Frey, Fisher ‘Visible Learning for Literacy’ (2016))

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The Process

Firstly, each student received a little yellow ‘test’ book. They loved these, and came over all nostalgic for primary school spelling tests.The notebook is where they record answers to a series of tests that (hopefully) fall into a rhythm over the course of a week. To get students used to the process of using their test book, I started simple by gauging prior knowledge of ‘Macbeth’- students wrote down anything they knew about the play in their main workbook. I wrote down any misconceptions (e.g. King Duncan kills Macbeth…) with a view to crossing off any ‘mistakes’ when our knowledge of the play had improved. We then read a text on the historical context of ‘Macbeth’, looking at details like the Gunpowder Plot. During this stage, students were encouraged to highlight key information/underline important facts- for this I looked to a blog from @PeterMDeWitt which helpfully outlines the best strategies to use for surface/deep learning. Next, students had to shut their books. This terrified them- I think they had a sense that their knowledge was going to be put to the test.

  1. They had to summarise what they had just read in their workbook. Most of them hadn’t been prepared for this, so we had to repeat this stage. This wasn’t a problem as it led to some useful discussion about how quickly we can forget information we read.
  2. They then looked back at the original text, using a red pen to add any information they may have missed.

Then, as we read, we continued the process of closing the text, summarising, then checking our knowledge and discussing what we missed.

At the start of each lesson, students would be retested on their knowledge of the scenes covered in the previous lesson. But each test would be gradually more open ended. E.g.

Test 1

  1. ‘Fair is foul and ____/_____/_____’
  2. The Great chain _______/_______
  3. Thane of _________

Test 2

  1. ‘Fair is _____ and _____/_____/_____
  2. The Great _____/______/_______
  3. Th___ of ________

Test 3

  1. This quotation from Act 1 scene 1 symbolises the inversion of the natural order
  2. An Elizabethan concept of social hierarchy
  3. Macbeth receives this title

Once students had consistently started scoring 9/10 or full marks, we moved on to the next scene and started testing on that. Amongst this, I was conscious that if I only focused on surface level knowledge, I would end up with a group of students who could recall information from the play but wouldn’t be able to analyse the text in any depth or make connections.

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So to build on the low stakes testing at the start of each lesson, we:

  • Summarise constantly. Students use information from each test as part of 5 minute written summaries throughout the lesson.
  • Make connections. Students write about a new scene, but are required to make links back to information recalled in their test books.
  • Use blank extracts and close copies of the text when we write

In addition, I’ve set high expectations for homework. Students have pre reading before each lesson (not much- this may be only 1-2 paragraphs) and take their books home to revise following each lesson, ready for a test.

Finally, I raided my son’s toy box for one of these:

Screenshot 2017-12-03 at 15.45.42

We’re also learning quotations by chanting them together. Every time they hear the bell, they have to stop whatever they’re doing and the whole class recites quotations from Macbeth. A different student takes charge of the bells each lesson and we gradually build up the number of quotations used in each chant. A new quotation is added in each lesson- we’re currently up to seven.

Impact so far

Compared with similar classes I’ve had (this is a middle ability group), this group have been able to demonstrate a far more varied knowledge of the text. Rather than written responses focusing on picking apart the little bit of the text they can recall, they’re moving through different points, linking to new evidence. Also, they’re far more confident. When a challenging student with a history of poor confidence with Shakespeare gets 10/10 on a recall test in the first ten minutes, it’s a springboard into producing something later in the lesson that demonstrates ‘deeper’ learning.



Talk right; write right by Cathy Williams

A couple of years ago, when Geoff Barton did our conference keynote, he showed us this quotation, from Myhill and Fisher: “Spoken language forms a constraint, a ceiling not only on the ability to comprehend but also on the ability to write, beyond which literacy cannot progrcw2016ess” This idea really stuck with me; I hadn’t been teaching long and as a non-Geordie I think I was especially nervous about correcting students’ speech. At the same time I was expecting them to write much more accurately than they spoke, perhaps unfairly. Since then, I have made an effort to correct students’ grammar in speech as well as their writing, whenever errors cropped up. 

Early this term, I was yet again correcting a Year 7 student who had asked to “lend” a pen and ended up explaining my reasoning more generally to the whole class. We came up with the slogan “Talk Right; Write Right” to act as a reminder of how important formal and correct speech is in the classroom. Then, to follow this up more explicitly, I started all of my lessons on Monday with this activity.


It was interesting that different groups focused on different negatives in this very typical conversation. My bottom set year 10, some of whom have a tendency to demonstrate a poor attitude to learning themselves, all decided that Jenny was being really rude when she says “dunno”. Whereas, Year 7 were just concerned that she didn’t know how to articulate this as a complete sentence. Each class then came up with their own rules for speech in the classroom that we have tried to follow too. In Year 8 lessons, we decided to take a hint from Jamie Thom’s excellent blog and nominate a ‘full sentence monitor’ who would point out that an answer was incomplete. The best way to do this turned out to have the monitor silently stand up until the student completed the answer, this way seemed slightly less critical and certainly less likely to interrupt the flow of discussion. In my year 10 lessons, where poor grammar and slang are more of a concern than developed answers, I have just been pointing to the ‘Talk Right, Write Right’ sign to prompt students to correct their answers. While the standard of talk in my class discussions is still not perfect, students do now understand why I am expecting them to correct their speech.

Jenga… (Issue 7, Conference June 2010)

– Confidence builds as the towers fall

It’s not always easy to motivate a class of Year 11 students who have discovered they got a D in English in the November exam and have to do it all again. They usually chirp the same chorus, “we’ve done this”, “we know this already” and yet the reality is that the next 6 months is going to involve going back over poetry and their writing skills until they can do it with their eyes shut. This prospect doesn’t always excite them; that’s where Jenga comes in!

In English students need to use PEE paragraphs: point, evidence, explanation. Without using PEE paragraphs, and being able to analyse language and themes in detail, they will not easily get that all important C grade. Jenga enables them to do exactly this without always having to write out a PEE paragraph, something many of them find tedious lesson upon lesson.

First I bought a cheap Jenga imitation for £3.99 and then started writing lines of the exam poetry on each side of the Jenga blocks. On some of the blocks I wrote themes, technical terms and simply the titles of the poems. Then we were ready to play.

Small groups of students gathered round as I explained the rules; when it is your turn, pull out a block and then explain what the quotation is about using a PEE paragraph. If you get a technical term, explain what it is and give an example from the poems. If you get a title of a poem, think of other poems in the selection you can compare it with and explain the connection. After explaining your brick, place it on the top of the tower and then the next person takes their turn. This keeps going until the tower collapses! Apart from the odd comment of “can we not just pull out the blocks Miss” they all seemed quite happy to give it a go.

What resulted was 35 minutes of talk about the poems as each person took out their brick and explained which poem the line was from, what the quotation was about, what themes were reflected in it and any methods the poet used. They didn’t complain, hesitate or refuse…they just played until the bricks crashed down.

I was really encouraged because they had talked, with real focus, about their bricks and had grappled with some difficult language far better than if I had asked them to “write another PEE paragraph”. Of course, writing is crucial as that is how students are assessed in the exam but being able to talk about it first, and then write PEE paragraphs in subsequent lessons, gave them the confidence they had lost.

Rachel Johnson

Proper Scrabble (Issue 8, January 2011)

[This article seemed appropriate for the festive season! – Ed.]

– Victorian parlour game revamped for the new word savvy generation

Every now and then the smells of Christmas unearth a warm memory from days gone by and recently, overcome by the aromas from Jackie’s festive lunch, I was transported back to an incommodious London pub and a row with my brother over whether or not ‘firkin mirkin’ was a traditional Norfolk curse or a small barrel of amusing hair pieces.

I digress. Proper scrabble is at once simpler than the game we all know as Scrabble, but also allows for subtle complexities to be added in as to render it useful to almost any teacher or group of students.


Here I will outline the basic rules and offer some extension ideas that have proved excellent in the past.

• Each person takes turns to remove and slap down a letter from the bag of scrabble tiles. (The game is more authentic if the tiles are slapped down in the style of a professional Jamaican dominos player)

• On spotting a word (a least three letters), any player yells the word to claim it, then arranges it front of them.

• More letters are removed from the bag and exposed until either another three letter word is spotted, or an existing word can be added to with a letter from the pool. To make a new word (the etymological root must always change, so no adding an ‘s’ on the end!! e.g. port to sport but not to ports).

Simple eh? But the Victorians missed a trick, too focussed on developing steampunk no doubt! Bearing in mind we will largely be using this in an educational context, in order  to keep the word the creator must incorporate the word in to a sentence related to a particular topic. ‘Impossible!’ I hear you cry. Well just try it, lateral thinking abounds in our young charges, if only they are given the opportunity.

“Never before have so many people used so many words in so many ways.”  – Anon


The winner, should you decide to have one, will be the person or team with the highest score. Alternatively credit could be given for the best incorporation of words in to the topic in hand. Proper scrabble is also an excellent postprandial diversion.

Again, scoring can be very flexible, but a good starting point is: when the game conclude (when no more words can be formed) each player removes 2 tiles from each word and counts up the remainder (this gives more credit to longer words).

Extension ideas

• Even the playing field by using teams.

• Add a rule – allow proper names, acronyms, places or technical terms.

• Scoring – at the end of the game, when all tiles are exposed and creative juices have expired, remove two tiles from each word and count up the remainder. This system rewards longer words.

Fergus Hegarty

Edmodo vs RealSmart (Issue 8, January 2011)

– English department find a happy marriage in cyberspace


Exceptionally easy, functional and flexible, Edmodo is a website which connects groups of students with you, but that is really just the start. It can be as flexible as you need them to be, just use your imagination! Laura Couch explores Edmodo.

With a format, (dare I say?) similar to Facebook, students instantly find their way around; connecting with peers. They’ll be so familiar with leaving comments on their mates status updates; it’ll hardly need a great deal of explanation.

After watching a cartoon tour (www.edmodo.com) I created a group for my year 12 English Language students to join. Teachers are then able to assign work, ask questions or send attachments to the whole group at a click of a button.

Students only need to create a user name and sign up, using a code unique to find other group members. This allows teachers to make multiple groups for any year group or class members to access. The only limits are the limits of your mind’s eye. I can see this being used by students to provide updates of enquiries for sixth form (more on that later) but also as a way of blogging their thoughts or comments on a text as we read it in class.

Teachers can use the assignment function, which allows them to upload work and be marked or graded by the teacher. These marks can remain private of shared publicly with the group.

Independent Learning in English Language has been revamped with enquiry skills at its heart. Edmodo has allowed us and the students to see their peers’ focus, progress and even add comments or ask questions. The openness was the main pull rather than simply asking students to email me updates of their progress.

The ability to view each other’s areas of focus for the enquiry will enable the students to consider and engage with a wide variety of lines of enquiry. This should allowthem to generate ideas for their coursework, a larger investigation, after Christmas.

I have set up two Mile Stones after introducing the Enquiry independent learning. There are clear deadlines and focus questions for the group to answer and add further comments. Students can add Mile Stone comments as they could comment on a friend’s status. Mile Stones can be edited by the teacher, excellent if you want to change the task, or give an extension.

Stable, straightforward to navigate and simple to join, Edmodo allows communication between groups, created by you. The reasons for using Edmodo over Real Smart is the ability for comments to be viewed by group members, not just the teacher – sparking ideas for the future from browsing their groups up dates.


Real Smart

Year 12 students in English Literature have been using a combination of Realsmart and Frog to access material for, and to create, their independent enquiry. Though Edmodo may give students the opportunity to share progress and comment on enquiries, Realsmart has given students the chance to create something more individual. Zoe Bell explains all.

Independent enquiry sessions have been set on weekly basis via the ‘Set Work’ facility on Frog. This has allowed us to upload lesson objectives and resources, whilst also monitoring – at a glance – how many students have submitted their enquiry work for that week. Students are emailed when work has been posted, and can send an instant message to their teacher about the task. Teachers are then informed when an assignment, or in this case an ILC session, has been completed.

Students were then shown how to create a blog on Realsmart, using the ‘rcast’ facility. Following initial reluctance, after some explanation the class were surprised at how simple English department find a happy marriage in cyberspace it was to create a blog. They could easily update their blog with posts, including pictures and videos, and the finished product looked professional.

There are, however, flaws. Sharing the blog is tricky, requiring teachers to approve sharing requests from each student. Although students can comment on each other’s blogs, and view these comments, it is difficult to avoid the flood of inevitable, Facebook-like ‘I love your picture’ and ‘I am so bored’ style comments. In the spirit of collaboration, it’s important for students to see what the rest of the class are doing – but avoiding this requires careful planning.

Each weekly ILC session, sent via Frog, includes resources and research topics related to their independent enquiry question: ‘How has storytelling changed over time?’ The outcome for each session is usually to update their blog, where students are encouraged to be as independent and as creative as possible. In Spring, I would hope that students would feel confident enough to choose their own outcome for the independent enquiry, and Realsmart could be used much in the same way as Edmodo: to update on progress and share ideas on one central, class blog.

Laura Couch & Zoe Bell