Improving your pupils’ retention and retrieval

Written by: Nicky Parrott | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A project to boost the working memories of children in years 3 to 6 has proved a success for Liphook Junior School. SENCO Nicky Parrott takes us through what they did and how it worked

When I first started working as SENCO at Liphook Infant and Junior schools, we found that many children who were struggling in class would not score significantly low in the usual assessments relating to language, reading, spelling and/or maths. Therefore, these tests did not effectively assist us in identifying these children’s difficulties.

We made the decision to purchase the Lucid Recall, a working memory assessment tool, as many teachers were saying that these children were not effectively retaining and/or retrieving information learnt.

This computerised, standardised assessment focuses on three different elements of working memory: auditory, visual, and central executive function (which includes elements such as directing attention, maintaining task goals, decision-making, memory retrieval). In addition to these three elements, it also measures the speed and efficiency of working memory (processing speed). This assessment has an age range of seven to 16 so we began using it at the junior school first.

In conjunction with class teachers, we began identifying children who would need assessment. Each year group identified about 20 per cent of the pupils who would be assessed. Following the completion of these assessments, about half of these children were identified as having one or more significantly low standardised scores (this was higher in year 6 where three-quarters were identified as such). This confirmed that we had children with specific memory difficulties, which led to our next question: what were we going to do about it?

What next?

First, we needed to know more about memory and how to help children in their learning. We contacted our allocated educational psychologist and invited her to talk to us about the assessment elements and what these meant for children with memory difficulties.

Much of Alloway and Gathercole’s research into memory highlights that it is very difficult to improve our memory capacity, but that we can learn strategies to develop our memory’s retention and retrieval (Gathercole & Alloway, 2007; Alloway et al, 2009).

We discussed ideas of how to support these children in the classroom, how we could teach strategies to help develop memory skills and about the possibility of undertaking a memory intervention to teach specific strategies to aid children’s retention and retrieval.

This led us to undertaking a half-day of training in memory led by the educational psychologist. This focused on: what working memory is, strategies to support children, and how we can support children with memory difficulties in the classroom.

There are four key aspects to helping a child’s memory become more efficient:

  • Practice: The more often the child does something, the more likely they are to remember it.
  • Memory strategies: These are ways of processing information that will help the child to remember it more effectively.
  • Organisation: This ensures that information is stored in a more meaningful and well-organised way, which is easier for the brain to recall when required.
  • Understanding: If children understand information it is easier for them to remember, and if we understand how memory works, it is easier to make it work well for us personally.

We decided to undertake memory interventions in the junior school for one year to see what the impact would be. The specific strategies that we aimed to teach were:

  • Rehearsal: Through simple repetition of verbal information.
  • Visual imagery: Through creating pictures in the mind to represent the information that needs to be remembered.
  • Creating stories: Through generating a narrative that links together the information in the form of a story – if the story is amusing then it is more likely to be remembered.
  • Grouping: Through using higher-order conceptual categories (e.g. “living things”, “things we use in the home”, etc) to group items together.

These strategies are designed to help the child to develop good memory strategies, to organise information efficiently, and to practise the skills necessary for effective learning and recall of information.

It was important that the memory support in class and the interventions were linked to maximise their impact. Therefore, we started by looking at what support was being given in class following the training by the educational psychologist.

Years 3, 4 and 5

In years 3 and 4 (and the first term of year 5), children with memory difficulties have an individual “task board” on the table with three boxes for three steps to remember in their work for that lesson and space below for notes or examples.

Depending on the child’s ability, they would be supported in completing this either by an adult or a peer. This meant that for interventions in these year groups we needed to look at early retrieval processes to support children in picking out the important points being made, and we felt that the best way to do this was through the questions in the narrative approach to learning resources from Black Sheep Press.

During the memory interventions the children are given a sentence and then asked to write down:

  • “Who” was in the sentence.
  • “Where” the sentence was taking place.
  • “When” the sentence was taking place.
  • “What happened” in the sentence.

This aided children’s auditory memory and encouraged early note-taking skills. Another focus of the interventions is on “Kim’s Game”, where the children have approximately 10 objects on a tray and spend time with the adult working out a story to link the items together to aid retention and retrieval. Once the tray is covered, the children write down the items they can recall. In addition to this the children also play visual and auditory memory games that support the four main strategies that I listed above.

Years 5 and 6

For the remaining terms of year 5 and throughout year 6, children were given notebooks and the teachers started explicitly teaching note-taking skills. For example, during a lesson they would say: “If you have a notebook you need to write this down.”

During the course of year 6 the teachers would adapt this approach to say: “What do you think are the most important parts to note down?” By the end of year 6 the teachers would say “make your notes and I will come and check with you that they are the most important parts of the lesson”. This meant that the children explicitly learnt what effective note-taking looks like and how to break lessons down into parts to gain the fundamental information needed.

Following this, the children take their notebooks to the memory interventions and spend the first few minutes looking at the notes they have taken and discussing what else they could have added, altered or removed to ensure the notes contain the most essential information.

In addition, just before the memory intervention starts, the children are given six cards. Three of the cards have one word on them and three have a picture on them. The children look at the cards for one minute before putting them face down on the table and starting their intervention. At the end of the session the children are asked to list the six cards again.

This activity has highlighted to the children whether they find it easier to remember a picture or a word and has led them to think about how they use their notebooks. In their notebooks some of the children are now drawing pictures of what they are being taught as they find this easier to support them in recalling the information they need.

In addition to these approaches, the children also play visual and auditory memory games that support the four main strategies.

We do not remove children from core subject lessons, and so our interventions take place at different times. A consistent focus of the sessions for any age group is the adult asking the children “Do you remember what we learnt last time?” at the beginning and “What have we been learning today?” at the end of the sessions. This ensures that the children are clear which memory strategy/strategies they have been learning in that session.

Embedding this approach

We needed to ensure that every member of staff was enabling this approach to maximise its impact. Therefore, when the senior leadership team is undertaking observations or monitoring, they look for opportunities where staff are supporting children in using task boards or notebooks. Furthermore, we ensured that a performance management target for all learning support assistants related to this. These approaches enabled us to ensure that this work was embedded across the federation.


The impact has been profound. We are seeing rapid progress for a significant number of children and this has been confirmed when we re-assess their memory skills annually using the Lucid Recall assessment. Furthermore, these children are more regularly making accelerated progress or even achieving age-related expectations in some or all core subjects at each of our data collection points throughout the year.

As SENCO, when I monitor these children during their interventions and when they are back in the classroom each term, I am seeing accelerated progress as they are using these strategies daily in their learning. Through undertaking pupil conferencing with these children each term, I am finding that they are able to say how they think the memory intervention is helping them in their learning. The book scrutiny I undertake each term is also showing accelerated progress and that children’s memory strategies are consistently being reinforced back in the classroom. The overall data for these children is showing that an increasing number are making accelerated progress and are closing the gap in their learning.

Next steps

Now we have seen such a positive impact on outcomes for these children, we are focusing on developing a “progression in memory” so that we have clear steps that the children move through in the interventions each year to ensure they learn the main strategies to aid retention and retrieval.

Furthermore, we are hoping to develop the memory interventions into the infant school to support children with memory difficulties as early as possible. We are unable to accurately use the Lucid Recall assessment in the infant school, however we do undertake the Dyslexia Early Screening Test (DEST) with every child before they complete their Reception year and two sub-tests within this assessment focus on memory.

The “Forwards digit span” sub-test focuses on auditory memory and the “Corsi frog” sub-test focuses on visual memory. Our aim in this academic year is to use this assessment data to support children who struggled with these sub-tests by creating early memory intervention groups in years 1 and 2.

  • Nicky Parrott is SENCO for the Federation of Liphook Infant School and Liphook CE Junior School in Hampshire.

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