A quick word – retrieval practice for single word quotations

For some time now, I’ve begun virtually every lesson with a memory platform. Usually, this takes the form of a simple quiz, sometimes using a multiple choice format. Crucially, I interleave topics that we haven’t studied for a while with things that we’ve recently covered. Pupils regularly tell me that this approach has a) improved their retention of knowledge b) made them feel more confident ahead of assessments and c) become a nice, familiar routine at the start of each session.

But sometimes, in the hectic life of the average teacher, things go wrong. I haven’t had the chance to construct a quiz on a particular topic. My soporific PC won’t load up in time. I’ve had to deal with an incident at break time and my class are sat waiting for me to begin. Then I have to wing it. I have to make up a quick knowledge quiz on the spot. So I’ll do things like have a brief scan of the extract we’re about to analyse, work out the likely key quotations, and write things like:

Write down a synonym for the following words

  1. expensive
  2. guarded
  3. empty
  4. depressing
  5. waste


Identify the word class of the following

  1. hopelessness
  2. under
  3. somebody
  4. could
  5. extremely


Which characters could the following adjectives be applied to?

  1. callous
  2. impetuous
  3. nurturing
  4. possessive
  5. arrogant

The other day, under pressure to come up with a worthwhile memory platform in a matter of seconds, I remembered a brilliant blog that Chris Curtis had written a while back about single word quotations, which had inspired me to write something about Shakespeare’s use of single word motifs as a trope throughout his works.  So, under pressure with 29 expectant eyes on the board, I scrawled the following on the board:

Identify the text/character from the following single word quotation:

  1. sweet
  2. signature
  3. sunlight
  4. somebody
  5. squat
  6. shipwreck
  7. suddenly
  8. sabre
  9. sneer
  10. sheath

And it worked well. In most cases, with most words, pupils were able to use the single word as a springboard for identifying the ‘wider’ quotation. Even if they couldn’t recall the ‘full’ sentence or line, they took comfort from the fact that they could analyse the single word anyway. Follow up questions bounced around the room: who said it? to whom? which scene? what’s the line before? ‘Sweet’ worked really well because of its frequency in Romeo and Juliet, prompting multiple answers, and allowing me to bang on about single word motifs once more. ‘Sunlight’ performs a similar function in ‘The Emigree’.

So the following day I did it again. But this time I planned ahead, this time planting some deliberately ambiguous single word quotations in there – words that could come from two or more of the texts (Jekyll & Hyde, R&J, DNA and the AQA Power & Conflict poems) that we study:

  1. blind
  2. grave
  3. dark
  4. black
  5. ache
  6. fear
  7. doomed
  8. somebody
  9. head
  10. plague

This worked ridiculously well. Next day, I started getting a bit more creative, linking the words thematically:

  1. dove
  2. crow
  3. nightingale
  4. swan
  5. lark
  6. drugs
  7. intoxicated
  8. beers
  9. stumbling
  10. gin

And the day after:

  1. fetch
  2. throw
  3. catching
  4. fall
  5. stumble

And so on.

The beauty of this is it’s quick, effective and requires not much planning. But it also has the following (originally unintended) benefits for pupils:

  • it enables them to make links between texts
  • it highlights motifs within the texts
  • it highlights key themes (such as perception/inability to see clearly) within the texts
  • it makes them realise that one word could help them remember three different quotations in the exam
  • it makes them appreciate that they might well remember the word but they can’t remember the context of the text (who said it and when for example).

Give it a go. It might just rescue your lesson the next time your memory stick malfunctions or you leave your photocopying in the staff room.

Thanks for reading,



2 thoughts on “A quick word – retrieval practice for single word quotations

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