Early Career Hub

Retrieval, spacing and interleaving in a KS1 classroom

Written By: Matthew Shurlock
5 min read

This case study is written by Matthew Shurlock, a primary school teacher.

As you read this case study, reflect on how the teacher uses various approaches to support pupils’ learning. Take some time to think about what the teacher does, how they do it, what they might do differently and how this might influence your own practice in your own subject or context. 


Planning how and when to teach the key skills and knowledge that pupils need is at the very centre of a teacher’s role. This assertion is mirrored in the Early Career Framework (ECF), which references the need to balance exposition, repetition, practice and retrieval of critical knowledge and skills (DfE, 2019 p.10). This article examines the sequencing of key skills and knowledge in the Early Years (EY) and Key Stage 1 (KS1) curricula. The focus here is on the individual teacher and how they plan and prepare learning opportunities to meet the needs of their pupils. The use of retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving theory are used to underpin the process of learning.

A substantial part of the EY and KS1 curriculum is recall-heavy. Therefore two examples are used below to show how this content can be planned for – one from phonics and one from maths. The two learning objectives will be introduced to pupils for the first time, revisited explicitly in lessons, revisited subtly across the curriculum and in the environment, and used by adults in the classroom to build on learning through questioning.


What is being taught and how is it best structured?

The first step in planning is to prepare a specific learning objective (LO). This may be provided for the teacher, or they may have the flexibility to create their own. Either way, being specific about the objective is a key part of the process. Being specific will ensure that the teacher teaches what their  pupils need, but also allows them to understand whether or not they have been successful.

Two examples illustrate this approach. The teacher may wish to teach pupils the number bonds to 20, or alternatively, to read a digraph such as oo.  An example LO for each may be: 

  • To recall number bonds to 20 through representations with concrete objects.
  • To recognise and read the oo digraph within words such as zoo, zoom, broom.

Having a specific LO makes assessing far easier than using a broad one. By clearly defining what you want to achieve, it is possible to know if you have or have not achieved it. Evidence to support your assessment is also easier to identify with a specific LO. 

Displaying the LO during learning allows adults to constantly refer back to the desired learning. It also introduces this practice to pupils, which is immediately useful as well as building skills for later on in their schooling.


The initial learning opportunity

The initial exposition should be well planned in order to introduce the learning. It should be  presented in a number of ways to give depth to the concept. For example, number bonds can be represented by a range of physical objects – 10s trays, Numicon and number lines – before abstract representations are introduced, (Gifford, 2005). Each physical representation offers pupils a chance to create an understanding of the item in their long-term memory. 

Once the learning has been introduced, the challenge is then for teachers to create opportunities that require pupils to retrieve the learning from their long-term memory. This is achieved by encouraging pupils to apply their learning in a range of situations. Three useful opportunities are: the environment, cross curricula, and conversations with adults.


The learning opportunities in the environment

Classroom displays can be an important resource when used well to specifically support learning. Phonics boards, complete with individual pupil pictures and grapheme cards can be used to remind pupils of their current focus sound. 

A prepared set of books in the reading area, that contain the target sound, offers pupils a chance to find and read the focus sound in context. For example, providing the book Room on the broom, (Donaldson, 2002) when teaching the oo digraph. Linking the focus sound to books based on childrens’ interests provides further reinforcement of the LO (Siraj-Blatchford et al. 2002).

Numicon apparatus can be used to show the date or how many pupils are present in class during registration. The use of number bonds in this familiar, daily routine provides valuable practice for pupils in retrieval.


The learning opportunities across the curriculum

Using their learning in other areas of the curriculum encourages pupils to recall and build important connections between themes and areas of learning. A way of recognising when pupils have learnt the week’s power words is when they independently identify them within the class-read book, or appearing in a different subject. 

Links across the curriculum encourage pupils to join up their thinking. Planning ways for pupils to ‘run into’ the intended learning in other subjects is fruitful to learning and also as an assessment for learning tool. For example, using zoom as a focus word during a warm up activity in PE or labelling the word within the continuous provision.

Pupils who have recently been taught an item, should be able to independently, or with some minor support, identify the item outside of its original learning context. Those pupils that do not, are identified as needing further input. Those pupils who successfully identify an item can be directed to apply and use, problem solve or reason to extend its use in a wider and more complex range of situations. They can also be given an expert badge, empowering them to work as a peer teacher, helping those who are still learning the item.


The learning opportunities with adults

Adults, as informed experts, are able to support learning through engaging in one-to-one high quality conversations with pupils (Mariner and Shurlock, 2019). A wide range of opportunities for pupils to interact with learning can be achieved by ensuring that both the teacher and other adults within the classroom are aware of the learning focus.  

The use of Numicon mentioned earlier, to show the date or the number of pupils present in the class, can be extended by an adult asking if the number could be represented by different number bond solutions or displayed with combinations of dice to promote subitizing.

When adults refer to the phonics display in class, also mentioned above, they can direct their conversations towards, and target their questioning around, the focus sounds. Further examples of utilising adults in the classroom are available from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2019).



Department of Education (2019) Early Career Framework. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/773705/Early-Career_Framework.pdf [accessed 20th November 2019] p.10

Donaldson, J. (2002) Room on the broom. Macmillan

Education Endowment Foundation (2015) Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants Guidance Report. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/ [accessed 20th November 2019] 

Gifford, S. (2005) Teaching mathematics to 3 – 5s: developing learning in the Foundation Stage  Maidenhead: Open University Press

Mariner, S. and Shurlock, M. (2019) A reflection on a project to promote high engagement in the early years curriculum. Impact Issue 6. p.66

Siraj-Blatchford, I., Sylva, K., Muttock, S., Gilden, R. and Bell, D. (2002) Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years, (REPEY) Research Report 356. London: Department of Education and Skills.


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