The Power of Retrieval Practice for SEN Pupils

What is Retrieval Practice and Why is it Important?

Retrieval practice, or recalling what you have learned, can be a powerful learning strategy for students with special educational needs. Retrieval practice is a learning strategy in which a person actively attempts to recall information that they have previously studied from memory. This is effective because it helps to strengthen the connections between the information in a person’s memory. This makes it easier for them to recall the information later on. This blog post provides practical tips for teachers to implement retrieval practice in the SEN classroom.

The process of retrieval strengthens neural connections and helps students retain information for longer periods. Research has shown that retrieval practice may be beneficial for students with special educational needs (SEN), as it can help them overcome memory and learning challenges. It is not conclusive however. Rosenshine’s principles of instruction emphasise the importance of recall of prior learning in promoting learning and long-term retention.

Pupils with SEN, especially those with difficulties in cognition and learning, often have a smaller working memory compared to their peers. This can make it more challenging for them to remember and recall information. For some this means they will get frustrated or reluctant to work. For many their confidence and self-esteem needs to be increased. They may also have fewer things stored in their long-term memory, which can make it more challenging for them to make links when they learn something new.

What the Evidence says about Retrieval Practice and SEN

I could only find a few studies focussed on SEN and retrieval practice. In summary these found that immediate retrieval boosts phonetic accuracy in the short term. Spaced retrieval promotes stability and long-term retention. Once the children can recall a word in the short term, retention over longer stretches of time is less impaired.

  • There is some evidence that retrieval practice is not effective with children with limited working memory (Zheng 2023)
  • Including repeated retrieval trials during learning improves retention.
  • Spacing retrieval trials makes retention effortful but usually successful.
  • Spacing was found to enhance learning and retention in both immediate and delayed recall testing for children with DLD and typical language development.
  • Immediate retrieval condition, although providing more production practice and encoding opportunities, did not result in better recall compared to spaced retrieval condition.
  • Feedback provided after retrieval attempts helped improve learning.
  • Children benefited from feedback especially when retrieval attempts were unsuccessful or when they had low confidence in their responses.
  • Effortful retrieval involved in spaced retrieval helps preserve the enhanced phonetic details of the words.
  • Immediate retrieval trials included in the spaced retrieval condition improved success on subsequent spaced retrieval trials.
  • Opportunities for effortful retrieval can help prevent deterioration in phonetic accuracy over time for children with DLD.
  • Retrieval practice, especially with repeated retrieval, enhances word learning and retention in children with DLD (Leonard et al., 2020; Haebig et al., 2021).
  • Repeated retrieval is more effective than additional study for improving word learning outcomes.
  • Repeated spaced retrieval can significantly improve word learning in children with DLD (Leonard et al., 2019b).

Effective Retrieval Techniques for the SEN Classroom

Flashcards – This should come as no surprise but visuals such as flashcards can be an effective tool for teaching key terms, facts, or concepts. Teachers can create flashcards for various subjects and use them to prompt students to recall important information.

Worksheets and Workbooks – Carefully designed worksheets, workbooks, and even fill-in-the-blank handouts can be used as retrieval practice tools. These resources encourage students to retrieve information from memory and apply it in different contexts.

Oral Questioning – Oral questioning techniques, such as Q&A sessions, quizzes, and games, can help pupils practice recalling information verbally. These activities promote active participation and engagement while reinforcing memory recall.

Mindmaps – For many the process of answering questions verbally will present a significant challenge. Processing time, recall, etc can all be barriers. Mindmaps, how-to guides etc can present a viable alternative

Practice Problems – Repeated Practice problems that slowly build in complexity to allow links to be made between concepts can be effective. They help children apply their knowledge and strengthen their memory through retrieval practice. These activities encourage children to think critically and problem-solve using previously learned information.

Make Retrieval Practice Fun and Engaging for SEN Students

Interactive Games – Games like Kahoot! can make retrieval practice fun, competitive, and engaging for students. These platforms offer various game formats and can be customised to suit the needs of SEN students. This can help motivate children to undertake non-preferred tasks.

Keep Sessions Short – Shorter retrieval practice sessions can improve focus and reduce cognitive overload.

The Power of Retrieval Practice for SEN Pupils a child with questions

Common Challenges of Using Retrieval Practice in SEN

  • Motivating pupils: Some children may lack intrinsic motivation or struggle to engage with retrieval activities. Teachers need to find ways to make it fun and rewarding.
  • Cognitive overload: Lessons that are too long, challenging or intense can lead to cognitive overload. Especially if a lot of different information is delivered or the session is fast paced. Short, frequent retrieval sessions are better.
  • Difficulty retaining and recalling: Some SEN students may have specific learning disabilities that make retention and recall more challenging. Extra practice, pre and re-teaching may be needed.
  • Lack of resources: Not all schools have access to technology like Kahoot! or Quizlet for interactive retrieval games. Low-tech options like flashcards, worksheets and oral questioning can also be effective.
  • Consistency: Implementing any new teaching practice or strategy with consistency and fidelity can be challenging. Teachers must commit to ongoing and long-term use of retrieval practice for maximum benefit.
  • Time requirements: Preparing retrieval practice activities and providing the necessary feedback and re-teaching requires additional time.
  • Training needs: Some teachers may need additional training or professional development to use retrieval strategies effectively, particularly for SEN students.


Agarwal, Pooja & Finley, Jason & Rose, Nathan & Roediger, Henry. (2016). Benefits from retrieval practice are greater for students with lower working memory capacity. Memory (Hove, England). 25. 1-8. Free Access

Haebig E., Leonard L., Deevy P., Schumaker J., Karpicke J., Weber C. (2021). The neural underpinnings of processing newly taught semantic information: The role of retrieval practice. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 64(8), 3195–3211. Free Access

Leonard L., Deevy P., Karpicke J., Christ S., Weber C., Kueser J. (2020). After initial retrieval practice, more retrieval produces better retention than more study in the word learning of children with developmental language disorder. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 63(August), 2763–2776. Free Access

Leonard, L. B., Kueser, J. B., Deevy, P., Haebig, E., Karpicke, J. D., & Weber, C. (2022). The contributions of immediate retrieval and spaced retrieval to word learning in preschoolers with developmental language disorder. Autism & Developmental Language Impairments, 7. Free Access

Zheng, Yicong & Sun, Pengyuan & Liu, Xiaonan. (2023). Retrieval practice is costly and is beneficial only when working memory capacity is abundant. NPJ science of learning. 8. 8. 10.1038/s41539-023-00159-w. Free Access

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