5 – Retrieval Theory

We acquire language when we receptively and productively retrieve it.

Growing up in school, some students don’t study. Maybe they drift through school, not knowing a purpose and reason for being there. Or maybe they find school too easy! Other students may study hard. They read their assigned homework. Before the test, they read the textbook again and again, and they review their notes, which they took in class. Maybe they pass the test, maybe not. But at least they can feel good about studying hard.

We can praise the effort of students who studied hard. But actually, we cannot praise the way that they studied. If you re-read a text book and review notes, you might think you learned the material, but you really didn’t learn it! You only familiarized yourself with it. To really learn something, you need to show that you can retrieve it from memory without looking at the textbook and notes.

When studying for a test, good learners practice retrieval. For example, they make flash cards based on the textbook and their notes. Then they quiz themselves on the contents. If they can retrieve the information from memory by saying it correctly in clear language, then they have learned it. If they fail to retrieve it, they see this failure as feedback. Now they know — that they did not know, so they go back and study. Then they practice retrieval again. With this kind of self-quizzing with flash cards, good learners practice an active or productive retrieval, which works better than just re-reading books and reviewing notes.

How does retrieval work with language learning? For one, we can use productive retrieval for vocabulary study with word cards. Write the target word on one side of the card; write the translation in your native language on the other side. Since you want to learn the target language word, start with the native language side of the card. Since you already know the native language word, try to retrieve the target word because it’s the word you want to learn. Make lots of these word cards. Shuffle them. Quiz yourself with retrieval. Separate the cards into “I know” and “Not Yet” groups. Take breaks. (See the next Chapter on Spaced Repetition). And keep going till you learn the words.

Besides productive retrieval, we also experience retrieval receptively by listening and reading. Let’s look at reading. As readers comprehend stories, they receptively retrieve the meanings of words and phrases. Instead of repeating with word cards, words and phrases naturally repeat themselves in stories and texts, and readers naturally acquire these words and phrases through receptive retrieval. Moreover, grammar patterns also repeat themselves in stories and texts, and readers acquire these grammar patterns also through receptive retrieval.

When we read big, we meet many words, phrases, and grammar patterns thousands of times. When we review textbooks and notes, we only experience a few repetitions of contents. But with big reading, we experience the repetitions of words, phrases, and grammar patterns on a mass scale. Thus, retrieval works differently for big reading than it does for a short review of textbooks and notes. In the end, we study well and learn well when we do receptive and productive retrieval. But retrieval works best with spaced repetition and interleaving, which we will meet in the next chapters.


Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.