Students can retain more information in less time.
Have you ever been so excited about a new story you were reading that you wanted to finish it right away?
Some students feel like they should tackle schoolwork the same way: all at once. But cognitive research suggests that spreading our learning over time will help us learn more efficiently than cramming or studying for long periods. While spaced practice is ideal for all subjects, learning a new language is particularly well-suited to short, frequent study sessions.
Why Is Spaced Learning Important in World Language Classrooms?
Spaced learning is important in K-12 world language classrooms for several reasons.
It allows students to understand better and retain information. Students presented with a lot of new material may have difficulty processing and retaining all the information. When teachers space out the presentation of new material, students have more time to absorb and understand the content, leading to better retention and recall.
It helps to prevent overload. When teachers present a lot of new material at once, students can get overwhelmed, particularly if they struggle with the content. Spacing out the presentation of new material helps prevent overload and ensures that students can keep up.
It promotes long-term retention. Spaced learning promotes long-term retention of material, as students are exposed to the information multiple times over a longer period. This can be particularly useful for concepts that students will need to remember for a long time, such as those covered on the biliteracy seal standards or ACTFL state standards.
It allows for review and reinforcement. When new material is presented over time, it allows students to review and reinforce their understanding. This can be particularly helpful for students needing extra time to grasp a concept fully.
How Can Teachers Space Out Language Learning?
What can teachers do to encourage students to spread out their practice? Megan Smith, an Associate Professor at Rhode Island College and a cognitive psychology expert, offers four tips for teachers to space out materials over time.
1. Plan Out a Study Schedule
Dr. Smith’s first suggestion is to help students plan a study schedule. If you use a backward design model, you will already know the activities your students will complete throughout a unit, and you’ll also know what goals they are working toward.
You will need to consider these goals when creating the schedule. Here are a few tips:
Determine your class goals. What do you want your students to achieve through their language learning? Knowing the goals will help determine how much time you should spend reviewing each day or week.
Consider the students’ skill levels. You may want to include more review and practice for struggling students and more challenging material for more advanced students.
Allow for flexibility. As with individual study schedules, it’s essential to be flexible when creating a schedule for a class. You may need to adjust the schedule based on the needs and interests of your students or to accommodate unexpected circumstances.
If you use an online learning environment, such as the one offered by Carnegie Learning, you can set a start and end time for specific activities for all of your classes—for the entire school year! By setting a start date for activities, students can complete them when the teacher decides the time is appropriate and are less likely to feel overwhelmed by seeing all the activities posted at the start of a unit. And remember: planning is excellent, but always leave wiggle room for last-minute changes.
2. Revisit Prior Topics in Class
There's no better time than the present to practice!
Most of your students will only have the opportunity to practice the target language during your class, so one way to space out learning is to review and practice material that has already been introduced periodically. This helps reinforce the knowledge and skills that students have acquired and can also help identify gaps in understanding that may need to be addressed.
For example, students need to remember vocabulary from the beginning of the year by the time January arrives. How can we make sure that the knowledge stays? By using it every day!
Take two or three minutes at the beginning of class to do a Calendar Talk. As its name suggests, the teacher displays the date in the Calendar Talk and asks the class questions about it. That way, basic vocabulary like numbers, months, seasons, and days of the week is repeated so often that it becomes second nature. If you have higher-level students, you can integrate historical facts about the day, share essential dates in the target-language culture, or talk about the larger implications of the day's weather.
Giving your students access to lower-level materials for review can also be an effective way to help them review and strengthen prior knowledge. That’s why our world language solutions for Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and Italian give students digital access to all levels of our book series so that if students in levels 2, 3, or 4 need to review a previous topic, even from a previous year, they have access to those materials.
As long as learners have easy access to the information they need, they’ll have plenty of opportunities for repetition without feeling overwhelmed by too much information crammed into one session.
3. Conduct Frequent, Low-Stakes Quizzes
Smith also recommends giving frequent quizzes with low stakes. A low-stakes quiz can be as simple as assigning a half-page text answering four comprehension questions or matching the audio to the sentence. Essentially, what would be one part of a regular quiz becomes a quiz on its own, and you make it weigh lightly on the grade book. Instead of a quiz being worth 5% of the quarter’s grade, make it worth 1% or just a completion grade.
Of course, it can be time-consuming to create frequent low-stakes quizzes.
Here are a few strategies that may help ease the job:
Keep the quiz short. Low-stakes quizzes should not be too time-consuming or overwhelming for students. Consider creating quizzes that are just a few minutes in length.
Make the quiz simple. Low-stakes quizzes should be designed to be achievable for all students. Avoid including questions that are too difficult or require much outside knowledge.
Use multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions. These questions are typically easier for students to answer and can be graded quickly.
Use technology. Utilizing online quiz platforms or apps can make it easier to administer quizzes and track student progress.
Emphasize learning and practice. Reassure your students that quizzes are for learning and practice rather than grades. This will reduce their stress and increase engagement.
It’s important to balance frequent, low-stakes quizzes with frequent feedback. And five-minute, multiple-choice, or single-sentence quizzes are a great way to give constant feedback. You could even have students exchange their quizzes or grade their own, making teachable moments, easing your workload, and spacing out student learning.
You might be lucky enough to have a world language solution like ours that provides formative assessments built in.
For example, students can access cloze passages, multiple-choice questions, and open-ended activities such as speaking and writing in iCulture. This is our vast, curated library of continuously updated travel videos, day-in-the-life videos, news articles, karaoke-style songs, oral assessment tools, and leveled eReaders in Spanish, French, or German. The teacher can provide feedback on students’ answers while restricting how many attempts they can make before they see the answer key. Teachers can also decide whether or not the activity will be graded or used for practice, which reduces the stakes and stress level for students.
4. Give Quality Homework, Not Just Busywork
Last but not least, Smith suggests assigning students quality homework assignments. If you assign homework, ensure that it’s an enriching experience and not just another checkmark for the grade book. If it’s a low-stakes activity, even better.
Encouraging students to use the language they are learning in real-life situations, such as conversations with native speakers or writing emails or messages, can reinforce the material and provide opportunities for spacing out learning.
For example, an enriching—and meaningful—homework activity would be to ask an elder in their family about how the students themselves were as babies. Even though the mini-interview would be conducted in their home language, the student could use the target language in class by talking to a partner about their childhood, using imperfect vs. preterite—if you’re a Spanish teacher—in an engaging and real-life focused way.
Another great tool for meaningful homework, if students have internet access at home, is Flip, a free video discussion app from Microsoft. Flip allows teachers to:
Encourage students to express their ideas and learn from one another by establishing classrooms or study groups.
Establish a safe space for peer-to-peer discussions since groups are private and only accessible through school-provided emails.
Allow language learners to repeat a task as often as they need to without showing their faces.
This technology is particularly beneficial in the world language classroom since it allows students to practice presentation skills without worrying about an audience. Our world language solutions have Flip integration, which means you can create speaking assignments from iCulture and have ready-made prompts for your language class. We want to give students access to as many practical resources as possible, and thanks to technology, this task has become simpler.
Small Steps Can Lead to Big Leaps
Spaced learning is an effective teaching method that can help students better understand new material, prevent overload, and promote long-term retention.
If you're interested in materials that will help you space out your students’ learning, check out our world language solutions, which include various activities, videos, and bite-sized learning resources to enhance your students’ love of languages.
Mike taught Spanish and French for 16 years before joining Carnegie Learning. He's from Philadelphia and taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels and in both public and private school settings. He loves to travel and was fortunate to be able to take students abroad for many years. He also worked as a scoring leader for the Praxis French exam as an AP Spanish Language reader. As a Content Specialist, he is able to work with teachers and also help develop educational content materials for Carnegie Learning world language programs. He has presented at many regional and national conferences, including NECTFL, CSCTFL, and ACTFL.Explore more related to this author
While spaced practice is ideal for all subjects, learning a new language is particularly well-suited to short, frequent study sessions.