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Proven Ways to Make Your Teaching Stick and Increase Learning!

Inside this Post:  Tired of students forgetting what they’ve learned? Research emphasizes the value of previewing and reviewing. Keep reading for practical, manageable ways to build spacing into your classroom.

Travel with me for a second to your classroom. Think of your old filing cabinet – you know the one in the corner?!  (Gen Z-ers, perhaps you have an unorganized Google Drive abyss!)  Honestly, you probably don’t even know what gems are hidden in there.  As for myself, I’m pretty sure I have a folder of legit ditto papers from the retired teacher whose classroom I used to occupy. These papers and folders are useless sitting there never thought about.

Now, consider what would happen if you flipped through that filing cabinet more frequently, quickly perusing and remembering the items that exist all through those dark drawers?  You would know what lurks in the back!  

Many years ago, I had an administrator use this same analogy in regard to student learning – our brains are like filing cabinets.  When we learn new information, it’s filed in the front; however, if we don’t “flip through the files” and review the knowledge already there, the information goes to the back of the cabinet like it never even existed.  Reviewing core knowledge is essential to true, authentic learning and growth.  Through different methods of previewing and reviewing, we can allow our students to “go through their filing cabinets” regularly and dust off the cobwebs.  They can get it and not forget it.

Spiral review ideas for ELA

The Problem:  “We Never Learned That”

Have you ever spent weeks teaching your heart out…only to have students tell you right before a test, final exam, or the following semester, that they “never learned that”?! We’ve all had experience with students and their “forgotten files.”

One solution is to teach standards in small chunks and then revisit these topics regularly throughout the year. This helps answer the question of “My students still aren’t getting it. When is it time to move on?” If you know your students will have continued opportunities to practice a skill or standard, you can move through the curriculum faster.

Research Says…

This approach is called the “spacing effect,” and it is key in enhancing learning retention (Santoro; Terada). Sean Kang, a psychologist who specializes in learning and memory, maintains that “When we space out our learning periods, they are much more effective for learning than if you have those repetitions in close sequence” (Santoro).  There is much research regarding memory retention.  In fact, one working theory holds that we need to teach less at once, and by doing so, we give students’ brains the capability to process new information in a more manageable way (Santoro).   

As educators, we know that effective review shouldn’t happen right before a test. We advise our students that they should review the material they have learned each night. In reality, we know this doesn’t occur as frequently as it should (if ever!). As teachers, we can naturally fill in this gap by embedding quick reviews in our classroom daily, weekly, or whenever we choose.

Terada, Edutopia’s Research and Standards editor, recalls brain research from MIT that asserts when we “repeatedly access a stored but fading memory,” like the figurative language terms you just went over or the rules surrounding sentence revision, “…[we] kindle the neural network that contains the memory and encode [the memory] more deeply.”  Plainly said, regularly and intentionally previewing and reviewing the material we teach allows students to retain more information. 

Questions for previewing and reviewing ELA standards


Oxford Languages defines preview as “to display (a product, movie, play, etcetera) before it officially goes on sale or opens to the public.”  In education, we commonly hear the catchphrase “activate prior knowledge.”  This simply means connecting new learning with previous learning.  You could think of this process like a spider web; when we relate new information to old information, we allow our brains to form connections between the two – making our web larger, stronger, and authentically elevating learning.  

Giving students a brief understanding of what lies ahead with a new topic will reduce any overload when they get to that subject matter. Previewing material can ensure that students are more prepared to learn the material, complete the assignment, turn in quality work, and master the content at-hand.

The Solution, Part 2:  REVIEWING STANDARDS

Ebbinghaus, who headed research surrounding the ‘forgetting curve’, discovered that “without any reinforcement or connections to prior knowledge, information is quickly forgotten—roughly 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days” (Terada).  It can be disheartening to think about all of the learning loss that happens so quickly!  To offset this forgetting curve, reviewing common ELA concepts frequently allows students to retain and recall information in a more authentic way.

Review is naturally a type of formative assessment, giving educators a simple “checkpoint” to quickly assess what our students know and can do. Brain research shows that students perform better in school when they are re-exposed to previously learned material (Kang). We can use this information to provide meaningful, differentiated instruction that will build students’ confidence and help their brains to solidify concepts and skills.


Regularly previewing and reviewing EVERY SINGLE THING we teach just isn’t possible.  When considering what to focus on, I think about state standards, chosen learning targets, and foundational gaps that I’ve noticed with students.  I also consider vertical learning and where students will be headed.  What skills and knowledge will be essential for them to be successful at the next level? 

Practical strategies for spiral review

What could it look like?

The secret to helping students learn and retain these new skills is to space their learning, so they have an opportunity to practice again…just as they are about to forget it. Research tells us that “The major concern is not whether or how to offer explicit strategy instruction, but finding a way to sustain strategies’ instruction beyond initial explaining, modeling and scaffolding; making strategy use part of daily life in the classroom” (Brevik 2305).  How might this look in practical application? There are many ideas below for previewing and reviewing regularly.

Keep in mind that low-achieving students often need more repetitions than others; this especially applies to English language learners who may not have the context that native English-speakers may have.


Bellringers are a great way to allow students to preview what’s to come and quickly embed a formative assessment for teachers to see where students are. These quick, start-of-the-class activities allow students to connect information already learned and even preview information that’s about to come.

Question of the Day

Embed a question of the day at some point in your lesson. This can happen in a number of ways. Perhaps you choose a specific topic that you want to preview for the day’s lesson, or perhaps you choose a question to review from the previous day’s lesson. 

Peer-to-Peer Explanation

Simply have your students turn to their elbow partner and explain what was just taught or recall what they learned a week ago. Doing so makes your students active learners as they work on retaining new knowledge.

Exit Tickets

Review a concept previously covered in your lesson through an exit ticket.  Exit tickets can take may forms:

  • simple question & verbal or written response – “What are two takeaways from today’s lesson?” or “Explain what a subordinating conjunction is to a third grader.  Include an example.”
  • a quick Kahoot, Quizziz, or class poll
  • fist-of-five or self-evaluation of understanding
Small Groups

Differentiated small groups for reading and writing are a great way to reinforce learning.  While your class is working on an independent assignment, pull students in tiered groups to work through the concepts – reviewing their learning and providing enrichment for what’s to come.  Choose these groups from the previous day’s exit ticket. 

Choice Boards or Tic-Tac-Toe Boards

These are a fun way to implement student choice.  Think about a learning progression for a group of standards. Make the choice boxes contain both subject matter that hints at what’s to come and what was previously taught to make previewing and reviewing natural. 

Low-Stakes Quizzes

Frequent, small practice tests that are short (5 questions or fewer), target the understanding of one newly taught concept, and utilize varying test question types are one of the most straightforward ways to review.  Since the assessment is small, students should get quick feedback allowing them to see what they know (or don’t know), and as a teacher, it should provide you with a gauge of understanding.  

Fun Day Friday

Have a day where you play a game to review concepts taught that week or preview upcoming learning targets.  Research tells us that gamified platforms like Kahoot, Quizlet, Blooket, and Quizizz elevate the stakes through competition and make students active learners.  There are tried-and-true games like “trashketball”, BINGO, and Jeopardy that always work well, too. Some of my favorite classroom games for previewing and reviewing are original and allow for higher-level thinking! Often, students end up remembering more from game review simply because they are wholly invested in the battle.

Student-Generated Questions

Students can “show what they know” by generating their own questions for peers to complete.  Have students complete these in small groups or allow them to make these as a fast-finisher activity. It helps to model the types of questions and answer choices you want to see.

Mental Models

Combining text with imagery and sensory experiences allows students to make multiple connections in their brains, leading to more knowledge retention.  Maybe it’s clipart of a train car to help students remember the job of a conjunction or trying on different types of “crazy glasses” to help students experience different points of view, singing a song to aid in vocabulary practice (School House Rock, anyone?), or using paint chips to teach varying mood or tone.

Learning Stations

This is an easy way to differentiate groups and reach student deficiencies.  Simply set up several stations (think elementary “centers”), and each station will have a different focus.  Perhaps you plan a station rotation surrounding writing narratives.  One station would center around sequencing, one around dialogue, one around sensory details, one around transitions, and perhaps one more could serve as a designated review station of difficult concepts covered in your class that week.

Gallery Walk

Gallery walks happen when pictures, questions, or items are placed on display around the room and in the hallway (wherever you have space!) Students walk around freely, observing the different displays. You can decide what students do as they circulate the room. To focus on previewing and reviewing, give them some specific things to take notes on as they peruse. Don’t want it to be formal note-taking? Try collaborative anchor chart notes! Students simply add their thoughts on big paper at each stop.

Sub Day

Planning for a sub day? Instead of feeling your block with useless fluff, this is perfect opportunity to build in genuine preview for a standard you’re about to cover and/or review for a concept you’ve recently taught.

Test-prep questions for middle and high school ELA


Adding previewing and reviewing to your pedagogy will be transformative for your classroom by allowing your students to retain more information and connect more ideas! Doing so is totally manageable.

Don’t have hours to think, create, and make preview and review prompts? I can relate. That’s why I have created  400 total preview and review prompts. The flexibility of these prompts allows you to use them in any order you choose while mixing and matching questions to meet specific curriculum and pacing needs.  Students can pre-learn and re-learn core ELA concepts without any extra prep!

While making these prompts, I wanted to prioritize core standard categories, so on each page, I included questions for the following:

  • vocabulary (root words, words in context, multiple meaning words, etc.)
  • grammar (comma rules, dangling modifiers, sentence revision, conjunctions, etc.)
  • figurative language (alliteration, simile, pun, oxymoron, etc.)
  • writing (revising for tone and audience, adding description, inserting transition words, etc.)
  • reading for information (identifying text structure, use of media, logical fallacies, etc.)
  • reading literature (impact of setting, identifying tone, describing mood, etc.).  

Ways to Use Prompts to Get it and NOT Forget it!

Keep students thinking about each of the major pillars of ELA even when they are engaged in a specific essay, grammar, or literature unit. This resource can be used in all of the practical application methods mentioned above, but one teacher, Jeanna Link, also has a plethora of suggestions for how she envisions using this resource:

  • As I am planning my previewing and reviewing activities for the year, I can pull questions from this resource for my bell ringers, questions-of-the-day, choice boards, and exit tickets.
  • Small, differentiated groups is the perfect opportunity; just combing through the pages, I can easily find a few questions that would provide differentiation to my “low, middle, and high” students. 
  • One of these sheets would be perfect to use as a review learning station.  
  • Another fun application I see is utilizing the blank template that comes with the Skill and Preview sheets allowing students to generate their own questions – a simple, no-hassle review activity for classroom enrichment. 
  • An additional possibility is to assign one review sheet each week. This could be completed as a daily bellringer or a homework review activity with students completing one prompt per day.  It would just take a few minutes to scan through students’ work to see if they truly are “getting it.”
  • It’s perfect for summer learning. Parents often ask for ways to help students hone their skills over summer break, and sometimes when I teach summer school, I am also looking for meaningful curriculum components. These prompts provide ample opportunity for students to dip down into previous grade level standards for review as well as advance into higher grade level standards for enrichment as the topics in this resource spans grades 6-9.

Try a free one-week sample of my ELA Core Skill Builder prompts by signing up here.


Both previewing and reviewing content should be regular practice in all classrooms, allowing the classroom teacher to meet students where they are, reinforce key ideas, and continue to scaffold as needed. One of the biggest road blocks to making it happen is having meaningful resources ready on the spot.

But once you do, students will excel, their gains will be apparent, and authentic learning will happen.  If that isn’t enough, watching these leaps and bounds take place will serve as our own encouragement and sanity saver. It can be maddening to pour our hearts out teaching like rockstars only to see students forget what we’ve taught them. Reviewing and previewing can be doable and transformative. Let’s get our metaphorical filing cabinets in order and have students access their folders in disarray to do the same.  Never again does the knowledge and information our students learn need to gather cobwebs in the corner!

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Works Cited 

Brevik, Lisbeth M. “Explicit Reading Strategy Instruction Or Daily use of Strategies? Studying the Teaching of Reading Comprehension through Naturalistic Classroom Observation in English L2.” Reading and Writing, vol. 32, no. 9, 2019, pp. 2281-2310. ProQuest.

Kang, S. H. K. (2016). Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning: Policy Implications for Instruction. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 12–19.

Terada, Youki. “Why Students Forget—and What You Can Do About It.” Edutopia, 20 Sept. 2017, https://www.edutopia.org/article/why-students-forget-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/. Accessed 16 June 2023.

Santoro, Helen. “The Neuroscience Behind the Spacing Effect.” BrainFacts.org, 4 Mar. 2021, https://www.brainfacts.org/thinking-sensing-and-behaving/learning-and-memory/2021/the-neuroscience-behind-the-spacing-effect-030421#:~:text=One%20working%20theory%20holds%20that,what%20proteins%20the%20cell%20makes. Accessed 16 June 2023.