My Go-To Starter Activities

Fun ways to revisit learning and ensure retention

I can’t be the only teacher to have noticed that Rosenshine’s Principals seem to be everywhere at the moment. Certainly at my own school, we have spent a lot of INSET time focusing on these principals and considering how we are employing them to ensure that pupils are learning in the most effective way possible. Leaving aside debate relating to the danger of these seventeen principals being used by school leaders as a tick-list during formal lesson observations (“we didn’t see any evidence of modelling today, so this lesson wasn’t good enough,”) and the criticism by many educators that, if asked to create a list of tried-and-tested strategies that work well to improve outcomes in the classroom, most experienced and reflective teachers would come up with a selection not dissimilar to Rosenshine’s own, these principals are a helpful tool to get us reflecting on the way that we teach and why.

For me, it is Rosenshine’s comments on revisiting prior learning which are most interesting especially because, I believe, that as MFL teachers this has always been an intrinsic part of our practice. After all, MFL can be considered a fairly hierarchical subject area, with the need to regularly revisit more basic grammatical rules or sentence constructions in order to move children on to increasingly complex ones. That said, with OFSTED’s current focus on “sticky knowledge”, teachers need, more than ever, to be ensuring that pupils have adequate opportunities to revisit and rehearse prior learning in order for it to pass from working into long-term memory and remain there.

Willingham’s Memory Model, as illustrated by Oliver Caviglioli

This, like many principals laid out in pedagogic research, can seem easier said than done. Limited time, the sheer vastness of the primary curriculum, as well as the external forces beyond our control which may act on individual pupils, can make enabling children to effectively remember what we have taught them seem like an up-hill battle. However, with a well designed MFL curriculum, which allows for regular revisiting of key vocabulary and structures through carefully sequenced units (that’s probably a post for another time), as well as regular retrieval activities, all pupils can be enabled to recall more and better over time.

I’m not saying that I have all the answers, by any stretch of the imagination. I am regularly discouraged by how little some of my pupils seem to remember – especially given the stop-start nature of the past year’s learning – but I know that dedicating ten minutes or so at the start of every lesson to recapping, not just learning from the current unit of work but also elements of previously-taught units, makes a big difference for the children that I teach. Making these Starter Activities fast-paced, fun (and often, competitive) keeps motivation high and tends to start the lesson off on a good footing. In my teacher planner, I have a list of go-to Starter Activities that I can pick from if I’m feeling a bit uninspired when planning a unit of work, or if I feel that children need to go back and revisit a particular learning point from a previous lesson or unit and I want a tried-and-tested activity that I know will do the job. So, here, in no particular order, are my top ten starter activities to encourage recall.

Retrieval Grids:

Although I had seen these before, I was really inspired by Catriona Egan in the Autumn Edition of Languages Today Magazine to start using these grids regularly. They are a great way for pupils of all ability levels to revisit prior vocabulary and grammatical constructions, with simpler phrases assigned a lower points value than more complex ones. I give children about five minutes to work on translating as many phrases as they can, either independently or in mixed-ability pairs (simpler translations are from the target language to English and more complex ones from English to the target language) and then we feed back as a class, checking and correcting the translations. We then work out who has managed to gain the highest score. Many children find the competitive element very motivating and the fact that phrases vary in difficulty means that all children can access the task. This Genially example reveals the answers under each phrase when the mouse is hovered over the box, saving time on copying up translations on the board.

This example of a retrieval grid for sports, made using Genially, reveals answers when the mouse is hovered over the square.

The Learning Apps site can also be used to create similar grids, with the option to hide an image or clip underneath the phrase pieces, as a motivational tool.

The clip (Le cercle de la vie) hidden beneath this grid links into the children’s learning about animals.


A classic for good reason, bingo can be adapted to suit any age and stage of language learning. It works well with phonics when focusing on phoneme/grapheme correspondence, for single units of vocabulary and more complex phrases, or even revisiting conjugation. For a quick, no-prep starter children can draw grids on their own mini whiteboards, or you may want to create your own individual boards with key vocabulary on and laminate them for future use. Loto en ligne, where pupils have a strip of paper with a variety of items on it and can only cut off those at the top or bottom as they hear them, is another variant and is great for hearing words or chunks of language more than once. Competitive, but with an element of chance which appeals to all learners, this game is a sure-fire hit every time I use it.

This interactive version of bingo, generously shared by @MarieAlirot, is great if children are working on devices and can be used in conjunction with ‘Wheel of Names’ to pick individual phrases.


I love using sentence-sorting to get children thinking about whether or not a phrase or sentence makes sense and discussing why it does, or doesn’t. I find it particularly useful for tricky points of grammar, which can be easily forgotten if not revisited often. Sentence-sorting can be done physically, using strips of paper or laminated cards but, to save time, I find the Word Wall ‘Group Sort’ template very helpful in that it allows me to create a range of sentences quickly and easily, without the need for printing or laminating. Children, working in pairs, divide their boards up into the correct number of sections and physically copy the words or phrases into the correct area. Pupils can then come up individually to drag and drop the phrases into the correct group and each pair gets a point for every one they get right. The great thing about this short, focused activity is that it draws out a lot of great discussion between pupils and with the class as a whole, allowing the teacher to quickly assess who has, and hasn’t, fully grasped a concept.

Hexagon Puzzles:

A recent discovery, which I have found incredibly helpful for revisiting vocabulary from previous topics, Hexagon Puzzles ask children to move from one side of a grid to the other, earning points from challenges that they encounter along the way. These can be in the form of vocabulary tasks, translations, sentence corrections or conjugation activities (the example below is aimed at Year 3 so doesn’t involve any verb work) but the aim for the children is to gain as many points as possible by doing it. Working in pairs is a really helpful way to tackle these grids as children can use their combined knowledge on the harder tasks and the output is often better than if the children work alone.

This example was adapted from one found on TES, created by We Teach Spanish

1 pen, 1 dice:

Or, in the current times: 2 pens, 2 dice. Children are given a short text, either on a piece of paper or on the screen and must work together to translate it. One of the pair starts, translating sentence by sentence (either from the target language to English or visa versa). Whilst they translate, their partner rolls the dice repeatedly until they get a six. Once the six is rolled, they take over, translating as much as they can until their partner throws a six and it is time to swap again. The aim is to be the person in the pair who translates the most words correctly. After the children have had about five minutes on the task, the whole class works together to feed back their translations, checking and correcting as they go. This is a great way to practise a range of structures and vocabulary and can be made simpler for younger learners through a target language to English translation, or more complex through translation from English into the target language.


Trapdoor is a brilliant activity, useful at many stages of the language-learning process. I like to use it as a fun way to scaffold speaking as children begin to form longer sentences and it can later be recycled as a writing frame to support less confident learners when putting pen to paper. Most recently, I have been re-using Trapdoor grids as starter activities, bringing back vocabulary and sentence-structures from previous units. Every pupil writes a sentence secretly on a whiteboard, choosing a phrase from each individual section. I like to colour code the sections in red, amber and green and children go as far as they feel confident, some creating longer sentences than others. In pairs, person A selects a word or phrase from the first section of the laminated trapdoor grid that they share and, if correct can move on the second and so on. The only rule is that if they choose the wrong item of vocabulary, they must start over again at the beginning, re-reading the phrase from the start. The example below was made using Canva, my new favourite tool for creating resources.

Trapdoor game based on a Year 3 unit on Ours Brun.

Flippity Sentence-Builders:

I feel like I talk about Flippity a lot, but I really find it such a versatile tool and, now I’ve got to grips with it, so easy and quick for preparing activities. The randomiser is a great tool for a quick revision starter and allows children to translate sentences from the target language into English, or the other way round. Creating a ‘tangled translation’, as in the example below, allows children to choose which way round they want to to this, allowing for SEND pupils and rapid-graspers alike to access the activity at their own level. Numbers above the different parts of the sentence, indicate to learners the simpler constructions and what they can add to extend and add detail to their sentence, in the same way as the colour-coding on the Trapdoor grids (unfortuantely Flippity doesn’t let you choose the colours of each separate section). The randomiser is also great for getting learners to think about whether sentences make sense and allowing opportunities for children to edit their work appropriately. For anyone using Genially regularly in lessons, the randomiser can also be embedded into your slides, keeping all your activities in one place.

Backwards Jenga:

Definitely one to save until we are in more “normal” times, this is a really fun activity that I am looking forward to using again (hopefully very soon) and gets all the children talking. It is particularly useful for revising a range of questions and rehearsed responses. Each team is given a load of Jenga blocks, which they must divide up between themselves. All the blocks have numbers written on them, from 1 to 6. On the board, or a sheet of paper on the table, a list of numbered questions is displayed. Children go round in a circle, choosing a block from their selection and answering the corresponding question. If they answer correctly, they can place the block into the middle of the table, working as a team to create a tower. If they successfully build the tower and finish the activity, they can play a game of real Jenga, as a reward. This game is great for teacher assessment: a tower taking a long time to construct might indicate an issue with remembering the correct vocabulary and one being built very quickly might indicate a team who are very confident with the language required (or, on the other hand, one not answering the questions properly).

Revision Ladders:

I’ve mentioned these in a previous post on resources to support the learning of SEND learners in the primary MFL classroom, but this ladder activity, the inspiration for which came from @MissMeyMFL, can be used as a nice starter to get children really thinking about the key language and structures that they have already learned. Children work in pairs, starting with a counter each at the bottom of the ladder. Each has a separate translation sheet with the vocabulary on one side in English and the other in the target language.

Sentences increase in complexity as the pupils move up the ladder.

Pupil A reads out a sentence, either in English or the target language, and their partner must translate it back to them verbally. If correct, as decided by checking on the sheet, they may move up a rung on the ladder. They then swap and the second pupil listens and translates the word or phrase read to them by their partner, from a separate and containing different words and sentences. The structures increase in difficulty as the children move up and any mistakes see them drop down to the bottom on the ladder again. Beware though, it can get very competitive!


Dictation is a really fantastic activity for revising previously-learned structures. In French it is particularly useful for recapping silent letter rules and agreement, which is not always obvious when spoken, and is also a really nice cultural link to the ubiquitous dictée taken by French children at least weekly. The teacher reads a phrase several times, and children have to jot down what they hear on their mini whiteboard. The teacher then reveals the written phrase on the board and pupils can award themselves a mark for every word they spell correctly. I am very mean and only give the children half marks if they are missing accents, and it is wonderful opportunity to consider why accents are so important and how they actually change the sound of the word, something which is not always obvious to monolingual English speakers. I also deduct marks for missing apostrophes in words (the word aujoud’hui is a great one for this). The lovely thing about this activity is that errors can be quickly identified and discussed and children find the awarding of points very motivating. It certainly gets children thinking more carefully about the accuracy of their writing, which can only be a good thing. It also requires very minimal prep.

For further ideas on Retreival Practice, I am currently really enjoying reading ‘Retrieval Practice: Resource Guide’, by Kate Jones, which offers lots of great (non subject-specific) activities, easily adaptable to the primary MFL classroom.

4 thoughts on “My Go-To Starter Activities

  1. This is really helpful. I will look into canva and flippity. Does flippity take some getting used to?


    1. It’s actually quite straightforward once you’ve had a bit of a play around with it. There are little written ‘tutorials’ with each activity to help and things like the flashcards are great as you can get lots of activities from one vocab set.


  2. This is fantastic. I have been reading Roshenshine’s principles and this blog post really puts the idea of retrieval into practice.
    Thank you


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: