Appositives as retrieval practice

Birmingham based NQT Austin Dwyer (@AustinDDwyer) was inspired by a blog post on using appositives by CogSciSci editor Tom Chillimamp and has had a go himself. The sentences produced by his pupils led him to experiment in using appositives as a structure for retrieval practice. This seems a great idea and is something I’m now looking to try out for myself.

-cogscisci editor


This blog is a brief description of my experience using appositives with a year 9 class after reading about them in Tom Chillimamp’s blog. You can read more about ‘The Writing Revolution’, the book where Tom got the idea from, in his blog.  While my original aim was similar to Tom’s – to give pupils a chance to improve their writing in science – my experience and subsequent reflection ended up a little different.

My year 9 class had been doing a topic on earth and the atmosphere.  There’s a lot of information to remember and some of the descriptions can get a bit wordy, so it seemed like a good opportunity to do something different (and for me to do a little experimenting).

First, I modelled the use of appositives using some examples from sports (Liverpool, the best team in England, will win the league this season) and had the pupils come up with their own (which were mostly about themselves and how great they are).  I wasn’t too rigorous with the grammar, and while I’d pitched it as an activity to improve writing in science, I didn’t go into the same level of grammatical detail as Tom did.  I specified that the appositive must provide more information about the noun or noun phrase preceding it and that the sentence must be grammatically correct with the appositive removed.  Other than that, I relied on modelling correct usage.

I gave a specific science example using content from the lesson:

“Nitrogen, a gas which makes up 78% of earth’s atmosphere, is relatively unreactive.”

Next, I gave them a sentence with space for an appositive and had them complete it themselves:

“Oxygen, ___________________________ , is necessary for human survival.”

Most of them happily complied and told me that oxygen made up 21% of earth’s atmosphere.  However, one told me oxygen was a molecule made of two oxygen atoms and another told me oxygen was needed for burning.  Something I hadn’t expected was happening – the pupils were recalling information about oxygen from previous topics, rather than the information I had just provided them with.  For the next example I just gave them the start of the sentence:

Carbon dioxide, __________________________ ,  _____________________  .

Most of them told me that carbon dioxide made up less than 1% of earth’s atmosphere.  But they also told me that it is a greenhouse gas, that it is a product of burning, that it has the formula CO2 and that it is absorbed by trees.  One pupil told me that carbon dioxide is a poisonous gas – this error was corrected by another pupil who suggested it was carbon monoxide that is poisonous.  So, not only were they voluntarily retrieving information from previous topics, but also revealing and correcting inaccuracies in their knowledge.

At this point, I had stopped caring about the effect this might have on their writing skills and was thinking about how this could be used for retrieval practice.  I do a retrieval quiz at the start of my lessons which has standard questions like “What are the products of respiration?” and “Write a word equation for photosynthesis.”  However, with a noun or noun phrase of an appositive sentence, I’m allowing them to recall whichever information they wish.  In this way, it is perhaps similar to a goal free task – they are required to recall any two pieces of information about that thing.  And, hopefully, the result will be that two potentially unconnected pieces of information about the same thing will be linked in their understanding.  In this way, it can be used to check schema formation in a similar way to Tom’s description of ‘because, but, so’ in his blog article.

The next lesson, I asked the pupils to use appositives to write sentences beginning with ‘Respiration’, ‘Photosynthesis’ and ‘Combustion’.  Here are some of the responses I got:

  • Photosynthesis, the process plants use to make their own food, is where carbon dioxide and water react to make glucose.
  • Respiration, where glucose and oxygen are converted to energy, water and carbon dioxide, puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
  • Combustion, also called burning, is a chemical reaction in which a substance reacts quickly with oxygen.
  • Combustion, a chemical process where methane and oxygen produce light and heat, is also called burning. (Sentences like these were common, and I’d highlight that they would sound better switched around).
  • Photosynthesis, a chemical process in which plants turn carbon dioxide and water into glucose, takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

I do have one caveat – while I was impressed with these examples, not every pupil in the class was turning out such high-quality sentences.  But as a first attempt I thought it went very well, and it reminded me again of the importance of trying new things and watching very closely to see what part of the learning process it is impacting.

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