A Little Knowledge is a Many-Splendored Thing

We’ve been thinking about knowledge and reading a lot recently. Christine Counsell has given the leaders of my trust reading homework. Chapter 2 of Hirsch’s On Cultural Literacy has some penny-dropping lines. My favourite is: Our cognitive life takes place through a small window of attention that is framed by short-term memory. Yes it does.

One of the key points in the chapter is the impact of prior knowledge on that window of attention and on children’s ability to comprehend texts. My colleagues and I have been discussing this for some time. We’ve been dissatisfied with our current literacy course and how it does little to develop knowledge and vocabulary. It occurred to two of us simultaneously that our pupils already have a bank of stored experience and knowledge, but that we have left it to lie dormant: topic work.

In common with most primary schools, we teach science, art and the humanities through topic work. Each topic (Romans, Victorians, creatures of the deep, etc.) begins with a stimulus, a trip or activity, which leads to a piece of writing each week. For our children, this has been distinct from reading.

My colleague and I realised that we could really stretch our pupils’ reading if we used texts for which they already had a schema of knowledge. We decided to start with the Victorians.

I have recently returned from Reading Reconsidered training by Doug Lemov and colleagues. I have shared the techniques with my team members and we are happily controlling the game, writing and rewriting using challenging texts into which we embed both on and off target (read the book if I’ve lost you). We wanted to add our pupils prior knowledge to the cauldron.

We began by asking our year 3, 4, and 5 colleagues what they hope our current year 6 would remember from their experiences as younger pupils. We received an incredibly rich description of their knowledge and experiences over the past four years. A wonderful addition were the many photographs of school trips – children dressed as Victorian’s at the Gressenhall workhouse; as village children at West Stow Anglo-Saxon reconstructed houses, sat around a forest fire listening to Beowulf and as Roman centurions marching around the school field.

My year 6 colleagues then planned our reading list for the rest of the year based on the knowledge and experience our children already have. Our first text was about Ford Madox Brown’s painting Work. We used Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby’s Khan Academy essay here.

You will see that is isn’t a year 6 text. We approached it carefully. On the preceding Friday, we showed them their photos at the workhouse from two years previously, which they loved. When we saw them on Monday morning, they were already talking about the Victorians. We had made a Victorian quiz for them to take part in first – in groups of four. We wanted them to be able to discuss their knowledge, to give it chance to warm-up and bubble to the surface.

Then we showed them the picture.

Work by Ford Madox Brown

We projected it onto the screen and looked at all of the characters, one-by-one, in close up. The children loved seeing the small details: the man down the hole; the plant-seller’s bare feet; the girl pulling her brother’s hair.

Then we read the text. We used Control the Game – every pupil’s name already on our versions of the text, with our agreed definitions and whether we would define, give synonyms or simply steam-roller past.

It worked. At the end of the week, the children said that they enjoyed the text (they are typically very honest). They were buzzing that they had read a GCSE text and liked it. They had written some brilliant sentences (I’ll photograph and add a few next week).

So a little knowledge isn’t a dangerous thing – it is a many splendored thing, a schema ready to be developed. Next week’s text, A Christmas Carol. Jade in my class: “Ohh, that’s my favourite!”

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