Fourteen Educational Myths

I am sometimes reminded by conversations with other teachers that there are educational myths which refuse to go away. We have to keep reminding ourselves that they are myths, or they begin to resurface and undermine our effectiveness. Here are a few which seem to be particularly persistent:

Myth 1: You remember things better when you find them out for yourself

Discovery learning only works when you are already an expert. At school level, pupils need fully guided instruction. This is because the process of discovery overloads working memory, preventing the retention of material in long-term memory. Pupils can be intensively engaged in project-based learned for hours and retain nothing whatsoever in long-term memory.

Myth 2: You learn best in your preferred learning style

This is one of the most persistent edu-myths. We may prefer certain ways of learning over others, but this does not mean they are the most effective. The most effective method of learning something depends not upon the learner, but upon the material to be learned.

This myth is particularly persistent because it appeals to the common sense truth that people are all different: we are all unique individuals. While this is true, the architecture of the human brain is consistent, and therefore the most effective ways of learning material are consistent across different individuals. We all have a limited working memory and an almost limitless long-term memory.

Myth 3: You can improve your generic ‘thinking skills’

Thinking depends upon knowledge. You can think well about something when you know a lot about it. Generic ‘thinking skills’ do not exist. ‘Brain-training’ applications and activities are educational snake-oil.

Myth 4: You can measure learning

A pupil’s performance within a given lesson or test is no guarantee that they have learned the material. They could score 100% on a test and have forgotten everything within days or even hours. Long-term learning can only happen through repeated, spaced practice, which cannot be observed in one isolated performance.

Myth 5: There’s no need to memorise now that we have Google

We must distinguish between knowledge and information. Endless information is available on the internet, but it does not become knowledge until we have assimilated it into our minds. It is only then that we can think with it. Consider language acquisition. Is someone able to express themselves in a language when they have to look up most of the words they need to use?

Myth 6: As a professional, I know how much practice my pupils need

As subject experts, we are particularly prone to underestimate how much practice our pupils need. The better we know something ourselves, the more we assume that others will learn it with little practice. As an antidote to this ‘expert blindness’, teachers should study the materials designed by Siegfried Engelman and his team and published by the National Institute for Direct Instruction, which have a proven track record of success, based upon the principle that lessons should be roughly 80% review and only 20% new material.

Myth 7: Pupils learn best when we focus on only one topic

It’s a lot more relaxing for teachers to spend a whole term focusing on only one topic, but it is disastrous for pupils’ long-term learning. We need to interleave current topics with frequent review of previous topics, otherwise pupils will not get the practice they need, and their memories of previously studied material will quickly fade. Once again, it is worthwhile to study Direct Instruction courses for an illustration of how to interleave old and new material effectively. DI uses a ‘track design’ which builds in frequent practice of previously taught material.

Myth 8: Pupils learn best through memorable experiences

We need to distinguish between episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memories are memories of events. Semantic memories are memories of information, independently of any associated experiences. It is the latter which we need to build in our pupils’ long-term memories. If we create lessons which are full of varied experiences, pupils will remember the experiences, but not the material which the experiences were supposed to teach. Their working memories will have been occupied by processing the novel experiences, and there will have been little room left for processing, and therefore for remembering, the material which we wanted them to learn.

Therefore, if we want to ensure maximum learning return on time invested, we need to establish routines and stick to them, so that pupils can pay the maximum attention to the academic material which we wish them to learn, and minimum attention to the method by which it is being learned.

Myth 9: Pupils need to learn from their mistakes

Whatever we do repeatedly, we become good at doing. We need to preempt errors to ensure that pupils make as few mistakes as possible. If pupils spend lesson time making mistakes, they become good at making mistakes. They are learning, but they are not learning what we want them to learn. Their misconceptions are being firmly embedded, creating problems which will be difficult to dislodge later on.

In a well-designed course of instruction, pupils will make few mistakes. Typically, in a Direct Instruction course, most pupils will score near 100% because all of the work they are doing has been carefully prepared through repeated practice to the point of mastery.

Myth 10: Understanding is what counts, not memorising

Pupils can understand something without having mastered it or being able to apply it fluently. The majority of our pupils understand, for example, that proper nouns need capital letters, but many do not use them consistently. This is because they have not practised giving proper nouns capital letters until it has become a habit. When something is thoroughly memorised and recall is automatic, pupils do not even need to think about doing it. We need pupils to practise not until they get something right, but until they can’t get something wrong.

Myth 11: It’s a waste of time for pupils to revisit content they have already mastered

The things we know really well are things that we have repeatedly practised even after we have learned them. This is what we do with our native language, until we know it so well that we cannot forget it. Imagine forgetting that a four-legged piece of furniture from which we eat food is called a ‘table’. We just couldn’t do it if we tried. That is the measure of true mastery, and it is achieved not by moving on to new topics rapidly, but by overlearning (see below).

Myth 12: We should move able pupils on quickly when they are getting 100%

The principles of repeated practice and overlearning apply to everyone, regardless of ability. The best way to understand this is to make an effort yourself to master material in an unfamiliar area. You are an intelligent professional. Just look how much practice you need to master that material to fluency! And if you get something right one day, does that mean you will get it right the next?

Myth 13: Pupils need to work in groups in order to develop their team-working skills

Team-working skills are normally developed through ordinary, everyday experiences. Lesson time must be spent upon activities which build knowledge that children will not acquire in this way.

When children appear incapable of working in a team, the causes of this are moral rather than intellectual. Schools need to teach children virtues such as self-control and perseverance so that their natural selfishness and laziness does not impede their ability to work productively with others.

Myth 14: Teachers need to allow the natural goodness of children to flourish

This is one of the most dangerous and damaging myths, not only in education, but more broadly in our culture. It derives from the ideas of the Romantic writers, who held childhood to be innocent and sacred, and believed that formal education interfered with this natural goodness.

On the contrary, children are not naturally good. They must be trained in good habits. They must practise self-control, for example, by being required to listen in silence to the teacher whether they like it or not. Over time, through repeated practice, self-control will become a habit, and this habit will serve them well throughout their life.

On the other hand, if we indulge children and allow them to do what they want, they will grow up selfish and lazy, and have unhappy, unsuccessful lives.

Update: Andrés Bello has translated this blog into Spanish here. It isn’t just in the English-speaking world that these zombies keep rising from their tombs!

[Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

Whole-School Poetry at GYCA

File:Charge of the Light Brigade.jpg

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (1856-1927)

At Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, we always have a poem or a speech which all staff and pupils are working on learning together. This has so many academic and cultural benefits.

Firstly, there is the obvious benefit of cultural capital being acquired by both staff and pupils. Learning classic poems or speeches from Shakespeare builds an intimacy with the language and symbolism of great works of literature that enables genuine engagement with the best that has been thought and said. It sparks curiosity and a desire to know more about where these great words, beautiful cadences and inspiring ideas come from. The curiosity thus created extends beyond the literary into the historical and the philosophical. I had some enlightening discussions about the Crimean War with our head of history last half-term which would not have happened had we not all been memorising ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. This half-term, I’m curious to learn more about the Hundred Years War because we’re all learning the famous speech from Henry V that begins ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’.

Learning poetry and speeches is a shared, communal experiences at Charter. The poetry is heard in assemblies and during morning staff briefing. It is heard in the corridors and in the playgrounds. The walls of Charter echo with the sound of stirring words. When pupils are held up in their progress down the corridors, there is no need for this to be dead time. There are document holders scattered around the school containing the whole-school poetry, so even if staff haven’t quite finished memorising the poems yet, they can grab a booklet and lead some chanting while pupils are waiting to move forwards through the corridors. Moments which could have been filled with boredom, aggravation or just idle chatter are transformed into a joyful shared experience of great words and inspiring ideas.

The poetry which we learn together is chosen for moral as well as academic value. Classics such as ‘If-’ by Rudyard Kipling celebrate great human virtues such as fortitude: perseverance in the face of difficulties. These are the virtues which we want our pupils to acquire during their time at Charter, and the encouragement of the stirring words of great writers adds an extra dimension to the character building which we are doing at the school. When we talk to Y11s about their work ethic as exams approach, we can ask them if they are filling ‘the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run’. When we are encouraging pupils not to give up in the face of difficulties and challenges, we can cite the courage of the Light Brigade, who fought against impossible odds and won eternal glory.

Learning poetry together also teaches us all about the process of learning itself. Pupils see staff struggling to master the poetry. Staff ask pupils to test them on their poetry, giving them the booklet so they can follow and offer feedback. Pupils see that it takes effort and practice to master anything, however clever you are. They are encouraged and inspired by their teachers’ efforts to learn the poetry, even when it is difficult to do so. The experience influences the methods of teachers because they are continually being reminded of how much practice is needed before something really sticks, which leads them to reconsider how often they revisit key knowledge. Are they teaching so that pupils really know it, or only nearly know it? The experience of struggling to master the whole-school poetry is a salutary lesson for all staff on how easily we forget something that we have not truly mastered, which leads them to reconsider their planning and delivery in the classroom.

Last, but by no means least, learning poetry together builds relationships between staff and pupils. Struggling together to master the poetry builds camaraderie, so that pupils feel that we are all on the same team. At breaks and during lesson changeovers, the shared experience of learning whole-school poetry makes conversation easy. We don’t have to make small talk. We can talk about Tennyson or Shakespeare, and what we’ve noticed about the words and ideas which we are working every day to absorb into our long-term memories.

Whole-school poetry memorisation is one of the most distinctive and most joyful aspects of the culture of Charter. It’s one of the things which guests most often comment upon. It’s an experience that cheers one up immensely on a grey January afternoon. Filling your lungs, projecting your voice, and belting out some classic poetry brings life and colour even when the North Sea fog has blotted it out, and when the sun is shining, as it has been lately, poetry recitation only adds to the happiness of working in this very special place.

Whole Class Feedback: Simple and Effective Recording

Last October, I blogged about our use of whole class feedback at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. It’s a simple and effective approach which maximises learning return on time invested. Teachers read books regularly; they reflect carefully on what they read; they revisit key concepts as necessary. We call this the cycle of the three Rs.

When I blogged about this last year, I received a few queries about the systems which we use at Charter for keeping track of feedback. We have a simple, consistent, whole-school approach to recording feedback, which allows for maximum visibility and collaboration with minimal effort. Every department has its own Google spreadsheet in which they record their feedback. I created all of the spreadsheets and organised them within the the SLT team drive, but departments are encouraged to adapt the format to suit their particular needs.

These shared spreadsheets have many benefits. Because everyone can see everyone else’s feedback, they can lead easily into departmental discussions about key misconceptions that need to be addressed, as well as deeper long-term thinking about the curriculum. They also make line management very easy and streamlined, as SLT have all the information at their fingertips when discussing pupil work and teacher feedback with heads of department.

To make this more concrete, I’ve made an example spreadsheet based on the one used by our English department. I hope it’s useful as a tool for enabling other schools to adopt whole-class feedback. It’s one of the most powerful and effective policies any school can have for increasing teacher effectiveness and improving work-life balance.

Whole Class Feedback: A Winner All Round

Hoop jumpingWhole class feedback can be seen as a lazy option. Surely teachers are just avoiding the necessary work of giving individual feedback because they want to have more free time? But this view ignores the important point about opportunity cost, which must always be considered. Time spent on writing individual feedback in exercise books is time not spent on improving resources, or developing subject knowledge. Individualised feedback is enormously time-consuming and of doubtful benefit. In comparison, improving teaching materials will certainly benefit large numbers of pupils, and will continue to do so time and again, as the resources are used year after year.

This view also ignores the personal cost of excessively time-consuming practices which are of doubtful benefit. Teachers have families and friends. They cannot work every hour of the day and night; nor should they. If we want teaching to be a sustainable and an attractive profession, we must consider the work-life balance of staff.

At Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, we have introduced a school wide policy on whole-class feedback. As with everything at GYCA, we are aiming for consistency across the school, so that pupils know exactly what to expect. We are are also aiming, as always, for the maximum learning return on time invested.

As a school we require teachers to read all of their pupils’ books regularly and to make notes, for their own use, in a shared Google spreadsheet which can be accessed by their department and by the senior leadership team. The spreadsheet contains columns for notes which pertain to feedback to be given directly to the class as a result of reading the books, but the more important column is where teachers note feedback for themselves. What are they going to do differently based upon what they have seen in the books? What are they going to teach differently? What are they going to lay greater emphasis upon, or less? Which common misconceptions are they going to address, and how? How might their resources be further developed and refined?

The most important feedback from reading pupil work is not to the pupil but to the teacher. The greatest impact will be had if the teacher reflects on how to improve their teaching based on what they have read. For example, when I read the year ten English literature exams at the end of last year, I noticed that the pupils did not have a clear enough concept of setting. Therefore I updated all of our GCSE literature study guides to include a setting section, to make this more explicit for them. I am also making a point of mentioning the term more often in my teaching of literature, and guiding pupils to write analysis based around aspects of setting in, for example, the Victorian London of Jekyll and Hyde.

At GYCA, teachers have the time and space to reflect on their teaching and respond to what they are seeing in the books. They’ll be doing this in class, as well, as they look over shoulders during writing tasks, which are always done in silence, but the regular look through the whole class sets of books gives a particularly powerful opportunity to reflect on their teaching and how to improve it.

Another huge benefit of our light-touch approach to feedback is that teachers no longer need to be afraid of pupils writing lots and lots and lots. I’m sure many teachers reading this have had a sinking feeling as they watched their classes of thirty-two filling up the pages, and they pictured the piles of books which they would have to fill with extensive, personalised, multicoloured feedback as a result. In contrast, teachers at GYCA are liberated to get pupils to do lots of writing, and they know that they will be able to read it and discuss it without the burden of time-consuming processes imposed on them from above.

It’s a winner all round: lots of writing in silence, lots of guidance before and during that writing, lots of time to produce ever-better resources, and a reasonable work-life balance. That’s why we’re committed to whole-class feedback at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy.

(Image from Wikimedia)

Direct Instruction Principles for Guided Writing Practice

stower_titanic_colourizedI’ve been a fan of Expressive Writing for a number of years. It is exquisitely designed, and like all of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction programmes, the principles on which it is based can teach us much about how to teach effectively across the board. It is particularly relevant, though, to how we think about practising writing.

David Didau recently blogged about what can be practised in English lessons. He argued against practising writing essays or analytical paragraphs on literature, favouring instead the teaching of sentence construction, as sentences are the building blocks of good writing. He also argued that it would be a good idea to use plenty of oral practice of good sentences, as this would result in better retention of knowledge.

I agree that we need to practise the components of writing, and we need to use plenty of oral drill, but it doesn’t have to be either/or. In Expressive Writing, pupils go through a carefully designed, incremental sequence of practice exercises, moving from oral drill, to editing sentences, to writing sentences, to writing paragraphs, to writing multiple paragraphs. The ultimate goal of the oral drill and the written exercises is to enable pupils to produce extended narrative writing fluently and accurately. This has to be our goal with analytical writing as well, and we can use similar methods.

Guided writing practice involves a series of steps. Let’s take the example of writing about An Inspector Calls, J B Priestley’s perennially popular piece of socialist propaganda. Our ultimate goal is that pupils can produce extended analytical writing on a given theme or character in the play. They might have to answer a question like this:

‘How does Priestley use the character of Mr Birling to present ideas about capitalism?’

In a lesson where our goal was for pupils to write a paragraph on this topic, we would teach specific examples of how Birling shows a complacent attitude. We’d teach (or revise) the definition of ‘complacent’ of course – ‘smugly satisfied with your own achievements’. We’d have the class chant that definition, and ask multiple pupils to repeat it using cold-calling. We’d chant key quotations, such as ‘the Titanic […] unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’. We’d model how to analyse such quotations orally, having the whole class and individual pupils repeat sentences such as ‘Using this image, Priestley depicts capitalism as doomed to destruction’.

All of this oral drill would be done briskly, and no pupil would be able to hide, because they would all be expected to join in when the whole class chanted a particular word, phrase or sentence, and they would know that they could be cold-called at any time. Only after having been through this fast-paced, interactive whole class teaching would we ask any pupil to put pen to paper. And when they did put pen to paper, they would start by copying an opening sentence, to ensure that they began as we intended them to go on. The opening sentence could be something like this:

‘Priestley makes abundantly clear to the audience that Birling’s confidence is misplaced, particularly through Birling’s reference to the Titanic as being ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’.’

This sort of closely guided writing practice, preceded by fast-paced oral drill, means that writing is focused, and pupils are continually building knowledge and vocabulary as well as the ability to write analytically. It can be extended to essay length as time goes on, but always under the guidance of the teacher.

If we want our pupils to write well, they need to practise writing, but it doesn’t have to be mechanical Point-Evidence-Explanation; it doesn’t have to be a confusing and futile exercise in building a mythical generic skill of analysis; it doesn’t have to be a pretend mini-GCSE to generate junk data. It can be satisfying, interesting and effective, if we apply the principles of Direct Instruction.

Footnote:

British English:
verb – practise
noun/adjective – practice

American English:
verb and noun/adjective – practice

[Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic]

Primary Literature: Telling Stories

Tikos_Boy_Reading_1843

Boy Reading (1843) by Albert Tikos (1815-1845)

I’m currently working with primary teachers across the Inspiration Trust to develop a content-focused approach to literature. I spoke to the whole primary staff about this project back in October – you can read my talk here. In this post, I’ll be looking at why a content-focused approach is more accessible, more equitable, more effective, and more joyful.

But firstly, what do I mean by content-focused literature teaching? Very briefly, I mean teaching that has as its goal the retention in long term memory of the content of literature: its plots, characters and themes. This goal is distinct from the goal of practising decoding to fluency, which is of course a necessary part of primary education (and sometimes of secondary too). It is also distinct from the goal of practising generalised ‘comprehension skills’ such as inference and prediction. I’ll argue later that a focus on content actually enables better inference and prediction anyway.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is accessible

A strong focus on the plots, characters and themes of literature is more accessible because fundamentally, it is about knowing the story well. Everything flows from this. Stories are the most memorable and interesting thing, for everybody. As Daniel Willingham has pointed out (in Why Don’t Students Like School), the human brain seems to be set up specially for the retention of stories. They sink in and they stay in the mind more easily than anything else.

When the teacher is focused on the story as they teach literature, she is using the most powerful and the most accessible tool for transferring knowledge to their pupils, whatever their ability level. When the teacher reads the story out loud to the class and explains it to them, she opens up new worlds to pupils of all abilities and backgrounds.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is equitable

This follows naturally from accessibility. A teacher-led lesson focused on literary content allows the whole class to share in the story. The whole class is building cultural capital. The whole class is building shared meanings that will stand them in good stead as they mature and encounter more sophisticated texts. No one is left behind.

This is always the paradox: when we insist upon differentiation, we embed disadvantage and make our education system less equitable. When we insist that everyone in the class listens and learns the same material, we reduce the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is effective

When the focus is squarely on the content of literature, children’s knowledge and vocabulary will grow, and this is the primary means by which comprehension can be improved. While there is some benefit in general strategies for improving comprehension, they are, as Willingham points out here, easily learned and do not require much practice. The vast majority of our ability to comprehend is based upon what we have stored firmly in our long term memories. So focusing on this in our primary curriculum is the best way to ensure success in the short and the long term. It will lead to better SATs results, but more importantly, it will lay firm foundations for a lifetime of better understanding and ever increasing knowledge.

Our brains, tuned as they are to stories, naturally infer and predict, and their ability to do this accurately is primarily based on how much knowledge is stored in long term memory. The conclusion is obvious. If we want our pupils to be able to infer and predict effectively, we must give them more knowledge.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is joyful

If we want to inoculate our pupils against literature, the best way to do this is to turn every story into a vehicle for practising comprehension strategies or doing SATs test preparation. But when we forget all that dry, dull and empty formalism, we find that there is a wealth of fascinating stories that every pupil can enjoy. Content-focused primary literature teaching becomes a journey of discovery which includes everybody in the class, even the teacher. And you get better SATs results into the bargain.

Literature: What Is It, and Why Do We Study It?

Screenshot 2017-10-20 at 18.15.54This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave to all Inspiration Trust primary staff on 20th October 2017.

This morning, I want to examine what we mean by literature as a subject. How is literature different from other kinds of reading? How does it connect to literacy? And what exactly is the substantive knowledge within the academic subject called literature? By substantive knowledge, I mean factual, or know-that knowledge, as opposed to disciplinary, or know-how knowledge, such as the knowledge of how to write an essay on literature. The two are always intertwined, of course.

Let’s start with out overall vision. We need to ask ourselves, where do we want to be in five years’ time? We want to have pupils who love literature. What do we mean by that? We mean that they are interested in the types of stories that they find in great novels and plays. They want to read them, because through them they enter into other worlds which have great significance for them.

We all love stories. We tell stories and we listen to stories all the time. We tell stories about each other and we listen to them. Films and television are full of stories. We don’t have to persuade our pupils to be interested in stories. They naturally are. But we do need to build their curiosity about the kinds of stories they find in great literature.
How are we going to build this curiosity? How are we going to reach the situation where our pupils have a hunger for reading more high quality fiction? Where they want to read all seven Narnia books, not just one? How are we going to convince them that the plays of Shakespeare are full of rich meaning for them?

Firstly, we need to understand what curiosity is. It is not immanent – it is not something that you just have inside you, to a greater or lesser degree. It is emergent – it grows and develops, depending upon how it is nurtured. People in general, including children, are curious about things with which they have some familiarity. For a young child, this is quite a limited range of things. They are curious about the world that is immediately surrounding them, so curious, in fact, that it can be dangerous, as any mother of a toddler will tell you.

It is our job as teachers to develop and nurture the curiosity of children by giving them more things to be curious about. We do this by introducing them to areas of knowledge with which they were previously unfamiliar. You can’t be curious about something if you know nothing about it.

This is why reading aloud to young children is so important. When we read them classic tales, their minds are opened upon many different and fascinating worlds. But when they hear stories that are based only around what they already know, they remain in that limited sphere.

During the twentieth century, there was a move away from using folk tales and fairy tales in the education of children, towards using stories that reflected their own lives – stories of lost teddies, or of starting school, or of coping with the birth of a younger sibling. It was argued that fairy tales were not worth sharing with children, because they were so far removed from their everyday experience. What children needed was something that was immediately relevant to them.

By removing the fantastical and strange from children’s fiction, we remove precisely what is needed to introduce them to classic literature. If they only hear about lost teddies when they are four, they will only want to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid when they are ten.

This is why our core primary books are based around classics and folk tales. We want to build, from the earliest possible stage, the appetite for what is different and unfamiliar – for other worlds. These other worlds help us to understand our own world, because they give us different points of reference. When we are locked into our immediate surroundings and our present reality, we have no points of comparison.

The desire for escape into other realities will be fed in other ways, if we do not feed it through introducing children to classic literature. It will be fed through films, television and computer games. We all have a thirst for escape into different worlds, just as we all have curiosity. The question in both cases is not whether the appetite exists, but on what does it feed? Just as a child who is not fed wholesome food will be more likely to fill up on crisps and sweets, a child who is not fed classic tales will be more likely to fill up on the escapist fantasies of Disney films and video games.

We have to offer children these alternative realities. We have to be convinced that the alternative realities of fairy tales and classic children’s fiction are more nourishing to their imagination than the latest Disney film or the latest thrilling video game. They are more nourishing because they ‘hold a mirror up to nature’: they help us to reflect on our own lives with renewed wisdom. We do not leave reality behind entirely. This is the difference between imagination and fantasy. In the world of imagination, we build stronger relationships with reality by thinking about it through new symbols that reflect it more luminously. In the world of fantasy, we become the centre of our own private universe, and our connection with reality is weakened. This is preeminently the case in video games, which do quite literally make the player the centre of an alternative universe.

When C S Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the middle of the twentieth century, his publisher was worried at first that it would tarnish his reputation. It was Lewis’ first attempt at writing children’s fiction. He already had a strong reputation as an author for adults. His publisher fretted that such a book would not be popular even with its intended audience, as the fashion was against tales of talking beasts and evil witches, and in favour of greater so-called ‘relevance’.

But as we know, Lewis’ novel was a runaway success, and it remains one of the most popular children’s classics of all time. It is a classic because it is rooted in Lewis’ deep knowledge of myth and folklore. Lewis was a professor of literature, and this expertise was not a dry set of ancient facts, but a living body of stories and symbols which he could deploy in creating his wonderful, magical tale. Lewis drew on the many alternative realities which he knew intimately, in Greek, Celtic and Icelandic mythology, as well as biblical sources, and created something which ran completely counter to the prevailing ideas about children’s fiction. He and his friends J R R Tolkien and Roger Lancelyn Green knew that these timeless stories had not lost their power to tell us something about our own lives. Human nature had not changed, and humans could still respond to the stories told by their ancestors down the centuries.

We need to keep this belief alive as we initiate the young into the world of classic literature. We are introducing them to tales which have a timeless value. Precisely because they are not set in our current reality, but somewhere else, they afford us comparisons and contrasts that help us to understand our lives in a richer way. Just as we cannot understand the present without knowing the past, we cannot understand this reality unless we have access to other realities. The strangeness of fairy tales and of classic literature is precisely its strength.

But how can we most effectively initiate the young into these alternative realities that are so rich in meaning? Firstly, by reading aloud from a carefully selected range of classics. Hearing classic tales from a young age will shape the taste of our pupils. If from a young age our pupils are hearing about dragons and giants, about heroic quests, they will experience vividly the possibilities that classic literature affords. There is real danger and real excitement in fairy tales that is entirely absent from the sanitised, mundane world of books which only reflect what is already familiar.

Building on this familiarity with the world of classic tales, we have selected books which will develop further the taste for alternative realities that are rich in meaning. We need to make the books themselves the centre of what we are doing. The content of the literature needs to be at the heart of our teaching. We want them to know these stories intimately. The more they know about classic literature, the more likely they are to want to read it independently, because curiosity is always based upon what is already known.

This is the key: we need to keep the content of the literature central to what we do. This is not in conflict with achieving better SATs results. When we make the substantive literary knowledge central, we are building the knowledge and vocabulary of our pupils in a highly coherent and therefore highly effective way. It is better knowledge and vocabulary which lead to better reading and better writing, which will mean better SATs results, and more importantly, better educated children, well prepared to go on to more demanding literary content in their future academic careers.

So what is literary knowledge? It is the knowledge of plots, characters and themes in literature, and the knowledge of the language used to communicate these plots, characters and themes. Integrated into knowledge of plot, character and theme is the contextual knowledge which is essential to understanding them properly. But we must not let context swamp text. Our literature lessons should not become history lessons. The work of literature must hold centre stage.

Plot, character and theme sound rather technical, but we could express them as stories, people and ideas. And who isn’t interested in stories, people and ideas?

First must come plot. If our pupils do not grasp the whole sweep of the plot of a work of literature, they are wandering in a mapless wilderness. It is the plot which makes a path through the work of literature. This is how we find our way through it. This is what keeps us turning the page: we want to find out what happens next. We need to ensure that whatever methods we use, we do not lose sight of the plot, because if we do, whatever we teach will lack the satisfying coherence that the plot provides. If we choose to use extracts, we need to make sure that all pupils know at least a summary of what happened between those extracts.

What do we actually enjoy about reading? We enjoy discovering what happens next. If we use extracts that are not rooted in this overall sense of the plot, we are turning the work of literature into a mere tool for practising reading. Our pupils will never become curious about literature through lessons like this. They will see it as a tedious, dry exercise in test preparation. We will have inoculated them against literature, not initiated them into it.

We, as teachers, need to know the plot of the literature we teach inside out and back to front. It’s no good just being a chapter or two ahead of the class. We need to memorise the plot, so that whenever we deal with specific incidents within the text, we can place them effortlessly, and communicate that coherence to our pupils.

Next must come characters. We are all interested in people. That’s why we gossip. The characters of the literary works we teach should become so familiar to our pupils that they gossip about them, or wonder what they would do in this situation. C S Lewis actually brings Aslan into the dreary world of the awful school attended by Eustace and Polly in The Silver Chair, the sixth Narnia book. We want our pupils to imagine Aslan on the playground too, because they know him so well.

We, as teachers, need to know the characters intimately, just as we need to know the plot inside out. These characters need to be familiar friends for us, so that we can confidently introduce our pupils to them. Once you have really got to know someone, you never forget them. Could you ever forget your best friend from school days? These characters need to become our best friends, and our pupils’ best friends, so that they will never forget them.

Then there are the great themes of literature. We shouldn’t shy away from the big questions asked by literature, because it is this which raises it above the puerile, sanitised content of the latest Disney animation. Literature leads us to examine the meaning and purpose of human existence. Frequently, it is a memento mori too – a reminder of our mortality. Instead of being threatened by such deep questions, we need to embrace them, so that our pupils come to see books not as mere escapism, or worse, as some kind of dry academic exercise, but as a source of truth. Yes, I used the ‘T’ word. And why not? Without it, literature is so boring.

A word about poetry. Plot, character and theme are the substantive content of literature, particularly of novels and plays. They apply to narrative poetry too, but with shorter poems, theme may be more present than plot or character. Nevertheless, we can tell a story around a poem to bring it to life for our pupils. There is always a story to tell, because there is always an author, and the story of the author’s life. There is also the story of literary movements: the drama of Romantics reacting against neoclassicism, for example.

Within the framework of this substantive knowledge about plot, character and theme, examples of the language used by authors of great literature become meaningful. There will be no danger of meaningless feature spotting if we make sure that every example of language use is anchored in specific knowledge about the meaning of the work of literature.

Plot, character and theme, or stories, people and ideas: this fascinating content must be at the centre of what we do when we teach literature, and if we make sure that it is, we can be certain that our pupils are building a coherent body of knowledge that has a priceless intrinsic worth, as well as being invaluable for developing their ability to read with understanding, and write fluently, articulately and creatively.