My favourite question: ‘What do you not understand?’

I can still remember studying Julius Caesar at secondary school. My teacher took us through the play line-by-line and, even now, his face, his classroom and even the Times Roman font of the cheap edition I read from spring vividly to mind whenever I think of the words ‘Beware the Ides of March’ or ‘Et tu, Brute?’ Later on, during my A-Level and undergraduate years, Shakespeare became tougher: I had to wring out the meaning for myself. I learned to enjoy the challenge, the endless pouring over footnotes and re-reading of lines.

I have always hated not understanding what I read. I think many of the children I teach feel the same way and that might be why without careful teaching, tough texts can lead to disenchantment with reading and literature. Probably the most challenging teaching decision I face daily is how to balance explicitly telling students what a phrase or word means with giving them the space to tease out the meaning themselves. Students need to be encouraged to think hard, and yes they can work out an (albeit limited) amount from considering the context of the word/phrase, but they cannot always be expected to pluck accurate readings of difficult text out of thin air.

If you then consider the diverse and unique store of knowledge (of language and of the world) that every individual student inevitably brings to your lesson, the problem is made doubly tricky.

So, a simple question I have started to ask is this:

What do you not understand?

I then give students time to annotate the text. It is important that they attempt to decipher meaning for themselves so I ask them to quickly annotate their guesses where they can (to be replaced or extended on later as necessary). As an extension task, I also ask them to come up with their own questions too. The strategy seems to work for two main reasons: 1) my later explanations target the sweet spot between what they know and don’t know, and 2) it helps me to avoid assumptions. (I was surprised this week, for instance, that many of my Y8s did not know what a raven was, let alone its symbolic meaning.)

I would especially recommend this question to new teachers or those teaching a topic for the first time. Student responses gift you with a ready-made plan for next time you cover the topic. Some might argue that with the right scaffolding, every child should be able to discover meaning for themselves. I have tried this for many years and it has rarely been successful for any but the most able, especially when teaching Shakespeare.

A further variant– inspired by a discussion with my colleague Chris Woodcock this week – is to encourage students to devise the hardest questions they can think of to try to catch you out. Another is to replace the hackneyed plenary question of ‘What did you learn today?’ with the more useful ‘What did you not manage to learn today?’

I like turning the tables so that the students ask the questions. Lessons are more interactive and less ‘lecture-like’, yet without diminishing the fact that the teacher’s subject expertise should always be the force driving the lesson.

Related posts:

English teaching and the problem with knowledge

Can we teach students how to make inferences?

7 thoughts on “My favourite question: ‘What do you not understand?’

  1. Thank you for reminding me about Shakespeare. My son not only struggles with English and writing but also with having a go. It’s difficult because you have the double whammy of difficulty and avoidance which really compounds the problem. I will now try to be more consistent and persistent with him. We just started reading a Tom Gates book…so far so good. I look forward to reading your blog xx Rowena

  2. Reading this has just triggered an interesting thought. You see In science – physics in particular – the answer to the question “What don’t you understand?” is often either “I understand all of it” or “I understand none of it”. That’s never actually the true picture but that sense most people probably have with Shakespeare of getting the gist of the story, the atmosphere, and the motivations of the characters, but not being able to reliably decipher the details, is rare in my subject. This is why studying worked examples is so important; it allows students to identify the details they can’t follow without having to create the whole narrative themselves. Could it be that, from my slightly warped perspective, Julius Caesar is just a tremendous worked example? And that perhaps, in interrogating worked examples in physics, there is even more to be learned from English teachers than is already apparent?

    • Really interesting point. When writing this post, I was aware that the question might not fit with other curriculum areas. In English, students almost always have information in front of them to refer to; they don’t have to rely on working memory to hold everything at once.

      Your comment has really helped translate the central idea of this post to very different subject areas. Many thanks for taking the time.


  3. Thanks, Andy – another great post.

    Reading it made me think of a comment I added to one of Kris Boulton’s blog posts about memorising poetry a couple of year sago. I’ve tracked it down, and this is the relevant bit:

    “When I was twelve I had an English teacher who, at the time, I wasn’t that keen on, but it’s interesting how much of what she did with us has stuck with me over the years. She made us memorise chunks of Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ – and we had to learn it to write it out (rather than just recite it) so we had to remember where the line breaks and punctuation were too. I was a bright girl and good at English but I was struggling with this. My elder brother asked me what I was doing and when I told him he said, ‘Well, what does it mean?’ and I said I didn’t know, and that was the problem – it was a little like learning something verbatim in a foreign language you don’t speak. So he sat down with me and we went through one of the chunks, talking about the meaning until I ‘got it’ and could visualise what the words meant. Then he left me and I tried to memorise the passage, and found I could do so very easily and very quickly. A revelation!

    Unfortunately he was now bored with this and he left me to finish the task on my own. Without his help and someone to talk it through with, I couldn’t work out the meaning by myself and I was back to struggling again. When I became an English teacher if I ever did want pupils to learn anything, I remembered the difference between learning with understanding and trying to learn without.

    I recognise this would be a better story if I could say that I can still remember the chunk my brother worked on with me (43 years later!), but, actually, it’s all gone, and I’ve never looked at ‘Idylls of the King’ since! But I have memorised other poems I have loved (just for pleasure), and I’ve always worked to try to understand the meaning before I’ve tried to commit them to memory.”

    Any thoughts, Andy?

  4. Pingback: ORRsome blogposts May 2015 | high heels and high notes

  5. Pingback: The poetry dilemma: to teach or to elicit? | Reflecting English

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