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.