General knowledge, the new English GCSE and the ‘as-the-crow-flies error’

as-the-crow-fliesFINALImage: @jasonramasami

Q: How do you make a duck sing soul music?

A: Put it in the microwave until its Bill Withers.

My partner enjoyed this joke so much that she spent most of last week retelling it to anyone within earshot. Unfortunately, however, her comedy attempts received a flat reception at her workplace. Two people had never heard of Bill Withers and one, bizarrely, was aware of the soul legend but did not know that a ‘bill’ is a duck’s beak.

This reminded me of a similar teaching moment from earlier this year when my year 11s attempted a practice iGCSE Core exam question based on a piece written about a remote region of eastern Russia, the Kamchatka Peninsula. The task was as follows:

Using your own words, explain what the writer means by the words in italics in the following phrases:

(ii) ‘the terrain is so impenetrable’ (line 33)

Two marks were available, one for each correctly explained word. Answers that read ‘the ground/country is so impassable’ (or similar) were credited with two marks. Of a class of twenty-five 15-16 year-olds – mostly working at about a C – only one achieved both marks and most did not get either. Even though the following discussion made it clear that the majority of class-members were comfortable with the meaning of ‘penetrate’ (don’t ask why!),  the fact that most did not understand the word ‘terrain’ in the first place rendered the meaning of ‘impenetrable’ impenetrable.

The Bill Withers joke and iGCSE question cause confusion for the same reason: a lack of knowledge. Once we become fluent decoders of text, comprehension requires good general knowledge and word knowledge. It can be a mistake to think of reading and general knowledge as separate abilities – in reality, they work in tandem. Understanding the Bill Withers joke and the meaning of ‘terrain’ are not measures of reading skill or joke-deciphering skill; they are measures of the scope of your general knowledge. In a mutually beneficial relationship, general knowledge helps us to understand what we read and, in turn, reading helps us to further develop our general knowledge.

E. D. Hirsch’s work is controversial – sullied perhaps by its association with Michael Gove – but his theories about reading make a lot of sense even if you disagree with his solution (a Core Knowledge curriculum). I found these two paragraphs from Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit (2007) fascinating:

To understand language, whether spoken or written, we need to construct a situation model consisting of meanings construed from the implicit words of the text as well as meanings inferred or constructed from relevant background knowledge. The spoken and the unspoken taken together constitute the meaning. Without this relevant, unspoken background knowledge, we can’t understand the text.

This is why we are able to understand some texts but not others, no matter how well we can decode the words. We possess the relevant knowledge in some cases, and in those cases we can understand what we are reading, but we lack it in others, and in those cases we cannot comprehend the text. Since relevant, domain-specific knowledge is an absolute requirement for reading comprehension, there is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading. (p. 39)

The idea that a reader needs to construct a ‘situational model’ to comprehend text is relatively new to me. Only in the past year or two have I become acquainted with Hirsch’s work and it is a shame that his ideas do not seem to be well-known amongst English teachers.

I admit I am no expert in reading theory and that the causes of reading difficulties can be complex. I am also aware that there are plenty of other factors that affect a child’s ability to read. I recently read Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin’s G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement (2013), a useful introduction to the findings from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). Twin studies are revealing more and more about how the complex interplay between genes and environment influences cognitive ability and educational achievement. For instance, recent studies suggest that 60 to 80% of the differences in individual reading ability can be explained by genetic influence. Environmental factors – including the amount of knowledge we have exposed them to – cannot alone fully predict a child’s ability to comprehend a piece of writing.

It would, therefore, be too simplistic to blame all reading difficulty on a lack of exposure to general knowledge. It may well be that the ability to find meaning in an unfamiliar text is partly a function of general cognitive ability. Similarly, some children will learn knowledge more quickly and that’s a fact of life. Nevertheless, Asbury and Plomin are at pains to point out that all children, barring those with severe learning difficulties, should be capable of gaining reading competence with the right support. In other words, by the age of 16, most children should know the word ‘terrain’ and know that ‘bill’ is more than just a nickname for William.

Last week, we looked at the specs for the new AQA English Language exam. Students will sit two exams and will be expected to read and answer questions on unseen fiction and non-fiction extracts, contemporary and 19th century. Ofqual have set the following assessment objectives:

AO1: Identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas; select and synthesise evidence from different texts.

AO2: Explain, comment on and analyse how writers use language and structure to achieve effects and influence readers, using relevant subject terminology to support their views.

AO3: Compare writers’ ideas and perspectives, as well as how these are conveyed, across two or more texts.

AO4: Evaluate texts critically and support this with appropriate textual references.

These are useful, of course, but give little guidance about to how to plan the curriculum and teach sequences of lessons. Abstract objectives and criteria like these have been the lingua franca during the decade I have worked as an English teacher. Implemented poorly, they can lead to the shortcut I call the as-the-crow-flies error, which occurs when we make a beeline to teaching generic reading skills before exposing students to the background knowledge needed to employ these skills. For instance, if I want a child to master AO4 it appears logical to teach them how to ‘evaluate texts critically’; however, the problem lies in that they can only do this if they are able to fully comprehend the text in the first place. Yes, we can teach a child to think, write and speak in an appropriate evaluative and critical style and this will lead to some success but it will not replace background knowledge. Teaching like this is like trying to unscrew the lid of a medicine bottle by pressing alone and forgetting to turn.

Similarly, the as-the-crow-flies error will occur again if we think that by exposing students to a few non-fiction extracts they will become better at reading non-fiction texts. To read these texts with insight they will need a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of the world. Like many schools, we are aiming to teach the new language GCSE almost exclusively through the new literature GCSE. We will expose students to non-fiction that enhances and sheds light on the literature they are reading – i.e. if we are reading A Christmas Carol, we might supplement our reading with Victorian non-fiction texts on the plight of the poor. Sourcing these texts will be the tricky bit. This seems the most sensible approach for two reasons: one, content takes priority over skills; and, two, it will lead to a richer, more fulfilling curriculum. The exam skills can come much later in the course.

So what can we do in our everyday English lessons to help us side-step the as-the-crow-flies error? Here are some ideas (even if they are drops in the ocean):

1. Expose students to challenging literature that extends their knowledge of the world right from key stage 3. The horse has often bolted by key stage 4.

2. Always focus on content understanding and vocabulary knowledge when reading texts. Don’t gloss this over in the hope that focussing on higher-order skills will ‘accelerate their learning’. Instead, it will just leave gaps. Depth over breadth, every time.

3. Remember that exposure to knowledge can come through a range of means such as the richness of teacher explanation and class discussion. Even a well-narrated documentary is fair game for introducing new knowledge and vocabulary.

4. Remember that skills are ultimately ways to manipulate knowledge. Yes, they should be taught explicitly, but not to the detriment of knowledge.

5. And, most importantly, encourage children to read. Exposure to knowledge cannot come through lessons alone

Lastly, schools need to recognise that the responsibility for ensuring that students have the requisite knowledge to comprehend a wide range of reading material cannot depend on English teachers alone. To read and comprehend texts about the past or the present students need to know a lot about the past and the present. I remain convinced that, putting individual differences to one side, a child’s performance in English Language is as much a measure of the quality of their whole education as it is a measure of the quality of the English teaching they have received.

Your comments are very welcome. I am still learning.

Related posts:

English teaching and the problem with knowledge

Can we teach students how to make inferences?

(Don’t forget to order your freshly-published copy of Making Every Lesson Count which I have written with Shaun Allison.)

26 thoughts on “General knowledge, the new English GCSE and the ‘as-the-crow-flies error’

  1. . “I remain convinced that, putting individual differences to one side, a child’s performance in English Language is as much a measure of the quality of their whole education as it is a measure of the quality of the English teaching they have received.”

    How do you define “whole education” Andy? Does it go beyond school? Is performance in English Lang a measure of much more than the quality of Eng teaching pupils receive?

    • Yes, I think Eng Lang assesses much more than that learnt in English lessons. Inevitably, it includes that knowledge – or lack of knowledge – that comes with the circumstances of upbringing. It also includes so much content knowledge brought across from other subjects. ‘Terrain’, for instance. Should understanding of this word come from English, geography or even PE?

      I’m interested in the ‘illusion of control’ – we believe English teachers to be solely responsible for results in English, but this is a myth. We see them for such a tiny proportion of their educational lives; the accrual of language knowledge occurs everywhere, at all times, and is largely an implicit process. It is a huge failing in thinking to imagine that it only happens in Mr Tharby’s lessons, seven times a fortnight.

      I’ll stop rabbiting on now! Thanks for the question.

  2. Am I naive in thinking that most teachers are doing this all the time anyway? It may explain why I’ve had trouble with the skills/knowledge debate. When I’m listening to a primary school child read, for example, we look at interesting words & what they mean, sometimes at their structure and derivation too. If they know that Terra means earth (from watching films etc), they can have a stab at the meaning of terrain. If they know penetrate and that im, or in is a negating prefix the can work out impenetrable. Is this knowledge or a skill or a combination?

    • Thanks for your comment. I think you are right in saying that all teachers are working with knowledge and skills all the time. I think knowledge of prefixes and suffixes is useful but I am not convinced that many of us work out the meaning of words in this way. It’s worth remembering, too that once reading speed drops below a certain point – I don’t have the figure to hand at the moment – it is impossible to read for meaning because we cannot hold what we have previously read in working memory for long enough. We need our students to be able to read ‘impenetrable terrain’ without stopping to unpick the meaning. This comes from a secure and fluent knowledge of the world & language. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham states: ‘factual knowledge precedes skill’.

      However, I don’t think the ‘knowledge first’ argument is always made subtly or clearly enough. We also need to teach skills explicitly and, as I argued in the post, there are many other factors that influence a child’s ability to read.

      • Great blog Andy.

        Is this bit true though?

        “Last week, we looked at the specs for the new AQA English Language exam. Students will sit two exams and in both they will be expected to read and answer questions on unseen non-fiction extracts, contemporary and 19th century.”

        I thought that paper one focussed on reading/ responding to fiction texts, likely to be prose.

        Not that this changes any of you central arguments, which I will be sharing with the department.


        P.S. Looking forward to reading the book!

      • Of course, as an adult you do not have to work out meanings that way, you know more than a child and it is not just a case of prefixes and suffixes, it is learning about early, or having to learn later, strategies for decoding that for some, is not there – something has to be done about what is missing.

      • Teaching children suffixes, prefixes and strategies for working out meaning is probably useful. However, it seems like another shortcut to me.

        I am happy to be convinced otherwise. Would like to read about the evidence of its impact and how it compares to other reading interventions.

    • That is right, in Primary schools it is done all the time, but after 6 weeks away from school, a new environment, vast amounts of new vocabulary, some do not make sufficient progress and teachers often wonder why so e of their bright stars, do not continue to develop – it might just be worth trying another strategy if all else seems ot to be working, to try and break through the block.

  3. Developing reading skills, especially at secondary level, is one area of teacher training that ‘requires improvement’. It has never been thought necessary and if it has, very few know how to include it in their subject. Think about Yr 7s facing the numerous new subject areas with the accompanying new, never heard of, seen, spoken aloud and internally digested, ready to be used (for high grade recognition) vocabulary across the curriculum?

    Sounds, syllables (each requiring a vowel) especially for ESOL speakers, together with meta-cognitive activities to help explain roots, prefix and suffix meanings, have not often been tools or built into the teaching of Secondary English Language teachers, let alone other subject teachers.

    Want to know more? Want to talk to teachers who do now have these skills and know that it works and that it is based on an 8 year research programme that can be used in all subjects from Year 6/7 up, in order to continue and develop primary work into providing such strategies. If you want to see young people doing just that ingroups of 4, breaking down words like terrain, from terra firma, film connections and one of the group, with a little help making links from the teacher/trainer – check it out.

  4. With the pressure of testing in the U.S., I believe that many teachers are in your, “as-the-crow-flies,” mode. The desperation to improve test performance has led many to throw out the common sense approach of embedding skill into building general knowledge through wide and varied reading. I always appreciate your view. I wish I could be more hopeful that most teachers do know what to do. I fear that is not the case with so many teachers(and administrators, and parents) who are completely focused on test scores.

    • Many thanks for commenting. I think we have the same problem with high stakes test scores here in the UK. Unfortunately, as we know too well, the focus on tests narrows the curriculum and leads to students leaving school with huge knowledge gaps and little love of learning for its own sake (even if they have manage to scrape through on the exam/test).

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  6. Reading this caused somewhat of a revaluation of principles for me. The idea of English partly being a test of general knowledge was so obvious and yet I had never made the connections you make in your post. I tried the ‘terrain’ question a out on my 11 year old and she got it but we talked a lot about how she ‘knew’ what it meant. These were her conclusions:
    She reads A LOT so has picked knowledge up from reading widely.
    She always uses her I-pad to look up words she does not know.
    We talk a lot and always have so we cover a lot of general knowledge that way.
    We have never ‘dumbed down’ what we say to her – so she herself is confident with words like terrain and impenetrable; we don’t substitute ‘easier’ words.
    All this resonated with my recent thoughts about ‘slow teaching’: I know I am at times guilty of wanting to move a lesson or topic on and taking the answers which facilitate this rather than the answers which lead to longevity in the learning. Teaching ‘as the crow flies’ can only ever lead to short term gains. Our meanderings into the sometimes “impenetrable terrain” of the subjects we teach might seem daunting at times but there are huge gains to be made if we take the time and effort to go there. We have to have faith that it is worth taking our time over things – not easy when the pressure is constantly on to keep things moving towards the next assessment.
    Great post – thanks.

    • Thanks Sally. The conversation you had with your daughter is really interesting. The challenge, of course, is how we can replicate such word-rich home environments in the classroom. I think ‘slow teaching’ might be part of the answer.

  7. Following on from Sally and Ros re vocabulary, I believe a rich language environment is the fundamental basis for language acquisition and comprehension. Listening to Radio 4, reading quality newspapers and magazines, sharing books, discussing events and plans etc. If a child doesn’t have this rich, involving experience then they might not even be interested in language in all its forms and wonder. A slow curriculum is necessary, at times, so that all children are given the opportunity to fall in love with word stems, annoying spellings and confusing word choices and the like.

    With a solid, positive whole school language ethos of exploring and teaching key vocabulary across all of the curriculum, primary and secondary schools can make a difference to children’s comprehension and expression.

  8. Your post supports my thoughts about entering students early for English GCSE in year 10 put them at a massive disadvantage – as they were lacking in vocabulary & General knowledge. The fact that so many schools insisted on it is criminal in my view.

  9. Thank you for such a thought provoking post.
    I must admit I did not get the Bill Withers joke. Of course I am not British, and this fact could easily explain it. But I am also much older than a 15 year old student, and never came across the word “bill” for a beak. So I wonder if the word is very frequent, or just a slang word linked to a particular time or generation (teenagers having their own slang). Anyway, the joke underlines how difficult it is to decipher implicit meanings without the right words being stored in one’s personal word bank. To me, making sure to get a vast rich word bank account means exposure to the language. Any kind of exposure. But a lot of exposure. Together with interaction in the language. This is true in order to learn any language, including one’s own.

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  14. I am reminded of a line spoken by Basil Fawlty…”can’t we get you on mastermind Sybil, specialist subject the bleeding obvious”.

    This assessment instrument asks for candidates to explain the meangings of two English words. In order to take the available marks, the candidates must know the meanings of the two words.

    It seems blindingly obvious to me that if candidates are to be asked for the meanings of random English words then the more words they know the better. You really don’t have to be Hirsch. If these two words were in some way specified as words that needed to be understood then there would have been a bit of a hint that would have narrowed the scope of knowledge required.

    Someone in their wisdom must have decided that to know these two words was a worthy assessment objective.

    The idea that the wider a persons vocabulary the more words they will be able to explain (define) is for me obvious. The idea that teachers would not do all of the things you describe above is alien to me.

    You might also mention (number 7) that the use of skills can ensure attention, aid understanding and also improve storage and recall to/from long term memory.

    The objectives you quote A01-A04 to me imply the need for extensive knowledge although they should be more explicit. The only part that seems to assess your two word explanation example is the first 9 words of A01 and here the objective is not specific enough to be useful unless the knowedge to which the objective is applied is stated as a condition. This is simple assessment theory. It is possible that there are other questions and other objectives which are aligned.

    Teachers will tend to teach that which will enable students to pass so assessment instruments should reward knowledge if that is the purpose.

    So I agree with all that you have said, and all teachers I know will do precisely this but tempered by the constraints of the specification.

    I would have thought that all teachers would read your 6 points and think to themselves “I agree with all six and teach accordingly”.

    Specification of all of the concepts that will be covered across K-12 as per Hirsch is for me a little anal. Having taught and assessed in an American common core school, I would say that we as teachers should be careful about controlling precisely what kids will learn every hour of every day of every year. It has it’s possible downsides as well as possible benefits.

    A nice post but I really can’t believe that a wide vocabulary is not advocated by all. Mostly outside the classroom and school. That is I believe where the difference will arise.

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