Planning a knowledge-based scheme of work. Part 1: Reading

Over the course of this half term, I am uploading all of the Key Stage 3 resources we have used at the West London Free School so far this academic year (see here). This is the first in a series of three blogposts explaining their design. The next two posts will be on ‘writing’ and ‘marking, assessment and feedback’.

To illustrate these posts, I will draw one scheme of work on Early Modern Europe, entitled ‘Age of Encounters’ that we teach to Year 8. The features that are essential to this scheme of work underpin every other scheme of work at Key Stage 3. As I wrote last month, the structure of our lessons at Key Stage 3 is uncompromisingly repetitive, and – I believe – all the better for it.

In every scheme of work, the first ten lessons alternate between reading lessons, and writing lessons, dedicated to either acquiring or applying knowledge. It took some time before I had the confidence to spend a whole lesson at Key Stage 3 reading and note taking. However, working as I do in a school with excellent classroom behaviour, I enjoy the luxury of planning-to-maximise-learning, as opposed to planning-to-minimise-disruption.


So how much do our pupils read? Around 800 words per reading lesson – taken from a double page spread of the Knowing History textbooks I have written for Collins. I sometimes think this figure should be higher, but worry that more than 800 words of (often quite complex) information on a new topic would favour the brightest pupils, but max out the cognitive load of the rest of the class.

Before we start reading, I pre-teach a few key words or concepts (say, ‘Silk Road’ and ‘Cape of Good Hope’), and all pupils write down the keywords and definitions in their books. This does take a couple of minutes out of the start of the lesson, but I think is worth it. Pupils seem to have much more ownership of a word once it is in their exercise book, and – invariably for some – circled in coloured highlighter pens.

As Katie Ashford writes here, the aim of whole class reading is comprehension, and for this reason most reading should be done aloud. I tend to read the most complicated parts of the text, selecting them in advance as part of my lesson planning. For example, in Lesson 1 on Renaissance Europe, it is probably best for me to read the paragraph containing the words ‘Medici’, ‘Ludovico Sforza’, and ‘Santa Maria delle Grazie’, instead of choosing a pupil to stumble through it.

Balancing the need for high quality reading aloud, whilst also ensuring the whole class (including poor readers) feel involved, can be challenging. I try to seek out short and simple passages (such as fact boxes) for the less able readers. But I doubt there is much merit in dogmatically ensuring every pupil reads, to the detriment of the pace and quality of the lesson.

Needless to say, a teacher’s role is to bring the textbook to life, so I punctuate the whole class reading with questioning, explanations, titbits of extra information, choral response of difficult words (Me: ‘I say heliocentric, you say heliocentric. Heleocentric.’ Pupils: ‘HELELOCENTRIC’), and images.

Images are an invaluable means of giving pupils concrete illustrations of abstract ideas in history, particularly when it comes to a subject as visual as Early Modern Europe. So each of our history schemes of work has a row per lesson dedicated to a few carefully selected, high impact images. This pair of contrasting images of world maps from 1480 and 1566, for example, was a vital additions to the lesson on ‘Global Exploration’.world-maps

Lastly, what written record do pupils keep whilst reading? I used to vary this with each lesson (mindmaps, worksheets, fact boxes and so on), but have since learnt to stop worrying and love the comprehension. If memory is the residue of thought, then the most reliable means of directing pupil thought is through answering a well-designed question. In essence, I view comprehension questions as guided note-taking, for pupils who are not yet able to take notes autonomously. Most of our reading lessons will consist of around five comprehension questions, answered in clusters of two or three at different intervals during the lesson.

That being said, I do design the occasional worksheet when the subject matter benefits from being organised spatially. In this scheme, the first two reading lessons on the ‘Italian Renaissance’ and ‘Print, gunpowder, and astronomy’ involve completing an A3 worksheet based around a map of Europe and Asia Minor. This encouraged pupils to think about where the different centres of activity were located: various Italian city states, Germany (for Guttenberg), and Constantinople.


The whole idea of a knowledge-based scheme of work is that pupils are expected to retain content learnt from one lesson to the next. It is of paramount importance, therefore, to know where and when pupils will read this content.

What do pupils do with that information once it has been gained? That will be the subject of my next two blogs.


9 thoughts on “Planning a knowledge-based scheme of work. Part 1: Reading

  1. Hi Robert,
    There’s no question in my mind that this approach is a huge step in the right direction, taking into consideration, as it does, how to get information from working memory into long-term memory and applying the principles recommended by Rosenshine et al.
    While acknowledging that the purpose of ‘whole class reading’ is comprehension, I would in addition take one or two of the longer, polysyllabic words – I know that time is limited but this is time well spent in the long run! – and talk about how they are structured. For example, the word ‘heliocentric’ may, as you imply in the piece, be difficult for some pupils to articulate in a single attempt. If the write it on the board, split it into its syllables – /h/ /e/ | /l/ /ee/ | /oe/ | /s/ /e/ /n/ | /t/ /r/ /i/ /k/ (the bar | is where I’ve chosen to break the syllables), which are the sounds represented by the spellings in the word – you can analyse the word and ask the class which spellings might be difficult to spell if the word wasn’t in front of them.
    They would probably say that the spelling for the sound /ee/ (also in ‘Medici’, ‘Ludovico’, ‘Maria’ and ‘Grazie’) is common in many English words, such as ‘ski’ and ‘taxi’. You could conduct a similar exercise with the spelling of the sound /s/ in ‘heliocentric’. The analysis works at a morphemic level, too, as I know you know.
    This kind of stuff takes a bit of time the first time you do it but it gets much faster and it teaches pupils how longer words are structured, how to segment and blend them successfully, how sounds relate to spellings and, after saying ‘he’ ‘lee’ ‘oe’ ‘sen’ ‘trik’ a few times, they’ll be able to say the word without adding or omitting sounds or syllables.
    Just a thought…
    Best wishes,
    John Walker


    1. Hi John. Many thanks for the tips. As you say, ‘time is limited’ when trying to teach Saxons to Queen Victoria in three years! But I will certainly think about incorporating this into my teaching.
      It is not as thorough as what you suggest, but I do often talk about the etymology of words, as I think it helps pupils remember them better. We teach Classics at WLFS, so a lot of the pupils were able to relate ‘heliocentric’ to Helios in Greek mythology. Similarly, stressing that ‘Protestantism’ comes out of ‘protest’, and the ‘Reformation’ was a movement for throroughgoing religious ‘reform’.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Robert,
    Thank you for blog really thought provoking. Can I ask about your high attainers – do they get bored or rush on ahead during the reading section? Do you do anything different for them?
    Many thanks,


    1. Glad you liked it Rebecca. In a word, no. The whole class tend to move together at the same pace. During the actual reading, this tends not to be an issue, as I think all pupils benefit equally from close reading and then having tricky concepts or ideas explained further by the teacher. It does become a bit of an issue during the comprehension questions, though, when high-attainers finish the questions much faster than others. For the moment, I try to encourage high-attainers to spend longer on each answer, writing in more detail. But next year, as we revisit each scheme with a bit more time, I think it would be good to build in some extension reading for high-attainers during reading lessons.


  3. 1. Am really enjoying this blog triology. I particularly like the non-confrontational approach..let’s just talk about what we do rather than what is wrong with everyone else. Thank you.

    2. I am particularly interested in the cross-over between primary and secondary. I find it interesting that there are some things where I think, ‘hmm, I’d expect more at Y6 never mind Y9’ (e.g. I’d expect top Y6 to write three good paragraphs to explain something and you expect three paragraphs in Y9) and others where I think, ‘interesting, we certainly over-estimate primary pupils skills in this area…maybe we are accepting poor work because we don’t know/understand what is actually required’ (e.g. you point out that most pupils can’t make notes autonomously – maybe we just accept our pupils writing down random things and our standards are too low/we don’t really know what KS3 require)

    3. Side Issue: I know it’s not great to use your own experience at school to set out good practice in the classroom but – thinking back to being a high attainer. I didn’t particularly enjoy having to read at the same pace as the teacher (because you can read faster when you read on your own) and it was tedious to have to follow along if another, less-fluent pupil was reading aloud…but I would put up with it and not complain. It was just expected that you would (just like strong pupils in PE would wait reasonably patiently for me to do 6 serves in badminton). I think this is just learning to be polite. (Because pupils who sigh and groan in these moments are, I think, rude.)

    What could be frustrating for more ‘able’ pupils is the review sessions that teachers must to do ensure those who haven’t understood or remembered the previous lesson’s work are prepared for the start of the next lesson. I never enjoyed the pupil-to-pupil review (re-read your notes in pairs/share with a partner what you remember from this lesson/who can tell me what…) because you always learn more from your teacher (actually, I did enjoy these review sessions – it was a great time to ahve a quick gossip or laugh or try to snaffle down a sweet because I already knew the answers so no need to actually do the work then).

    I loved when the teacher would do the review themselves. I was happy to listen to the bits where they were reviewing the basics (no harm done by listenting for a second or third or eleventh time to a quick summary of the story or concept) but what I enjoyed is that when the teacher does the review themselves they can’t help but also add in something extra – they emphasize something important that they didn’t have the time to point out before or they clarify something that we can only now understand because we are in chapter 7 and not chapter 1.

    I think we should worry a little less about ‘higher abilities doing more/doing different’ and just focus on the whole class.


  4. Correction: I think I have just realised that the 3 paragraph assessment that you talk about in blog 3 is shorter than the essays that pupils are expected to write in history (so I take back that example, though there are other things that may possibly be true examples of a slightly lower expectation for the ‘top set’ at KS3 than they would have had in KS2.


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