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Gradually build knowledge

When you first introduce new material, pupils need a large amount of support and guidance to understand the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the material you are teaching them. As they become more proficient, the support can be slowly reduced whilst their independence during practice is increased, until they eventually are able to work independently.

During teaching and learning, the general process for this is to begin with teacher input, followed by guided practice, followed by independent practice. Some people refer to the process of gradually building pupil independence and ownership over their learning as ‘I do (teacher input), we do (guided practice), you do (independent practice)’. This process may happen within one lesson or over a sequence of lessons to gradually build pupil knowledge and help them reach their lesson objective or learning goal. This session will focus on the process within a lesson, but you will explore how this is built in over a sequence of lessons in module 6.

Start with the lesson objective

When planning your instruction, it is important that you begin by establishing what the lesson objective is. Once you know this, you can identify what the pupils will need to know, or be able to do, in order to achieve the lesson objective. This information should inform the focus of your teaching instruction. The explanations and modelling, guided practice and independent practice that you plan should gradually build pupils’ knowledge, working towards the lesson objective.

Gradually increase pupil independence

The process of gradually increasing pupil independence throughout a lesson can be broken down as follows:

Teacher input

This occurs when new material is first being introduced. It involves the teacher informing, explaining, modelling and providing examples without pupil input. This is where you might use worked examples to outline the steps of a procedure to pupils.

The reason this is teacher-led without pupil input is because when new material is being introduced, pupils are novices and therefore are unlikely to have the appropriate knowledge to contribute to the process at this stage.

Guided practice

This involves the teacher and pupils doing a task together. This is where you begin to gradually release the responsibility to your pupils. It involves you completing parts of the process and asking pupils to contribute to the incomplete parts. Here you might use partially completed examples to gradually build pupil independence.

Independent practice

This is the stage where pupils practise new material without adult support. When first setting up independent practice, you may still provide tasks that scaffold pupils’ learning but over time these should be removed to allow pupils to work entirely independently. Rosenshine (2012) recognises that this is vital for pupils to become fluent or automatic in information retrieval or completing a procedure. During this stage, the teacher monitors pupil practice to identify and address misconceptions to individual pupils or the whole class. They also encourage pupils to use metacognitive strategies to monitor their own learning and develop their ability to self-regulate.

Key messages about this process

Whilst these stages have been separated into three groups, the process of building pupil independence should be viewed as a continuum whereby support gradually reduces as pupils become more proficient.

This will not occur in a linear fashion. In practice, you may have to shift back and forth between these three phases during a lesson to address misunderstandings or introduce further challenge.

Throughout this module, building pupils’ expertise over a lesson has been broken down into different phases which are covered in different sessions. However, it is important that you remember the phases are linked and should build on one another.

Explanations and modelling – why are they so important?

High-quality instruction enables the expert teacher to impart knowledge to the novice learner. When teaching new material, this can be done through effective explanations and modelling.

Explanations and modelling – what’s the difference?

Explanations are used to introduce new material to pupils in small sequential steps, which you will have already explored in module two. During an explanation, the teacher will talk through the new material and ask pupils lots of questions to check their understanding.

Modelling accompanies an explanation to show pupils how to approach or complete a task. Modelling is vital during teacher explanations because it shows pupils how to do something well. Making this explicit through modelling supports pupils’ understanding and builds their mental model of what ‘good’ looks like.

Listen to Claire Stoneman talk about explanations and modelling. Consider the following questions and record your response in your notebook:

*what is the purpose of explanations?

  • why are explanations important?
  • what makes explanations effective?
  • why is modelling important?

Explanations and modelling - Claire Stoneman

Video transcript

In this part of the module We’ll be exploring how Rosenshine reminds us to present new material using small steps. And as part of this we’ll cover the importance of explanation and how Rosenshine also reminds us about the importance of providing models. Andy Tharby reminds us that from about the age of two children develop the intellectual ability to ask ‘why’ questions. I’m sure that this is something that those of you working in Early Years Foundation Stage can relate to. As Tharby says, children, especially very young children, go on a tireless hunt for further information and elaboration that might lift the veil on the wonders of the universe. How wonderful, and what a weighty responsibility we have to get our explanations right. So, what’s the purpose of an explanation? Tharby reminds us that explanation can have a range of purposes:

  1. To make something understandable
  2. To clarify and expand an idea
  3. To give causes, context and consequences of a situation or event
  4. Or show how facts and concepts are related and connected

So effective explanations are hugely important. Tharby makes it crystal clear when he says, ‘It is near impossible to conceive of effective teaching without explanation’. Teacher talk is vital. If the children can’t access our expertise through clear, precise, knowledgeable explanations they are disadvantaged. And the evidence from cognitive science shows that the less prior knowledge a pupil has, the more teacher guidance they need. So, explanations are vital for the children we teach to make sense of the world around them. It’s hard, and again it takes lots of practice for a novice teacher. But explanations illuminate.

In this session, you’ll learn to start making links between what you know about working memory and effective explanations. Effective explanations are chunked. The teacher does not overwhelm pupils by presenting too much information at once, as the working memory can become overloaded. Information and new material are presented in small steps and often with many concrete examples. This is where modelling can come in: the importance of concrete examples so the children can see what a good or indeed a bad example looks like. As Tom Sherrington says, ‘providing models is a central feature of giving good explanations’. Models can be used in any phase of schooling and are an important element of the children having a concrete example of what it looks like. Weinstein and Sumeracki remind us that novices find abstract ideas vague and hard to grasp so concrete examples are much easier to remember. Models help to illustrate abstract ideas and make them easier to understand. Models can organize the information for the novice into a well-structured schema.


As Claire Stoneman highlights, Rosenshine (2012) explains that in order to address the limitations of the working memory, teachers should introduce material in small steps. This is something you previously explored in module two. But, as Claire states, some material being taught can be hard to comprehend even when it is broken down and taught in small steps. This normally occurs when the material you are teaching is abstract.

To support pupil understanding when teaching an abstract concept, you should provide pupils with concrete examples and non-examples to demonstrate the concept.

Examples and non-examples will be explored further in your next training session but in order to prepare yourself, read the following scripts. You can do this now, or return to this ahead of your training session.

Ashley Philipson shares an example of when she has used an example and a non-example to teach an abstract concept.

Using a concrete example by Ashley Philipson

Video transcript

I use concrete examples to model abstract ideas by showing a real-world example that demonstrates the abstract concept. Abstract ideas can be vague and hard to grasp - solidifying an explanation using real-life examples makes it easier for pupils to understand and remember.

For example, when teaching the coastal processes of erosion and deposition, I explained these abstract terms to pupils by teaching their definitions and exploring how they are different to each other.

I then developed pupils’ understanding of these abstract terms and unfamiliar vocabulary within their definitions using concrete examples, which in this case was coastal landforms. In geography, using a photograph of a coastal landform such as a wave cut notch (show image) or a spit (show image) to demonstrate what is involved in the process of erosion and deposition strengthens pupils’ understanding as it gives them a chance to apply their new knowledge of the process to a real-life example. In geography this is often thorough a case study or photograph.

When using concrete examples, I ensure I present pupils with a wide variety to prevent them from developing a narrow understanding of the term in which misconceptions can easily arise. For example, if I only showed pupils one coastal landform where erosion had taken place, they may incorrectly think that erosion was defined only by that one coastal landform when in fact erosion can be generalised to many other landforms.

After I explained the concept using concrete examples, I checked pupils’ understanding by presenting them with another landform and asking them whether it was created by erosion or deposition. I knew pupils understood the abstract concepts ‘erosion’ and ‘deposition’ when they were able to correctly identify it in unfamiliar examples.

Using a non-example by Ashley Philipson

Video transcript

Non-examples are the opposite of examples. We use examples in our teaching to show a real-world example of an abstract concept we are teaching – this is a fundamental tool in many subjects. Where examples provide an instance of similarity, non-examples provide an instance of contrast.

Non-examples are important in teaching as they are another tool which can be used to allow pupils to develop their understanding. Being able to explain why something is not a correct example is as important as knowing the correct examples.

When I teach how coastal landforms have been created, I teach pupils about coastal landforms that have been formed through the process of erosion, and coastal landforms which have been formed through the process of deposition. When pupils explain how features of coastal landforms have been made, a good answer will refer to the process involved, rather than just a sequence of what happens.

To help pupils identify the difference between the two processes, I use a non-example.

I might do this by saying:

“a spit is a non-example of an erosional coastal feature”

And then I might explain why to pupils or ask them to explain why to me.

This is a good non-example as some of its features are correct:

  • it is a coastal feature and
  • initially erosion has contributed to it However, it has one difference:
  • its final formation is created through deposition. If pupils can understand and explain this, it shows they have a much deeper understanding of the concepts of erosion and deposition. Rather than learning something just because we have told them it is true, they begin to understand why and how, and then key concepts begin to make sense.

In this case pupils will have a deeper understanding of more than just that one example – they understand what erosion and deposition is and the resultant features and can therefore begin to apply this knowledge when explaining the formation of landforms in new contexts.

Using a non example to expose misconceptions

As Ashley states, non-examples are a great way to show what something isn’t; therefore, they are an effective way of exposing potential pitfalls and explaining how to avoid them. Listen to Elizabeth Arkle talk about when she has used a non-example to develop pupils’ reasoning skills by encouraging them to identify and explain common misconceptions.

Video transcript

One point at which I have used non-examples is towards the end of a sequence of teaching, to support self-explanation in order to check and deepen understanding. Take, for example, a year 4 maths objective ‘to add and subtract up to 4 digit numbers’. Once we have worked through the small steps, and all children are able to add numbers using the column method, I have used non-examples to explore common misconceptions. Children often seem to love nothing more than finding your mistakes! Non-examples have worked well here in getting children to watch what happens, think about the mistakes, explain what I have done wrong, but then go on to explain what I should have done.

When teaching, I will put the example on the board first in linear format for example:

3456 – 798 =

This allows me to go on and set it out with place value errors which are a common mistake.

I will then go on, without narration, to work through the question. It is important to note that at this point the children should be secure in the skill; this is the end of the teaching sequence and is giving them a chance to explore common misconceptions.

The class know they have to let me finish, they are not allowed to jump in and shout out any mistakes I make. Only once I have finished can children reflect on what I have done and offer an opinion.

Children will then work in their books first, putting my calculation in their books and reflecting on it. They then annotate my calculation to explain the mistakes, then complete their own calculation alongside it to correct my errors. To develop reasoning, they then come up and explain why I am right or wrong; then, if they think I am wrong, they will need to correct the example, narrating what I have done wrong. If they think I am right, then they have to work through my example to explain what I did and why it is right.

Children know they are not allowed to interrupt each other but they can offer an opinion at the end.

Pupils have become more articulate in explaining their methods and they are much more aware of the mistakes they can make, and are more aware of avoiding careless errors.

As a teacher, I have become much more aware of reserving time for children to think things through, then the time and space to talk through what is right or wrong. Using non-examples in this way has deepened the understanding of all pupils in my class. The fact that they are looking for my mistakes really grabs their attention as well, so they all tend to be really engaged and think deeply about the question so they can tell me if and where I have gone wrong.


Modelling is an essential part of the teaching and learning process. Rosenshine (2012) found that the most effective teachers guided pupils’ practice for longer during teaching instruction, using modelling and scaffolds. This ensured pupils were confident and able to work independently later in their learning. Whereas teachers who gave less guidance to pupils during their explanations spent more time correcting individual errors because not enough time was spent ensuring pupils had a good understanding before being asked to work independently.

There are different ways you can model to support pupil understanding, but this session will focus on ‘Think Aloud’.

Using ‘Think Aloud’

‘Think Aloud’ is a form of live modelling which makes the implicit process of completing a task explicit. It is when a teacher narrates their thoughts, questions or corrections as they complete an activity, so that the pupils have a clear example of how to think and what to consider when approaching a certain task. This type of modelling helps to make abstract ideas or processes concrete and accessible. It is also a good strategy to use to expose potential pitfalls to pupils and explain how to avoid them.

This process is used to demonstrate an expert’s (the teacher’s) cognition and metacognition.

Modelling cognition and metacognition using ‘Think Aloud’

Modelling cognition

In simple terms, cognition is the thinking you do when completing a task. Teachers can model their thinking about their knowledge to demonstrate how to draw on cognitive strategies when completing a task.

Below is an example of a teacher using ‘Think Aloud’ to model their cognitive process by engaging their prior knowledge when performing a forward roll safely in PE. This has been taken from the Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning Guidance Report (EEF, 2017):

Using the ’think aloud’ model: example 1

Preparing for the roll: “I don’t want to hurt my neck and want to do this neatly. So first, to protect my neck, I need to tuck my chin to my chest like this.”

Starting the roll: “Then when I start to roll, I remember not to roll onto my head. Instead, look how I’m going to roll onto my back and shoulders.”

Completing the roll: “This also means my back is round, so I can smoothly roll like this.”

Checking pupils’ understanding: “Now, who can remember what I did first to protect my neck?”

In this example, the teacher has broken down completing a forward roll into constituent components (outlined above) and is narrating the important points pupils need to consider at each stage. Without this narration, the pupils might not know how to break the task down or how to replicate the roll safely and successfully.

Modelling metacognition

Metacognition can be broken down into three different stages:

  • planning which cognitive strategies to use
  • monitoring how successful the strategy is and changing it if necessary
  • evaluating your overall approach to improve it next time

Below is an example of a teacher using ‘Think Aloud’ to model their metacognitive processes when planning how to answer a History question:

Using the ’think aloud’ model: example 2

‘The main reason why the League of Nations could not stop aggression in the 1930s was because the USA was not a member. Do you agree?’


“How am I going to approach answering this? Well firstly, I must ensure I understand the question. To do that, I am first going to read it. (teacher models reading it). Then I am going to underline key words that help me understand how I should answer the question. I can see at the end, it asks, ‘Do you agree?’, so what does that mean? It means I am going to have to give an opinion.

“What information am I going to have to include? Well, it mentions the USA not being a member as one reason for aggression, so I know I am going to have to talk about that. Would that be a good essay if I only wrote about one point? What do I know about other essays I have read or written? What makes them effective at demonstrating my opinion?

"Normally I have to discuss three points. I know I will talk about the USA not being a member as one point because it is cited in the question. Do I think that’s the most important point? Or do I think there are other points? What information can help me? Well, if I think back to our other lessons on this, I can recall some other points that we have covered.”

Teacher asks pupils, “Which other points have we covered? Talk to your partner,” and then discusses their ideas.

“So, I now have three points, I need to consider what information do I know about these. What can I do now to plan and ensure I have enough to write about? Perhaps I will write down some bullet points under each idea to prompt me to include key points in each paragraph.” Teacher models writing down bullet points of information to include.

“Now I need to consider how to structure them. Which order should I put them in? Well I know that to make my opinion clear, it would be helpful to put the strongest point at the beginning.”

In this example, the teacher has broken down planning how to approach answering an essay question into constituent components and is narrating their metacognitive thoughts to make these explicit to pupils.

Later in this process, the teacher might model thought processes which demonstrate them monitoring how effective their strategy is and evaluating their strategy such as:


Has my plan enabled me to answer the question effectively?

Is my opinion clear enough?

Have I ensured I have included enough detail in each paragraph to clearly explain my point?

Am I rereading what I have written to ensure the information makes sense and links back to the question?


Did my plan provide me with enough detail to include in my essay?

How could I enhance my planning to ensure I include more detail next time?

Would using my notes from previous lessons help me in the planning stage?

How successful was I at staying focused on answering the question when writing my essay? What could I do next time to support me with this?

Making ‘Think Aloud’ successful

Starting narration at the point of pupil understanding

When talking through your thinking, it is important that you consider what the pupils’ prior knowledge is. For example, if pupils have never seen a forward roll before, the teacher would need to demonstrate this first so pupils could attach the teacher’s narrated cognition to something concrete. If they don’t know what a forward roll is, the rest of the narration is less meaningful.

Focus the narration around key teaching points

What you say is very important and should be carefully planned out. The narration should be focused around the objectives or key teaching points that you want pupils to focus on. If you narrate everything you are thinking, this could cognitively overload pupils, preventing them from following the key features you want them to learn or consider themselves.

Why is this such an important way of modelling?

The EEF (2017) highlights that modelling of this type is often not planned into explanations because the thinking processes occur ‘naturally’ to the expert (teacher), which is a risk because such thought processes are vital for breaking down a task so that it can be better understood or completed successfully.

To move from novice to expert, pupils need to know how an expert habitually thinks and acts (EEF, 2017). By modelling these thought processes, you make the implicit or hidden parts of a process explicit and exposed, helping to build the novice’s mental model of what they should be doing in similar situations.

Which narration is most effective?

To ensure ‘Think Aloud’ is successful, you should:

  • Ensure narration is linked to key teaching points
  • Ensure narration considers pupils’ prior knowledge

Look at the following scripts of a teacher using ‘Think Aloud’ to model using adjectives in a sentence. Identify which one is more effective and why.

Example 1:

“I want to describe what the emperor penguin looks like. How will I start my sentence? Hmm, I’ll start with ‘The’ – as it’s the beginning of a sentence I must use a capital letter” (teacher scribes as they speak) “emperor penguin – now I am going to describe its colour – has black feathers down his back. Hold on, I can make that better by using two adjectives to describe the feathers – has glossy, black feathers down his back – I must remember to separate two adjectives in a list with a comma,” (teacher inserts comma). “Now I might extend the sentence using the conjunction ‘and’ – and snowy, white feathers covering its front. Let’s check, have I used two adjectives together to improve my description?” (Teacher models re-reading sentence to check it makes sense and to check for the use of adjectives).

Example 2:

“I want to describe what the emperor penguin looks like. How will I start my sentence? Hmm, I’ll start with ‘The’” (teacher scribes as they speak) – “The emperor penguin has black feathers down his back. Hold on, I can make that better – has glossy, black feathers down his back – I must remember to use a comma,” (teacher inserts comma). “Now I might extend the sentence - and snowy, white feathers covering its front. Let’s check my work.” (Teacher models re-reading sentence to check it makes sense and to check for the use of adjectives).

Which one do you think is better and why?


Both examples demonstrate the teacher modelling through Think Aloud, but Example 1 is better as the narration links back to the key teaching points by explicitly using the terminology of the focus of the lesson – adjectives - whereas example two does not.

‘Think Aloud’ in action

Watch the videos below and answer the following questions in your notepad:

  • what did the teacher focus their narration on and why do you think this was?
  • how might this impact pupils’ learning?

Think Aloud – Early Years - Maria Craster at One Degree Academy

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Think Aloud – Early Years - Maria Craster at One Degree Academy [AD]

Think Aloud – Primary – Alanah Harris at Reach Academy

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Think Aloud – Primary – Alanah Harris at Reach Academy [AD]


Explanations and modelling are vital for building a strong foundational understanding of key knowledge or procedures in pupils. However, merely showing pupils new information or processes is not enough. Pupils need to be given the opportunity to practise new material in order to store it in their long-term memory (Rosenshine, 2012). When introducing material in small steps, pupils need to practise after each step. Providing opportunities for practise is something that will be explored in the next session.

Application of modelling

In your next meeting, your mentor will observe you using ‘think aloud’ to make your implicit thought processes explicit.

Think ahead to the lesson that will be observed and spend the next 15 minutes scripting what you will say whilst using ‘think aloud’ to model. Remember, to ensure ‘think aloud’ is successful you should ensure narration:

  • is linked to key teaching points
  • considers pupils prior knowledge
  • models using key terminology