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Research and Practice Summary

This reading will help you understand some of the theory behind this week’s topic. We will start by introducing some of the key concepts (these are in bold). You will also see some suggestions of how to put these concepts into practice. When using these concepts in your own practice you will need to take account of your pupils’ characteristics, the context of your classroom and the nature of the material that you are teaching.

Exposition and questioning – ‘How books work’ in Early Years

As an Early Years teacher, Jo needs to teach her pupils how written language works. This includes how books work. There is a lot of knowledge pupils need to acquire in this first step towards reading. For example, they need to know that:

  • books are held in a particular way
  • print has meaning and can be used for different purposes
  • there is a relationship between print and speech and there is a difference between letters and words

Jo knows she cannot teach all of the concepts at once to her young pupils.

What would you recommend she do?

You have seen that the gradual release of responsibility model can bring together key ideas about teaching and learning. This research and practice summary explores two parts of this model: exposition, whereby teachers introduce new ideas; and checking understanding through questioning, which can help teachers decide how to move between different stages in the model.

Exposition refers to the process of explaining concepts, ideas and information with great clarity. It requires the teacher to have sound knowledge of the curriculum area, and involves ensuring that pupils are able to understand new information in the context of their prior knowledge and understanding. Exposition is about more than simply telling pupils information. It also involves providing examples to illustrate and illuminate the material to be learned. Examples can include visual and conceptual models, application of rules, and contextual information. Good exposition may also involve modelling. Exposition does not require pupils to make discoveries themselves: by moving from the general to the specific, it allows pupils to understand increasingly detailed explanations of the material to be learned, and link those explanations to information presented previously as part of a general overview.

To help your pupils learn through more effective exposition you should:

  • be prepared to break down your expositions further for those pupils who may need it (e.g. by ‘chunking’ bits of knowledge across several lessons)
  • plan what you are going to say and how you are going to model to your pupils (e.g. by scripting it in your lesson plan)
  • think about the visuals and examples you can use that will help your pupils connect this new learning with that they already know (e.g. by referring to characters they have met in favourite stories)
  • allow time also for pupils to practise: don’t simply rely upon exposition

Jo already knows that she needs to break down the concepts related to how books work. How else might she benefit from the research on exposition?

When introducing abstract ideas, it is important often to use concrete representations. These might take the form of analogies, metaphors, examples and non-examples. Teachers often over-estimate their pupils’ grasp of the abstract, and then overlook the misconceptions that can arise. Numbers are abstract, as can be such concepts as the ‘Church’ (i.e. the institution), verbs, the past or ‘science’.

To help you with your expositions of abstract ideas, you should:

  • use manipulables (e.g. blocks and shapes)
  • construct number lines and timelines
  • use play and drama to ‘act out’ words and concepts
  • when using graphic representation, make sure you are not introducing a new misconception (e.g. an image of a church building may not help pupils appreciate the idea of the Church as an institution)

Repeat these approaches often: they are a form of scaffold, which can be gradually removed when you assess that your pupils are ready.

What ‘concrete’ ways might Jo choose to represent the concepts of how books and written language work?

To ensure that learning is effective and efficient it is critical to regularly check pupils’ understanding and use this information to adapt teaching. This can be done in many different ways, but questioning is a key tool. Questioning is the key method by which teachers find out what pupils already know, identify gaps in knowledge and understanding and scaffold the development of their understanding to enable them to close the gap between what they currently know and the learning goals. Questions serve a number of essential purposes for teachers. For example, they:

  • provide the teacher with immediate feedback on pupils’ understanding, which can then be used to modify the teaching
  • prompt pupils to inspect their existing knowledge – articulating and retrieving helps clarify and consolidate learning, and improves the likelihood that it will be retained
  • focus pupils on the key components of the learning sequence
  • enable teachers and pupils to see progress over time
  • model for pupils how experienced learners seek meaning, moving them towards greater independence

To help you use questioning to check your pupils’ prior learning and to assess their understanding, you could:

  • use multiple-choice questions to identify knowledge gaps and misconceptions during lessons (e.g. a good source of well-constructed multiple-choice questions can be past examination papers, if these are available in your phase and specialism)
  • prompt pupils to elaborate when responding to questioning to check that a correct answer stems from secure understanding (e.g. ‘tell me how you reached that answer’, ‘what tells you that this is the correct answer?’)
  • use ‘hands-down’ questioning – when you pose a question to the whole class, give them thinking time, then you select the pupils to speak
  • combine ‘hands-down’ with ‘think-pair-share’, where everyone thinks alone, then discusses with a partner, before the teacher selects the pupils to answer
  • allow thinking time – often a little longer than feels naturally comfortable

Recording key questions in schemes of work also encourages teachers to identify what they want pupils to know and understand, to communicate this to pupils (sharing learning goals) and to find ways of checking that these have been achieved in lessons. This in turn enables teachers to tailor their teaching to what pupils need to know next.

Jo will certainly be asking lots of questions, to check her pupils’ understanding and to help her break down the problems for them.

What did Jo do?

Jo decided to ‘chunk’ the knowledge and understanding of how written language in books works. She also chose to give the pupils repeated exposure to the steps, so that the knowledge would stick. To start, she selected just one focus: how to hold a book. She then went through these steps:

  1. Check what the pupils already know about holding a book. She observed her pupils with books, holding them, leafing through them, pretending to read them. She noted those pupils who frequently handled the books incorrectly and carried out the next steps with them.
  2. ‘I do it’. Modelling: picking up the book and talking through how the book should be held. She thought ‘out loud’: I’m thinking about which way up this book goes. I need to hold it like this so that I can open the pages like this. The pages I open are always on this side.
  3. ‘We do it together’. Checking their understanding by simple true/false questioning: holding the book up the wrong way, do they notice? Am I holding the book the right way? To stop them merely guessing, she did ‘think, pair, share’ with them so all had to think about their answers.
  4. ‘You do it with/without my support’. The pupils now think they know how to hold a book, but can they remember how the next time she asks them? She checked how they could apply their knowledge from before, using the same book. Do you remember the book we looked at yesterday? Can you pick the book up and show me how to hold it so we can look at it together?
  5. ‘You do it with/without my support’ in a new context. She checked their application with different types of books: Can you hold the Big Book so we can read it together? Let’s look at this pop-up book together. It’s a bit different from other books we’ve seen, can you see how to hold it?

This approach worked well for Jo. It could work equally well in a range of other settings, for almost any new set of material.

The most important elements were to assess her pupils’ prior knowledge (by observing them handling books informally) and to break the new learning into small steps (both in recognising the different elements to ‘how books work’, and in chunking down one element into yet smaller steps).

The only concrete representation she needed was the book itself, but it is good practice always to ‘make real’ what your pupils might find abstract. All the while, at each stage she checked understanding with simple questioning.

Finally, she gradually released responsibility to her pupils, moving through stages of ‘I do it’ to ‘You do it’.

This was how they practised and applied their new knowledge, and gained accuracy and confidence.