AQA · Reading skills · Teaching Ideas

Pyramid of Understanding

There’s a lot of twittering at the moment about lesson planning, over-planning, and convoluted ways of doing simple things. Some of the best I’ve read remind us of the transience of ‘new initiatives’ and the damage these cause to those of us (and I’m one of them) who feel their best is never good enough. As English teachers we are always thinking of ways of making our lessons more exciting whilst the malicious voice on our shoulder (fuelled no doubt by the anxieties caused by said ‘new initiatives’ which come and go leaving nothing but shell-shocked teachers in their paths ) tells us that ‘we must do better’.

I wonder whether we just start posting simple lessons that went well? Here’s mine. I have a set 4 Y9 group once a fortnight for literacy. I thought I’d begin by finding out how they read and I discovered some old Literacy Strategy resources (from the turn of the Millennium would you believe) which I thought I would combine with new spec thinking.

We began silently. I asked them to read this:


I then asked them to write down five things they learnt about Rousseau from the text. Predictably, pretty much everyone wrote down some basic retrieval responses – he was a painter, he painted jungle scenes etc. We then talked about HOW they read, so I showed them this:


We didn’t spend too much time on every question (we did talk about how to work out the meanings of unfamiliar words through context or what words look like – so wavered looks like wave; waves are wobbly, so wavered is wobbly indecision etc). What I did spend more time on was question 12 and we talked about the questions we need to ask as we’re reading. What is this telling me about the subject? What else might the writer mean?  What is another way of interpreting this sentence? For example

“but this story seems to be a product of his imagination.”

“His faith in his own abilities never wavered.”

“Rousseau was buried in a pauper’s grave.”

So we asked questions and pupils wrote answers in the margins – he was a bit of a dreamer; he told lies but maybe white lies; he was confident in himself – he had to be because others ridiculed him; he wasn’t appreciated in his lifetime.

Now we went back to the questions at the start of the lesson: what do we learn about Rousseau from this extract? I asked them to add three more statements to their list. Now their responses were much more complex, exhibiting interpretative and inferential skills.

What I wanted to end the lesson with was some meta-cognitive stuff. What type of reading have they just carried out? How have their reading skills developed in complexity over the lesson?  I work with something I call the pyramid of understanding. Nothing special, seriously. It looks like this:Screen Shot 2016-09-25 at 18.12.59.png

I ask them to read out some statements and another pupil will decide where it goes on the pyramid. Another way to do this is with post-its; they write down their statements and again, another pupil places it on the pyramid whilst explaining their decision. The idea is that students become aware of their selections. They KNOW when they are simply retrieving and when they are finding more detailed inferences. Of course, as we know from new GCSE paper and paper 2, both skills are relevant, but those that know they need to move up the pyramid are in a much better position aren’t they? And they knew the journey they’d made that lesson.

Ingredients: the extract, the list, the pyramid, maybe some post-its. Simmer for 45 minutes.





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