The #1 method for checking understanding

We know checking for understanding is an essential part of instruction and effective practice. Without it, we cannot accurately assess where pupils are now and where to go next. Understanding can falter easily when pupils have a lack of prior knowledge or fail to attend to the necessary information. While factors like these can be outside of our control, we can control when and how we check for understanding. We know the best teachers spend more time questioning and that they use a variety of methods for doing so: cold calling, probing deeper, getting pupils to emulate what has been shown and so on, but what is the best method for doing so?

I believe the best method for checking understanding is ‘getting it wrong’. What I mean by this is the teacher getting it intentionally wrong, presenting a contrasting example with what has just been taught. In maths, this is often referred to as a ‘non-example’.

Put simply, a non-example is something that is not an example of what has been taught, and therefore seeks to secure understanding through direct contrast. It is proof by contradiction. By saying what isn’t, we can say what is. Aristotle once intimated that, “A real definition will give you the necessary and sufficient conditions for an object to be an instance of the concept”. Without those conditions, we have a non-example.

Imagine children have just been taught what a square is. The teacher then presents the children with a picture of a triangle. “So, is this a square?” the teacher asks. The same could be done with democracy, photosynthesis, singing in harmony – as long as something has a definition or necessary conditions, this method can be used.

Presenting something that contrasts provokes the learner into thought: ‘Is this the same as what I have just been taught? Yes or no? If not, what makes it different?’

This cognitive conflict is something we should seek to embed within our instruction. It helps the learner to clarify their understanding and present it in a coherent manner – “This isn’t….. because……”. Pupils sometimes find it easier to define what something isn’t, rather than what something is.

Non-examples intentionally lack certain characteristics and this is what helps to clarify the boundaries for the learner.

So, ‘getting it wrong’ helps the learner to secure their understanding and it helps the teacher to ascertain what, and if, the learner has understood.

Why ‘Early Reading’ is problematic

The phrase ‘early reading’ encompasses an awful lot. We perhaps think of the phrase as strictly referring to children in either reception, year one or year two. However, in my experience, this is where the problem lies. ‘Early reading’ does not refer solely to those who are the youngest; it refers to anyone who is in the formative stages of their reading development, regardless of age.

Why is this problematic, you ask?

Well, without considering who is in the early stages of their reading journey, we end up with children in year 5 or 6 doing independent, silent reading with the rest of the class, when they cannot decode efficiently. This occurs simply because these children are deemed to be beyond the stage of ‘early reading’, because they are older than the age we normally attribute to early reading.

Some children need extra help from the start. Sufficient time must be given to ensuring these children undertake the school’s phonics programme. They will need extra practice. Without this necessary support, these children will go in to key stage two without being able to read in line with their peers. They fall by the wayside and the gap between them and their peers widens.

Consequently, these pupils travel through the key stage two curriculum being unable to read and therefore unable to access the curriculum (at least in part). They begin to dislike reading and see it as a chore, because they are being forced to look at something everyday that is unknown and insurmountable. They read less as a result and the gap continues to grow. I saw this countless times as a year 6 teacher. As I told my school leadership at the time, we had failed these children.

So, what is the solution?

These pupils need intensive 1:1 or small group interventions throughout EYFS, KS1 and throughout KS2, until they are confident enough to read alone. They absolutely must not be left to read independently with the rest of the class when they cannot access it. Treat these children as if they are in the stages of ‘early reading’. Give them the support they need and deserve. The same principle applies for those in KS3 or KS4 who struggle to read (e.g. a new pupil who has joined from another country).

For greater insight into how to achieve this, I highly recommend you buy ‘The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading’ by Christopher Such – be you a primary or secondary teacher.