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Why knowledge organisers are used in English



Quixotic is worth 26 points: Or, why knowledge organisers are used in English

Hopefully, when you saw the image at the top of this page you knew exactly what game I was alluding to. Perhaps you have very distinct memories of playing it: the arguments over whether or not you’re allowed to use the dictionary to check your word before placing your tiles; the burning hope that no-one will cross that triple word score when you’re about to play WHACKED (72 points if you managed to get W or H on a double letter space); or the descent into madness when someone claims the vowel-less monstrosity they’ve just played is actually the archaic name for a lobster trap. Yes, I’m talking about Scrabble®. You knew that, didn’t you? You understood what was written because you’ve played Scrabble®, seen someone playing it, or you may have just seen the box on the shelf in a shop.

What about the word?

Quixotic is a strange word. It means, ‘foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals; especially: marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action’. It’s not a word we use often. We might use it to describe any adventure or undertaking that might be idealistic but ultimately foolish. One might argue that to journey into the wilderness without the proper preparation, just so that you could ‘be in touch with nature,’ would be a quixotic undertaking. It might seem ideal, returning to your primitive roots, but if you’re unprepared, things are going to end badly.

Quixotic is also a word that owes its existence to Miguel de Cervantes’s creation Don Quixote. The novel tells the story of the eponymous hero and his fragile grip on reality. He thinks he is undertaking a series of knightly, chivalrous quests when he is, in fact, doing nothing of the sort: he attacks windmills perceiving them to be giants. Don Quixote’s quests are fanciful and absurd and very, very foolish – leading us rather nicely to the adjective quixotic.

So, what do a board game and an obscure word have to do with knowledge organisers being used in English? Imagine how strange my first paragraph would have been if you had no idea what Scrabble® was. Why would using a dictionary to check a word be a problem? What is a triple word score? And, why would anyone get angry with a vowel-less word being played? Is that cheating? Not only that but you might not understand that 72 points for a word in Scrabble® is pretty respectable or that W and H are worth more than A or E. Without that prior knowledge you might have found it a little bit difficult to follow my meaning.

It’s the same with quixotic. You might not have read Don Quixote (I admit I haven’t), but you might be aware of it and able to make the connection between the adventurer and the adjective, but imagine you had no frame of reference or that I had excluded paragraph four. You might have the definition, but not the context. Hopefully, your understanding is clearer because you have been given a little more factual knowledge than you had before.

This then, is the role that knowledge organisers play in English. Daniel Willingham in his article, ‘How to Get Your Mind to Read' i, argues that it’s not necessarily the inability to read that stifles a person’s ability to comprehend what they are reading – it’s the lack of factual knowledge that they have to underpin their reading. Willingham explains how when readers are faced with a familiar topic they are much more likely to score well on tests, regardless of their reading ability. He details an experiment where students were given a passage to read about football. He noted that, “poor readers who knew a lot about soccer were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the game.” It seems like an obvious outcome doesn’t it? If students know about what they are reading then they will be able to decode what they are reading successfully.

By the end of Year 11 our students will need to have read and understood: fifteen poems about Power and Conflict by a range of poets from the 19th Century to the present day; Romeo and Juliet from the 16th Century; A Christmas Carol from the 19th Century; and An Inspector Calls from the 20th Century. Each of these texts is crafted in a complex and unique way and loaded with expressions and terms that have a specific meaning in the context of the time they were written.

That’s why in English our knowledge organisers include a range of factual information; it really does make a difference to our understanding of the texts and amplifies the impact of the message they carry: Elizabethan concepts of beauty have an impact on how Juliet is described and perceived (Elizabethan consideration of whiteness and paleness as beautiful are reflected in the comparison of Juliet to a ‘dove’); the birth of the Welfare State affects the message of the Inspector (Priestley advocated the creation of the Welfare State and the Inspector’s message of social responsibility reflects this);  and the 1834 Poor Law affects how Scrooge sees the world in the opening of A Christmas Carol (the law created workhouses - one of the solutions to poverty Scrooge agrees with), as it does Mrs Birling’s behaviour in An Inspector Calls (the law removed the obligation of authorities to track down absentee fathers - leaving the burden of support on single mothers - a key plot element of the narrative). This knowledge then provides a scaffold on which to build understanding.

Factual knowledge, so it seems, is as fundamental to a student’s understanding of Shakespeare, Dickens and Priestley as is embracing the beauty of their writing and the underlying message of their works.

(Nick Hetherington is Lead Practitioner for English at Nova Hreod Academy. For more information contact


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