Why teaching skills without knowledge doesn’t work


In this second of three blogposts this week, I want to explain why unzipping knowledge and skills is so counterproductive.

When we detach knowledge from skills, achievement suffers. In England, 17% of kids leave school at 16 functionally illiterate: unable to read a daily newspaper, according to research over sixty years by the University of Sheffield. England’s literacy ranking in the PISA international comparison has dropped from 4th to 22nd within a decade. Over 40% of pupils still fail to achieve at least 5Cs at GCSE. Not only does educational achievement suffer, but the attainment gap persists: over 60% of the poorest pupils fail to attain 5 Cs. The gap in GCSE attainment between pupils with parents on income below £16,000 and those with wealthier parents remains stubbornly high at 27%. This is a travesty and an outrage. For the one in six pupils who can’t read, prospects are dismal: they can’t learn anything else. What’s more, that failure disproportionately affects poorer children.

Back in the classroom, one of the reasons for all this was dimly becoming clear to me. By neglecting to teach rigorous content in English, we are ensuring less learning goes on. I have seen this with my own pupils in their writing. The panacea in many English departments is real-world problems, like writing a letter to the headteacher about school uniform. But advanced, extended writing tasks like persuasive letters are complex problems. Complex writing fails unless grammar has been taught, tested and secured. If it has not, students struggle to use accurate punctuation, and all clarity, meaning and impact is lost. Unless the underpinning grammar concepts were automatic in their long-term memory, with their shaky grasp of sentence structure, my students found it incredibly difficult to produce accurate, varied, articulate writing. Failing to teach underpinning grammatical knowledge fails our pupils.


The counterproductive strategy of reducing literary and grammatical content and lionising real-world activities is propagated, inspected and enforced by Ofsted. A casual glance through the English inspection handbook is startling in this respect. In the outstanding category, there is not a single mention of grammar, vocabulary or spelling. Nor are novels mentioned once. Instead, ICT, media, film, cinema, moving images and technological developments all get several lavish mentions in the outstanding category, as well as ‘productive outcomes, involving real audiences and purposes’. That an English department could get rated as good outstanding without teaching spelling, vocabulary, grammar or novels is utterly astonishing to me. But if Ofsted inspect English departments for ICT and film, that is what will get taught. Grammar and classic novels will get neglected.


An example of this approach failing is where entire units are given over to skills-based projects. These units in English departments don’t expect much knowledge to be imparted or transmitted. Instead, the ultimate panacea is relevance and real-world skills. For instance, a typical unit would be on short films, and getting them to draw their own storyboard with pictures, captions and speech-bubbles. A much-admired unit on advertising would get students in groups to design, market and pitch their own chocolate bar. Another lauded scheme of work is designing picturebooks for primary or nursery school children, then pitching to publishers why their picturebook would sell. Pupils enjoy these modules. Teachers see increased engagement and bustling activity as a positive. Entire half-terms are spent on them. Whether or not students are building a deep understanding of challenging ideas goes unquestioned. Whether they’ve remembered anything about the content goes unchecked. They get a level assigned and then they move on to the next topic or year, while whether they’ve mastered the core concepts goes unassessed. I found that after these modules, if asked a few months later the most basic questions about what little content there was, pupils had failed to retain the most basic information. Teaching skills alone doesn’t work.

Literature on a leash

Even schemes of work on great literature are under-teaching and under-assessing knowledge. For instance, a unit on The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet is much more likely to be assessed on speaking and listening, role-play and drama, or a single scene, than a comprehensive understanding of the plot and themes, or a historical knowledge of Elizabethan or Jacobean preoccupations and the Globe Theatre. It is much harder to teach such comprehensive context and content, much harder to learn, and much, much less often taught and learned. But if you asked a student who I taught A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year at the end of the unit to explain the sub-plot of the mechanicals, or even the main plot of the lovers in the woods, let alone the historical issues of gender inequality and arranged marriage, they wouldn’t have a clue. Still in the mindset of keeping my classroom a fact-free zone, I’d failed to realise how vital it is for pupils to rigorously learn the fundamental facts of the plot, characters, themes and context. Under-teaching knowledge inhibits understanding.

Another area where without knowledge, complex skills disintegrate is in teaching great novels. Take as an example the way we read and teach even short novels like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This completely baffled my class the first time I taught it to Year 8, because I failed to specify the prerequisite and deep knowledge necessary for an enduring understanding of the text. Any meaningful interpretation sadly eluded my pupils, because they needed contextual, historical knowledge to make their own meanings of it. The context of twentieth century dictatorship, concepts like communism, capitalism, socialism and fascism, and the biographies of Orwell, Churchill, Stalin and Hitler are rarely specified and tested in English departments nationwide while teaching Animal Farm – yet are completely central to a strong understanding of why the novel was written, what it is about and why it has endured. When my class struggles to think critically about a text, it’s often because I’ve starved them of the deep knowledge they need.


Opportunity Cost

In short, I’ve become increasingly convinced that part of the reason why so many students leave school without being able to read complex writing, as the University of Sheffield research shows, is because they have been taught so little knowledge – and grasped so little of it. All the evidence shows that reading well depends heavily on general knowledge. Over the last three decades, cognitive science has come to a conclusion that is scientifically robust: critical thinking skills require broad background knowledge. This is the reason why teaching abstract skills devoid of facts such as ‘evaluation’, generic strategies such as ‘skimming’ and unchallenging content like celebrities, TV, Twitter and Cirque du Freak doesn’t help academic achievement: the opportunity cost. Whilst students could be studying the most challenging content, reading authors of books with astonishing depth and complexity, and wrestling with their contradictions and ambiguities, instead we feed them an entertaining diet of stuff they’re already interested in. The more time we spend getting them designing their own chocolate bars in English, the less time we have to get them reading, thinking and writing about the greatest texts that has ever been written; texts that have stood the test of time and enthralled literate and (in Shakespeare’s case) illiterate people throughout the centuries and across the continents.

But the opportunity cost argument is even more devastating when you realise that it is widening the already-yawning gap between selective and non-selective schools. I haven’t heard of an independent or grammar school that teaches Cirque du Freak or TV for a whole half-term. So kids that are selected academically get the chance to broaden their horizons, and get into the minds of great writers, whilst kids from disadvantaged backgrounds get their horizons constrained by being taught about what they already know: celebrities, TV and the entertainment industry. Why can’t poor kids benefit from reading Dickens, Orwell and Duffy? Nothing about their writing is inherently elitist. Dickens wrote about poverty and slums; Orwell fought in a civil war as a socialist; Duffy combats gender and class prejudice. There’s nothing elitist about teaching these writers; what’s elitist is reserving them for selective schools. When so few English pupils from poor backgrounds end up at our best Universities, when 16% of Free School Meal pupils get to University compared to 96% of private school pupils, and when millions graduate in India and China each year, this educational injustice seems even starker. This divergence is not uprooting inequality in education; it is entrenching it.

The scientific evidence, my practical experience and nationwide academic results all tell the same story: unzipping skills from knowledge fails. My post tomorrow is on how knowledge should be reintegrated with skills in the English curriculum in schools.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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21 Responses to Why teaching skills without knowledge doesn’t work

  1. Would you be a fan of a “language arts” approach? This approach is reasonably common in the US where many high schools have English as a much broader subject, taught more often than in the UK, and involves students looking at lots of different types of books and really getting into their content. Some also integrate Humanities into it, meaning the content of those subjects is also taught through fiction and non-fiction “mentor” texts.

    (For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought this seemed a much better way of doing things, hence I used US textbooks/lesson plans/schemes/resources all the time with my students).

  2. chrishildrew says:

    “The context of twentieth century dictatorship, concepts like communism, capitalism, socialism and fascism, and the biographies of Orwell, Churchill, Stalin and Hitler are rarely specified and tested in English departments nationwide while teaching Animal Farm.”

    I have to say, this is not my experience of teaching Animal Farm or leading English Departments where the novel is taught. You are quite right that they are essential to a proper understanding of it; I have never seen it taught without them and I don’t see how it could be successfully.

    I agree with the thrust of your argument that both knowledge and skills are prerequisites of successful English teaching. I just think you must have been unlucky in your experience of English departments nationwide – unless I’ve just been exceptionally fortunate in mine.

    • Abena says:

      You are not alone in this observation. Most units I’ve seen on novels start with historical, social context, presumably because it has been an explicit AF for a good while now.
      Teaching without these understandings would indeed see many ‘deep’ learning opportunities lost.

  3. @rlewin75 says:

    I am looking forward to the solution! Great blog with real visceral teaching struggle. You are making a skills evangelist rethink the what and the how. Thanks.

  4. Debra Kidd says:

    I really don’t recognise these classrooms you speak of – but then I’ve only been teaching for twenty years. Even a cursory glance at the KS2 curriculum shows that grammar and punctuation form a key element of knowledge in the primary school, so if they’re not transferring that knowledge into secondary we need to ask why. I have not worked in a single school which has not taught punctuation and grammar and yet I recognise the issue that in many cases, the knowledge learned is not applied. We need to know more about how these skills become memorable and embedded in order to better understand this.

    I am amused that you think it shocking that a play should be assessed through role play and drama. How radical.

    It’s also worth noting that your statistics do not include a breakdown of children with SEN or that your analysis does not draw attention to the extensive research into the impact of parental vocabulary and literacy skills on their young. The development of vocabulary is the single biggest factor affecting progress – it is this, more than anything else, which forms a barrier to learning for children from language poor backgrounds. This is not a simple matter of economics.

    I know I keep banging on about it, but our kids read many full novels, several Shakespeare plays, a range of poetry from a range of periods and all are deeply linked to their historical, social and cultural heritage – a bit like the language arts type curriculum that Laura mentions. The Year 7s this week have completed a 1500 word philosophical enquiry which asks them to make reference to at least four books they have read this year. Many have written closer to 3000 words. Some of our SEN children have managed less – 500 – 800 words, but a huge achievement nonetheless. The grammar and punctuation are not perfect in all of them, but they are learning that they can write extended pieces, ask and explore interesting questions and connect disparate texts through common themes and ideas. There are many schools out there doing similar things. Maybe yours could try to change its curriculum.

    • David Didau says:

      As an aside, I have rarely encountered a secondary student who has not learned that you put a comma where you take a breath. Equally, I have never met a primary teacher who will admite to having taught this axiom. Where has it come from? It’s most peculiar and irksome. I spend a good deal of time teaching students to unlearn this unhelpful habit.

  5. blueink21 says:

    1. What is your definition of ‘can’t read’? This is a very emotive thing to say and does not reflect the description given in the article you link to. You appear to have “Daily Mailed” it.

    2. The article below from the guardian disputes the Pisa data you quote and the IOE response was that there was ‘no hard evidence of any decline in comparative performance over time’.

    3. UK Universities are capped (by the government) for the number of places they can offer (the exception being for ABB students and above). If more FSM students attend university then this would result in less privately educated students attending. I am not saying there is anything wrong with this, just that the social and cultural differences are as big a challenge as the educational ones.

    4. India and China may have a lot of graduates but most of their universities are ranked well below UK universities.

    5. We cannot build a society based on a university degree being the only measure of success and the only preparation for life. It cannot be the sole target of a universal and fair education system.

  6. Thanks Joe. I wonder if you’ve followed the comment thread on my reblogging of your first post? We’ve covered similar territory and I’d value your opinion: http://learningspy.co.uk/2013/06/18/how-knowledge-is-being-detached-from-skills-in-english/comment-page-1/#comment-1932

    Thanks, David

  7. suecowley says:

    There seem to be two strands of argument going on in this blog post, and (to use your metaphor) I don’t think the two actually zip up together. Firstly, that lots of young people leave school ‘functionally illiterate’, and secondly that they don’t read enough old novels (sorry if that’s a simplification). I don’t think the two are connected. I think children fail to learn to read early for a complex set of reasons, and then they simply don’t catch up (we could fund a ‘reading recovery’ programme as a country, or fund small Reception classes to ensure a good start, but we seem loathe to do that). For some children the reason they don’t learn is to do with special needs, for others it’s lack of parental support/a weak language background, for others it’s behaviour, for some it’s a huge Reception class, there are lots of potential issues going on, none of which can be simplified to ‘we don’t teach enough knowledge’. As much as anything, it’s about helping children learn to WANT to read, which I don’t think throwing old books at them will necessarily do.

    IMHO there are 5 main reasons why my own children can read fluently and eloquently, as I explained here yesterday: http://suecowley.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/my-children-eat-books/

    Three are to do with my role as a parent, two are to do with the role of the school. None are to do with the fact that I have stuffed them with old books and background context. I can’t think of any teacher I have ever met who would teach Animal Farm without lots of reference to the background and the historical context, it’s surprising to me that you would ever have thought to do that in the first place. I wonder, like Chris, if you have been unlucky in the English departments where you’ve worked? I also wonder whether a longer period of training than Teach First might have helped you to reflect on how best to link knowledge, skills and (please don’t forget this one, it’s the crucial bit) understanding.

    I have no doubt that my children will enjoy reading newspapers when they are older, as their parents both do. They might not enjoy 19th Century literature but we will have to wait and see. I just hope school doesn’t put them off the idea of trying it by force feeding them with it in preparation for a 3 hour terminal exam. I should be alright though as the local secondary is Chris’s school and he knows what he is doing 🙂

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  9. A number of my colleagues teach all children to read – free school meal, SEN, those from book-free homes, children who have been traumatised, children in large classes, traveller children, those with cognitive impairment. Some children simply need more time to absorb the alphabetic code and practice their foundational skills. However most schools – ie those here in Oxford – insist on using a mixture of strategies to teach children, resulting in high failure rates.
    Reading Recovery and other expensive, fussy interventions are used. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Evidence Base 1 on Early Reading Intevention (Dec.2009) came to the conclusion that a synthetic phonics approach to early reading had a stronger research base than other instruction.

    The sooner children become fluent readers, the sooner they can be encouraged to read widely. How sad that there is such poverty of aspiration – 11 years at school without introduction to a body of 19th and 20th century classics. Chilling.

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  11. Jill Berry says:

    I enjoyed reading Joe’s post and the ensuing debate. I taught English for thirty years (I was a teaching head for the last ten) in six different schools – independent and state, comprehensive and selective. I’ve been in schools/departments which have taught the technical aspects of language and classic novels well – or, perhaps more accurately, where some teachers have taught these things well – and I’ve experienced the opposite. I wouldn’t say that selective/independent schools do these things successfully and state schools don’t. I agree that we should be rigorous and ambitious in what we teach, but I think the emphasis then needs to be on HOW we teach these things so that the pupils’ learning is dynamic and effective – ie it has an impact and they remember and improve both their use of language and their understanding of literature.

    I think we probably talk too much about curriculum content and not enough about how we ensure this content is delivered (horrible word but I can’t think of another at the moment) as successfully as possible.

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