The Double Helix: How knowledge is vital for skills in English

In English education, skills are being detached from knowledge.

But teaching skills without knowledge doesn’t work.

Instead, knowledge and skills must be integrated, like a double helix.


Only by specifying, sequencing and assessing knowledge can we begin to build critical thinking skills. So Bloom’s taxonomy should not be seen as a ladder or league table, where knowledge is relegated to the bottom rung. Instead, it’s more accurate to see skills and knowledge as a double helix, interweaving application, analysis, evaluation and synthesis and moving from shaky, surface and shallow knowledge up to deep knowledge.


For example, the goal of teaching a Macbeth GCSE unit is an in-depth understanding of the text for a comparative analytical essay. Pupils’ ability to interpret the play critically depends on how deep their knowledge is of the content and context. The more they know about Jacobean concerns, the better they’ll write about the play. If, for instance, they know that the Gunpowder plot to assassinate James I happened in 1605, this helps them explain why Shakespeare chose to write about assassination in 1606. If they know that Shakespeare’s company had been appointed the King’s Men in 1603, and performed at the royal court in 1606, they’ll understand the impact of staging regicide before a monarch. If they know that James wrote and published a tract on witchcraft entitled ‘Demonology’ in 1597, they’ll understand why the play opens with three witches on stage. Without this knowledge, they won’t. Key facts unlock understanding.


To return to Animal Farm, interweaving text and context like a tapestry is also crucial for teaching the novel. Without knowing who Stalin, Hitler and Churchill are, and who they are represented by in the allegory, how can pupils possibly understand Orwell’s intentions? Unless they know about the Russian revolution, civil war, dictatorship and purges, how can they interpret the text? The best way to teach pupils to analyse great literature is careful planning of the content they need to hone their analytical skills on.


It’s not just in the study of English literature that knowledge is vital, but in English language too. There’s no reason to teach sterile non-fiction texts on transitory celebrities, other than a lack of imagination. For English is a tremendously powerful language: it can win hearts and minds, and change ideas and history.  Given a blank slate at Key Stage 3 to innovate with the curriculum, why not select the biographies, autobiographies and speeches of civil rights leaders and heroines? A 20th century scheme of work could span Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, three of whom were assassinated for their beliefs. A 16th century series of biographies and great speeches of Tudor She-Wolves could span Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, two of whom were executed for political reasons. Their lives, speeches and stories capture the beauty of the English language and the threat of its tremendous rhetorical power. They have the potential to inspire in pupils a love of reading, speaking and writing.


I want to go into detail now and give one example of a ‘double-helix unit’ that integrated knowledge and skills that really worked. My department gave me a blank slate to design a unit of work on Oliver Twist for a Year 7 class. I sequenced the core knowledge about Dickens’s biography and upbringing, and the experiences that led to him writing the serialised novel in 1837, aged just 24, just as a young Queen Victoria came to the throne. I specified what pupils should learn about 1830s London, its poverty, criminal justice system, capital punishment, the 1834 Poor Laws and workhouse conditions. They learned about street gangs and gender inequality in detail. They learned about prejudice against Jewish merchants and the fever that Dickens’ sister-in-law died of in 1837. As we read Oliver Twist, it hit me how useful all this knowledge was for unlocking the layers of meaning in the novel. They understood why Dickens chose a poor orphan as his hero. They understood why Rose Maylie almost dies from a fever, and why Dickens ensures his character survives in fiction as he could not ensure his beloved sister-in-law could survive in life. They understood why the workhouse existed, and unraveled the mystery of why Oliver’s mother abandoned her baby to the workhouse.


The interpretations in the essays these Year 7 students wrote after learning all this valuable contextual knowledge were striking. To give you some concrete examples drawn from the end-of-unit assessments of pupils in the top, middle and bottom of the class, a high-achieving pupil wrote: ‘Dickens is trying to evoke a feeling of sympathy and provoking a feeling of forgiving to those envolved in situation’s like Nancy’s. 1837 a case of injustice was witnessed by Dickens himself, a young woman was unjustly acused of infanticide. This was what inspired his story of Nancy. [sic]’ A middle ability pupil wrote: ‘Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in 1830s Victorian London (19th century AD) by showing the people of that time and even now that the criminals are becoming criminals because of the inequality the Poor Laws brings [sic].’ One of the lowest ability pupil in the class wrote: ‘the themes of vulnerabity, poverty, crime and injustice … links to Dickens childhood and when he was younger his dad was put in a dept prison as he couldn’t afford to pay his depts’ [sic]. Now, the spelling and grammar of this Year 7 class leaves a lot to be desired, and I am working on that. But their understanding of authorial intentions is striking, and all of them have interpretations throughout all of their essays. Knowing the facts does not restrict interpretations; it enables them.



The integration of skills and knowledge should not only happen within and across lessons, though, but across entire key stages in primary and secondary school, from reception all the way to GCSEs in Year 11 and beyond. A good example of this is grammar. Unless the core concepts of grammar are automated in the long-term memory, consolidated over a number of years just as the core concepts of the maths curriculum are, and sequenced and tested clearly, there’s no way by Year 11 that pupils will have secure, accurate writing skills. Complex problems require years of practice to solve quickly and accurately – why should extended writing be any different?

So in my English teaching now, whenever I’m planning a scheme of work on any text, this is my approach. I specify in precise detail the hidden bodies of knowledge that make up student mastery of the text. I decide exactly what I want them to know about the context, plot, characters, themes, language and form. I sequence this valuable knowledge systematically across lessons. I test them regularly on whether they’ve understood and mastered the content I think is essential for them. A look at their interpretations at the end of the unit will tell how big a difference knowledge makes.

As English teachers, we know that classic works of literature that have stood the test of time over the centuries are enthralling. Over the course of secondary school, if students read and study in depth at least one novelist, playwright, poet’s work every year, with their and others’ biographies, by the time they leave school, they’ll have built up a sound foundation of powerful, valuable knowledge about how words have the power to change minds and lives. One of the most exciting gifts we have to give to our students is the wonder that comes with unravelling the mysteries in Dickens, the allegory in Orwell, the hidden magic of grammar and the theatrical wizardry of Shakespeare, some of the greatest writers in the world’s most global language. Why deny them the knowledge needed to understand and interpret these magnificent works?

What I’ve realised from teaching a knowledge-light, skills-based syllabus is simple: knowledge is vital for skills in English. Critical interpretation is impossible without sequential knowledge. Skills without knowledge are useless, just as knowledge without skills is pointless. The double helix analogy reveals that how we blend and sequence them is the challenge for all of us in English teaching.


This Saturday, I am posting on sequencing in the curriculum.

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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20 Responses to The Double Helix: How knowledge is vital for skills in English

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  2. David Didau says:

    Good job Joe. Have you taught A level literature? It’s interesting to note that the 4 assessment objectives value grammar, contextual knowledge and ability to interpret and analyse equally. Why can’t GCSE be more like A level I wonder?

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  5. suecowley says:

    I get that there’s a link to the historical context, but I also believe that great books transcend their historical and social context. I am able to appreciate Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights without a complete knowledge of the backdrop because I am immersed in the story itself. Tbh I’m not such a huge fan of Dickens, sorry if that makes me a pleb but there you go. Remember, these are not historical tracts but works of fiction. I think you run a very real risk of downgrading the beauty of an imaginative work of art by going too strong on the historical backdrop.

    The other danger is that you end up with kids who write essays that start ‘Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon …’ and proceed to list their knowledge of his historical background. I’ve seen that happen plenty of times, particularly for those who are not hugely able. They forget the story but the history sticks, which is fine but you are talking about teaching stories here and not history.

    What does strike me is this: why on earth don’t you try to link up with your school’s history department and see if they could do a cross curricular project (hope you don’t swoon in horror at that word) to link the learning you are doing in English Lit with that they are doing in History?

    p.s. How on earth do you fit in marking and planning with all this writing? It used to take me 30 mins per essay to mark Yr.10/11 stuff, I would never have managed to fit in blogging and tweeting as well. You must have great time management skills.

    • Jill Berry says:

      I’m definitely with you, Sue, on this one. While I can see the benefits of historical/sociological context as a way into understanding and appreciation, I can also see that past a certain point it can become intrusive and distracting and actually detract from engaging with a novel/play/poem as a work of art.

  6. headstmary says:

    Dear Joe, I’m really enjoying the blogs coming through from Pragmatic Education. The double helix was an analogy I also used in a post about putting Learners at the Centre (having picked up a quote from a head at HTRT) the post is here –

    It’s is crucial that development of knowledge & understanding and skills go hand in hand. Too often people want to take an extreme view of either/or that is not helpful or sensible. I connected the two strands of the double helix with the explicit development of the learner (the complimentary base pairs in the helix). You make no mention of the development of the learner – do you include this in the skills element or don’t feel it is that important or is it simply part of another blog post/not particularly relevant to the points you want to make?

  7. Not the opinion of an experienced English teacher – but why is it that nearly all creative writers of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries received an education with a firm knowledge base? Why, too, should knowledge be denied to those ‘who are not hugely able’? A reasonably able teacher would surely ensure that background knowledge did not detract from the reading itself.

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