Comprehension and Explanation: Learning Activities

Arguably, the most basic skill that we ask students to comprehend, refine and master. This is also a skill that as secondary teachers, we may assume has been taught and learned well in primary school. It must be nurtured and cultivated regularly throughout Key Stage 3 and then into Key Stage 4. At the most basic level, we might expect students to identify some basic key points and respond to some explicit meanings, mainly accurately, but briefly. A high achieving student may identify subtle and sophisticated points from a text and summarize them in a detailed and perceptive way with reference to implicit meanings and viewpoints. Within mastering ‘comprehension and explanation’, a student must: Answer the question; structure an answer; and use subject terminology. Here are some activities that promote and support the learning and practice of this skill.

#1 Kings and Queens of the Key Word

  • The bread and butter

Students break down a question and get to the crux of what it is asking. This involves understanding what they key words in the question mean and how they can be interpreted. Most importantly, students need to read whether the question invites an argument or debate.

  • What’s the objective?

The objective is for students to independently interpret a question and understand what is required to answer it.

Bits and Pieces:

  • Visible list of the Assessment Objectives for the unit you are teaching
  • An example question
  • Glue/scissors
  • A4 paper or class books
  1. Begin by providing students with the question they should approach (they should also have any Assessment Objectives written down). This should be either copied or glued in the middle of a landscape page.
  2. Read the question through carefully and highlight the important words:



Consider what each of the words in bold suggests:

How does Priestley present the theme of responsibility in the play, An Inspector Calls?

How? Through language, form and structural choices.
Responsibility? Bond, concern, charge, duty.
Priestley? Priestley’s views and ideas.
  1. In their own words, or a ‘Tweet’, students need to answer the question in a simple way. For example: Priestley presents the theme of responsibility through presenting characters as selfish and unchanging and also characters that do learn from their mistakes.
  2. Each lesson, hand out a question for students to go through this process with. Gluing them in the back of the book creates a great bank to refer to when more content has been learned.

#2 Pyramids

  • The bread and butter

Students to recognise the importance of developing depth in a response.

  • What’s the objective?

For students to have the confidence to explore beyond the obvious and to illustrate their depth of thinking

Bits and Pieces:

  • A4 or A3 plain paper
  • Felt tip pens
  1. Hand out a sheet with a pyramid shape on it or students can draw their own. It should cover at least and A4 page.
  2. Students need to write a quotation from the text they are studying at the top of their pyramid.
  3. Consideration of the important lexical choices including connotations and associations must be noted underneath. This should be followed by: Techniques and their effect; relevant contextual information; audience response and finally, the writer’s message.
  4. A pyramid full of notes and ideas covering all assessment objectives should be the result. This is a particularly effective revision activity! The next step would be to write up the notes as an analytical paragraph.

#3 The Big List

  • The bread and butter

Students create lists to practise memory recall and categorization of information

  • What’s the objective?

Focus on the question and consideration of all assessment objectives! This type of activity asks students to select relevant information

Bits and Pieces:

  • Visible list of the Assessment Objectives for the unit you are teaching
  • Highlighters
  1. Assuming that the assessment objectives are the skills focused on for this post (understanding (themes), analysis, context, effect), ensure that these are clearly outlined on the board for students to see.
  2. Students need to list everything they can think of under each of these headings linked to their studied text. Adding a timed condition element adds another element of competition!
  3. Once their list is as full as they can make it, using a highlighter, students need to link together aspects of their list that link to a given theme.
  4. There are lots of ways to use the list: create a model paragraph linking relevant information from the lists together; reorder ideas chronologically; or separate into themes.

#4 Word Master

  • The bread and butter

To begin to build a varied and broad vocabulary that aids analysis.

  • What’s the objective?

To equip students with words that they can aim to commit to memory and use independently.

Bits and Pieces:

  • Slips of paper
  1. Students need to be sat in rows that face either way; there needs to be an equal number of students in each row (if they’re odd, I suggest asking for an assistant to keep the time!)
  2. The ‘captain’ for each row is at the end. They are given a slip of paper, a bit like a shopping list. As quickly as possible, students must write down a word that describes a given character and pass it to the next person and then back. They must not repeat a word that has already been written.
  3. Weaker groups should be given five minutes to collect a bank of words using a thesaurus beforehand. It can get very heated and a teacher commentary always increases the word thinking passion!

#5 Trump Cards

  • The bread and butter

To begin to identify and retain more complex vocabulary to describe a character or theme

  • What’s the objective?

Students need to consider how powerful or ‘punchy’ a word is – this also gets them thinking about impact and effect.

Bits and Pieces:

  • Card, cut into squares (about the size of playing cards).
  1. Consider the character or theme you wish students to have a deeper understanding of and create a pack of about 30 cards (literally chop up card and write with a marker!), each with a word that describes the character or theme. These words must range from basic to complex – two thirds at least must be more complex.
  2. Students should be able to share basic knowledge of the character (let’s use Hyde from Jekyll and Hyde as an example). They may be able to explain that Hyde is ‘scary’ or ‘dark’, but to dig deeper and obtain higher marks, they will need to be more specific.
  3. The pack is passed around the room; each student takes a card. Begin with simple questions about the character. Students must answer using their card; if another student believes their word ‘trumps’ their class mate’s card, they must play it – even if they are not sure what it might mean. By the end, students with the most complex words should remain. These words can then be used to answer further questions in an interesting way.

Thank you for reading.



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