Retracing My Steps: defining threshold concepts for Key Stage 2 literacy

Retracing your steps back from threshold concepts to the daily lesson.
Retracing your steps back from threshold concepts to the daily lesson.

Please excuse the exploratory nature of this blog post. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the quality of my planning and its impact in the class. I frequently find myself explaining the same concepts again and again, writing quite similar comments again and again. This, coupled with recent training in Wiggins’ and McTighe’s Understanding by Design (UbD), is forcing a breakthrough in my professional development.

Unfortunately, I’m in the middle of the breakthrough rather than on the other side, and it’s a feeling not unlike passing a gallstone!

Following the process of UbD, I need to define the “Big Ideas” or “threshold concepts” of my subject. This is slightly complicated by the fact that, in primary, units are typically planned around topics, and the core concepts are (in our school) often derived from PYP learning attributes (cognitive skills such as metacognition, research skills or presenting findings). This can mean that literacy is addressed functionally (informed by curriculum) but is relegated to a function of a wider attempt to foster learning skills.

Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that I have a curriculum, but I don’t have a clear set of principles from which to derive “big ideas” in literacy for Key Stage 2. Looking at the Cambridge Primary Curriculum, I have plenty of learning objectives to juggle. Here are the reading objectives for my year group:

• Develop familiarity with the work of established authors and poets.
• Discuss and express preferences in terms of language, style and themes.
• Look for implicit as well as explicit meanings, and make plausible inferences.
• Articulate personal responses to reading, with close reference to the text.
• Analyse the success of writing in evoking particular moods (e.g. suspense).
• Take account of viewpoint in a novel, and distinguish author and narrator.
• Understand aspects of narrative structure such as the handling of time.
• Explore how poets manipulate and play with words and their sounds.
• Read and interpret poems in which meanings are implied or multi-layered.
• Compare and evaluate the print and film versions of a novel or a play.

They are pretty exhaustive and they inform my teaching. However, when it comes to repackaging them as “threshold concepts”, I hit a road block. Essentially these objectives are skills, not understandings. There are clues within the objectives (for example “the handling of time” hints at authorial processes that have an impact on the reader) but the big ideas do not easily emerge from the list above.

So, as an experiment, let me try to unpack the above objectives and see if I can group them to form a more succinct set of concepts. This, I hope, would enable me to identify key understandings which will lay much firmer foundations for future learning.

As I read the list, a few patterns jump out. The young reader needs to understand that: some writers are better than others (more established); different writers have different levels of appeal and this can be subjective (i.e., the reader is entitled to his opinion); both poetry and prose has a surface and a beneath-the-surface meaning; an interpretation is valid if it can be explained; writers make choices based on their purposes; different media have different ways of creating the same audience impacts.

If I’m successful in unpacking the above objectives, I should be able to derive concepts that have a similar fundamental status as “place value” in mathematics. This is how I feel about word, sentence, paragraph and text-level objectives in writing. Essentially, these are the place value of literacy. Understanding how clauses function and can be manipulated like Lego bricks is a fundamental principle of writing.

Let’s get back to the reading objectives. Can I simplify them further to get to an even more elementary concept? Here goes…

1) Writing is successful if it generates a (broadly expected) response from a reader

2) Writing is usually written for a purpose – to comment on or make sense of something

3) Some writers are better than others at achieving their purpose

4) The reader is entitled to an opinion – but the quality of the opinion depends on evidence (like a detective)

Hmm… still seems a little arbitrary, but I do feel like I’ve succeeded in getting a deeper understanding of what I’m looking for from my kids. However, it looks a bit challenging for Year 6, and indeed has remained a challenge for kids at post-GCSE level.

That said, I can see what types of questions arise from the above four points:

1) Why do you think the writer wrote this?

2) What feeling do you think he wants to create?

3) Did he do a better job at creating that feeling than the writer of this poem?

4) How did he create that feeling?

5) How could you create that feeling?

6) What might drive you to write something?

What do you think? Am I on the right track? I’ve trawled the blogosphere and found lots of useful posts for secondary (see below), but for primary my search is not yet delivering. So if anyone can comment or point me towards sources for threshold concepts in primary literacy, I would be very grateful.

Once I’m convinced I’m heading in the right direction, I’ll work on these for the remaining strands of the Cambridge Primary English Curriculum and begin the task of working backwards from big ideas, threshold concepts and get to the schemes of work. It’s nice to get stuck into something substantial!

All the best,




Reflecting on what I’ve written tonight, it’s apparent to me that discussion of reading, beyond guided reading and more into the realms of the reading group is essential in fostering a firm understanding of the analytical processes that make up a deeper reading experience. On the writing side (for the student), self and peer assessment will be even more important as this is where the students will ask one another, “what did you intend?” and match intention to result, thereby measuring success (or finding happy, accidental interpretations). I’m thinking “conferencing”, “writer’s workshop”, essentially a much more reflective approach to evaluating the effectiveness of writing read by the child and writing written by the child.


I’ve since revisited my curriculum and written a more exhaustive blog that, I think, has a less arbitrary list of Big Ideas. Please take a look and let me know what you think.

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