Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before: Defining Threshold Concepts in Literacy

This blog is inspired by a couple of brief exchanges on Twitter between myself and the esteemed Michael Tidd, Jon Brunskill and Tim Taylor:

I’d previously blogged about defining Big Ideas in primary literacy, read around a little and began to ask my more informed colleagues on Twitter whether they knew of any work being done in primary. Michael was particularly encouraging, saying that nothing was being done that he knew of, but that it sounded like the right track to be going down. So I attempted to sketch out what I thought were some threshold concepts.

It quickly became apparent that my attempts were really no better than anything a policy wonk in the Department of Education would come up with. My ideas were based on intuition and an anecdotal knowledge of my own curriculum. So far, so what?

The brief exchange today on Twitter was inspired by Michael’s exasperation with the slide towards a new levelling system that currently looks as if it will be even worse than the APP assessment regime it is designed to replace. My position is that, regardless of what assessment systems are dictated to us from above, I am far more interested in what my students understand than whether they are able to demonstrate a skill three times!

This generates an even greater sense of urgency for us to define our threshold concepts in literacy. We need to build trust outside the profession and demonstrate that we can be left to assess our students in ways that foster deep understanding. If we are successful, whatever half-baked accountability systems are foisted upon us will naturally whither on the vine and be deemed both unnecessary and counterproductive.

Before I set out my process for deriving threshold concepts and then go on to offer my suggestions, please do take a look at my bibliography and decide whether you want to take this blog too seriously. I am all too aware that I am working towards this as a practitioner and not an academic. My reading is far from wide (and I would be grateful for any suggested reading that you think would refine my attempt). But primarily I will be happy if my reflection deepens my understanding of the subject I teach, and results in better-directed teaching and my students’  deeper, lasting understanding. If it does this, then administrators, punch-drunk with the latest mandated pseudo-initiative from on high, can come and go as they please, safe in the knowledge that I know my job and do it very well.

However, I have one more caveat in evaluating the success or otherwise of my attempt: if what I write starts to smell like APP…

… stop me.

Step 1: Returning to my curriculum and picking out the common elements

My curriculum is split into five content areas:

  1. Phonics, spelling and vocabulary
  2. Grammar and punctuation
  3. Reading
  4. Writing
  5. Speaking and Listening

The introduction gives some clues (about what the Big Ideas might be) through the repetition of some key words: intellectual engagement, thinking skills, critical skills, enjoyment, understanding (in terms of both empathy and interpretation).

There is also a potted learner profile (a kind of IB-lite):

“The curriculum is dedicated to developing learners who are confident, responsible, innovative and engaged.” (There’s another mention of the buzzword “engage/engaged/engagement”)

The curriculum is then delivered over 6 stages (the 6 years of primary) and may be summarised across each content area as follows:

Stage 1: The student is introduced to basic concepts, such as letter/sound correspondence. They begin to form and decode words using blending and segmenting. They participate in recitation, are introduced to traditional stories and rhymes, and are invited to emulate elements under carefully guided conditions. All this is done so, whilst seeding the idea that these stories can be related to their own lives. The skill of inference is introduced by inviting kids to anticipate the next stage in a story and also to speculate about characters and events.

Stage 2: Essentially this is more of the above, with longer vowel sounds, syllables instead of blends, compounds instead of segments, the introduction of prefixes and suffixes. At this point, student talk about their reading and writing becomes more sophisticated: rather than simply talking about their reading and writing, they are now purposefully refining writing for sense and accuracy (not yet, interestingly, for purpose – but they should begin to do this in their reading at this stage).

In reading, they are beginning to recognise that stories emanate from different contexts (but they are not yet reflecting on how a context might influence a text). They are encouraged to comment on word choices. Crucially, they are at this point developing the means to express likes and dislikes in their reading choices. They are becoming aware of the purpose of different text types.

This is also mirrored in their writing: as they are introduced to a wider range of text types, they should be demonstrating that they can use the features of a text type. Whilst they are able to emulate a text type, it is not suggested that the student is yet linking the structure and style of the text with it’s purpose. In speaking, students should be more aware of formality and informality. This is presumably to bleed over into their writing in Stage 3.

Stage 3: The students are using their blending, sounding out, analogy, knowledge of context, suffixes and prefixes, to decipher unfamiliar words. Essentially, the phonic, contextual and taught knowledge are applied to ever more words in more sophisticated texts. At this point, the students learn grammatical rules for verb endings.

In vocabulary, they are considering word choice and how it can heighten meaning. They are inferring the meaning of words from context and building a bank of synonyms for high-frequency words.

In reading, their knowledge of linguistic terminology is deepening: noun, verb, adjective, pronoun, singular/plural. Interestingly, at this point (Year 3), they are to “understand that verbs are necessary for meaning in a sentence”. This is obviously not true, and a great example of an objective, which taught discretely, becomes counterproductive. “What?”, “Over there.”, “Never again.” are all examples of verb-less sentences. Does this give us a clue to a threshold concept? Should we expect that students understand that a sentence is a “complete, meaningful idea”?

In writing (within grammar and punctuation), they are securing their use of sentence punctuation, using a greater range of punctuation for speech, exclamation and lists. Their repertoire of sentence types is expanding from simple to compound (and perhaps a light introduction to complex). They are now also experimenting with a wider range of sentence openers (a la Big Writing’s O in VCOP).

In reading, their texts are lengthening (48 to 64 pages); they are expected to read with expression. Their comprehension is: specific points, beginning to infer beyond the literal (motives and character) and beginning to identify genre attributes and themes. At this point, they are linking texts and making comparisons between texts. They are locating information in non-fiction texts and ICT sources, and considering how such texts are organised for ease of reference.

In writing, their texts are beginning to be organised into paragraphs; they are writing character portraits; simple scripts based on reading (transferring to show understanding – arguably a reading comprehension task). The reflection upon writing has moved from talk in Stage 1, accuracy in Stage 2, to impact in Stage 3.

Again at this point, speaking and listening is largely about improving their interaction skills (turn-taking, listening, etc), but also appears to offer a springboard into the next stage. This is especially true of purpose. This stands to reason, as a readership is effectively an abstracted audience. What better way for a child to begin to understand audience (in the sense of readership) than by using an actual audience for their writing delivered as speech. Audience and purpose are then rising to the surface as Big Ideas in literacy. If you are not writing in sentences; if you are writing informal letters to the Prime Minister; you are not appreciative of audience. Once the concept of audience is understood, a sensitivity to impact and result falls in and there should be a greater chance of successful communication.

Stage 4: At this point, I’m not going to list in detail, as the general thrust is becoming clear. The range and depth of vocabulary awareness is increasing (obviously). References to syllables become reference to “multisyllabic words”, rules and spelling patterns are being tested for generalisability; powerful language is being substituted for basic terms. It’s worth stopping here and mentioning that “power in language choices” could be a threshold concept. In many classes I’ve taught (overseas) students confuse “power” with “obscurity” or even “length of word”. “Power” in the sense taught here, means “emotionally-charged” or “rich in connotation”. That is a difficult concept for a KS3 student to fully grasp, let alone a Year 4 student. But it is important that “power” in Year 4 is understood in a way that will segue into a deeper understanding of connotation. This is obviously tackled in the teaching (through comparing examples and reflecting on the use of powerful language in read-alouds) – if the teacher knows where this understanding is heading, he/she is less likely to fudge the definition and allow students to get away with a superficial understanding of what it means to choose words that have power.

In Grammar and Punctuation, the students are introduced to a wider range of connectives, punctuation (the apostrophe to show possession) and commas as a proxy for brackets (to “mark out meaning”). This is interesting and problematic. At this point, students should fully understand that a sentence is a complete idea; they will also have been introduced to compound and had some exposure to complex sentences. Now, we are beginning to address the clause. Skipping forward to the next stages, I can see “investigate clauses…and how they are connected” in Stage 5; and main/subordinate clauses in Stage 6. So, how we introduce the clause in Stage 4 must feed into this understanding with the greatest of care.

Structurally, fluent writing is a balancing of clauses – finding the most appropriate way to express related ideas without ambiguity (if ambiguity is not appropriate to your purpose). Unfortunately, the most effective and immediate way of teaching this is by showing sentences like this: “I helped my uncle jack off the horse.” However (on a more serious note), we have another possible key concept: the student needs to know that clauses are components of sentences and that their application is fluid with only the proviso that their misuse can create misunderstanding, ambiguity, and pleasured horses.

In reading, our students are now deciphering figurative language; exploring implicit meaning, narrative order, and exploring the impact of imagery and figurative language in poetry. How have they moved on from Stage 3? Effectively, they are zeroing in on descriptive language; they have bedded down their knowledge of generic structure in fiction and non-fiction, and are beginning to focus on the effectiveness of structure and language choices. So a key concept here could be “Students recognise that structure and language choice is determined by purpose and audience”. The word “mood” is mentioned for the first time.

As a teacher who has run the gamut from Year 2 to IB diploma, I have grappled with “mood” from IGCSE to sixth form. This is connected to connotation in the sense that the effectiveness of language choices resides in a shared association. This is why we begin our Gothic Horror units with imagery from film and popular mythology to get across the message that we associate certain images with anticipation, suspense, fear. Those images have been chosen because we have a common understanding of their association.

I don’t want to muddy the water for my secondary colleagues by mal-teaching “mood”. I want their understanding of mood to build into a deeper understanding of shared connotation by sixth form (and preferably earlier to get my starred A’s in IGCSE).

Stage 5:

In Vocabulary, we are beginning to reflect on idiomatic uses of English; we are looking at stressed/unstressed syllables; spelling patterns for plurals (e.g. -y, -ies). We are introducing the term “preposition” in Grammar and Punctuation.

However, what is most apparent from this detailed journey through the stages, is that the objectives become a lot more convoluted, and it becomes more difficult for the teacher to grasp the main thread from the year below to the year above. A case in point: “Begin to interpret imagery and techniques, e.g. metaphor, personification, simile, adding to understanding beyond the literal.” Basically, this is the kind of objective I have seen in every year from Year 7 to 9 (admittedly without the words “begin to”).

The point I want to make here is that, without making this journey and seeking to derive threshold concepts, there is a risk that the above objective will be taught in a formulaic way. The students will be introduced (possibly for the fourth or fifth time) to a literary device, find examples in whatever they are reading, and then be exhorted to use said devices in whatever genre of writing happens to be in the next part of the unit.

To locate the thread from this objective to the next stage is not easy. In Stage 6, I can find no reference to literary devices, but there is mention of implicit meanings and plausible inferences. The main step-up from Stage 5, is that the student is expected to make inferences from more than one point in the point. They should also begin to compare books by the same author, presumably as a precursor to introducing the notion of individual writing styles.

How might the use of literary devices be addressed as a Big Idea or a threshold concept? Does it link back to connotation and “mood”? Are literary devices a more elaborate means to convey significance? Is the progression from word to word choice to literary device (a combination of words designed to convey something beyond current definition)? Intuitively, I think this is the case. So again, how do I ensure that I teach literary devices in a way that could lead to this realisation in later years?

Writing in Stage 6 is more structured, with greater consideration for feeling and atmosphere in fiction, and purpose in non-fiction. We also see the first mention of justification in non-fiction writing. This is little peculiar, as the requirement for evidence is suggested in the reading strand in earlier stages. My experience in secondary gives me cause for concern. A key understanding that needs to be addressed, and can be through debate, is: opinions need to be justified with reliable evidence. You cannot simply say what you think and assume that others will accept it as fact. One of the risks of an atomised curriculum delivered by a different teacher every year is that these key concepts are taught in a matter-of-fact way that doesn’t facilitate an understanding of the fundamentals of rhetoric: an argument must be won, or at the very least, tested. If our Big Idea is that “ideas compete based on quality of evidence” we can begin to seed those analytical skills earlier in a way that will cumulatively develop into a sophisticated understanding of the contestability of truth and interpretation.

Stage 6:

Essentially, by Stage 6, we are expecting students to have been exposed to the full range of punctuation; they are now not just reflective of word choices and literary devices, but also sentence length choices.

In reading, as mentioned above, they are comparing texts in such a way as to reflect on style (to a limited degree). They are also discussing the effectiveness of evocation of mood. These skills are now beginning to look a lot like those at much higher levels. And it is here that we can see problems in using these objectives as standards or levels. Are we seriously suggesting that “Understand aspects of narrative structure, e.g. the handling of time.” is an objective that can be assessed and deemed met. If a child does this effectively, let them sit the GCSE tomorrow.

Again, we need to unpack this objective and those around it, to see common concepts that can be usefully taught towards so that we don’t pile the kids up with “flashback”, “foreshadowing”, and so on, and expect them to dutifully spot these in writing and remark upon them like little Mark Kermodes.

Asking questions is key, rather than making explicit references to techniques. It is more fruitful to ask “Why didn’t the writer tell us this before?” or “Why did the writer decide to tell us what happened at the end, at the beginning?” Kids know the answers to these questions. What they don’t need is to be shoehorned into superficial understanding through discrete lessons focussed on particular objectives. Essentially, this objective should be met cumulatively through questioning as and when shared texts provide the opportunity. But this does need to be backed up with some explicit teaching of knowledge. The point is that the example and the questioning drives the student into the knowledge, that is then given a name by the teacher.

Writing at this point is more nuanced, paragraphs are sequenced and linked. There is “cohesion with paragraphs”. In non-fiction, points are developed “logically and convincingly”. We step off the primary literacy wagon, fully-formed, literate and ready now for more challenging texts, canonical works and writing of greater sophistication.

Except that isn’t how the story ends, is it?

Because the objectives have been taught discretely; because they have been assessed in too “micro” a fashion, and often to close to points of support, without sufficient cumulative repetition, the student reaches secondary with a half-remembered grab-bag of generic features, technical terms, snatches of poetry and the response to the call “Eyes on who?”

Step 2: Deriving threshold concepts from the above common elements

In grasping the key concepts and delivering them in a measured, cumulative way that promotes deeper understanding, we enhance the possibility that, whilst our transition student might not be able to name “flashback” as a piece of literary terminology, he will intuitively understand why writers leave something out, add something in or mess with time.

So have I advanced to a point where I can confidently list some fundamental Big Ideas in primary literacy? Let’s see…

1) The “place value” of literacy is that box of Lego that contains everything from phonemes to words to compound nouns to clauses to sentences to paragraphs and beyond to texts. Essentially, students need to arrive in secondary knowing that they can play with these elements as long as meaning isn’t compromised in a way that hurts anybody (unless that was their intention).

2) In reading, they move from literal to implicit interpretation, but they need to understanding that interpretation is debatable. So let them debate it.

3) In reading and writing, they need to reflect on impact and purpose. So peer and self-assessment will be absolutely crucial to fostering this conceptual understanding. “Is that what you meant to say?” “Is that how you intended me to feel?” Much of this reflection (if not more) will come through speaking, listening and drama.

4) Reading for pleasure, as an attitude, and reading as an aptitude needs to be given the status of Big Idea. This ensures that progress in reading remains a central part of literacy development. Points 2 and 3 above are not sufficiently attitudinal to guarantee that reading for pleasure becomes a key performance indicator.

5) All of the above needs to be done in such a way as it generates enthusiasm, confidence, questions and a sense of purpose. So accountability measures need to be contained. Let the teacher nurture the child’s motivation, rather than external accountability (or levels).

Step 3: Considering how these threshold concepts might influence teaching and learning for the better

What’s apparent is that Big Ideas lead us back to good teaching, great lessons and enquiring students. The Sutton Trust report tells us that good teachers know their subjects. Going back to my curriculum and trying (again) to generalise it into larger “chunks of concept” has been refreshing. I feel like I can confidently approach my schemes of work and ask myself, “Do I really need to teach to this objective? Can I address it cumulatively in a more organic and authentic way? If I do “teach to” it, do I jeopardise a deeper understanding further along the line?

If you’ve got this far in my little treatise, I thank you from the proverbial. Truthfully, it has been more for my personal benefit. But if it helps you in your interpretation of your curriculum. And, more importantly, if it helps us as a profession to convince policy-makers to give us the space to give our children a foundation of emerging concepts that will set them up for an enriched, expansive life… well, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Please do comment. And please do retweet if you strongly agree with me. If we don’t fill the current vacuum in accountability-led assessment, you can bet that someone else will. And that someone might not know as much about teaching, learning and child development as we do.


Understanding by Design, Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins

For a definition of Mayer and Land’s Threshold Concept:

For an example of its application in the deriving Big Ideas in KS3 English:

Cambridge Primary English Curriculum Framework, CIE 2011



4 thoughts on “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before: Defining Threshold Concepts in Literacy

  1. In The Fly there is a conversation between Seth Brundle and his journalist girlfriend, Ronnie:

    Ronnie: [after an unsuccessful test of the telepods] We’ve gotta do this, Seth. Talk to the tape. Get in the habbit. The world will want to know what you’re thinking.
    Seth Brundle: “Fuck!” is what I’m thinking.
    Ronnie: Good… The world will want to know that… What else? Why didn’t it work?
    Seth Brundle: [Disappointed] I think it turned the baboon inside-out.
    Ronnie: Why?
    Seth Brundle: [sigh] It can’t cope with the flesh. It only seems to work on inanimate objects; nothing that’s living.

    The problem with APP and the bloody PDs is not their intention, but the way they cut learning up into tiny micro-skills learnt sequentially at the same pace. This is not how learning happens.

    Later Seth cooks Ronnie a steak that’s gone through the telepods.

    Ronnie: It tastes um… synthetic.
    Seth Brundle: [Seth smiles and takes the napkin] Mmm-hmm.
    Ronnie: [smiles with intrigue] So, what have we proved?
    Seth Brundle: The computer is giving us its interpretation… of a steak. It’s, uh translating it for us; it’s rethinking it, rather than *reproducing* it, and something is getting lost in the translation.
    Ronnie: Me… I’m lost.
    Seth Brundle: The flesh. It should make the computer, uh crazy. Like those old ladies pinching babies. But it doesn’t; not yet because I haven’t taught the computer to be made crazy by the…
    [smiles at Ronnie]
    Seth Brundle: flesh. The poetry of the steak.

    Like Seth, we need to re-programme our assessment system to get to the poetry of learning. I’m sure what you’ve written here is on the right track.


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