Teaching with a Knowledge Organiser: retrieving knowledge, making connections, applying it in practice

Last week I put down the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of a knowledge organiser (hereafter KO). This week, I wanted to dedicate a full post to the ‘how’…after a tiny bit more ‘why’. If you’re not bothered about the ‘why’ bit and want to see the resources, skip to the next two sections. It’s probably obvious that I think these documents are good ideas. However, it’s not always been clear to me how they are used in the classroom beyond quizzing. Therefore, in this post, I wanted to put down how I’m trying to use them in lessons with examples from my grammar teaching.

The ‘why’ that makes the ‘how’ work…

From the outset, it seems reasonably clear from the cognitive science research out there that when we help our children recall and retrieve information they need to know again and again and again….and then again, they will not only remember it better but the way in which it is stored in their long term memory will also be improved – see my post on retrieval practice for more on this. I talk about this in my post on forgetting.

A helpful way to try and understand what’s going on inside our pupils’ long term memory is the idea of a ‘schema’. David Didau rightly points out in this post that this term isn’t a perfect way of explaining what’s going on but is still helpful for the busy teacher. Each bit of new information we give our pupils about a subject will exist in long term memory (hopefully) and be ready to be recalled at a later date depending on the cues given by the environment or a given stimulus. Like Didau says:

If I say bread, you say… * The fact that a prompt cues us to retrieve some connected information provides with some logical evidence that schema exist and that we store items we know to be connected together.”

A helpful analogy to explain this is the ‘nesting’ of knowledge in other knowledge, as Mark Enser points out:

“Nested knowledge, knowledge which is related to other knowledge, placed inside it rather like the parts of a Russian Doll, has the added bonus of being ‘sticky’. We are more likely to retain information which lives under a heading of ‘Everything I know about Dickens’, subheading ‘Everything I know about ‘A Christmas Carol…’’”

So, prompts, cues and the idea of nesting knowledge can all be catered for by curating and developing a knowledge organiser. But we must go further. We must also help our pupils to make connections between the types of knowledge they are learning. This is where the knowledge they are learning becomes really powerful. When they can take factual (substantive knowledge) and make connections between other bits of knowledge and then, even better, see it in light of the subject as a whole, their ‘remembering’ of subject content is much improved.

When we teach ‘word class’ in Upper Key Stage Two grammar, we might start by learning about nouns. We might give an easy definition for children to remember (a person, place or a thing), give some examples and then explore different types of nouns. The ‘schema’ that will hopefully have begun to develop after a clear explanation by the teacher in long term memory is the one shown below.

Screenshot 2019-04-06 at 19.01.01.pngHowever, as we know, if children just ‘know’ this and can answer a simple recall question about the definition of a noun then they have not fully ‘learned’ what a noun is. They must go further. After explaining this, I might then do some worked examples of identifying nouns, using nouns in sentences, seeing nouns in context and explaining where they fit in a sentence. The explanation and modelling of the examples mentioned here are essential. It will also build the schema of ‘nouns’ that our pupils have swimming around their heads. (What on earth has this all got to do with knowledge organisers? I hear you say – bear with me…)

The next step of the lesson might be to do some guided practice on white boards to check understanding before moving on. The rest of the lesson might be spent practising applying this knowledge in a variety of contexts

Now, when we eventually say, further on down the line:

“Right class, now that we’ve learned what a noun is, let me explain what an adjective is…”

Our teaching is standing on good foundations. Why? Well, when we teach adjectives embedded in the understanding pupils already have of nouns (think Russian Doll/Nesting Knowledge from the Mark Enser post above), we are more fully developing their understanding of word class as a whole, rather than just teaching them about adjectives.

Screenshot 2019-04-06 at 19.01.17.png

The above is better than this sort of weak schematic connection pupils might make between word classes if this is not appreciated in teaching…

Screenshot 2019-04-06 at 19.01.23.pngWhen children develop strong connections between schema’s and we make explicit how they’re linked, they are more likely to remember them. This is the paradoxical thing about schema’s: “the more items and the greater the number of connections between items: the easier it becomes to draw the entire schema into working memory.” from Didau.

Let’s skip forward to consider verbs and their relationship with nouns. Once we’ve followed the process of explaining, modelling, practising, assessing, practising, explaining and so on, we ought to then connect our pupils’ understanding of nouns with other word class elements and constantly refer to other information that might be linked. Take the link between nouns and verbs as an example. These two types of words are essential to making sentences work and pupils ought to know how we can connect up our understanding of them. More than this, they ought to understand that it is the verb that has a tense and changes the way we understand when events happen in sentences. This can then be linked to identifying subjects, objects, active and passive voice and so on and so forth.

Screenshot 2019-04-06 at 19.01.30In summary, developing strong schematic links between information is the essence of learning. It is an essential element in the teaching process.

How I’m trying to use a Knowledge Organiser

The previous section tried to show how knowledge is being formed in our pupils’ brains while we are teaching. It also attempted to show that when we connect up bits of knowledge and help our pupils see how everything fits together, they will remember it better, more deeply and be able to recall and apply it more consistently.

So, what has all this got to do with a knowledge organiser? First, when factual knowledge is organised carefully it makes teaching easier. If we are having to constantly remember what we need to teach, what we taught last week and so on, we will find it difficult to really pin down what our children to need to know and how they need to apply it. When we map out what our pupils need to know really clearly, we can see what the expectation is for what they need to remember.

Next, when knowledge is organised, we can keep coming back to it and help our pupils remember it, recall it and solidify it further in long term memory. I discussed this in my last post in more detail.

I’ve hinted at how I teach with them in the last section, however, I want to be more explicit now. I’m going to firstly look at using them as tools for explanation and modelling and then I’ll look at quizzing.

Explicitly Explain

First, when you have explicitly written down the definition and examples of essential knowledge that needs to be learned, it makes this all-important aspect of teaching so much easier. I make sure my definitions are almost identical to the ones I put on my knowledge organiser. This makes it so much easier for pupils to get a consistent understanding of what needs to be learned. Sometimes I snip the bit of the knowledge organiser and put it on my slides and then explain from it. This embeds the facts, particularly for young children or low attainers. When they get the same message from the teacher and from the written text, they are having multiple exposures to the same facts, hopefully embedding the definition.

Carefully model

Next, the modelling phase. This is not explicit on a knowledge organiser and this is the bit that I initially didn’t understand. I’ve given them a knowledge organiser and I’ve told them what the knowledge is….why don’t they perform better on the assessments I give them? The reason is that the knowledge they have, or the schema they are developing, is not secure enough and has not accommodated how the knowledge is used in a range of contexts. Therefore, I make sure that I model how the knowledge is used in a variety of contexts, then give them guided practice where I monitor where they have a secure understanding or not before I release them to practice independently.

Connect the knowledge up

Furthermore, I realised that unless I explicitly model the connections pupils can make between factual knowledge (see section above), it is highly unlikely that they will make them. For example, it is important that pupils watch me try to describe a verb with adjectives and how it doesn’t work (He was large, blue running), or how a sentence doesn’t make sense without a noun (The was running to the park)as well as how they can be used correctly. This might also lead to other connections that weren’t necessarily part of the learning objective, for example, in the sentence above, ‘the’ is a determiner and determiners always introduces or modifies a noun. The word feels strange in that sentence because it needs a noun to modify!

Both the explaining and modelling of definitions, examples and connections must transcend what we put down on our knowledge organisers and help pupils make sense of how the knowledge that is printed on the page comes to life through deeper understanding.


Quizzing: five different ways

It is well documented that retrieval practice is a great way to improve recall – i document six strategies I use in this post. There is a variety of ways I’m trying to use retrieval practice particularly related to grammar and in the lead up to SATs. Just to make it clear, I always try and make sure I explain and model clearly how the knowledge is used before I do retrieval practice style activities. I’m under the impression that if I don’t do this, they will be left with faulty understandings and won’t develop any sort of deeper connection between bits of knowledge when they are doing activities such as this.

Knowledge Organisers with missing bits

This is so simple but highly effective. Put white text boxes over information on a knowledge organiser and get pupils to fill them in under time constraints. See how much they can recall. This is great because they can then use their KO to understand what bits they’ve not remembered. I link to a few I’ve made here at the end of this post.

Self – Quizzing

If you have a highly motivated class that understands the impact of retrieval practice, self-quizzing is a good way forward. Pupils can write their own questions, quiz themselves, check their answers, practise again. This is similar to the look, cover, write strategy for learning spellings.

Peer -Quizzing

Linked to the last strategy, when pupils have written their own quizzes and know what the answers to the questions are, they can give this to a partner and see how they get on. If they get things wrong, their partner can teach them to make sure they learn it and remember it for good. You can blend this with ICT and get them to do this on powerpoint.

Game Show Style Quizzes

Speaking of ICT, there are also some lovely resources online that are in the style of a game show. These are ace but not to be overused. You can find links to them here:

Who wants to be a millionaire? – Grammar Quiz


Pointless – Grammar Quiz



I guess there’s probably quite a few websites out there that give you interactive quizzes. This is really simple and easy to use. Quizzes can be made that fit the knowledge organiser that you have put together and then pupils answer questions on their ipads. They get an instant bit of feedback once they’ve completed it.



My Knowledge Organiser with missing bits

Year 6 Grammar Knowledge Organiser Quiz1

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