Thinking about explaining…

As you begin to learn to teach, the planning of lessons (or even parts of lessons) will take a long time and you will be thinking about many different things. What I want to think about this week is what makes a successful explanation – whether that be explaining a new concept or just explaining an activity. I would like to suggest that, if you don’t spend time on ensuring your explanations are good, then everything else you are planning to do might fall apart!

I can recall times when I spent ages thinking about a lesson, designing activities and planning interesting ways to progress pupils’ understanding. I would feel certain that I had a good lesson planned and that I was well prepared. What I hadn’t done was think in as much depth about my explanations… the lesson would come and all my hard work was wasted: the pupils were unable to engage with my carefully created tasks because they didn’t understand what to do; the pupils were unable to make progress because my explanation of a new concept was too complicated; the pupils decided not to engage in making progress because my explanation was not pitched correctly and bored them; the list goes on!

So what do you need to think about when planning a good explanation?

The blight of knowledge

Often we know so much about our subject (or the task we have designed) we can’t imagine what it’s like not to know!

As a teacher we need to be an expert but be able to think like a novice.

As you plan your explanation ask yourself questions, e.g.:

  • What prior knowledge have the pupils got?
  • What am I certain the pupils already know that I can build on?
  • Have they done a task like this before that I can remind them of?
  • Do the pupils know the meaning of all the words I intend to use?

Treat your pupils as if they are as smart as you, just not as informed

When I was learning to teach I remember thinking that I needed to show the pupils how clever I was so that they would respect me. It took time to understand that it is not about showing off your own knowledge, it is about building your learners’ knowledge.

Big picture or fine detail?

When planning your explanation you need to decide what to focus on. Are you introducing the pupils to a whole new topic? If yes, then don’t add fine details until you are sure they are ready. Perhaps think about keeping your explanation short, engaging your pupils’ interest, giving them an activity and then coming back together again to ‘add the next layer’.


Are you explaining a specific technique? Tell your pupils they need to concentrate on the fine details and spell them out, step by step.

What’s the why?

Make sure you ‘sell’ your explanation to the pupils:

  • why does this make sense?
  • why does it work?
  • why should I care?
  • why does it matter?

Make it sticky

Ensure your explanation is ‘sticky’. If an explanation is good then people can:

  • remember it;
  • think about it;
  • explain it to each other (how else can an explanation become “common sense”?
  • repeat it, even days or weeks later.

Contexts and visual aids

Where you can, enhance your explanation with visual aids like images, pictures or videos.

Find a good context to support your explanation – what are the real life experiences of the pupils you are teaching? Can you draw on their community for contexts? What’s an appropriate context? (For example, if I am teaching in a school where pupils have never been abroad is it sensible to base my explanation around a context of foreign travel?)

There is a health warning with visual aids and contexts though – don’t put all your planning time into thinking and creating these at the expense of thinking about what you are going to say!


It is important to think carefully about how you are actually going to ‘deliver’ your explanation.

  • How can you use your tone of voice, or body language, to emphasise key points?
  • Can you signpost things for your learners?:
    • ‘I am going to explain …’
    • ‘now we all understand this bit so the next bit we are going to think about is …’
    • ‘You now know how to …’
    • ‘The key things you must remember are …’

Script or no script?

When you are starting out it might be helpful to script an explanation detailing exactly what you are going to say. This can really help you think through and practise your explanation, but is often not helpful when you are actually in the classroom as it prevents you from being natural and responding to your learners. What you could think about doing is scripting what you want to say and practising it and then creating a cue card for yourself with a set of key signposts for you to refer to. You could make your writing big so even if you are nervous you can glance at it and the words will stand out! Have the card on the desk in front of you or perhaps stuck on the wall by the board if you are going to be modelling on the board as you talk.

Finally …

So you have a carefully planned explanation but how will you know the pupils have engaged with, and understood, it?

Think carefully about how you will know an explanation has been successful before you set pupils off on a task. If you don’t, then you will find there are instantly hands up and you are rushing round the room repeating your explanation to each child independently!

Plan three or four very targeted questions that will enable you to know that the pupils understand your explanation. If they don’t then there is no point in setting them off on their own. Go back and work out together the point where they got lost and then build up their understanding from there.




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