Vietnam, Ali, reading and the powerful knowledge gap.

In a recent lesson observation, I witnessed a classic teacher-dilemma unfold.   How far do I have to go to fill in the knowledge gaps? I can’t teach them everything they don’t know so where do I begin?

It was in a GCSE English resit class where students were looking at a reading comprehension question.  Here’s part of the passage: screenshot 2019-01-29 at 20.44.54

The student next to me was Saira, 16.  She’d not managed to gain a GCSE grade 4 in English at school so here she was again, having another go.

Immediately she struggled with the first question – a simple true/false evaluation of various statements:

  • Mohammed Ali gave up his champion’s title rather than serve in Vietnam.

The relevant line in the passage is:  {Mohammed Ali} achieved global fame… – even forfeiting his champion’s title rather than serve in Vietnam.

On the face of it, this is one of those context-free questions, a fluent reader could answer.

It could say.  James  gave up his bibbles rather than bobble in Babble.  We could focus on forfeit = ‘give up’ and get the answer right and move on without knowing anything about Mohammed Ali or Vietnam.

But that didn’t happen for Saira. She didn’t know what to do, so I asked her to read the bit of the passage.  She said all the words correctly until she stumbled… “rather than serve in….veetman?” She looked confused.  “Is it about food?”

Think about that for a minute. Contemplate the enormity of the knowledge gap we’re dealing with.

Saira didn’t recognise the capitalised V hinted at the word being a place – to focus her thinking;  she hadn’t read Vietnam every time the word came up.  Maybe ‘serve’ and its links to food lead her mind astray.  But either way, she was flummoxed.

When corrected, she didn’t actually know Vietnam was a country, never mind where it was. Never mind that ‘Vietnam’ is about as packed with significance as one word can be:

Cold war; conflict; human rights atrocities; massive nation-scarring on all sides; napalm bombing rural villages;  deep imprint on the American psyche; a US foreign policy disaster; Western imperialism vs Communism; the Viet-Cong vs the might of the US army; Nixon; Kissinger; ‘vets’; post-traumatic stress; Apocalypse Now; Platoon…

Saira has none of that.

Mohammed Ali?  Nope. Ok – so he’s a famous boxer. A sportsman. But, for Saira, no recognition of Ali as The Greatest All Time Icon of Sport; the maverick, charismatic legend; the man who became a Muslim; the man who was Cassius Clay; the man who fought the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thriller in Manilla and whose courage in the face of Parkinson’s, could move you to tears.

Hence “is it about food? ” A stab in the dark; a deep, dark knowledge chasm.  Having given Saira a potted version of Ali and Vietnam, I was about to get into the meaning of ‘forfeit’ when another student piped up.  He’d just clocked the whole issue of Ali giving up his title. He was agitated.  It was unjust.  He shouldn’t have had to.  This boy had grasped enough to get the picture and we wanted to explore it.

“Why did they make him do that?”

Here’s where the teacher’s dilemma kicked in.  She had a paper to get through; she wanted to look at ‘forfeit’ and some language features used in the text.  Sensing the time pressure – her response was pained but pragmatic: “Sorry, we don’t really have time”.  I guess, after all, when would Ali and Vietnam ever come up again on a GCSE paper?

But that made me feel sad; frustrated.  Given all the knowledge gaps at work there, what was the most important:

Vietnam? Mohammed Ali? Forfeit = give up?

To me, it was clear. This was an opportunity to down tools; push the exam paper aside  and say, let’s take a trip.  Vietnam…. let me tell you some things you ought to know.  Right there and then.  Sure, it might not be a GCSE language concept again but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s an area of powerful knowledge that Saira won’t be taught anywhere else. That was the moment right there; in that lesson; right then.

This is what we face as teachers: the enormous choice of what to teach and when.  But we also have to respond to circumstances.  As Doug Lemov says, often a reading problem is a knowledge problem and when we spot it… that’s where we have to go.  Let’s not let exam pressure to suppress our teacherly instincts to teach what really matters – flexibly, responsively, organically as things arise – within the framework of a coherent, planned knowledge-rich curriculum.


  1. Having just been through an inspection and one of our targets is to achieve ‘outstanding’ teaching. With this in mind would this, going off piste, be classified as ‘outstanding’?


  2. The difference between teaching (which is what people believe is all we should do) and educating (which is what we know we should do).
    ps… MASH is set in Korea (sorry!) 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As a historian I of course approve entirely but then the past is a vast landscape that takes many years to uncover properly, in my case almost a lifetime! What worries me is how the facts in the knowledge gap are presented to young people. Gove wanted to define the new history curriculum for students which I blogged about at the time. Ofsted’s new approach to curriculum and testing is welcome but must help provide context for the knowledge gaps and ensure this is not set by summative assessment pressures from Government.


  4. It’s very difficult to fill these knowledge gaps when students are trying to focus on exams. Even basic vocabulary words can be an issue. I’ve taught students who have come across the words “sparrow”, “furniture” and “cutlery” in exams and been flummoxed.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Here’s the thing. Whereas Ofsted’s new approach to testing and the curriculum may be welcome, response to the dilemma faced by this teacher in this situation will ultimately be driven by the decisions made by ministers and the DfE as Nick points out. Someone has to interpret the intentions of the changes once they are finally agreed. How bold will Ofsted inspectors be in their interpretation of how the teacher responds if the language that finds its way into the new Framework creates little scope for interpretation? As Tom’s original piece and Sally’s response indicates, it will fall to individual teachers with varying confidence, skills and experience to decide in the moment to seek resolution to the circumstances at hand. If the past is any indication as to how this will eventually work, sticking to the script will likely be given precedence over efforts to resolve cognitive dissonance. This is unlikely to meet the needs of the learner and is likely to frustrate the teacher.


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