2. Identifying concepts, knowledge and skills

This session will take approximately 50 minutes to complete.

Session overview

Once you have selected the topic for your scheme of work, the next step is to identify the essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of the subject that you want pupils to learn.

This session will focus on:

  • Identifying the essential concepts, knowledge and skills
  • Foundational concepts and knowledge
  • Vocabulary

Identifying essential concepts, knowledge and skills

In module 2 you were introduced to the idea that pupils learn new ideas by linking those ideas to existing knowledge and organising this knowledge into increasingly complex mental models, and that carefully sequencing teaching to facilitate this process is important.

Therefore, think about where this scheme of work is situated in your subject or school curriculum and consider how the knowledge in this scheme will fit in to this longer-term sequencing.

Identifying the knowledge that you want all your pupils to learn and remember will also help you to consider the amount of teaching, practice and retrieval that you need to build into your scheme of work.

Listen to Emily or Maria explain how their scheme of work fits into the broader sequencing of their school curriculum.

As you watch, consider the following questions and write your answers down:

  • What reasons has Emily given for the position of this scheme of work in relation to the broader school curriculum?
  • Where does your scheme of work fit into the broader subject or school curriculum and why?
  • Do you agree with the rationale for the positioning of this scheme of learning in the broader curriculum?
Fitting a scheme of work into the broader sequencing of your curriculum – Emily Maule

Video transcript

When planning curriculum, I believe it is crucial for us to plan based on the only safe assumption we have about pupils and their relationship with our subject, and that is that they might go on to study it at university. I think this mentality completely changes the way we plan curriculum as we have to think much more carefully about the rigour, longevity and flexibility of what we are teaching. 

I am going to be talking about a year 7 plate tectonics scheme of work that I wrote recently, that brings together years of teaching the scheme in various formats and timeframes. The scheme is an exciting one for introducing geography in secondary school and precedes another physical geography topic that is more technical, meaning that pupils are better prepared for this second topic due to the foundational concepts, knowledge and skills set up in the plate tectonics scheme. Starting with this topic also means that pupils can engage with issues surrounding development and poverty in a more sophisticated way later on in school, once they have a grounding in how tectonic hazards can shape a community.

Video script – How does your scheme of work fit into the broader sequencing of your curriculum?

The final version of this video will be available from spring 2021, as the publication of this programme was fast-tracked in response to disruptions to this year’s initial teacher training.

One of the core principles of an effective EYFS curriculum is that it relates to the child as an individual and is able to support their development in a holistic way. Whilst the unit of work that I am going to discuss is predominantly literacy focused, you will notice that the environment planning covers a range of areas across the curriculum. Obviously, part of the Reception year is geared towards ensuring that children are supported for the transition into year 1 and are able to meet their Early Learning Goals and achieve a good level of development. However, planning a curriculum has to be much more than a check list of outcomes.

These lesson plans try to ensure a balance between children building on their prior knowledge and creating links, as well as introducing them to new concepts and skills. There is a big debate in education over a knowledge-rich or skills-rich curriculum, however, in EYFS the two are arguably much more intrinsically linked and perhaps defining them as such is just an issue of semantics. The entirety of the EYFS should be a cumulative curriculum which is why I always start planning a unit of work by first looking at where the pupils need to get to in relation to where they currently are, what skills and knowledge they have already gained, and then work on closing that gap.

This topic of ‘The Leopard’s Drum’ provided me with lots of opportunities to introduce new ideas, linked to the physical geography of Ghana and the concept of folk tales, whilst ensuring that the key themes that were already of interest to my pupils, such as animals and oral retelling were developed further.

Now we will focus on identifying the essential concepts, knowledge and skills for your scheme of learning. To help you to do this, we will highlight attention on two types of knowledge in particular: foundational knowledge and vocabulary.

Foundational concepts and knowledge

Ensuring pupils master foundational concepts and knowledge before moving on is likely to build pupils’ confidence and help them succeed. Foundational concepts – also known as “threshold” concepts – are key ideas that have the potential to unlock a pupil’s understanding of a subject.

Without an understanding of such foundational concepts, pupils will struggle to grasp future learning in that subject (Enser, 2018).

Hence, explicitly teaching pupils the knowledge and skills they need to succeed within a subject area is beneficial and should be designed into the curriculum.

Every subject has foundational concepts that form the basis of a pupil’s mental models. These concepts are often introduced to children early on in their education to be revisited and built on as they grow and develop their mental models.

For example, in geography pupils need to master the foundational concept of tectonic plates in order to build their understanding of this key subject area throughout their education:

  • The concept of tectonic plates may be introduced to children in the Early Years, where they may paint pictures of exploding volcanoes.
  • In Key Stage 1, pupils might learn about famous historical examples of volcanoes and earthquakes.
  • In Key Stage 2, pupils might learn about the different tectonic plates around the world and how these led to the types of natural disasters they encountered in Key Stage 1.
  • In Key Stage 3, pupils might learn about how volcanoes and earthquakes are caused by the movement of tectonic plates.
  • At Key Stage 4, pupils may learn about how the direction and speed of tectonic plates moving relative to one another determines the type, magnitude, and frequency of tectonic activity.
  • At Key Stage 5, pupils may learn how scientists monitor the movement of tectonic plates in order to predict and alert people to potential earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
  • At university, students might learn about plate tectonic modelling and they may go on to write their PhD thesis on the constraints of tectonic subduction.

As you can see from this example, the concept of tectonic plates is revisited at different stages of a pupil’s education, each time building on the knowledge that has come before. This enables pupils to learn new ideas by linking those ideas to existing knowledge and incorporating them into their mental models.


In module 5 we looked at how every teacher can improve pupils’ literacy by explicitly teaching reading, writing and oral language skills. One part of this is teaching vocabulary.

Every subject has unfamiliar vocabulary that needs to be taught to ensure pupils can access the curriculum and explain their emerging thinking and ideas. From a subject point of view, pupils’ literacy is best developed by focusing on high-utility words (the words that are most useful to know in our subject area) and high-frequency (the words that are used most frequently).

We also need to teach pupils Tier 3 subject specific vocabulary like “tectonic plates”, “magnitude”, or “subduction” in geography, and Tier 2 academic vocabulary like “criticise”, “analyse” and “therefore” – or with younger children what we might think of as ‘wow words’ like “exaggerate”, “glean” or “mysteriously”. Identifying and teaching this vocabulary as part of the scheme of work is critical for successful learning. 


Listen to Maria or Emily talk through how they identified the foundational concepts, knowledge and skills of their schemes of work.

Identifying the foundational knowledge – Emily Maule

Video transcript

Foundational concepts and knowledge are the building blocks to any scheme and in geography. When planning the year 7 plate tectonics scheme, I created a knowledge organiser, which included the foundational concepts and knowledge the pupils would need. I selected these by writing out the key things that I needed pupils to know by the end of the scheme. These are the things that if pupils didn’t learn them, I would feel they had been short changed.

For example, foundational knowledge included the structure of the earth and how the crust is broken up into segments that are constantly moving. This knowledge is fundamental to this scheme but also to their future learning in the subject, and so I need to ensure that pupils finish the scheme confident in this concept. Another example is that in geography, pupils are often required to think through cause, effect and response. These appear throughout the subject and so I needed my pupils to be secure in these concepts by the end of the scheme. For example, for a volcanic eruption, the cause is the set of tectonic processes that lead to the rise and eruption of magma, volcanic gas and other volcanic materials, and the effects are the results of that volcanic eruption, such as deaths, injuries, water pollution from the ash, and the destruction of buildings and communication systems. Finally, we look at how people respond to the disaster, including actions like search and rescue, rebuilding works and environmental restoration programmes. 

These foundational knowledge and concepts also included specific examples of tectonic events, where pupils are able to study the causes, effects and responses to particular tectonic events. In this scheme pupils look particularly at the Fuego Volcano eruption in Guatemala in 2018. And detailing this information on the knowledge organiser means that the pupils and I have a clear picture of the core knowledge, concepts and skills pupils need for successful learning.

Video script – How did you identify the foundational knowledge for your scheme of work?

The final version of this video will be available from spring 2021, as the publication of this programme was fast-tracked in response to disruptions to this year’s initial teacher training.

As we’ve discussed previously, the EYFS works as a cumulative curriculum, so lots of the foundational knowledge that I wanted children to achieve during this scheme of work was a continuation of their Prime and Specific areas of development. Oral re-telling of stories is a key part of the Reception year; it increases vocabulary and awareness of story structure, as well as their self-confidence, listening and attention. Research has taught us that before you can write something, you have to be able to say it, which is why this series of lessons is an effective tool for early writing, alongside a strong phonics scheme. However, in addition to these cumulative skills which develop across the year, each unit also has its own specific foundational knowledge. In the case of ‘The Leopard’s Drum,’ this was related to the geography and traditions of Ghana, as well as native animals. 

The EYFS curriculum surrounding this aspect of the curriculum simply states, “Children know about similarities and differences in relation to places, objects, materials and living things. They talk about the features of their own immediate environment and how environments might vary from one another” (Development Matters). This leaves a lot of scope for the practitioner to identify which places and discussion points to cover. This was a topic that I had not taught before, so I started by doing some research myself and thinking of the key facts and misconceptions around it that I wanted pupils to know.

The concept of location is quite a difficult one to grasp when aged four and five years old, and I wanted my students to have a real grasp of where Ghana was and understand that it was another country. This meant that we first needed to establish some more tangible knowledge based on where they live and where our school is and then if any of them have family and friends who live abroad. This concept is one that will be revisited many times, so it is important that it is explained clearly to avoid misconceptions. We looked at modes of transport and explored how one might travel to Ghana and how long it would take in order to give them some context. Our whole school approach to oral re-telling is to use British Sign Language (BSL) signs and so the key vocabulary and appropriate signs formed part of the foundational knowledge. 

The foundational knowledge also linked to other areas of the curriculum. Here we used inspiration from the theme to expand their knowledge particularly in Express Arts and Design. Children were introduced to Ghanaian artwork, in particular the use of patterns, which we then used to create our own designs, exploring using different media for a purpose and embellishing our creations to improve them. This development of ideas was the next step in embedding Characteristics of Effective Learning for many pupils.

Now think about your own scheme of work and consider the questions below:

  • What big ideas of the subject or key concepts is this scheme building upon?
  • What follows this scheme and what new content do pupils need for successful learning in the future?


  • What essential concepts, knowledge and skills do you want pupils to learn in this scheme of work?
  • What Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary will need to be revisited or taught to pupils?

You could also think about:

  • Is there additional knowledge, skills or values that would support or enrich the learning in this scheme?
  • An estimate of how much time will be needed to teach and learn this scheme (there may be existing time restrictions, in which case you will need to prioritise the most important concepts, knowledge and skills)

Record your responses in a format that suits you (e.g. note-form, table, diagram etc.)

Share your responses with your mentor at your next meeting.

Related ECF strands

Subject and curriculum

3.3 Ensuring pupils master foundational concepts and knowledge before moving on is likely to build pupils’ confidence and help them succeed.

3.5 Explicitly teaching pupils the knowledge and skills they need to succeed within particular subject areas is beneficial.

3.7 In all subject areas, pupils learn new ideas by linking those ideas to existing knowledge, organising this knowledge into increasingly complex mental models (or “schemata”); carefully sequencing teaching to facilitate this process is important.

3a. Identifying essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of the subject and providing opportunity for all pupils to learn and master these critical components.

3g. Revisiting the big ideas of the subject over time and teaching key concepts through a range of examples.

3o. Teaching unfamiliar vocabulary explicitly and planning for pupils to be repeatedly exposed to high-utility and high-frequency vocabulary in what is taught.