Better analysis: seeing the wood AND the trees

//Better analysis: seeing the wood AND the trees

I’ve been exploring better ways to teach analysis and evaluation for some time now. A few years ago I stumbled on the idea of zooming in and out which has gone viral and made its way into the teaching zeitgeist. In case you’ve managed to miss it, the basic premise is that terms like analysis are pretty slippery and hard to tie down and benefit from being explained in a more concrete way.

When we read a text, or look at an image, we see it as a distinct whole.

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We just see the tree. And ‘the tree’ is hard to analyse.

But if we then zoom in, we will be able to analyse details which would otherwise have been missed.

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We can see the patterns made by the bark and the moss growing in between.

And then, if we zoom out, we can evaluate how the text relates to its context.

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We can see that the tree is part of forest with its own distinct character.

So far so good. This analogy has helped many of my pupils understand how to go about reading more analytically. And I’ve used it to design a reading taxonomy which can be applied to any text.

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But it can still lead to situations where even the concept has been understood and pupils get the process, they’ll still come up with bland repetitive comments which do little to get to the heart of a writer’s intentions and techniques.

So, after stumbling across the work of Susan De La Paz and Mark Felton in Hattie’s latest education tome, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, I got pretty excited. De La Paz and Felton took a group of ‘average to low’ ability high school history students and taught them to read historical documents using a specially designed schema:

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This schema was taught explicitly. Teachers spent 5 lessons explaining and modelling how it worked and scaffolding its use before allowing them two weeks to practise using it to analyse a range of historical documents. The students were given an assessment where they had to read about the Gulf of Tonkin incident and then write an essay to demonstrate their understanding. The students who had been taught to use the schema outstripped the performance of a similarly composed control group and De La Paz and Felton wrote:

Our results suggest that students developed sophisticated task representations for writing because they experienced firsthand how reading and writing strategies converge to accomplish clearly defined goals in historical writing. In this way, the inquiry process provided focus and made the purpose of reading, pre-writing and writing strategies transparent to students (Kress, 1993; Roth, 1998). We believe that scaffolding historical reasoning enhances writing because students read documents with the purpose of identifying and contrasting conflicting view- points. The work of disciplinary thinking about the documents allowed them to develop more advanced and integrated claims and rebuttals, and it lead them to cite sources more readily and more appropriately.

Sounds great, doesn’t it. But can this approach be applied to subjects other than history? You betcha!

I’ve tweaked the questions used in the research so that they could be applied to any text (and particularly, any work of literature.) The ‘as you read’ questions are intended to be analytical whereas the ‘after you’ve read’ question is more evaluative

Stage 1 – consider the author

As you read

  • What do you know about the author?
  • When was the text written?
  • How does the author know about the events described?

After you’ve read

  • How does the author’s argument affected by his or her viewpoint?
Stage 2 – understand the source

As you read

  • What is the genre of the text?
  • Why was the text written?
  • What assumptions are being made?

After you’ve read

  • What is the world view reflected by the text?

Stage 3 – critique the source

As you read

  • What evidence is being given?
  • Are there any mistakes?
  • Is anything missing from the argument?

After you’ve read

  • Does the evidence prove what it claims to prove?

Stage 4 – create a more focussed understanding 

As you read

  • What is open to interpretation?
  • What is most reliable and credible?

After you’ve read

  • How does the text deepen your understanding of the subject?

Will it work? Well that remains to be seen, but it strikes me as likely to succeed as it fits so closely with the teaching sequence I’ve been using as well as valuing the kind of academic language pupils need to acquire in order to be successful at school. This is not a quick fix; improving pupils’ ability to do anything complex takes time and effort. As Hattie notes, the project illustrates how explicit instruction plays an instrumental role in conveying complex skills.

Too often students are expected to cope with problems that demand high-level thinking and decision-making, but have not been given instructional opportunities to develop appropriate tools. [This study illustrates] how strategic thinking was taught explicitly through group instruction using both modelling and direct exhortation [and] significant gains followed from instruction targeting thinking tools students can apply to complex problems. (p. 77.)

If you’d be interested in testing this out, I’d be very interested in discussing it further. And if you’re really keen, my book, The Secret of Literacy: making the implicit explicit is available for pre-order.

2013-12-08T01:50:44+00:00November 3rd, 2013|literacy|


  1. Emma Plant November 3, 2013 at 6:39 pm - Reply

    Interested in testing this out! I’ve recently done some work on developing descriptive writing through close analysis – I’ll swap!

    • David Didau November 3, 2013 at 6:46 pm - Reply

      Hi Emma – I’d be interested in seeing your work on analysing descriptive writing and comparing notes. What are you teaching currently? It would be a useful first step to design a scaffolded schema which makes explicit links to the text being studied.

      • emjplant November 3, 2013 at 6:57 pm - Reply

        Currently teaching iGCSE descriptive writing coursework with year 10, AQA Eng Lit with year 11 and about to start prose with yrs 7-9. I’m thinking Curious Incident with yr9, still deliberating about 7+8! I can email you a specific lesson I did with a piece of art appreciation that resulted in some huge progress in yr11 writing.

  2. Francesca Loxley November 3, 2013 at 7:03 pm - Reply

    This is a really interesting concept which seems to have a lot of potential outside of English as a subject. Deeper analysis is an issue affecting lots of subject areas at my school with a range of attempts being made to address the issue, but no one consistent approach. Could this model be adapted to work with other subjects to develop a deeper analysis, especially in subjects like design & technology and art? Interested to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks!

    • David Didau November 4, 2013 at 7:45 pm - Reply

      Are you asking about reading texts within these subjects, or the broader skill of thinking analytically? If the former, then yes definitely. if the latter, I certainly think it would be possible to design schema to scaffold subject specific analysis.

      • Francesca November 4, 2013 at 7:56 pm - Reply

        Hi David,

        Yes referring to the latter – supporting students’ transferability of skills across all subject areas. Students need to analyse whether they are in English or P.E. but they aren’t making the link between the actual skill of analysing then applying to the subject they are in. Do you know/have you used a whole school consistent approach to developing these thinking skills?

        • David Didau November 4, 2013 at 8:08 pm - Reply

          Francasca – I’m not a big believer in the idea that it’s possible to teach analysis as a transferable skill. Analysis means something very different in , say, maths and English. I think its much more useful to explicitly teach students how to analyse texts within subjects.

          However, lots of people think this isn’t true and in the past I have argued that the SOLO taxonomy might be a good way to go about this.

          I now believe that the quality of analysis that a person might be capable of is dependent on the quality and extent of their knowledge.

  3. Ali November 3, 2013 at 8:12 pm - Reply

    Hi David great will checknthis out. But problem is that hist schema that could leave unchallenged the idea that the reliability or usefulness of a source is fixed could cause problems.

    • David Didau November 3, 2013 at 8:55 pm - Reply

      Why would you use a schema that would eave unchallenged the idea that the reliability or usefulness of a source is fixed?

  4. Philip Crooks November 4, 2013 at 4:22 am - Reply

    Dear David, I am a maths teacher and I am very concerned that many students read well but have no real comprehension of what they have read. Would your book be of any help? I really am very frustrated it makes teaching so difficult .
    Looking forward to your reply. Great blog by the way.
    Philip crooks.

    • David Didau November 4, 2013 at 7:46 pm - Reply

      I would hope my book would help, but it’s important to note that there are no quick fixes to reading comprehension – it requires the explicit teaching of the vocabulary in any text you want students to access.

  5. Lou Tarring November 4, 2013 at 10:16 am - Reply

    I would love to have a go at trialling this. Iam embarking on a study of the Spoken Word and get very despairing of the superficiality of analysis sometimes. It is still a text with a context.

  6. David Didau November 4, 2013 at 7:47 pm - Reply

    Well. that certainly sounds doable. What area of spoken language will you be getting students to analyse? I;ve written a couple of posts on this: and

    • Lou Tarring November 5, 2013 at 9:31 pm - Reply

      I really want to look at the idiolect stuff – but find that any reflection on their own language is a bit trite and doesn’t go much beyond describing the features. I see what you are saying in your blog about the reaction to the opinions of others which would form part of the assignment. I also want them to look at why they adapt. Help them develop the tools to explore the language they use. In addition to this I want to use the opportunity to allow the students to embed the skills they need for exploring all texts that they should come across.
      (now this is the passionate linguist coming out in me) Why should the spoken word be treated as a bolt on extra when it is every bit as fascinating and interesting and part of the fabric of English as the other bits that we cover. Less of a box ticker and more of a stepping stone.
      Any suggestions and guidance welcome!

      • David Didau November 5, 2013 at 11:46 pm - Reply

        You say “Why should the spoken word be treated as a bolt on extra when it is every bit as fascinating and interesting and part of the fabric of English as the other bits that we cover”,and this may well be true. But my problem with spoken language study is that it runs the risk of becoming an exercise in dumbing down. Unless we focus on high quality texts we won’t be providing students with anything worthwhile to analyse. I’m in favour of looking at well known speeches as great examples of spoken language that will also enrich cultural capital.

        • Louise Tarring November 7, 2013 at 6:15 pm - Reply

          The majority of time this is where the focus should be – high quality texts. Surely (to paraphrase Crystal) acquiring a mastery of diffent styles of English, so that one can switch confidently from everyday colloquial to formal discursive, is also critical it is essential to develop that kind of language awareness in teenagers. Which for me, is what exploring the spoken word is about. Indeed (to paraphrase Lee Donaghay) should we not be helping students model and deconstruct, and then jointly construct, these patterns with their pupils, thus enabling them to independently construct those patterns for themselves. Which is not dumbing down and study of the poken word could be applicable to so many areas of English. In reading we ask them to think about context. In spoken word – understandinng of context is essential. Thinking about what we are doing with them when we encourage them to write is encourgage precise choices and they consider the impact of their choices on the audience. The spoken communication forms a large part of our communication – why not use this mode to ur advantage and support the students in developing a high quality deconstruction and support them in transferring the skills to other areas of English study?
          I really like your idea would love to give it a go – but not sure where to start in this case.

          • David Didau November 8, 2013 at 12:13 am

            I agree that context is crucial but my objection to studying everyday, informal language is the same as my objection to studying Stone Cold. There’s nothing wrong with either, but lesson time is too precious to spend on something so unchallenging and so unlikely to enrich cultural capital.

  7. Alison Douthwaite November 5, 2013 at 2:48 pm - Reply

    Hi, I found the link to the article and your ideas about how this might apply in English really useful. Thanks. I have been starting to feel concerned about the effectiveness of scaffolds, frameworks and mnemonics like PEE, AFOREST etc. They have been proliferating but it feels for me that they are not working and often seem to be counterproductive, almost becoming an obstacle to personal engagement with a text or an extra layer of confusion or anxiety.

    However, as the subject grows increasingly broad, with exposure to an ever-increasing breadth of text types and genres the need to be able to unpack the framework of our subject to students and identify the core processes seems more pressing than ever. What was interesting for me was the use of the mnemonic STOP as it helps students remember a way of thinking, rather than giving them a list of features to include.

    Some years ago, we tried to produce an outline of ‘questions to ask about a text’ to support students in precisely the way this framework does. In it we tried to use the terminology from the assessment criteria to maintain some kind of consistency between the documents : ‘viewpoint’;’ purpose; ‘audience’; ‘attitude etc. I had hoped this would help with embedding those concepts. Looking at what you have put together, I think perhaps it is better to do as you have done and avoid those ‘keywords’ and go for plain English as it makes it more accessible.

    There are still some questions in my mind about your framework though. First of all, I’m wondering about how you imagine it being used. The reason I ask is that it doesn’t include the ‘how’ aspect, such as the author’s use of language or structure. Perhaps you are thinking of it as an approach to understanding the ideas and implications only and therefore as a pre-cursor to the more forensic analysis of the construction of the text? I do feel that there is a tendency for us as English teachers at the moment to leap in too quickly to this close focus without allowing students time to digest the big picture, so this may be one way to counter that – linking in with your zoom in/zoom out posts. Would it be useful to include this layer of thinking about the text within the framework though? Robust critical evaluation of the text would need to consider the effectiveness with which the viewpoint is presented in other ways than ‘evidence.’ Also, it is often consideration of the small detail which causes you to refine your conclusions about the writer’s motives, viewpoint or big idea.

    Secondly, translating the concept from History to English is an interesting challenge. The need to think critically and to substantiate your interpretation is common ground for the two subjects so it seems like a really useful thing to do. As it stands, your framework seems like it would work very well for non-fiction texts but I think it would perhaps need further tweaking for fictional texts. I think its the word ‘argument’ that skews it. The question ‘what is missing from the argument?’ would be a tricky one with lots of literary or fictional texts. Are you thinking about unheard voices or points of view? Or encouraging them to look for hidden bias or ideology? Also, what would be meant by ‘reliable’ or ‘credible’ in a fictional text? Could it be related to ‘powerful’ or ‘convincing?’ In which case this could link into the language/methods aspect? Were you thinking about the reliability of a narrative voice? Or maybe I’ve misunderstood what you mean by those terms. Certainly interesting questions to ask. I think perhaps you’ve retained more of the ‘historical’ terminology, like ‘source’ making it harder for me to quite see the applicability in places.

    Thanks again, interesting and thought-provoking reading.

    • David Didau November 8, 2013 at 12:10 am - Reply

      I’m not familiar with STOP?

      You’re right to say the ‘how’ aspect is missing. I was (perhaps foolishly) looking at making something that could be used across subjects. I wasn’t intending to use it with fictional texts, but you’re right – I’m sure it needs more thought. Thanks for the input.

  8. Helen November 7, 2013 at 10:19 pm - Reply

    I’ve been gettng students to act as cameras for a while and they really like it but I love this development: I’m going to use it with students as a way of developing a conceptualised response!

  9. Harry Fletcher-Wood November 11, 2013 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    Hi David,
    Just catching up on your recent posts – I’d be very interested in experimenting with this, what were you considering?

  10. […] This blog post by David Didau gives a very useful explanation of how to teach analysis to students. This post in particular is about the analysis of text, which is very helpful to me as a future literature teacher, but I believe it could also be applied to current events, the news, people, and thousands of other relevant ideas. […]

  11. Anya February 2, 2014 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    Hi- this is very interesting- a colleague and I recently create a series of lessons which focused on questions to improve analysis.

    However, all the questions were based on the key words from the mark scheme-so we could actually teach them what `being perceptive` meant. For example they would go from focusing on understanding and reach insightful or perceptive by the end of their paragraphs, using the questions. This was mainly aimed at A* pupils, but the skills could be transferred. The idea of getting pupils to consider two or three different meanings using this method has really worked-as well as embedding the skill of using discourse markers to improve their focus. Let me know if you would like to see the resources.

    • Nick December 8, 2014 at 8:22 pm - Reply

      Hi Anna,
      I am currently looking at ways of improving our number of A/A* students and would really appreciate it if you would send me the questions you have been using. Thank you for your time. My e-mail address is

  12. […] that this resulted at best in wasting time and at worst in confusion. I began exploring this idea here, but James Theobold has written far more eloquently on the matter […]

  13. […] that this resulted at best in wasting time and at worst in confusion. (I began exploring this idea here, but James Theobold has written far more eloquently on the matter […]

  14. […] reading the following blog posts by David Didau (@learningspy), here and here, I am now convinced that there is another way, a way that avoids many of the issues listed […]

  15. […] The problem was that most students did okay. They knew what to do, but they didn’t always know how to do it well. And I want my students to do it really, really well. The PEE paragraph/PEA chain or whatever you wish to call it comes in for a lot of stick these days, but I still believe it has its place and can be useful – something I plan to blog about in future – and it was evident many students used this basic structure to format their responses. I could see many students trying so hard, and doing exactly what I had told my own students to do: avoid feature spotting; find the effective stuff; zoom in; talk about the detail and connotations, link to the reader… but something was missing. Students could do this but often couldn’t step back – couldn’t switch to what David Didau describes as the “wide shot” in his book, The Secret of Literacy, which is where students link their close up investigation at word or phrase level with the whole text (for more on this see […]

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