Lesson planning

31 May 2024

How to plan to teach difficult topics

Melanie McGhee

School Support Officer

Your subject will be complex and it can be challenging to help pupils understand. That’s a natural part of teaching, and why your expertise is so important to your pupils.

There are a number of reasons why you might find yourself struggling with how to plan to teach difficult topics. But, here is the good news. We’re here to help you each step along the way so that you feel confident and your pupils get the most out of your time with them.

Let’s look at two key reasons why a topic might be difficult to teach and what you can do to make the process easier.

A difficult concept for pupils to understand

The ease or difficulty for pupils is often determined by their prior knowledge. Where there are knowledge gaps or misconceptions, you could have an additional challenge when planning to correct these.

Here are a few ways you can plan to tackle concepts that are difficult for your pupils and make them tangible during your lessons:

  1. Breaking down content into small steps

    Rosenshine’s second principle stipulates that teachers should ‘present new material in small steps with student practice after each step’.1 All of our teaching resources are chunked, using cycles of teacher explanations, peppered with checks for understanding followed by practice and feedback across KS1, KS2, KS3 and KS4.

    Look at our lesson outline in our slide decks and videos to explore examples of how you might break new material into small steps.

    You could use our teaching resources as a starting point and inspiration for planning your own small steps.
  2. Careful planning

    Careful planning can help you to teach difficult concepts by carefully sequencing the knowledge you want pupils to learn. Careful planning can help you to introduce knowledge when it has strong foundations to build on, and by building towards the skills and concepts you want pupils to master.

    Consider your curriculum and unit plans. What do you want pupils to achieve at the end of their learning journey, and are you setting them up for success through these plans?

Why some topics are difficult to plan for, and how we can help

Alternatively, you might have the challenge of topics that are difficult to plan for because of subject knowledge, the topic’s complexity or the physical challenges of resourcing.

Here’s how we can help.

  1. Subject knowledge

    The knowledge associated with academic subjects is vast. You can’t know everything all at once! Whether you’re new to teaching, changing up some of your units, teaching a new year group or changing schools, you might find yourself wanting to brush up on your subject knowledge.

    But how? On each of our lesson pages, we have videos of teachers teaching lessons. You can watch them and turbocharge your knowledge ready for the classroom! Speed it up if you’re short of time.

    Alternatively, you could plan collaboratively with a colleague to support your subject knowledge or use our teaching resources as a strong foundation for your planning.
  2. Resourcing challenging topics

    Some topics can be difficult to resource effectively for a number of reasons. It could be due to the volume of text involved, building in enough scaffolding or making really clear worked examples for teaching topics like graphs. It could even be that a topic is rarely taught or new to the curriculum.

    We know that dual coding, an effective blend of visuals and wording, helps pupils learn. To see an example of how you could blend visuals with words within resources (from teaching handwriting to trigonometry), check out our brand new curriculum.

Key takeaways on how to plan to teach difficult topics:

  1. Break down learning into chunks and use careful planning to support pupils. All subjects can be difficult! But you can make things easier for them.
  2. Strong subject knowledge can help you to break down challenging topics for your pupils. Upskill using our videos or work with a colleague to close knowledge gaps.
  3. Some topics are particularly complicated when it comes to resourcing. Remember, you are the expert. You don’t need to create everything from scratch, it’s sensible to use high-quality resources as a strong foundation for your planning.

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  1. Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–39.