Tuesday, 11 December 2018

What does it mean to read and understand a text? The 'reader-response' processes.

I think to get a handle on that question we have to go into the processes, (the ‘mind-games’ if you like) that we go through as we read, and after we have read.

One way to talk about this is to call it ‘comprehension’ and devise a set of right/wrong answer type questions which ‘prove’ that we have understood a text. These often revolve round ‘retrieval’, ‘inference’, getting the ‘chronology’ or ‘sequencing’ right and so on.

The problem with this model is precisely that there are only right/wrong answers. It treats a text as if it is an egg-box full of eggs and ‘comprehension’ is a matter of lifting out the eggs that are there. This is a model that refuses or rejects the idea that we ‘interpret’ what we read. We take what we believe to be there (using our memories and methods of thought) reflect on it and come to conclusions or  ‘provisional’ conclusions. 

The exam-type comprehension question also refuses or rejects the extent to which in the real world the way we read is ‘social’.  We read, we talk, we read, we talk, we may write about what we read, we may share what we write, we talk some more, we read some more...and so on. Our understanding of a text, groups of texts or all reading is created and forged in social circumstances. 

So, I’m posing two alternatives to ‘comprehension’ as it’s usually understood: 
a) interpretation (not ‘right/wrong’) and 
b) social - through our interactions with each other.

As a contribution (not a final answer) to this,  here is a set of processes our minds go through where we are on our own or with others as we read books. If we want to help children get an enjoyable way of reading, I suggest that at various times we need to encourage and help them develop any or all of these approaches. 

Please note, these categories are not single stand-alone categories, they overlap, and they emphasise slightly different things. They are suggestions and they are for you to adapt and play with and add to. 

Further - if this looks familiar it’s because in another place I have a very similar ‘matrix’ which was designed from a slightly different angle: a matrix for teachers to analyse their pupils’ responses. 

I have drawn this up partly for our students doing the MA in Children's Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London who were interested in a matrix of response, rather than the one I have already done which is the matrix of how to analyse pupils' responses!

So here it is: 

1. Experiential-relational:

When we read, we relate aspects of our own lives (and/or to the lives of people we know) to what we read. We relate what is in the text with something that has happened to me or to someone I know. One useful trigger question for this is simply to ask: ‘Is there anything you’ve just read which reminds you of something that has happened to you, or someone you know? - Can you say why? or how?’ This taps into how we feel about moments in any text without asking the direct question, ‘what did you feel about that?’ 

2. Intertextual-relational: 

This is where we relate what is in the text to another text. One useful trigger for this question is: ‘Is there anything you’ve just read which reminds you of something you’ve read, seen on TV, online, at the cinema, a song, a play, a show? - Why? How?’ Again, this will tap into how we feel about a moment simply by tapping into another moment from another text that we feel is similar - for any reason. 

3. Intratextual-relational:

This is where we relate one part of the text to another part. One useful trigger for this question arises out of a moment in a piece of literature where we ask: ‘But how do we know that?’ And we answer that by using something or anything that came before?’(I have a nickname for this which younger children enjoy: I call it ‘harvesting’ - that is, collecting up information or feelings from other parts of the text.) We harvest all the time as we read. We harvest at the same time as we predict! 

4. Interrogative:

This is where we ask questions of a text and we voice puzzles and we are tentative about something. One trigger question for this is, ‘Is there anything here we don’t understand or are puzzled by?’ This can be followed up by, ‘Is there anyone here who thinks they can answer that?’ And ‘Does anyone have any ideas about how we can go about finding an answer to that?’ 

In one sense a text is a set of puzzles or we might say that the moment we start to read we are asking questions. One way to tap into this is to encourage pupils to write questions as a story or poem unfolds. Then, we might gather up these questions and see if or how we can answer them. This is a way of treating literature as a process of investigation and we as readers play the game with the writer. The writer creates situations that are inconclusive, mysterious, puzzling, intriguing and we ask the questions that the writer poses. Or we might come up with ones that the writer didn’t even know they had poses. Or we might want to ask the writer a question. (Very likely) Or we might want to ask questions ‘surrounding’ a text eg are there other texts like this one? What did people think at this time  (the 19th century say) about magic?Or was everyone a Christian in Tudor times? etc. 

5. Semantic-signicant:

This is where we have thoughts or make comments directly about what something in the text means. There are of course many traditional ways of asking questions about this. In an environment in which we are not ‘telling’ pupils what a text means and/or that there is only one meaning, this can be speculative and provisional before anyone reaches conclusions. 

6. Structural:

This is where we indicate we are thinking about or making a comment about how a part or whole of the piece has been put together, 'constructed'. These might be thoughts about, say, why a book is in chapters, or why something happens in ’threes’ in a fairy story. 

Hiding behind this question is the crucial one of ‘form’ or ‘story syntax’ and the like. That is, every time we read, we are reading something that follows or uses or plays with a literary form that already exists. We have names for  many of these: the ‘detective novel’, the ‘rom-com’, the ‘sonnet’ and so on. In terms of literary response, we will be more or less aware of these forms and these in part intermingle with our response processes. They do this through our expectations of how the ‘grammar’ or ‘syntax’ of the story or poem unfolds. Once we have read a few books which tell stories in a certain way, we start to guess what will happen, and indeed how it happens. Any book that is part of a series, becomes more or less predictable. 

One feature of children’s and young people’s reading is how they learn these structures, plot-lines, motifs, forms and build them into their responses. We can tap into these with the ‘intertextual’ question above. The argument here is that reading one text is inseparable from the expectations we have based on our other readings, ie based on what we understand to be the ‘form’ of other books. 

7. Selective analogising:

This where we make an analogy (or a comparison) between one part of the text and something from anywhere else (e.g. from our own experience, from another text, from something else inside the text). When we do this ‘analogising’ there will be an implied 'set' or 'series' being constructed by the reader around a motif or theme or feeling. 

This process of analogising is extremely important even though it is often masked by seemingly trivial comments like, ‘I remember a time when I was sad...’ 

The importance lies in the fact that the pupil at this point is involved in a process of creating an unstated abstraction. It is halfway (or more) towards abstract thought. Perhaps, it becomes fully abstract when the pupil(s) give that ‘set’ a name: eg ‘Sadness’ or ‘Emotions’ or some such. 

I believe that it is through this process of analogising that texts give us wisdom. I cannot emphasize its importance enough. 

8. Speculative:

This is where we make speculations about what might happen, what could have happened. This is any kind of thought or comment in the category of ‘I wonder...’ or ‘What if...’ We do this all the time as we read and we can collect these as we read. 

9. Reflective:

This is  where we make interpretative statements often headed by 'I think...’ ie more committed than ‘speculative’. It’s a considered reflection.  They are more a response to the question we might ask of ourselves like, ‘so what do we think of that moment/character/scene/landscape/cityscape etc?’ 

10. Narratological:

This is where we have thoughts or make comments about how the story or poem has been told e.g. about narrators, methods of unfolding a story, what is held back, what is revealed (the mechanism of ‘reveal-conceal’) , how we know what someone in the story or poem thinks, how we think or describe the fact that we go forwards and backwards in time in a story. (This is a whole subject in itself: 'Narratology'). It may include an awareness of how stories have episodes, or sudden 'turns' or 'red herrings', flashbacks, flash forwards etc.

11. Evaluative

This is where we make value judgements (in our minds or in talk with others) about aspects of a text as a  whole. These can be comments about ‘significance’, ‘what the author is getting at...’, or ‘why someone in the text said ‘x’’. Or even, what the ‘message’ is or ‘what this is about’ or what this story ‘is trying to say’. They may well also be moral judgements about fair/unfair; good/bad etc. Evaluative, in other words, can be these moments during a story or after where we make value-judgements. 

12.. Eureka moments:

 This is where we announce that we have suddenly 'got it' - an experience that many of us have when we think we know ‘who’s done it’ or ‘why someone has done it’. 

13. Effects:

This is where we sense that an 'effect' has been created in us (or in others we have observed) because of the way something has been written. “This made me sad”. ‘This made me jump..’ ‘This made me sad...’ Response journals, or post-it notes on poem-posters and the like can ‘grab’ these very well. This can be a way of tracing what has been called the ‘affect’- firstly how we are ‘affected’ by a text (did it make me sad? happy? afraid? tense? full of hope? full of dread? why?) or looking to see what aspects of the text seemed to create that way in which I was affected?


 This is where we make a comment which is in essence another story. This is not trivial. As with ‘analogising’ (above) it will almost certainly involve the making of a 'set' or a 'series' ie something has been selected from the original text in order to trigger off the new one. This is an implied generalisation or abstraction. From a teaching point of view, this is one way ‘in’ to enabling pupils to begin to articulate abstract ideas about a text. 

15. Descriptive: 

This is where we recount aspects of the text. We might do this in our day-dreaming as we read, after we have read, or in talk with others later. This may well be more significant than it first appears because (as teachers)  we can ask, why was this moment selected for the recount? (ie ‘Why do you think you’ve described that bit of the story?’) Again, this may well be part of ‘analogising’ and/or ‘storying’. 

16. Grammatical: 

This is where we find our attention drawn to the structure of sentences - syntax, or how individual words are used grammatically. There are of course many right/wrong ways of asking questions about this. We might begin by asking questions about this by asking pupils to explore and investigate along the lines of eg finding similar or contrasting ways in which sentences are constructed...and asking why would that be? What is achieved by doing that? An author like Dickens varies his sentence structures enormously: one moment very long, many clause sentences: the next, rapid-fire, short sharp repetitive structures. 

One way to ‘discover’ this is through reading or performing out loud. 

There are ways of drawing attention to the word-classes (nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs). Again, ideally this can be investigative first and be provisional: why do we think a writer has used this or that word-class? Ideally, there won’t be one answer to the question! 

Traditional grammar tends to use ways of describing eg sentence types as the main or sole way of doing something eg ‘commands’. In fact, if we use a word like ‘command’ or ‘the future’ or many other of these terms, we can see when we look at real texts that we have many different ways of eg commanding, or expressing ‘the future’. 

If we ask of eg someone bossy in a text, ‘how do we know he’s bossy?’ we may well find that it’s because he has been created as using a variety of ways of commanding people, not just the one. In other words grammar makes ‘sense’ in many ways. It’s the tools we use to convey meaning and we have many different tools to do similar things, as with creating a character who is bossy, who might deliver orders ‘Do this!’ or use another grammar and say, ‘I want you all to...’ Or, ‘All children must...’ They are all ‘bossy’ ways of going on,using different aspects of grammar. 

We might find that the  way into grammar is via different and differing ‘clusters’ of intention and meaning.

17. Prosodic: 

This is where we notice or we draw attention to the sound of parts of the whole of a piece ie the 'music' of it. I have outlined in my book ‘What is Poetry? (Walker) how you can invite pupils to determine this themselves by using what I call ‘secret strings’ ie finding links between parts of poems whether linked by sound or by meaning. These secret strings  are the links between repeated sounds of letters, words, rhythms or the repeated or patterned way in which writers use images (similar or contrasted)...or indeed any links we might find or make. If we think it or say it and can 
prove it, it’s a link! Much of this is on the edge of our consciousness as we read because writers try to conceal it. Writers try to make links that are there but affect us without words in the text saying that that is what they want to do. This is a crucial part of how literature is as much about feeling as it is about ideas. A key way in which writers create feeling is through ‘secret strings’...repeated sounds, images, and motifs. 

These links are in fact different and differing kinds of ‘cohesion’. Sometimes these are grammatical - as with first using someone’s name and then using a pronoun (‘Michael’ and then ‘he’), or they might be at the level of sound or image. 

(Note in passing: You can argue that what defines literature is that it is a specialised form of cohesion! )

18. Effect of interactions: 

This is where we notice or we draw attention to how people interact ie how people (any character) treats another, how they 'relate' and what is the outcome of how they relate. In my experience, this is more valuable than simply trying to describe ‘character’. If we think of scenes or moments in literature, they end. We can think of these as ‘outcomes’. A writer like Enid Blyton traditionally tells her readers what this outcome is: ‘That served her right.’ It is one of the marked difference between writing for young readers and older ones that these ‘outcomes’ are often more marked in books for younger readers. Even so, all texts leave ‘gaps’ in which these outcomes or effects of the outcomes are there for us to wonder about and speculate about. We ‘dive in’ to these ‘gaps’ and come to conclusions or mini-conclusions.

19. Imaginative-re-interpretive:

This is where we move to another artistic medium (film, photography, drawing, painting, model-making, pottery, dance, music, drama, making power-points, sound-tracks, etc)  in order to interpret what we have been reading or viewing....this may well involve more 'generalising' or 'abstract thought' than first appears, because it involves us in  'selecting' something from the original text and creating some kind of 'set' or 'series' with this as and when we create something new. If pupils are asked 'why' this can be teased out.

(Passing note: this  used to be thought of as one of the highest-status activities on the block. When we visit great mansions and stately homes, the ceilings and walls are often covered with paintings and murals of re-interpretations of classical literature. At some point in our idea of ‘education’ we downgraded ‘re-interpretation’ as some kind of ‘artsy’ thing that is ‘kinda nice for those that want to do it’ rather than a profound way in which we can explore the ideas and feelings in a moment of a text or the whole text.)

20. Emotional flow - or the ‘affect’ : 

These are the thoughts and comments which show how our feelings towards the protagonists change. Some people have invented 'flow maps' where you can draw up a kind of graph or chart, with the key moments in the plot along the bottom axis, and emotional states on the vertical axis...then you can label the line on the graph. This might be a graph say in which I felt more or less hostile to someone, or I was more or less amused by this or that chapter. You can create graphs where you have several lines, with each line representing a different emotion: fear, humour, tension, mystery. Then as the story proceeds, you make your line go up or down across the graph. 

This is one of the key dynamics of a text. This is what writers spend hours trying to create. Writers are interested in trying to win a reader’s sympathy for one character, the dislike of another. They may well want to play tricks and first win the sympathy and then ‘disappoint’ by making that character behave ‘badly’. There are many variations to this ‘flow’ that the reader experiences and that the reader makes meanings, and comes to conclusions and value-judgements about whether things are right or wrong, fair or unfair, good or bad, nice or nasty, and so on. 

But it’s not just about ‘character’. It’s about the sensation of the moment or scene we are watching

When we set up ‘charts’ we describe this flow. And from these charts we can go back into the text to find why or how we think the writer helped create this. Or we might ask of ourselves, why did I feel that annoyance with that character at that moment? What is it about me that thinks that kind of behaviour is arrogant etc. 

Once again, there is an interaction between what we think is in the text and what it is about me that came to have that feeling?

We might ask of ourselves or discuss, which was the most important ‘moment’ when our emotions or feelings were flowing?

21. 'Author intention':

This might come partly under the category of 'speculative' - above - ie what the author could have written, might not have written, might have written in another way, or ultimately why do we think the author wrote it this way. 

Or it might be part of 'effect' ie how has the author created an effect. Word of warning: if this is separated from 'how it affected me' or 'how it affected someone else', this is of course speculation. 

The routine of a good deal of 'criticism' is to assume precisely the opposite ie because there is a certain literary feature - e.g. alliteration using a 'hard' sound, that it has a specific 'effect' - e.g. being insistent or heavy - and that the author intended these, which may or may not be the case. A huge amount of school-based criticism comes from this dubious premise: a specific literary feature has a specific effect. This can easily become formulaic and if it doesn’t overlap in any way with the pupils’ or readers’ experience then it’s just gobbledegook learned for exams. 

We might encourage speculation about author-intention by simply asking pupils, would you like to ask the author any questions? Then we might ask one pupil to be that author and the rest of us interview the ‘author’. Whenever the pupil can’t answer the question, we might ask ourselves how can we find out more in order to answer it? A book? The internet? 

22. Contextual:

Every piece of literature comes from a time and place. The person reading or spectating it will not be in exactly the same time and place as the author. Many responses and critical ideas and thoughts go on because of this 'gap'. Students may well know or speculate about the gap, or the context ('They didn't used to do that sort of thing in those days') and of course, may ask questions and/or we offer them information or they are encouraged to research the context(s). 

Between us we have very different awarenesses of contexts of a piece of writing. Give me an ancient Chinese text and I know very little. Give me a text written about London last year, I have a lot. Even so, for all of us there is always some context we know, some we think we know and we bring this contextual knowledge to a text. 

We can of course find out much more and traditionally, texts by eg Shakespeare, have a whole apparatus of ‘context’ around them that students are given. There are varying degrees to which this affects our response processes. Some of it may be so academic or distant that it has little. Some may be very directly affecting. 

I have found in ideal situations the most affecting contextual knowledge starts out by coming from the pupils’ first questions about a text or about an author. They are those puzzles and queries which hang in the air around a text. 

We can draw these out, encourage the process of asking the questions and do what we can to set up the means of finding out. ‘Is Roald Dahl still alive?’ etc.

23. Representational or symbolic:

This is  where we have thoughts or make comments about what we think something 'represents'. This might be about 'character' where we say that a person 'represents' the class or type he or she comes from...'she’s a typical x kind of person'. It might be about parts of the landscape or the nature of the landscape - as it represents a particular kind of challenge to the protagonist. It could be a feature in the landscape/cityscape ie a particular kind of tree or building. It could be a single object that represents something more than itself - a torn piece of paper. And so on.

People often say to me that ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ is a ‘bit like life’ - you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you have to go through it. That’s a representational thought and comment. 

24. Extra-textual:

These are thoughts or comments that have apparently nothing to do with what's in the text and are about what's going on in the classroom or they are about pupils' interactions. Often these are as they seem to be but just occasionally they may well relate to how the pupils are interpreting e.g. a personal comment about 'You always say things like that...' may well be an indirect comment about this text and others.

25: Causational:

These are the thoughts or moments when we say or think that something happened or someone thought ‘x’ because... Anytime we say to ourselves...’Oh. that’s why she...’ These moments of realisation of cause (or imagined cause) are crucial to how and why we read. Part (as very important part) of the human mind hunts for explanations and reasons. We are drawn to wanting to know people’s motives and the outcomes of those motives. This is at the heart of fiction and narratives of many kinds - perhaps of life too. We ask ourselves questions like, ‘why did he do that?’ all the time. 

So, just as important as the conclusion in this matter (‘that’s why he did it’) is the speculation about ‘why he did it’. 

In terms of teaching, I think it’s vital to not state a reason before the pupils’ own speculations. It’s crucial to leave the ‘why’ speculations hanging in the air for as long as possible before finding out and coming to some kind of conclusion as to why. Speculation is reading! 

26. What else? 

What other processes - stand-alone or overlapping with any of the above, would you put into this matrix of response? 

27. There is a long reading-list which informs all of the above. I will provide that in the next blog! 

Sunday, 9 December 2018

How do we create a writing-friendly environment?

Writing will not flourish unless we create a writing-friendly environment. The main ways we can do this is through publication and performance. This makes it sounds grander than it is. What I mean by ‘publication’, is any means by which we can enable the pupils’ writing to be seen by other pupils, friends, family and the world at large. This might be through legible wall-displays, booklets, books, magazines, using the school bulletin, creating blogs, printing off writing ‘pamphlets’, creating ‘guides’ to places that the pupils have visited, and indeed any writing outlet at all. This involves re-thinking the ideal outcome of pupils’ writing as not being the ‘good bit of work in an exercise book’ but a ‘piece of writing that will be seen and read anywhere’.

This builds in expectation, purpose, audience and feedback, the great motors for writing of all kinds.

Same goes for ‘performance’. Here I mean writing things that can be performed in class, in assemblies, sound tracks for powerpoints, or blogs, videos, films, sound tracks, plays, poetry cabarets, late-night spooky readings and so on. Again, this builds in expectation, purpose, audience and feedback.

Together, when pupils see that their writing has a home and a place and is part of processes that involve readers and viewers, the whole matter of ‘getting it right’ takes on another meaning - and it’s the same meaning that ‘real’ writers use: how will I interest and affect ‘real’ readers?

By doing this we immerse the pupils’ writing into the world of writing at large. This also means creating reading-friendly environments through a thorough and thought-out reading-for-pleasure policy. I’ve written a plan for this: see


There is another here:


And there is an ongoing programme here:


These are all vital and should be adapted to suit purpose for all schools, all teachers and - more importantly - for all pupils and parents.

If we want to create an environment in which children want to and can write, it has to be a reading-for-pleasure environment too.

In support of today's demonstration

We know that racism, fascism, antisemitism and islamophobia are on the move, gathering support. Even worse, there are people in positions of power and influence who have put in place discriminatory policies or nod towards key figures in these racist movements giving them at the very least verbal support. Two generations ago, in France and Poland my family was ripped apart by fascists and their collaborators, with lives ended in the orgy of hate and brutality that raged across Europe. When we say, things like 'Never again', or 'No pasaran' or 'Souviens-toi' we must make sure we mean it and do what has to be done to stop the forces who dehumanise, persecute and murder people for no reason other than their birth, their background or their religion.

Friday, 7 December 2018

SPaG 2018 - analysed question by question. What's wrong with it?

Here (below) are some more detailed comments on the 2018 SPaG paper. They are follow-up to the previous blog which makes more general points. The reason why I've done this is because I think that we should take on the arguments that lie behind this test. One way is to talk about the politics that brought it in (the New Report on Assessment and Accountability being hijacked by Michael Gove so that he could a) pursue his pet agenda of 'grammar' and b) to create a means of measuring teachers' 'performance' (their 'input') by testing children's 'performance' (their 'output'. This is a mechanical and mechanistic idea of what is a performance  or 'activity' in a classroom. It is reducing the activity to the teaching of right/wrong answers. 

Anyway, here are the questions:

Question 1

‘Insert a comma in the correct place in the sentence below.

“Although he was the youngest Tom was one of the tallest.’

 As a general comment, it’s important to point out that the sentences used for this test are ones made up by the examiners.  They are contrived in order to illustrate the point that they want to demonstrate and they have no context around them. The ‘sentence’ (as defined by the gov.uk ‘Glossary’ and by the test itself) is a bizarre, context-free spurt of language. 

"A sentence is a group of words which are grammatically connected to each other but not to any words outside the sentence."

These sentences are examples of pointless, unrealistic utterances. Surely, we want children to acquire a knowledge about language which is linked directly to how it is used in its many different ways. We use language in order to make meanings. These people, (who regard themselves as experts in language) have missed this key point about language. It’s no surprise though, because their model of ‘grammar’ is an attempt to devise rules without reference to meaning, without reference to social purpose, and without reference to why people choose to say or write things in the way that they do. Or, they think that the reason why people say or write something is because of the 'rules' embedded in the 'sentences'. This cuts out the idea that people have invented language and use language and change language in order to create meaning in many different and varied ways. It's not language which determines how and why we use language but it is people (us) who choose to use language in certain ways. 

Question 8

Which sentence is grammatically correct?

Tomorrow we went shopping at the sales.

In three weeks’ time, I will be on holiday.

Next weekend, we had gone to the river to fish.

Last summer, we swim at the beach and collect seashells.

This is an example of where their use of the word ‘grammar’ (or ‘grammatically’ etc) strays into meaning. Another way to put this question is to ask something like, ‘Three of these questions don’t really make sense. One of them does. Which one?’, but because the examiners’ definition of ‘grammar’ is slippery and inconsistent (one moment using it to mean something defined by ‘structure’ as with Question 1, the next - as with this question - using it to include meaning. That is, the only way to get this question right is from the meaning of the words and phrases of the sentences. To spell it out: it’s only by knowing the meaning of the word ‘Tomorrow’ and the phrase ‘we went’ that we know that the sentence is ‘wrong’ (ie doesn’t make sense). 

Question 9

Which verb is the synonym of the verb produce?


Just to be clear: ‘synonyms’ and ‘antonyms’ are nothing to do with ‘grammar’. They are some weird vestige left over from ancient rhetoric and public school education. They have no real linguistic value. In reality, synonyms and antonyms don’t exist. That’s to say, one of the whole points about the language we use is that we know that no one word means exactly the same as another. No one word is some kind of exact opposite of another. It is misleading to tell children that this is how we make language work. In fact, when we speak and write, we do other things with similar or un-similar words,  like eg use words to ‘clarify’ or ‘illustrate’ or ‘match’ or ‘add nuance’ or ‘contrast’ or ‘compare’. Rather than waste time teaching children that such non-existent things exist, we can easily invite them to find similarities and contrasts and ask them to wonder why writers and speakers might want to do such things. Such things are embedded in the most basic of stories that the children know, fairy tales like 'Cinderella'  with their stark similarities and contrasts between people or between the ‘then’ and ‘now’ of the story. 

Question 10

Which sentence is a command?

You should bring a coat.
You will need a coat in case it rains.
I am going to bring a coat.
Bring a coat in case it rains.

This is an example of where the examiners are hoist on their own petard. The categories of sentence that they’ve come up with: ‘Question’, ‘Statement’, ‘Command’ and ‘Exclamation’ were originally devised on the basis of the ‘verb forms’ and/or ‘verb structures’ within them.  So we have ways of being ‘interrogative’ in English eg by writing such things as ‘Are you...?’ Or, ‘Is the car...?’ Again, our ways of making a ‘statement’ can be ‘You are...’ or ‘The car is...’. Commands traditionally were defined by such verb forms as ‘Go!’ or ‘Keep left’ and exclamations were (in theory!) limited to sentences that began with such words as ‘How... and ‘What...’ while at the same time not being used to ask questions. (Difficult to follow? Sorry, I didn’t make this stuff up.)

Anyway, the point is that these sentence-types were devised on the basis of grammar and language structure. This was ‘pure’ grammar, in that sense. They also had supposedly difficult or off-putting words like ‘indicative’ or ‘imperative’. Clearly, these examiners decided that they were too hard for 10 and 11 year olds (probably true) so they came up with what they thought were more user-friendly terms like ‘question’ and ‘command’. Now here’s the problem they’ve given themselves: you can only deduce such things from the meaning.  But this gives them the problem of saying that such-and-such a sentence is a 'command' and another one is not - based on meaning alone. Go back to the question. The sentence: ‘You should bring a coat’ can be - purely on the basis of meaning -  be a ‘command’ in the everyday sense. Imagine a teacher: ‘Children: you should bring your coats!’ In fact, by their own definition of a command, even ‘You must bring your coats’ wouldn’t be a ‘command’! Clearly, we use a word like ‘command’ in real life (as opposed to the Alice in Wonderland world of ‘grammar’) to mean ‘to command’ and we can choose a variety of structures to do this depending on who it is who’s speaking and who that speaker is speaking to. A word like ‘command’ has been plucked from real life and applied in one very specific way.

The end result of all this is that the question is not valid. If one of the choices in a multiple choice question is reasonable and feasible but is ‘wrong’ then the test fails. In this case, it fails because they’ve fudged their own ‘grammar’ (supposedly based on ‘word-class, structure, grammar and function’). 

Question 12

Which option completes the sentence in the past perfect?

As a piece of rubric this is really quite annoying. The word 'option' and the phrase ‘completes the sentence in the past perfect’ is jargon. If you really wanted to find out if children could recognise this way of talking about the past, you could phrase the sentence in a much more helpful way. You could say eg ‘Choose from the four examples, the past perfect and write it into the sentence so that the sentence makes sense.’ 

Incidentally, this term ‘past perfect’ is a lovely example of grammarian diarrhoea. Every few years, they come up with new terms for the same old, same old! For decades this form of the verb was called the ‘pluperfect’. That’s how I learned it when I did English, French and German at school. We had the ‘perfect’ (which is one way we can express something in the past) and then the ‘pluperfect’ which to my ears at least made it sound ‘even more in the past’ as if it was ‘perfect-plus’. Now there is a term ‘past perfect’ which is really very hard for a 10/11 year old to squeeze into something that gives them a clue as to why eg ‘I had set’ should be called ‘past perfect’! What is ‘past perfect’ about ‘I had set’? I dunno. Presumably, if some people earned a living for a week by coming up this new name, they must think it is in some deep way an improvement. It’s not. 

Question 13

Which sentence is written in Standard English?

Two sports teams come to our school yesterday.
My friend was tidying the classroom.
Today the children done their school play.
The teachers was going to send a letter next week.

We can ask of this question, ‘What is Standard English’? In order to be able to answer the question, the children would need to know the Standard English forms of subject-verb formations using the verbs ‘to come’, ‘to be’, ‘to do’ and ‘to go’. This invites a particular kind of teaching - much loved by  these grammarians, though they sometimes deny it - doing ‘conjugations’. As a grammar school pupil (nb NOT at primary school) we chanted conjugations of verbs in French, German and Latin lessons. It was reckoned, even by the most formal of teachers, that we didn’t need to do it in English. Do these examiners think it's a good idea for us to do it in English? Where's the theory or research showing this? 

The easiest and most fun way to explore Standard English and non-Standard verb forms is to use a piece of fiction where the narration is in Standard and the dialogue is in non-Standard. The most obvious of these is passages in Dickens. I would love to think that it is possible for teachers to find time (in an overloaded curriculum) to approach this question in this way: using a passage of real writing for a purpose (like Dickens, or a modern author for children) and exploring their use of Standard and non-Standard. This can then be used to compare and contrast it with the use of English by people they know or see on TV. 

By the way - open question: is there a good and useful text-book that teachers are using which lays out interesting and fun ways in which the differences between Standard and non-Standard can be taught? 

Question 14

Tick the sentence that uses a dash correctly.

Call me pedantic but in actual fact ‘sentences’ don’t ‘use’ anything. Sentences are made up by human beings and it’s us who ‘use’ dashes, not sentences. I regard this as methodological madness. We keep turning language and parts of language into living beings which can ‘do’ things. This takes away from the fact that we use language to do things that we want it to do. We make choices with language. We make meaning with language. We do this for reasons - which are very interesting to figure out and speculate about. If we get into a mindset that it’s the ‘sentence’ that ‘uses’ the dash ‘correctly’, it invites us to think that there is some mysterious power that rules over us, embedded in something like a ‘sentence’ which has the power of telling us how to use a dash. No, we choose how to use dashes and the world of dashes is a very wobbly, irregular world. As it happens the ‘wrong’ answers are so wrong in this question, that how the examiners have used the dash ‘correctly’ is clear. Even so, the idea that there are only a few ‘correct’ ways to use a dash is dubious. A train journey in the London Underground looking at posters and ads, or indeed two minutes looking at the poetry of Emily Dickenson, or the writing of Lewis Carroll and you’ll find dashes being used in all sorts of exciting and odd ways. 

If these examiners want children to have ‘knowledge about language’ and want them to see the wonderful ways in which we can use language, then the way to do it is not through telling them there are ‘correct’ ways to use dashes but rather to investigate some ways in which writers have used dashes and are coming up with new good ways for themselves. 

Which sentence must not end with an exclamation mark?

What a hilarious film that was
I loved the opening scene
Was the ending funny
I have never laughed so much

The sub-text here is quite funny. The Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, tied himself in knots trying to explain the proper way to use exclamation marks. Someone pushed him into the spotlight to ‘explain’ that this new ‘grammar’ stuff was defining what an ‘exclamation’ is and that these needed an exclamation mark. I think SPaG has retreated from this - unworkable even by their own standards - and here they are being all ‘liberal’ by suggesting that it’s OK to use exclamation marks on sentences that are not exclamations. Phew! But yet again, this has given them another problem: actually you can bung exclamation marks wherever you want. The sentence ‘Was the ending funny’ is of course the usual way in which we ask questions so in their world,  you ‘can’t’ have an exclamation mark at the end. But these are sentences taken out of context. In fact, if you have the intonation of someone of eg a Jewish background - like me! - or someone fond of a particular kind of ironic use of language then we use a structure like this to indeed make exclamations and not ask questions. Older readers will remember the late England football manager, Graham Taylor, saying , ‘Do I not like that’  (in reference to the fact that Holland were beating England). It was not a question. It was an exclamation. When put into writing, it would be perfectly OK to put an exclamation mark. In fact, I can hear people like my father or grandfather saying, ‘Was the ending funny!’ by way of saying it wasn’t funny. Giving children sentences taken out of context demonstrates above all else that the supposed ‘real’ meaning or use that the examiners have in mind is not a universal meaning or use. They don’t seem to realise this. 

Another useless question from the examiners, and one which hasn’t taken notice of how people are using language in real life. 

Questions 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 [and many others in this exam]

These all ask of the children to get the names of ‘word-classes’ correct. We should remember here that there have been times when those in control of this stuff have said that they didn’t want to go back to the days of ‘parsing’. This was an ancient exercise of taking sentences and calling out the word-classes and ‘cases’ etc of the words in the sentences. Teachers would walk round a class barking out one of the words in a piece of Latin and you had to bark back that it was, say, the ‘accusative case of “puella”’ or some such.

It was felt, even by the types of people who set these tests, that this was of limited use, and might actually be counter-productive in keeping children’s interest in language alive. In fact, it’s very hard to learn how to do such questions, asked in such decontextualised ways, without having to do some form of parsing. 

To  be fair (why should I be?!) there are ways of doing a limited form of this in fun ways that appeal to children’s interest in ‘spotting’ and ‘collecting’ things. We can indeed spend short periods of time, saying, ‘Let’s spot the adverbs in this set of instructions’ or such like. It is one way to get to know and remember some of the terms. 

By the way, Question 24 asks the children to use pronouns 'correctly'. Interestingly, this use is across three sentences. In the government’s own glossary here is the definition of a ‘sentence’:

“A sentence is a group of words which are grammatically connected to each other but not to any words outside the sentence. “

In fact, this question proves that this statement from the glossary is nonsense. We often use pronouns to refer back from one sentence to another. We say - as here - ‘Jack’ - in one sentence and in the next we say, ‘he’. This grammar even has a word for doing this: ‘cohesion’. (It’s about the only word they’ve borrowed from the great linguist M.A.K.Halliday who spent a lifetime trying to incorporate use, purpose, function, meaning and choice into grammar, something that these people setting these questions seem resolutely to ignore.)

Question 25
Which sentence is the most formal?

Watching too much television should be avoided.
You shouldn’t watch too much TV.
Watching too much TV isn’t a good idea.
You really should try not watch loads of telly.

I put out a question about this on twitter and Facebook: where are the text books which give teachers and pupils some kind of definition and a grid of what is ‘formal’ English. There’s no definition of it on the government’s own glossary, which boasts in its first sentence:
“The following glossary includes all the technical grammatical terms used in the programmes of study for English, as well as others that might be useful. “

The only place it’s used is in this passage:

“Some people use Standard English all the time, in all situations from the most casual to the most formal, so it covers most registers. The aim of the national curriculum is that everyone should be able to use Standard English as needed in writing and in relatively formal speaking.”

No definitions are given here of ‘casual’, and ‘formal’. They aren’t grammatical terms anyway. They are terms to do with etiquette and one person’s ‘formal’ is another person’s ‘casual’. There is also that old familiar slide going on here in which ‘Standard English’ is used here as a term to include ‘spoken English’. 

The old agreement between linguists is that we don’t speak Standard English - we write it. That’s because when we speak, we repeat ourselves, we self-correct, we insert many ums and ers and ‘y’knows’, we often don’t finish what we’re saying so the sentences are ‘incomplete’ and so on. The only time we speak Standard English is when we read a speech or recite something something written. 

Clearly, here the claim is being made that we do speak Standard English and it’s something to do with ‘formal’ situations. But in fact, if Standard English is being nudged into how we speak, then it’s quite easy to use non-Standard forms when we are in formal situations. Alan Sugar does it quite often in ‘The Apprentice’! 

The point is that some people use mostly ‘standard forms’ when they speak. Some people use non-standard forms. Some people hop between both. Some people hardly ever do. Children who hardly ever use the standard forms for, let’s say, the use of the verb ‘to be’ (eg ‘we was’ etc) have to learn the Standard ‘we were’ in order to pass this exam. Some will say that they have to learn it in order to have an equal chance to go for jobs. 

However, that said, it isn’t the Standard English question being asked here. It’s the one about ‘formal’. Perhaps, I thought, the answer to this problem is in the glossary’s definition of ‘register’:

“Classroom lessons, football commentaries and novels use different registers of the same language, recognised by differences of vocabulary and grammar. Registers are ‘varieties’ of a language which are each tied to a range of uses, in contrast with dialects, which are tied to groups of users. “

Is this trying to say (1)  that there is one register in a ‘classroom lesson’ and another in a football commentary?  It’s ambiguous! (What? Grammarians writing ambiguously? Surely not.)  It could mean (2)  that lessons, commentaries and novels use different registers within them. The first meaning (1)  is false. The second one (2) is right. Either way, I don’t think it’s much use if we want to know what a ‘register’ is. That’s because ‘register’ is a fuzzy quasi-literary category often used by critics when they (we!) recognise people in life or in texts switching from one use of language to another, according to where that kind of language is usually used. Famous examples: Margaret Thatcher using the word ‘frit’; Ronald Reagan using the expression, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’. 

I’m afraid that saying this is ‘in contrast’ to use of dialect, is palpably  wrong. One way we switch registers is to go from eg Standard English forms to non-standard ones, otherwise known as switching between ‘dialects’. We do that for many interesting reasons. 

Meanwhile, back with ‘formal’, I have no idea how the children can be expected to get this except through some kind of hunch. I wonder how teachers are teaching ‘formal’ and ‘casual’. I wonder whether the worksheets of the kind that I’ve seen have mixed up ‘formal’ with ‘correct’ and ‘casual’ with some kind of wrongness...I’m genuinely interested in knowing how this is being done. 

Question 29 
We’re back with ‘formal’ again! 

Circle the most formal option in each box below to complete the invitation.

We would like to invite you to a catch-up/celebration/get-together  
to mark this fab/really cool/momentous
It will start up/commence/kick off
at 6pm

The most formal sentence (I think!) that comes out of this is:

“We would like to invite you to a celebration to mark this momentous occasion. It will commence at 6pm.”

I’m not sure what is shown or proven by this. I’m not sure why anyone outside of a tiny group of people would want to write to each other like this. Attaching the word ‘formal’ to it sounds to me like dodging the issue. Writing like this is full of class-based assumptions based on the idea that this way of writing has the same status as say, a piece of formal scientific writing. It doesn’t. Writing like this is done in order to flag up a certain class status or an aspiration to acquire the trappings of a particular class status. Formal scientific writing is an agreed code between practitioners going back hundreds of years and is nothing to do with petty ‘class’ distinctions and everything to do with acquired and learned training. 

Actually, I find this question really unpleasant. 

Question 32
More stuff on ‘formal’! 
Are they obsessed? 
This time it’s a matter of micro-distinctions based on dubious categories. Here it is:

Which sentence is the most formal?

She suggested that her mother be present.
She really hopes to be ready on time.
Don’t forget to lock the door!
If Johnny’s later, we’ll start without him.

I’ve been in this language malarkey for decades. What micro-distinctions are there to be made between sentences one and two that tell us that the first is ‘more formal’ than the second? In what ways should this matter or be important or be something that children should spend time learning (or forgetting)? Yes, there are great things to do with register and code-switching, particularly in fiction and when people make speeches. People who write ads do it too. It’s great fun for children to experiment with it, in order to see how these people in positions of power do it. Narrowing this down to the kind of distinction that tells us that sentence one is supposedly ‘more formal’ than sentence two, seems to me to be absurd, all the more so given that I’m not clear that the examiners or anyone else has a clear definition of what is ‘formal’. Why, for example, would the formation ‘suggest that her mother be’ be more formal than ‘really hopes to be’? The first sounds to my ears as being a bit more old-fashioned, not more ‘formal’. 

I suspect that this is an example of grammarians straying into the world of literature and ending up tied in knots. It happens. 

Question 39
What is the grammatical term for the underlined word in the sentence below?
My prize was a fluffy, green pencil case with a gold zip.

As I went through the paper, I was seriously trying to answer the questions. I got to this one and thought I knew the answer according to the ‘grammar’ that these examiners believe in. I was taught two things: after the verb ‘to be’ you get what they call a ‘complement’. It’s in the glossary (though expressed in a particularly opaque, difficult way.)  But I was also taught that all ‘verb phrases’ are followed by the ‘predicate’. So I sat and looked at this and wondered which of these two ‘grammatical terms’ would be right. 

In fact, it’s neither! Hooray. It’s supposed to be ‘expanded noun phrase’ or ‘noun phrase’. Perhaps I haven’t understood the phrase:  ‘grammatical term’. Who knows! And what possible use is it that I’m wrong when both my answers are in fact right? Agreed that ‘predicate’ is not in the glossary but maybe one or two keen 10/11 year olds figured that this phrase is a 'complement'. Hard luck on them. 

Question 41
 is about ‘direct speech’ and therefore about ‘indirect speech’ too. I looked for a definition for these in the glossary. They’re not there. Why not? 

Question 49

uses the term ‘present progressive’. Again, for decades we called this the ‘present continuous’ which had the advantage of using a word - ‘continuous’ which suggested continuous action. It kind of worked, insofar as any of these terms ‘work’. Then someone got paid to turn this into the ‘progressive’. Why? To what purpose? Why was ‘continuous’ replaced? Is it to make older teachers feel redundant and confused? Why is ‘progressive’ better than ‘continuous’? I suggest a game: invent new terms for the old terms and come up with any old justification for why it should be the new term.

More seriously, of course the great industry of worksheets and textbooks don’t and can’t keep up with this nonsense,  so quite often they are ‘wrong’. You and your children are supposed to find a way through this jungle. When we remember that it is the teachers being tested here (see Bew Report 2011 for why this is a method of assessment of teachers not pupils) this kind of verbal monkeying has serious consequences.