Tuesday, 20 September 2022

Now we know what History is...

 For a week

we've had a lesson in


we've had a lesson on
'what is
For a week
there has been space
(quite a lot of space, actually)
for people to tell us that
what we've been looking at is
or that it's
in the making
or that it's
one of the most important events
we'll ever see in
That's a lot of people
for a long time
telling us,
what is
It seems that what's happened is
because a monarch
in a constitutional monarchy has died.
For several centuries
people struggled to wrest power
from monarchs in this country
precisely so that they couldn't affect
which they had been doing
for hundreds of years before.
Once they had taken power
away from the monarchy
they said,
Parliament is 'sovereign',
'it expresses the 'will of the people'.'
I learned this at school.
So the people have the power,
my teachers said
and somehow between the people
and parliament,
is made.
Others, later,
told me that history
is made in the great clash
between the forces of
those who own nearly everything
and those who own hardly anything,
but other people said
that's a terrible thing to say about
so I won't mention that again.
To sum up:
this week it's all become much clearer:
one monarch has gone
another has arrived
and this is
Is it though?

Sunday, 11 September 2022

Reading for Pleasure: how and why does it enable children to do better at school? What can we do to foster it? What creative ways of responding and interpreting help in this too?

Increasingly, people in education are becoming interested in Reading for Pleasure (RfP). There are some great books and booklets about it. People like the National Literacy Trust, CLPE, UKLA, Booktrust, Reading Rocks and Teresa Cremin at the Open University have researched it and developed a variety of ways of encouraging it and fostering it. Over at gov.uk you can find several pages on Research Evidence for RfP. The NUT (one of the predecessors to the NEU) produced an excellent booklet on RfP written by the children's writer (and friend of mine) Alan Gibbons. I've written a booklet on it ('Reading for Pleasure'). And so on. 

On the other hand, I hear of things like this: school libraries closing down, local libraries closing, some school managements questioning why a teacher might be 'just' reading with children and school students. In effect, there are two pulls going on - the pull towards RfP and a pull against it.

With this in mind, I think the RfP side has to be clear not only that RfP does have a huge positive effect but also investigates how. How and why does browsing, choosing and having fun reading books have a knock-on effect of enabling children and young people to do well at school (and a lot of other things beside, but for the moment, this is about an argument to do with education)? 


Clearly, one key matter is how reading widely and often (fiction, non-fiction and many different forms) is a form of induction or initiation or immersion into written standard English. We don't speak written standard English. It's a different 'code' or 'register' or even a kind of different dialect. When we speak to each other, we interrupt, hesitate, repeat ourselves, use many words like 'this', 'that', 'it' etc because it's clear from context. When we speak, we quite often don't finish a thought and tail off because others around you know what you're talking about. When we write, there are forms that we hardly ever use in daily talk. One of the most obvious is the idea that we write in 'complete' sentences using a 'finite' verb. Another is the way in writing, we 'front load' a lot of the time. Go back over what you've just read here and see how many times I've used a word of phrase before the 'main clause' - eg 'Increasingly, 'Over at gov.uk', 'On the other hand' etc. We do some of this when we speak but by no means as much as we do in formal or even semi-formal written standard English. 

As an experiment, open any children's book, look at the sentences - the narrative rather than the dialogue of course, and try to say them as if they are part of a conversation. For most of it, it just doesn't work. You can't switch 'codes'. So if we ask ourselves, what does this mean for child-readers, it becomes very significant. It means that we ask of children and young people to make the leap from spoken English to written English.  Can we take it as self-evident then, that the more that children and young people are exposed to this written spoken English, the easier they will find it when they come across unfamiliar, new and challenging texts in school - whether that's fiction or a science text book or whatever? I think so.

The Strategies of Writing

Writing is more than language! It's also the strategies we use when we write: paragraphs, chapters, plot lines, methods of narrating, ways of indicating speech, reported speech, inner thought, use of figurative language, how we indicate time, how we switch time with flashbacks and flashforwards, how we 'foreground' people or things, how we 'reveal-conceal' ie indicate that there is more to know than what is being told at that very moment, the way we use 'allusions' to anything outside of the text in hand, motifs, tropes, uses of archetypes and stereotypes, uses of symbols...and so on. Of course, over the years in school, some of this is taught but for children and young people who have been reading widely and often (RfP), the job of 'getting' all this stuff, is many, many times easier.

The Strategies of Reading

Part of this I've already covered in the sense that some of the strategies of reading are a matter of picking up on the things that I've mentioned in the previous paragraph. There are other aspects though: eg such things as learning what it feels like to care about a text ie how we are 'affected' by it, through such psychological processes as 'identifying' with a character, through the flow of emotions we have towards and against characters, flow of emotions we have in scenes or the 'events' or outcomes of a scene of a text. In my booklet 'Poetry and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools', I've created a 'grid' of these responses and these also partly explain how it is that reading widely and often (RfP) can enable children and young people to access education more easily. I'll summarise them briefly here: 

When we read we use our experience of life in order to understand what we read. This means that our memories and even latent or sub-conscious memories are brought into play. We might say that some reading validates or challenges our experience. However it does, it involves us in acts of comparison between our own lives and those in the writing. Anything that invites us to make comparisons about our own experience leads us towards being able to generalise about our own behaviour in relation to others. We might call that a form of intelligence.

When we read, we use our experience of other texts. Again, this involves many subtle forms of comparison at lots of different levels. We are in a sense 'reminded'  all the time as we read of the texts  in oru minds that precede the one we are reading. This can be at the level of 'form' (eg I recognise that what I am reading is, let's say, a sports report, or an invite to a party, a sonnet, an adventure story, a write-up of a court case etc etc.) Reading widely and often enables us to build up a repertoire in our heads so that we can recognise what it is we are reading as we read it. At another level, this kind of 'intertextual' knowledge enables us to pick up on how plots work, how genres work eg whodunnits, rom-coms, comedy, tragedy. At yet another level, it's how we recognise 'types' like the rags-to-riches character, or the dangerous stranger, or the road-movie companions etc etc. 

A fundamental part of reading is a bit like solving puzzles. All texts have 'gaps'. No text says it all. This means that while we read what is in front of us, we are asking questions of it, trying to answer those questions, coming with alternative interpretations of what is happening, what might happen, why something happened that way. There are words, phrases, allusions, unfamiliar expressions, unexplained acts and phenomena, implied connections, possible causes for effects, possible motives that are not fully explained...and so on. I've often given the example of my 3 year old son, asking us to read him 'Where the Wild Things Are' over and over again. As we read, he hardly said a word until one day, when it got to the part where Max wants to be 'where somebody loved him best of all', he burst out with, 'Mummy!'. In that one word and one moment, he revealed the intellectual effort he had been making to figure out this mysterious story. The text and pictures are full of gaps and puzzles like, say, why is his room so empty, why did the room or how did the trees become 'the world all around' (what a strange and mysterious idea), how could he sail through 'weeks' or even a 'year' (what does that mean?), how come there's a boat with his name on it? Where did that come from?  Who are the wild things? How does he know who to tame them? What do they sing when they have a 'wild rumpus'? What's the tune? And then this mysterious sentence about wanting to be 'where' 'somebody' loved him best of all. Who is this 'somebody' and 'where' is it? Our son decided it was 'Mummy' but note there is no 'Mummy' in the story. There's a 'mother' who we never see and her two acts towards Max are to send him to his room and possibly (though we are never told) it is her who leaves him some hot supper at the end. She may well  'love' Max but it's not exactly effusive, is it? I'll suggest that there is no definitive answer to these questions. It takes an intellectual effort to think about the connections and causes and motives going on.

My 'big' suggestion, though, is that this is at the core of why and how RfP does the work of enabling us to access education. We have to feel, think and reason in order to 'get' what's going on. We will also have to use our awareness and knowledge of clues and sequences in a story or in any narrative in order to make sense of the bit that we're reading. I'll suggest that our son used his many readings (hearings, actually) to enable to figure out that that mysterious phrase meant (for him) that Max wanted to be with his 'Mummy'. Note also that that leap by our son had to be done through 'identification'. He had to 'be' Max and think along the lines, 'If I was Max, or Max was me, I would in that situation with the Wild Things want to be with my Mummy who I believe loves me best of all.'  


I've already talked about making comparisons. We make analogies between what we read in a text with events or feelings in our own lives but also analogies between texts. We say, 'Oh that's like...' as a way of explaining (or making ourselves familiar with) what's going on in a bit of writing. I'm going to suggest that the moment we 'analogise' we are on the first rung of a ladder that leads to 'abstract thought', 'abstract ideas', 'abstract words'. Whether we do science or humanities in education, we are constantly being asked to reach generalisations and abstract ideas. The route to these, more often than not, is through lists of two or more similar things. So, we might discuss 'erosion', say, and we're asked to make a list of different ways in which a cliff is eroded - wind, rain, frost, waves etc. Different ways are grouped under one heading, 'erosion'. We compare the effects of each of those ways and say that they do things differently but they still end up wearing the cliff away. This kind of thinking and way of thinking goes on again and again in education. My argument here is that if we read widely and often, we do something very similar every time we read. Back with our son and the Wild Things: the line says that Max felt 'lonely' and he wanted to be where somebody 'loved' him best of all. Our son created a list of two: he said (in effect) that he knew of another example like that: him and his mother. I'm going to say here then that is at the root or the heart of what we do over and over again in education but it happens all the time when we read for pleasure. Comparisons and analogies in our head again and again and again. And that's my argument about how it is that RfP does its work of making education accessible.

How to Foster this Kind of Reading

In 'Reading for Pleasure', I've grouped together different strategies to help teachers and schools put a Reading for Pleasure policy in place. I didn't do it out of my own head. It came from listening to people doing it. However, there is another aspect to this: how can we make reading itself enjoyable and at the same time 'listens' to the kinds of process that I've been talking about here.

In brief, these concern the kinds of questions we ask children and school students; the kinds of activities around books that we ask them to do; the kinds of exploration of texts that we invite them to do. 

Questions: these can be open-ended. To release how are we 'affected' by a text, we can invite children to monitor their flows of emotion to or against characters or how they feel through a scene. Older children can have great fun making graphs of these! 

To release how our experiences are brought to bear when we read, we can ask, is there anything that you've read here that makes you think of anything that has ever happened to you or someone you know? 

To release how our we use the texts we know when we read, we can ask, is there anything you've ever read, seen on TV, seen in a film, in a theatre, heard in a song, or anywhere else, that you're reminded of as you read something in this book/text? Any link that you notice? Or can think of?

To release those 'gap' moments we can ask, were you 'puzzled' by anything, any moment, anything that someone said, or the way that something was written? And then we can follow that up with different ways to 'fill' those gaps ie different interpretations. Or another way to unlock this is to ask if children have any questions that they would like to ask anyone in the story or ask the author. We can collect up those questions and invite people to answer them. People can role-play characters and we can ask them to help answer the questions and puzzles. 

(Useful here is Aidan Chambers' book 'Tell Me and the Learning Environment'. In my booklet, 'Poetry and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools', there's a grid that I worked out with teacher James Durran of 'trigger questions' that will help release responses and reflections on these reading processes.)

Creative Ways to Unlock Texts

There are of course many creative ways to 'get into' texts which will release interpretations, and enable the young readers to explore emotion, meaning and relevance. There are many forms of re-telling that will do this: retelling as a piece of story-telling; using mime to tell some or all of the piece of writing; using art, video and audio to re-tell and interpret; using music, movement and dance; using pottery, ceramics and model-making. 

We can use freeze-frames, hot-seating, and interviews of characters of even objects in a specific moment in a scene to unlock what is going on: what can you see? what can you hear? what are you thinking? what do you want? what do you not want? what are you afraid of? what do you hope for? 

We can ask readers to come up with sequels and prequels to the story. To do this, the reader (writer now!) will have to gather up what they know of the story in order to make the prequel or sequel work. They will almost certainly have to use all the so-called skills that we try to get them to develop through 'comprehension' in order to write a prequel or sequel! 

As an aside here, I'll make an educational point: for hundreds of years, one of the most high status things that people could do was 'interpret' one piece of art with another. For example, every stately home or art gallery or classical music concert or opera anyone ever goes to is jam packed full of one art form interpreting another: paintings of scenes from Greek myths,  operas and ballets based on Shakespeare plays, poems, sculptures of famous scenes from classical stories and so on. In education, the highest status of 'interpretation' is either a comprehension test or an 'essay' about a book. Why have we reduced 'interpretation' to something so narrow?

Even so, I'm going to suggest that if we use RfP methods of reading and interpreting along the lines I'm suggesting here, it will be all easier for children and school students to do the comprehensions and essays anyway! In fact, those pupils who read widely and often do just that, as the research keeps showing over and over again. 

Friday, 29 July 2022

Poem: Perhaps...


...during Lockdown

some Number 10 partygoers

stumble out of the door

and throw drunken gags at each other

and one says,

‘Hey, for a laugh, let’s go find one of

these hospitals 

where people are dying

and cheer’em up…’

and they stumble into cabs

and get to where Dick Whittington

heard the bells of London 

where the Whittington Hospital looks out over London

and they manage to get the works lifts to work

they jam in

ride to the 5th floor

to the intensive care ward

where visitors are strictly forbidden

and they crash into the ward

cheering and laughing

‘No need to bring your own booze

we’ve brought it.’

And they see us there

inert, plugged into tubes and lines

staring blindly 

trying to live

and they say to us

‘Hah! you think you’re in a bad way?

What about us?

We’re smashed.

It’ll be hell in the morning

but what the fuck!

You’re no bloody fun, are you?

Let’s go, guys..’

And out they stream

out of the hospital

into the night street

and one of them finds

Dick Whittington’s cat

in stone 

a statue of a cat

on the pavement

and it becomes the funniest thing

that any of them have ever seen

It’s a cat

it’s a fucking cat

It’s a statue of a fucking cat

and they have this great idea:

‘Let’s piss on it,’ one of them says

And that’s even funnier. 

Saturday, 2 July 2022

Dissolution Street (a new take on Dylan's Desolation Row)


The King is in the counting house, eating bread and money,

He thinks if he talks like Julius Caesar, we’ll think that he is funny.

Plato has found a way to play chess, using tanks and guns

‘Who cares?’ says Henry Ford, ‘we’ll make ten thousand suns.’

John and Yoko close the curtains and get beneath the sheets

They can hear the bombs outside, falling on Dissolution Street.

The banker says to the poor man, ‘You’re helping keep things great.’

An unborn baby arrives in hell and says ‘Sorry I am late.’

Louis Braille’s lost his sight and says people keep giving him bad looks.

They say they know how to handle him, they take away his books.

King Midas tells the multitude there’s always plenty to eat

The queue at the food bank stretches down Dissolution Street

They found that the judge was lying, so the judge changed all the rules

They found gold beneath the playgrounds, so they sold off all the schools

Doctor Death went to hospital, where he met up with Dr Who

Doctor Death said he was out of cash, so he sold the hospital too.

The Sheriff of Nottingham was saying that it was honest to cheat

As he strung up Robin Hood on  the gibbet  on Dissolution Street.

The doctor’s telling me the good news, my foot won’t be falling off

The nurse is telling me I’ve got no lungs so I don’t need to to cough.

Another nurse is telling me, ‘Move!’, cos I often fall out of bed.

The doctor’s telling me more good news, he says I’m not brain dead.

The diary’s open on yesterday but I don’t know who I’ll meet

They say I’m deconditioned, now I’m on Dissolution Street.

The Queen says that it’s awful how people resent her fur coats.

The real problem she says is people arriving in small boats

They will eat every one of you, she says to you and me

The safest thing for all of us, is if we push’em into the sea

One or two can come ashore and as some kind of treat

They can be nurses or clean the floors in Dissolution Street

From the other end of the corridor, I hear a woman scream

I lean out of bed and ask the nurse, ‘Can I stay in my dream?’

He says, ‘You’re dead anyway, so you’re missing the bad weather.

This is the last place on earth where we’re all working together.’

They bring in the last machine they have, I could see my heart beat

I might be dead now, I think,  but we can leave Dissolution Street.


Thursday, 16 June 2022

This year's Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Test for Key Stage 2

 In the past, I  have made many criticisms of the way 'Grammar' is taught in primary schools. My main points are:

1. Grammar was only introduced into primary schools as a way of assessing teachers (Bew Report 2011). It was introduced on the basis that grammar has 'right and wrong answers'. This is false. Many of the questions asked on GPS papers create false binaries. That's because language is full of acceptable variants ie different but totally OK ways of saying and writing things. We shouldn't be fibbing to children that everything on the GPS curriculum is a matter of right or wrong. This is particularly the case with punctuation. 

2. The grammar in the Grammar curriculum is only one of several ways of describing language. It is particularly weak because it views language as a set of rules and rigid descriptions. Many of these rules are based on the way grammarians described the way Latin was written down hundreds of years ago. Another way of viewing language is that it's based on a set of choices. We choose what to say and how we say it according to many things going on in our heads and going on around us ie 'contexts'. We can, for example, identify some of these contexts as 'genre' (ie what kind of speech or writing is this?), 'participants' (ie who is speaking or writing? who is listening or reading), 'theme' or 'subject' of the piece of language we're looking at. 

This tells us that language is always and actually 'language in use'. If we are really interested in what children can do with language, we need to help them see and explore the differences and variations of language being used in actual and real situations. GPS takes language out of language-in-use and creates artificial sentences and demands that children 'spot' the rules or terms.

3. There is an error in the GPS grammar which says that a given word 'is' a given term eg the children are asked to say things like, 'That word 'is' an adjective.' Or,  'Those words are a 'fronted adverbial'.' One problem with this is that the terms keep changing. For example if I read, 'that's my book', I was taught in the 1950s/60s that the word 'my' 'is' a 'possessive adjective' or it 'is' a 'possessive pronoun' or even that it 'is' a 'determinative possessive pronoun' (!). It's now called a 'determiner'. So what 'is' it? Which one of the four is it? 

4. There are some big problems with the way these terms have been given and fixed. The most notable of these is 'tense'. In written ancient Latin, it made sense to say that a given 'verb form' was matched to a given way of talking about time. The grammarians could say that that verb form meant it was eg  'present' or 'past' and so on. In modern  English, this is clearly not the case. We use verb forms in flexible ways. We can use what GPS calls the 'present tense' in a passage that indicate the 'future' or the 'past'. What's more, we have other words to indicate time, words like 'tomorrow' or 'yesterday'. All this adds up to the idea that it would be better to talk about 'time aspect' (or some such) to indicate that we have whole structures to show what time frame we are using: a mix of verbs, adverbs, phrases, clauses and these are dependent on the 'contexts' that I mentioned before. The whole apparatus about 'tense' in GPS is false. 

5. The most pernicious aspect of GPS (formerly SPaG of course) is the crass way in which it's been used in relation to pupils' writing. It has reduced some children's writing to what I've called 'writing by numbers'. That's to say, a given so-called 'grammatical' feature has been identified as necessary for a child to reach the 'right' level of writing. This makes 'grammar' the master of what makes 'good' writing. But 'grammar' should at most be a means of describing some aspects of language not of prescribing how the 'best' writing should be. Again, if we worked on the principle of 'language in use' and used the 'contexts' I mentioned we would get to the idea of children learning how to use language in the best way for a given situation. We need different kinds of language for different situations.

6. There are some hidden messages in GPS: one notable one is what it says about class and culture. It elevates one particular language use above all others: a poorly defined 'formal' English as being universally suitable and desirable. This downgrades many other forms of English, speech,  local, diverse, and informal uses of language that have been part of culture and life for hundreds of years. 

I isolated some questions on this year's KS2 GPS test and posted my very short thoughts on Twitter. I've copied these and that's what follows now.


Circle the two determiners in the sentence below.

 In an hour, we will be getting on our train.

My comment: 




Insert a hyphen in the correct place in the sentence below.

 We were very busy in the run up to the school play. 

My comment: 




Circle the co-ordinating conjunction in the sentence below.

 I started drawing a car, but then I changed my mind because I had a better idea.

My comment: 



My comment on the fronted adverbial question:

The absurdity of terminology:  the 'fronted adverbial' in 'With big smiles on our faces, we lined up for the class photo' clearly describes 'we', not 'lined up'. Therefore it's adjectival in content! But that term doesn't exist!



Insert a colon in the correct place in the sentence below.

 Many fossils are not as big as people think some are so small that you need a microscope to see them. 

My comment:



My comment re ‘dashes’’:

There are two questions which ask you to put dashes in the correct place! What's with the fetish about dashes? Life is possible without putting dashes anywhere. More rubbish.



Insert a semi-colon in the correct place in the sentence below.

 The suitcase was heavy the box was lighter but more awkward to carry.

My comment:



Q12 requires you to make 'warm' and 'cool' antonyms! Absurd rubbish.



Circle the correct verb form in each underlined pair to complete the

passage below.

William Shakespeare, the famous writer, is / was born in Stratford-

 upon-Avon in 1564 and later will move / moved to London where he will become / became an actor. Even today, Shakespeare’s plays

 are performed / performed around the world.

My comment:



My comment on active-passive

On the 2022 KS2 GPS test there are three questions on active-passive forms. Three? Imagine being the examiners saying to themselves: 'Let's really hit'em with the passive, this year.' Like, why? Is it a 2022 thing?


Sunday, 24 April 2022

Why trying to stay alive is political

 It's easy to think of politics as the stuff they talk about on politics shows. Being ill at a time of national crisis, has brought me face to face with the fact that politics is about the everyday thing of being alive or - as in my case - trying to stay alive or finding that other people are trying to keep you alive or helping you get on your feet again (rehab). So it is that I've found that at every stage of coming home, there has been a constant political conversation and row going on about - for example - funding of the NHS, how the government approached the idea of an epidemic (social health policy or leave it to the market?), our attitude to old people, sick people, disabled people and vulnerable (so-called) people.

Then again, the partygate scandal has ripped a hole in the idea that the government is on our side when it comes to wanting to protect us. It shows them as thinking of themselves as a special case, as people who don't need to abide by the rules they set for us. I see that as analogous as to the way public health and education are run: - largely by people who are looked after by private medicine and who are educated in private schools. There is an inbuilt separation (or that they build in the separation) between them and us whilst at the same time giving themselves the right to run our health and education according to their world view.
Meanwhile, it doesn't take long to hear people on phone-ins or on social media slagging off the NHS, nurses, doctors, schools, teachers and conjuring up images of the people working in this sector as lazy, unfairly rich, unfairly leisured. In fact, the people who talk this way have turned any praise of nurses, doctors, teachers, assistant teachers into political statements. Believe it or not, there's a journalist who has posted a picture on twitter of nurses and doctors having a pizza together and claimed that in doing so they were doing just what Johnson did with Partygate. One problem: the photo of the nurses and doctors having a pizza was before lockdown! I'm particularly enraged by this because the nurses and doctors in the photo are the very people who helped save my life. What this makes me think is that this person's sneering tweet has made a statement by me like 'I"m grateful to people at the Whittington who saved my life' into a radical political statement! That's where we're at.

Saturday, 23 April 2022

Interview with me from Ant Group


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