Thursday 15 March 2012

How to make literature into Trivial Pursuits/Mastermind

The two main kinds of questions on KS2 SATs English papers are 'retrieval' questions and 'inference' questions. This is called 'comprehension'.

The intellectual poverty in this is mind-boggling. When we read, we engage with much more than these two faculties. We engage with our feelings and we engage with ideas - the ideas in our own heads and the ideas that we perceive to be in the text. The feelings and ideas are intertwined, intermarried.

Any of us could think of examples of this in our own reading or in talking with children we know. The other night I was reading a Horrid Henry book with my seven year old. It was the one where Moody Margaret comes to stay and everyone - apart from Perfect Peter - want her out. She's driving them nuts. So Henry gets up in the middle of the night and leaves a message on Moody Margaret's parents' phone...Then, the next thing you know in the story is that the parents have arrived at the house because they understand that there has been an 'emergency' with Moody Margaret.

It's actually quite difficult to figure out what's happened. You have to imagine what Henry left on Moody Margaret's parents' phone. So me and my little chap, we talked about that. We imagined what he said. We imagined how he could disguise his voice well enough to convince them that the 'emergency' was real.

We were engaging with what was 'inferred' in the text - yes.We were 'retrieving' stuff from the text but we were also started engaging with feelings - ie how we would feel if someone like Moody Margaret came to stay and we were started to think about if this was one of the rare occasions that Henry's parents weren't as angry with one of his schemes as they usually are. We started to engage with the values and ethics that lay at the heart of the story - and this came out of talk and acting out the roles and having fun with the situation - which though treated comically in the book, is in real life, always deadly serious...

This is what literature is for: to engage with feelings and ideas attached to beings we recognise and care about.

This isn't about right and wrong answers. There is enough play in Francesca Simon's writing for to have left us 'gaps' to fill in, and speculate about what might have happened and what people's motives were.

The dreadful poverty of the SATs papers is that they are training children's minds to think that reading is purely about 'retrieval' and 'inference' - and that the inference is on a very low level or, on occasions absurdly psychological. I have a comprehension paper based on Seamus Heaney's tragic poem about the moment (as a boy) he hears that his brother has been killed. Half the questions are about guessing the psychological motives for people's behaviour - as if children are or should be experts on that, as opposed to being people capable of reflecting and speculating on what they might have done in similar circumstances or the like.

So while ministers make puffed-up, pompous comments about the 'love of literature', their tests narrow children's and teachers' responses down to these exercises in trivial pursuits.