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Blow away the cobwebs;Platform;Opinion

Test topics that give 11-year-olds the creeps are unlikely to bring out their poetic side, says Manjula Datta, particularly when English is not their first language

RECENTLY I've been talking to bilingual children and their teachers about this year's key stage 2 English tests. The issues they raised are important for everyone involved in the education of children - and by that I mean all children.

Almost all the children spoke about their anxiety. Their talk was peppered with "panicking", "nervous", "stressed", "afraid", "shaking", "rushing" and so on. Such exam stress is only natural, but people with English as a second or additional language know only too well how anxiety can adversely affect performance. We know how difficult it is to make deep connections under these circumstances. This anxiety was made worse by some of the test material.

The children spoke competently about the information text, on The Spider Web, commenting that "it was interesting" and that "the glossary helped". But some of the 11-year-olds found some questions and illustrations confusing. One child interpreted this as "they tried to trick us"; another remarked: "When you spend too much time on a question you become really stressed."

All the children were happy with The Truth About Little Miss Muffet. Comments such as "it was funny and it had some funny illustrations" and "it was interesting, and when you feel it's interesting you feel like reading it and finding the meaning", encapsulate their responses.

But when it came to talking about the poem, Spinner, the children looked visibly uncomfortable.

Many could not identify with the mystery and beauty of spiders. The landscape of the poem was "alien" to them. Several teachers commented on the images used in the poem and its relevance to children's experiences. One teacher expressed the problem succinctly with reference to the lines: Frost lies white, Thickens over my garden Until the night thins...

saying that "here they might not have a garden and they are not going to see that happening ... but it means something to me because I was brought up in the countryside ... you know it's morning and there's the sun, the dew ... and the spider webs across the trees or whatever ... you carry the images in your head..."

For many of these children, all young Londoners, spiders are associated with uncleanliness and danger. True, the text was there to create an understanding, but for young children this requires talk, a space to bring their past experiences to new learning, and tests are not a forum for talk. In such a situation it is almost ironical to expect children to have seen beauty when for them there was none to behold!

It seems the children felt distanced from the subject matter and lost touch with the language. A Gujerati speaker, a high-flyer in his teachers' eyes, said he felt "very small ... I couldn't get to the hidden meanings", and thought he had let his teachers and parents down. "Why can't they write in normal language?" was a sad comment from an Arabic speaker, when poetry forms a part of his everyday language at home.

Yet when I read to the children John Masefield's Sea Fever, Wordsworth's Morning After a Storm, and extracts from other sea and storm poems, the children didn't seem to have difficulty in reading beyond the literal. "Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted", (Sassoon, Everyone Sang) as they talked fluently about the various sea and storm images they encountered in these poems, and related them to their personal experiences as well as to memorable images from the media. They were able to enjoy the poetic language and use it in their own poems.

Here's an extract from Hanadi's poetic response to Masefield's opening line: I want to go down to the seas again, to the lonely seas and the sky.....

To the sounds of the seagulls flying in the distant sky To hear the dolphins' song echoing through the sky To stand upon the cliff peak and feel the mist on my cheeks To be at one with the sea, just It and I Others started with Wordsworth's opening line. Quoted below is Shaan's first stanza: There was a roaring in the wind all night Lightning painted the sky with flashing stripes Thunder roared and boomed like bombs exploding And from the sky came a spinning demon Sucking up all that stood in its way Abidur's first stanza shows a child's poetic expression of playfulness, terrifying fantasy and deep emotion: I want to go to the sea riding on the waves To hear the whale's song To hear the thunder breaking the sea apart...

To find my mother resting Under the deep deep sea So what was different about these poems? Why was it that these children with such disparate linguistic and cultural backgrounds could all identify with the sea or storm poems? As a child put it, "It's because the sea has many meanings and spiders have no meaning, it's just a kind of ... arachnid."

It would seem the children were able to relate to such universal themes as the seastorm and were able to draw upon their multiple experiences to extend their understanding and learning. They could respond to them imaginatively, emotionally, personally and linguistically. This helped them to unravel and enjoy the embedded meanings and create their own.

As I have said before, (TES, July 17, 1998) poetry is important in all cultures and every language has metaphors. The issue obviously is one of relevance and appropriate strategies for teaching which uses children's linguistic resources. This would mean showing an awareness and sensitivity to the experiences of all children in multilingual and multicultural Britain.

It would also mean choice of test material should be engaging and challenging for all children. We cannot afford to be dismissive or dogmatic about issues of equality and equity raised by reflective practitioners such as Sonia Case (TES Letters, May 28, 1999). And we cannot afford to have dedicated teachers feeling frustrated with their efforts or that they have let their children down, or children feeling they have let their teachers and families down.

To this end we need to capture every child's imagination to further their understanding and love of literature.

Manjula Datta is senior lecturer at the school of education, University of North London. E-mail: Her forthcoming book 'Bilinguality and Literacy Development' (Cassell) provides many strategies for working with bilingual children.

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