Cautionary tales

21st March 2003 at 00:00
Michael Thorn presents some ideas for preparing infants for this May's writing tasks

For anyone preparing their class for SATs this spring, page 13 of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's Key Stage 1 Assessment Guidance is explicit enough: "Children should write a story in which a character has an obvious flaw, such as forgetfulness, selfishness or inattention, and eventually learns a lesson because of the consequences of this behaviour."

There are "two phases to setting up the task" and the first of these, "Understanding and exploring the theme", is open-ended. "During this phase, you are free to support the children in any way..." The guidance goes on to mention "role play and other creative activities" all aimed at "helping the children to understand the theme".

The best way to begin building understanding is not to start discussing the rather philosophical notion of flawed character, but to read to the class a variety of short moral fables that hinge on the consequences of behaviour.

Some of Heinrich Hoffman's cautionary verses would be ideal for this. "The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air" (about a boy who falls in the river because his head is always in the clouds), "The Story of Fidgety Philip" (about a fidget-pants who pulls the dinner table-cloth on top of himself) and - unless it's likely to touch a raw nerve - "The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb" make for good starting places.

Having established the connection between behaviour and consequences, the next thing to do is introduce stories that identify behaviour with a particular character trait. The Mr Men stories by Roger Hargreaves (Egmont Books pound;1.50 each) are good introductory models because they end with a character having learned a lesson, but show that the lesson can be delivered in different ways.

Mr Greedy and Mr Messy are both brought into line by more powerful characters (Mr Greedy is taught his lesson by a giant, while Mr Messy is given a make-over by Mr Neat and Mr Tidy). But in Mr Chatterbox, the main character's verbal diarrhoea has to be kept in check by a Pavlovian magic hat.

Baby Elephant by Susan Hellard (Piccadilly Press pound;4.99 paperback, pound;9.99 hardback) is suggested by the QCA as a starting point for a story about a human character who doesn't listen.

The consequences of being an inattentive chatterbox are looked at from a child's perspective in Anne Fine's Loudmouth Louis (Puffin pound;3.99), about a boy who learns the advantages of listening more and talking less during a sponsored silence. This book, which could be read to the class over the course of a week, is written in the first-person and introduces the notion of a character learning lessons from his own experience rather than having them imposed.

The other suggested model is Mine! by Hiawyn Oram (Frances Lincoln pound;4.99), a short picture book about the possible consequences of selfishness and an unwillingness to share.

This is a theme that could be further developed with Ted Dewan's picture book, Crispin The Pig Who Had It All (Corgi Children's pound;4.99 pb, pound;9.99 hb), which tells the story of a spoilt materialist being introduced to the pleasures of imaginative play. As a means of focusing on the outcomes of these stories, and ensuring that the children understand that the resolution is a key element in a narrative of this kind, the teacher could play talk show host: "Now, Robert, it's good to have you on our show today. Can you tell us what you used to be like... You're not like that any more are you? Why's that?..."

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