Explore green pastures

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Literature inspires when the reader becomes interpreter rather than fact-hunter, says Huw Thomas

In a note dropped off at school my partner instructed: "Get some instant tea". Somewhat puzzled at the request, because the stuff tastes like wee, I obediently arrived home carrying a jar of granulated tea. I was told I'd got it wrong. "No," she protested, "I meant 'instant tea' - a pizza or something we can just warm up."

So my question is: "What was the meaning of that 'instant tea' note?" Was it her intention or my reading?

For years the study of literature was dominated by what the author intended, digging into the lives and minds of great writers. Over time, this has been complemented by an emphasis on the vital role that the reader plays in understanding a text.

Contemporary theorists such as Wolfgang Iser emphasise the role a reader plays, starting with the text but filling it with their interpretation. He writes: "Two people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars, but one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a big dipper. The 'stars' in a literary text are fixed; the lines that join them are variable."

Readers actively interpret the words on the page, creating diverse responses. We don't just find meaning in the text - we make it. There's so much more to reading.

Yet, as I read Year 6 reading Sats, I am struck by the emphasis they place on harvesting facts from a text or focusing on authors' intentions and techniques.

Last year, 80 per cent of the questions went fact-hunting and 20 per cent asked children to comment on the writer's intentions or technique. Not one was about the reader. In that test a young heroine led her family to safety from a grizzly bear. When asked what qualities she showed as a leader children had to grab two facts from the text to get the marks - the less personal engagement the better. Nothing about the creative empathy where a reader asks: "What if I was in that situation?"

In 2002, when asked to comment on the beauty of a mother impala, leaping to save her fawn from a savannah fire, marks were apportioned with clinical precision - one point for commenting on agility, two for commenting on selflessness.

Forget the eye of the beholder, the perception of beauty was reduced to pub-quiz level.

What messages are peddled about reading in these tests? Of course, retrieval of information has its place and there may be grounds for learning about a particular author. But, effectively, our testing structure ignores the reader.

More concerning is the message sent about power. Far from being creators of meaning, our tests stamp down the message that the author is in charge. At its best this approach makes for a dull view of reading. At its worst it is a strand of political suppression.

It is pretty obvious why readers are sidelined. To test the sorts of qualities I'm extolling is difficult. How would we assay the extent to which a child is grabbed by the events of a story? Difficult, but isn't it our task "to measure what we value rather than valuing what we can easily measure"? (National Indicators' Panel 1992).

We should assess more than the grabbing of facts about texts and authors.

When, in the past, we were concerned about children just reading schemes and not engaging with the text, we spoke of them "barking at print". We now have a strategy for engaging literacy in our schools. What a crying shame the end of the process is so narrow. What a shame if we are reduced to teaching them to bark louder.

There is an old story about a priest who was retiring. All the parish turned up to the farewell, including a young man who had grown up in the parish and undertaken catechism with the old man, but was now a famous actor. The actor stood to speak and, at the priest's request, recited the 23rd Psalm. His sonorous tones and expressive voice wowed the crowd.

Everyone applauded. But as he finished the actor turned to his aged priest and asked: "Father, would you now do us a great honour and recite the same psalm?"

Well, the priest put up a protest, sure the actor had done so well and he would just falter. However, the actor was insistent. So it was, the priest began reciting those words. As he continued, everyone in the room was struck by their beauty and passion such that, after this rendition of the psalm, tears filled eyes and hearts were too moved for applause.

The actor got to his feet and pointed to the priest. "You see, friends," he said, explaining the difference. "I know the psalm, but he knows the shepherd."

There really is so much more to reading.

Huw Thomas is headteacher at Springfield school, Sheffield

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