Literature in mind

14th June 1996 at 01:00
Nicholas Bielby suggests ways of inspiring children to respond imaginatively to books.

When he gave us the revised curriculum, Sir Ron said: "Use your loaf!" Teachers are free to interpret the curriculum's wording in the light of their own experience. So how to interpret the requirement that children "respond imaginatively" to literature? One thing is for sure: we need to forget the analytical approaches we learnt at secondary and degree level. The skills primary children need to develop are of another kind altogether.

If children are to consider the quality and depth of what they read, we have to provide quality activities that take them more deeply into the experience, but not out of their depth nor away from the story or poem. We need to work with children's natural propensities: * to be lost in a story; * to empathise with others; * to develop a sense of fairness; * to make sense of this puzzling world; * to be excited by language; * to imitate what they enjoy.

Any activity that doesn't address one or other of these propensities has no place in teaching literature at KS2.

Imaginative response involves children: * picturing the story in their heads; * furnishing the story world from their own experience; * feeling with and for the characters; * inferring implicit motives and feelings; * measuring their own feelings and experiences against the story, and the story against their own feelings and experiences; * recognising moral and social issues; * judging the characters and their behaviour; * following the plot; * enjoying the story's suspense; * feeling into situations described in a poem; * enjoying the expressiveness of language; * imitating aspects of texts in their writing; * discussingsharing reactions and feelings; * describing and comparing opinions.

Literary response at this stage is a matter of exploring and making what you enjoy your own. All those subjective, irrelevant and gossipy things that we once learnt to avoid at all costs are just what we want at KS2. At this stage, children are learning about the world and how it works, about other people and how they have feelings and motives of their own, about their own feelings and motives and how they measure up, about right and wrong being something to do with fairness, not just to do with the say-so of powerful adults.

Literature is the book of life to children, in terms of which they can learn about possibilities of experience, recognise their own feelings, evaluate situations and other people, and refine their own perceptions and desires. Imaginative response is the dialogue between the text and the child, and it develops in dialogue with others. So any activities should develop both kinds of dialogue.

Such activities might include: * a small group discussing a poem on their own until they've finished, without teacher intervention (if you don't trust the poem to hold the children's attention, why did you choose it?) * children choosing poems to learn by heart (a poem like "The Tyger" or "The Donkey" can remain with you as a talisman for life) * children identifying devices, such as repetition or alliteration, in a poem and using this in their own ways in writing (children know poems should be patterned, and the trick is to find a device that the child can manage) * children discussing who they like and who they don't in a story, and why (what makes you feel like this? Do you know anyone like this?) * exploring good and bad in characters and actions: why do people feel responsible, why do they do what they do, what explanations could the characters give? (Long John Silver is a villain, and yet . . . so why not hot-seat him?) * children modelling the plot of a story (a challenge, a character accepting responsibility, actions and outcomes constituting episodes until the final resolution), and maybe using such a model for writing themselves (much more to the point than planning characters and settings first) * children in groups, at points during a novel, deciding what questions the text prompts, and what they want to know (more to the point than "prediction" .

Some of the national curriculum demands (to do with deduction) are about implicit skills, some about more explicit (opinions). But in no cases are the skills analytic. They are to do with the trembling of the soul's needle, seeking its North. This is imaginative response.

Nicholas Bielby is lecturer in education at Leeds University

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