The Queue offered scope for imaginative writing

11th July 2003 at 01:00
Much criticism has been heaped on one of this year's key stage 2 English test writing tasks. Entitled The Queue, it is a storyboard presenting a series of events in which a boy tries to buy a popular new toy. Some have suggested that because the characters and main events are given, it offers no scope for children to show creativity.

As two of the team who developed it, we have a different perspective, based on the evidence collected during the research process. Most teachers would agree that there is a limit to how much invention children can fairly be expected to display in 45 minutes. Because of this, we had to find ways of providing support and structure, to allow children to show what they could do within a short time. The storyboard was just one of the many approaches we tried. Does structure rule out creativity? Not in principle, obviously - the music of Bach shows what can be done within tight structural constraints.

We tried out The Queue three times on large national samples of children, alongside other possible tasks. We read more than 1,400 stories written from the storyboard prompt, and it convinced us that there was scope for children to be imaginative.

The main characters were a boy, his mother and a girl. But the children quickly went beyond the basic information, and created lively personalities. Here is one version of the relationship between the boy and his mother.

"He had to try those big eyes on Mum again. He had to! Ten minutes later they were in the queue and Matt was telling his Mum what a brilliant game it was. Mum wasn't too impressed - she was just nodding her head and smiling at him."

In this next extract, from another child, the writer's attitude to Ellie and her father is left in no doubt.

"He looked up and there was Ellie Silk from school. She was smiling a horrible smile. 'Daddy says its mine and I want it!' Ellie raged tugging at it even more. 'I'm missing four weeks' pocket money for this.' Jake answered back.

"'Daddy!!!' Ellie called. A short, flustered, hairy man came running towards Ellie and Jake. 'What petal-pot?' he stuttered."

The end of the story was left open. The boy and girl grab the last remaining toy at the same time, and many different conclusions are possible. The extract below makes it into an honest portrayal of the difficulties - and rewards - of "doing the right thing".

"He glanced at the game then glanced back at her. What was he to do?

"'Here you have it' he said calmly as he strolled over trying to pretend he didn't care.

"'Are you sure?' she asked seeming quite amazed.

"'Yeh I've got loads of games at home'.

"When he got to his mum she said 'did you get the game?'

"'No' David said happily 'I got something lots better, a new friend'."

All these examples, and many others, were produced under test conditions by children drawn in a random sample, and marks are given for this kind of lively writing in the composition and effect section of the mark scheme.

No one would claim that a national writing test is the principal means of fostering creativity - teachers have plenty of ideas of their own to do that. But nor is it a complete block. When they get their pupils' tests back, teachers who look below the surface of the marks to the stories underneath may be surprised at the creativity and imagination that they find there.

Dr Marian Sainsbury and Dr Frances Brill are part of the National Foundation for Educational Research team who develop the tests under contract to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Both were primary teachers before becoming researchers

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