Talking, Reading and Writing about Fiction Texts
Author(s): James McGonigal, Andrew Philp
Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material
In this paper, the intention is to consider the learning involved in working with fictional texts (which mainly involve the 5-14 strands of reading for enjoyment and/or to reflect upon the writer’s ideas and craft; and personal/imaginative writing). Non-fictional texts (involving functional writing and reading for information/awareness of genre) are dealt with in Position Papers 6 and 7.
1. Discussing fiction texts in the classroom.
Reading for Meaning.
Often when we come to teach poems or stories to children, we fall back on memories of how we ourselves were taught: ‘What does this word mean?’ ‘What is interesting or unusual about that word?’ ‘Which words rhyme?’ and so on. The poem or story becomes a sort of quiz, with limited time to explore what the text means, and where its meanings come from.
A better way is to see the reading of any poem (or story, or chapter, or article, or whatever) not as a quiz but as a quest – a quest for meaning: What is the writer trying to tell us here? What clues to his/her intention can we find in the words he/she has woven together in order to create this particular text, and this particular effect on us as we read? Teacher and pupils can then explore texts together, discussing the impact of the words, and the feelings and thoughts these words evoke in the reader.
Words never occur in isolation, but are chosen and combined by the writer to create such effects. Before discussing any text with children, either to focus on aspects of the writer’s craft or of his/her chosen genre, it is important for the teacher to be aware of how choices are working together to create particular effects on the reader. This approach is outlined in Booklet A in the following way:
The four broad areas of language choice.
There are four broad areas of written language where choices happen:
LEXIS - vocabulary: words and meanings
GRAMMAR - types and combinations of sentences, clauses and phrases
PHONOLOGY - patterns of sound, repeated or emphasised
TYPOGRAPHY - layout, typeface, punctuation and pictures
Lexis operates in terms of broad patterns of word choices which have effects on the reader, rather than as set structures (as grammar does), e.g. words repeated, often with slight variations; choices of similar or contrasting words.
The words chosen may have specific connotations which create a particular effect or impression for the reader, e.g. words chosen may create a ghostly atmosphere, or introduce a particular bias on the topic, or they may be neutral, suggesting an objective or scientific viewpoint.
Lexical sets are series of words occurring through a text which have similar connotations. These sets can create particular atmospheres or impressions, or they can be related to a particular topic or field. Lexical sets often also have a cohesive effect, ‘holding a text together’, e.g. dark, deathly, eerie, hushed, nervous all combine to create a feeling of tension and fear – good words for a horror story! Similarly, innings, wicket, crease, leg side, medium-pace bowler relate to the topic of cricket and their use builds up an authentic sense of that topic in a text.
The words chosen may be words that frequently go together, or ‘collocate’. These may be usual or common collocations, or they may be startling, e.g. metaphors, personifications and other ‘figures of speech’, which all combine words in a surprising way, so as to create very vivid word pictures or lively language. Unusual or ‘deviant’ collocations are striking or paradoxical combinations of words that have a particular effect upon the reader, e.g. ‘Their headstones march beside me’; ‘a silent echo’ (as in the Whispers in the Graveyard extract in Booklet A).
Writers create meaning through
a. The structures of noun phrases and verb phrases – building these up to create detail or density in the noun and verb elements which carry the central meaning of the sentence, or simplifying the structure to create a pointed or stark effect.
b. The structure of clauses – more or less complex ways of binding elements of the meaning together in one sentence. Changes in the word order of the elements of the clause, that is variation in the theme or first element, create a range of stylistic effects in a text. Repetition of features can also create stylistic effects in a text. This is frequently seen in texts for young children where the repetition also serves to reinforce the words or phrases used. It can also be seen in poems such as The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, where the Iron Man’s hunger for metal is emphasised: ‘He ate, ate, ate, endlessly’.
c. The types of sentences, whether statement or question or command or exclamation or minor sentence, also have an impact on meaning and tone.
Writers convey meaning by using aspects of the language’s sound-system for special effects. Phonology subsumes various ‘figures of speech’ or ‘tricks’ of writing relating to its sound when read aloud, and these can help bring the text to life.
• alliteration – repetition of consonant sounds
• assonance – repetition of vowel sounds
• rhyme – full rhyme (start, part)
• half rhyme or part rhyme – (hart, hurt)
• rhythm – regular patterns of stress
• onomatopoeia – sounds enact the sense.
Writers create meaning by the way in which they present their text visually. In this multi-media age, the sophisticated visual presentation of printed texts has assumed much greater importance.
We should consider the importance of
• layout on the page
• use of pictures/other illustrations
• punctuational devices
• size of print and typeface/font being used.
2. Teaching a text
Before teaching a poem or story the teacher should explore for herself what the key meaning of the text appears to be, and also what the writer has chosen to do with the words and other patterns of language in order to lead the reader to that conclusion.
Explorations of this kind should also provide good models for the children, as beginning writers, of how real writers work, and this should help them to write more effectively themselves in specific contexts and genres.
Then, remembering to give time for the children to hear the text read and re-read, and to think and talk about it, the closer quest for meaning can begin. This should not be done in a line-by-line series of closed questions, but in a sort of conversation with the text and with each other about the impact it makes, and how it does so.
Because good conversations are not usually predetermined, the order in which the language elements of texts will be explored will vary. But, over all, this sort of text-centred exploration will involve pupils in learning about how writers make words work together (in the areas of lexis, grammar, phonology and typography). It will also involve them in a variety of 5-14 strands. The teacher should not, of course, try to hit all those 5-14 targets with one machine-gun-like lesson. Rather, the focus should be carefully selected and the activities so organised that a deeper and more satisfactory sharing of the text can take place, in which both pupils and teacher can learn from each other's responses.
How a fiction text works
Consider, as an example, how the following text works on us as we read it.
[NOTE: Extract here from 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' by Roald Dahl]
All four areas of patterning combine in this passage to create a frenetic atmosphere of speed, excitement and urgency. This combination can be seen in the first sentence, which begins the paragraph with a command, ‘Switch on the lights’, and the lexical choice ‘shouted’; the punctuation feature, exclamation mark, also suggest urgency. This effect is continued into the second sentence, where the choice of ‘suddenly’ to suggest the speed of response is supported by the connective ‘and’, which suggests a very close link; also, the variation in the expected order, ‘suddenly on came the lights’, creates an effect of suddenness and urgency.
The sense of speed which pervades the passage is conveyed by a set of words and phrases indicating speed, or shortage of time: ‘very fast’, ‘rowing like mad’, ‘rocketing along’, ‘furious pace’, ‘faster and faster still’, ‘whizzing’, ‘flashed’, ‘just enough time’, ‘there’s no time’.
The excited, almost frenetic behaviour of Mr Wonka is suggested in another set, which also adds to the overall effect of speed and urgency: ‘shouted’, ‘jumping up and down’, ‘calling’, ‘clapped his hands’, ‘laughed’, ‘kept glancing’, ‘shouted’. In fact, the use of ‘shouted’ and ‘cried’ (twice each) by the various characters who speak all contributes to the urgent, excited mood.
There is also a lexical set which suggests extremes and this perhaps adds to the exciting, larger-than-life atmosphere being experienced by Charlie on the chocolate river: ‘brilliantly lit up’, ‘gigantic’, ‘great’ (upward curving wall), ‘pure white’, ‘spotlessly clean’, ‘flowing very fast’ (this overlaps with the ‘speed’ set). Moreover there is a set of colours indicated (‘white’, ‘pink’, ‘green’, ‘violet’), and also a set of sweet foods (‘chocolate’, and ‘all the creams’ – except ‘hair cream’), which all add to the reader’s impression of the attractive, exotic place which Charlie is visiting.
There are also various unusual collocations in the passage but these only relate to actual features of the setting observed by Charlie; they do not create an individual perception or attitude, as might be found in a passage for older children, such as "Whispers in the Graveyard" (‘silent echo’, ‘headstones march’, etc.). The unusual collocations here are ‘river of chocolate’, ‘white tunnel’, ‘pink boat’, ‘chocolate river’. The noun phrases on the notice on the storeroom (in block capitals) are perhaps all normal collocations, except for ‘violet cream’ – and the phrase ‘hair cream’ does not go with the others, as Mike Teavee immediately points out.
We have seen in the introduction above the use of commands to create a sense of urgency, seen also in ‘Row on!’ and ‘Look, Grandpa!’ The narrative is mainly conveyed in terms of past-tense statements, and, apart from ‘as’ and ‘if’, the only connective used, for either sentence cohesion or clause linkage, is ‘and’. This constant use of ‘and’ creates a repetitive, ‘breathless’ effect, in keeping with the frenzied mood of the passage and it is also found connecting the verbs in ‘clapped his hands and laughed and kept glancing’, to create the same manic effect. ‘And’ is also used rather unusually in ‘It was a green door and it was set into the wall of the tunnel’, where ‘a green door which was set…’ might have been expected. This use of this conjunction also seems to give the effect of a series of fleeting sense-impressions that the more controlled-seeming ‘which’ might not have achieved.
The use of exclamation marks at the end of shouted commands or comments creates an excited, urgent mood in the passage. Mike Teavee, untypically, uses questions, but his first excited, sceptical question is indicated by the use of italics (‘Hair cream?’).
These typographical features all have implications for the phonology, in that they indicate how the passage should be read aloud at this point. Yet the use of block capitals for the storeroom notice is different in that it suggests to the reader how the notice looked; it also helps to create for the reader the sense of immediacy which is conveyed throughout the passage.
The use of clauses and sentences linked by ‘and’, together with the strings of phrases – noun, verb and prepositional – throughout, creates an exciting, pacy, rhythm (e.g. through a white tunnel in a pink boat on a chocolate river or to see if they were enjoying it as much as he [was enjoying it]).
As was mentioned above, the use of exclamation marks and italics also suggests how we might read aloud the dialogue in the passage, which is a phonological aspect of this written text.
3. Possible strategies for encouraging discussion of the text.
This exploration of the text works at the adult level of preparation for teaching. But the teaching itself will involve other strategies, including questioning, that aim to encourage discussion of the text in order to alert young readers to how the words are ‘behaving’. This enables some terminology to be used to help them to ‘fix’ or label a technique, for ease of reference or imitation. Questions which might encourage such discussion are:
(a) What was going on in this part of the story?
(b) What was it like to be on the boat in the tunnel? What is the main feeling you get from reading the passage? (a and b are obviously general orientation questions, leading to the pupils’ discussion of the impressions or effects created by the passage. They lead to a closer focus on how these impressions or effects are created.)
(c) How do we know Mr. Wonka was so excited? (So we can either focus on the effect and ask how it was created, or focus on the language choice and ask what the effect seems to be.)
(d) Why do you think so many sentences start with ‘and’?
(e) Look at ‘a white tunnel in a pink boat on a chocolate river’. Do you find anything interesting or unusual about these phrases?
(f) Why is the part about the storeroom notice written in big capitals?
As an alternative to focusing on a particular piece of language in the passage, we could provide the pupils with an alternative version to it and ask them to compare the two versions, thereby noticing how the effects are created by the writer's version, for instance, ‘And suddenly, on came the lights’ could be compared with ‘The lights came on suddenly’.
It is also possible to set up an exploration of a text without asking direct questions at all:
(g) Look at the list of creams. Pick out the ‘odd-man-out’ and say why you picked it.
(h) I want you to pick out examples of words and phrases connected with speed and movement. Then I'd like you to say how these words make us feel.
(i) Compare the characters of Mike Teavee and Charlie. Write down what you think the main differences between them are.
(j) List all the different kinds of print you see in the passage. Try to say why each one has been used.
(k) I like the way Roald Dahl uses colours here ........
Finally, we might move on to aspects of characterisation arising in the passage, thus:
(l) How does Mike Teavee feel about Mr. Wonka making hair cream? How do you know?
(m) What kind of boy do you think Mike Teavee is?
(n) What more have you learned from this passage about the kind of person Willie Wonka is?
(1) Pupils could write the letter which Charlie might have written back to his other grandparents about his adventure that day on the chocolate river.
(2) They could create an alternative notice for a set of creams which the storeroom might contain, following the same kinds of collocational tendencies, with at least one questionable combination and one ‘odd-man-out’.
(3) Most important, they should be asked to use the same kinds of language devices, to create a similar exciting and urgent atmosphere, but within a different context. This might be an account of
• the frantic last five minutes of a cup final (of a sport of their choice)
• an exciting roller-coaster ride, with an enthusiastic, or a terrified, friend or relative
• a school relay race, where someone almost drops the baton but catches it and then overtakes the leaders.
(4) They could create an illustration of the journey along the chocolate river, trying to follow as closely as possible the narrative and descriptive details in the text.
Strategies for Involving Pupils with Texts
As has already been implied by the various suggestions for activities related to the text above, there is a variety of strategies which teachers can use for involving pupils in exploring the language of texts, other than through teacher-pupil discussion. Position Paper 5, How do we teach Knowledge about Language?, describes some of these. With this particular text, we might consider the following:
• Many texts can be presented in two different formats, such as the conventional verse layout and the slanted one for the poem ‘Shower’ in Booklet A. What alternative layout might there be for this passage (consider the list, or the conversation) and what difference would that make to its impact?
• Cloze procedure can be used to focus on particular effects created in the text; for instance the teacher could delete some of the members of the lexical sets in the "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" extract, thus focusing children’s attention on the clues provided by the rest of the lexical set – and on the nature of lexical sets.
• An alternative text could be created by substituting the members of the ‘speed’ set for words with ‘slow’ connotations (e.g. flashed/drifted past). The pupils can then be asked to speed up the passage and find equivalents, and can finally compare their altered version with the original.
• The text can be transformed into a different version, such as an eye-witness commentary on the voyage on the chocolate river. This particular example would mainly involve converting past into present tense.
• The text can profitably be compared with a similar but different one; for example, the river journey here could be compared with more leisurely descriptions in Mark Twain’s "Tom Sawyer" or "Huckleberry Finn".
• In various novels the necessary focus on details of a particular place makes it useful to encourage pupils in groups to create a map of the setting. Similarly, a scene with a distinctive action and setting, as here, can usefully lead to the creation of an illustration based closely upon the actual details in the text.
Through such active involvement with text and meanings, young readers develop increasing confidence and maturity in their sense of how texts work. Because such activities create contexts in which technical terms can be used naturally and relevantly, Knowledge about Language expands to meet their growing awareness.
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Talking, Reading and Writing about Fiction Texts. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 29 November 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=499.
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