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English in Education Vol.42 No.1 2008 DOI: 10.1111/j.1754-8845.2007.00004.


‘Personal’ and ‘critical’?
Exam criteria, engagement
with texts, and real readers’

Fiona Richards-Kamal
Our Lady’s Convent High School, Hackney

This article explores how exam criteria require pupils to engage with texts
at once ‘personally’ and ‘critically’. It theorises this dichotomy, suggesting
problems it presents in a classroom. Observing that dwindling
opportunities for creative writing impede personal engagement, it
considers the possibilities suggested by the imaginative writings of two
pupils for resolving the dichotomy.

Exam criteria, reader response, ‘licensed readings’, ‘informed readings’,
creative writing

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English in Education Vol.42 No.1 2008 ‘Personal’ and ‘critical’?

Early in my Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), a one-year
initial teacher education course for university graduates, I became
interested in what children were doing with ideas about themselves when
they related to texts. This arose out of the coincidence of two events. First,
while reading with my mixed-race 18-month-old daughter, I noticed she
pointed to the white baby in the book and said ‘Mila’ (her own name),
when reading with me (I am Caucasian) but, secondly, to the brown or
Chinese babies when reading with her father (who is half Iranian, half
Chinese). This was interesting, suggesting her perception of her own
place in the story changed according to whom she was reading with.

I also began teaching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to a Year 8
class predominated by pupils from Africa and the Caribbean. One task
was to storyboard the opening scene to tell the audience about Scrooge’s
character before he had even spoken. Taye asked, ‘Miss, can Scrooge be
Ghanaian?’ I answered, ‘Of course, why not?’ then began to consider the
implications of the question and the response. If Scrooge were Ghanaian,
in an overwhelmingly white Victorian England, the nuances and
motivations of the story would be completely changed. If he were
transplanted to Ghana, these might remain more or less intact, but the
Dickensian flavour of the work, implicitly valued by the National
Curriculum for imbuing a sense of English literary heritage, would be
utterly transformed.

More interesting were the implications of the question. Why was it so
important to this pupil that Scrooge should share his ethnicity? Ebenezer
Scrooge is hardly a character to embrace as a champion, as this particular
pupil knew, having played Scrooge in a junior school pantomime. Was
this why he asked – because he had already identified himself intimately
with the character, and needed to replicate the relationship in his reading
of the text by changing Scrooge’s ethnicity to make the fit? Or was there
another explanation?

As my PGCE year progressed, my awareness of the practical and
theoretical implications of this conundrum increased. I repeatedly heard
teachers bemoaning pupils’ inability to engage personally with texts,
their failure to tick the higher grade descriptors in National Curriculum
Key Stage 3 tests (commonly known as Standard Assessment Tests or SATs)
and General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations,
because they could not explain the effects of a text upon themselves as
readers, or conjecture why an author might have chosen to create such
effects. In short, pupils were unable to envisage a relationship between
themselves as readers, the text as the National Curriculum would have it
read, and the author, in terms sufficiently satisfying to meet the exam
criteria. Was this simply, as most teachers assumed, because the vast

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majority of pupils could not grasp that they must describe what a metaphor
or a simile made them feel or think, then make some gesture toward the
author having put it there accordingly? Or was there a more complex
problem at work – one where the exam criteria demanded pupils answer
from a readership position alien to their own reading experience?

Most pupils I encountered during my training were of mixed or non-
British ethnicity, or second generation British. Were they obliged, when
encountering texts from the National Curriculum, to make the
complicated mental accommodations to take a subject position at which
my daughter’s and my Ghanaian pupil’s examples hinted? (Even if pupils
happen to encounter a text from ‘their own’ country of origin, under the
‘texts from different cultures’ section of the curriculum, the experience of
migration means they are changed in their relation to that country’s
culture and expressions). Were the processes required for these
accommodations too complex to allow pupils to meet the additional
challenges of answering in terms demanded by the criteria, especially
since this must be done in writing?

Interestingly, pupils who had little difficulty performing the interpretive
role demanded by the exam criteria were without exception keen readers,
female, and predominantly white British, though the pupil most able to
do so was a recently arrived Afro-American girl. These pupils did not find
themselves in a more straightforward relation to the texts studied (hardly
any of the texts have female protagonists, much less Afro-American
females recently arrived in London), but through their extensive
experience of reading, they had become adept at occupying a variety of
readership positions, allowing them to engage with texts despite there
being no simple correspondence between themselves and the characters
or situations portrayed. This ability to perform different readership roles
enabled them to take on the additional role of ‘reading’ the text in the
terms required by the exam criteria. In other words, they knew how to
take on various roles demanded by the criteria and the text in ways
which their classmates, less experienced readers, were not able to do.
The flexibility to adopt varied readership positions may be linked to a
similar ability to adopt a differently inflected identity in relation to
changing cultural expectations. Tellingly, it is the twice-displaced from the
cultural majority Afro-American who is most at ease with a range of texts,
where her classmates, in a fairly uniform Afro-Caribbean British cultural
pocket of London, find it difficult to make the switch to the mainstream
British readership position demanded by the exam criteria.

The questions I wanted to ask about how pupils were to do the work
required by the National Curriculum became ‘how do pupils construct
their own interpretations, and how does this relate to what the curriculum
expects?’ and ‘how do pupils relate to the additional demands of writing

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in the way prescribed by exam criteria?’. Underlying both was the glaring,
practical question: how can I help pupils relate to the texts personally and
meaningfully for them, while still moving them toward ticking those exam
criteria boxes to achieve the grades they need?

Theoretical positioning
My thinking on pupil engagement with texts is indebted to reader-
response theory, and ideas about migration across cultures and its effect
upon identity. I believe pupils make meaning in the texts they read by
approaching them through their own histories and experiences. The
cultural mix of London schools means these approaches are often
excitingly different to anything I, or an author, could have anticipated.

In 1967, Roland Barthes attacked the idea of a traditional, exegetical style
of reading, where the reader’s role is to unlock the ‘true’ meaning put
into a text by the author. With characteristic exuberance, Barthes
proclaimed ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the
Author’. (Barthes, 1988: 172)

Barthes argued, as did other reader-response theorists from the late sixties
onward, that a text is not a stable artefact always containing the same
story, but is actualised only in the reading moment. Each reading
experience is unique because each reader is unique. The distinctive
interpretations offered by my pupils attest to this. However, Barthes’
article, ‘The Death of the Author’, was not the proclamation of liberty for
readers it seemed. His reader was not real, but ideal:

the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is
simply that someone who holds together in a single field all
the traces by which the written text is constituted.
(Barthes, 1988: 171)

For Barthes, this depersonalised, imaginary reader represents a space,
conceptually necessary to allow the free-play of language in the text; their
identity is dissolved.

Forty years later, in the wake of identity politics, championed by
postcolonial and feminist critics, it seems anathema to suggest the
possibility of reading without history, biography or sociology. Yet most
reader-response theorists still assume an ideal reader, to explain why some
interpretations are more valid than others, and safeguard the concept of
literary value. Stanley Fish imagines a reader who is ‘ideal’ or ‘informed’ –
someone who:

(1) is a competent speaker of the language out of which the text is built

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(2) is in full possession of the semantic knowledge that a mature …
listener brings to his task of comprehension, including the knowledge
(that is, the experience, both as a producer and comprehender) of
lexical sets, collocation probabilities, idioms, professional and other
dialects, and so on; and
(3) has literary competence. That is, he is sufficiently experienced as a
reader to have internalized the properties of literary discourses,
including everything from the most local of devices (figures of speech
and so on) to whole genres (Fish, 1980: 48).

The obvious objection is that no teacher finds such a reader in a
contemporary London classroom. If pupils fulfilled these criteria there
would be little left to teach them. In other words, theories of reading
which assume an ideal or informed reader do not account for the process
of reading, which happens while an individual is attempting to become
an ‘informed reader’. But, what precisely do we teach pupils to help them
become ‘informed readers’, and what assumptions are we making if we

Fish posits ‘unwritten’ knowledge of a ‘set of acceptable ways’, to
interpret a text as a social given:

Nowhere is this set of acceptable ways written down, but it is
a part of everyone’s knowledge of what it means to be
operating within the literary institution as it is now
(Fish, 1980: 343)

Who is ‘everyone’? Do my pupils have this knowledge? Not according to
their exam results – the ability to interpret in an ‘acceptable’ way is
something they are still mastering. But they do know these ways exist,
explicitly through the grade descriptors I must give them, and through
pervasive implicit expectations. Eagleton relates these expectations to
considerations of power and dominance, communicated through the

In the case of literary works, there is also sometimes a
practical situation which excludes certain readings and
licenses others, known as the teacher … Such licensed ways
of reading … relate to dominant forms of valuation and
interpretation in society as a whole.
(Eagleton, 1983: 88)

As teachers, we implicitly communicate ways of reading acceptable to
dominant forms of interpretation, which in London schools are often
different to the ways pupils and their communities interpret the world.

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We also explicitly communicate how one reads in order to achieve
success at SAT and GCSE level, making Fish’s ‘unwritten’ knowledge
concrete, itemised, and intrusive. The power differential involved in
reading is clear – if you read ‘incorrectly’, the authority of the teacher and
the examining board will penalise you.

A cursory glance through GCSE marking criteria shows the weight given
to the ability to engage personally with a text, and to express it, in
writing, in terms acceptable to the ‘licensed ways of reading’ of the
examining community. Strikingly, in the following sample of grade
descriptors, personal response is necessary for all grades above not, as
one might expect, a C, but an F; i.e. one grade above the absolute
bottom, a G (U is ungraded). While reading these, it is fruitful to consider
what sort of personal response one has when not ‘a competent speaker of
the language’, or ‘in full possession of … semantic knowledge’ of the
culture in which the text was written.

A*: Candidates show originality of analysis and
interpretation when evaluating the moral, philosophical and
social significance of a text.
C: Candidates give a personal and critical response to
literary texts, which show understanding of the ways in
which meaning is conveyed.
Grade F and above: Candidates make a personal response
(AQA, 2007: 56-57)

There is a clear, unacknowledged, contradiction between a ‘personal’ and
a ‘critical’ response. This is true for me, an academic, home-grown white
Briton, nationalised for generations. My personal response to Joanne
Harris’s novels is to devour them as guilty pleasures, like the chocolate or
alcohol which are their motifs; guilty because my critical response is they
contain crude plot lines and characterisations, sloppy phraseology, and an
indulgently romantic tone. I can rationalise this difference with a range of
critical manoeuvres; my pupils cannot yet explain such a misfit to
themselves or the exam board.

Problematically for my pupils, both Fish’s and Eagleton’s explanations,
and the exam criteria, assume they are part of a coherent, ‘whole’ society.
How else could the grade descriptor invoke so simplistically the (singular)
‘moral philosophy’ or ‘social significance’ of a text? The word ‘originality’
implies some freedom of interpretation, but what in reality would this
mean to a pupil who refused to comment on sexual connotations in
Duffy’s ‘Anne Hathaway’, on the grounds they are semi-pornographic and
inappropriate for a religious person, let alone a child below the legal age

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of sexual consent, to write about? This is a perfectly defensible moral
position, but if they did so in an exam they would score poorly.

I have already mentioned the pupils in my first placement, whose
experience of British society suggested it was mostly made up of British
Afro-Caribbeans, just like themselves. (They were stunned to discover,
during a media project, that the majority of British people are white).
At my second placement, most pupils were British-Pakistani, their
experiences, expectations and moral universes differing vastly from their
counterparts a short bus ride away. Neither group was part of the
mainstream white community that dominates the production and
reception of texts in Britain.

Naidoo asserts: ‘reading material conflicting with a reader’s world view is
liable to be misinterpreted, with readers being highly selective in their
interpretation’ (Naidoo, 1992: 18). A pupil whose world view is different
to the mainstream is less likely to find its correlative in set texts, placing
them at greater risk of ‘misinterpreting’ texts, or producing ‘unacceptable’
readings. Applying reader-response theory to pupils learning to engage
with texts, Karolides agrees, listing things which can ‘go wrong’ and
prevent a pupil from reading and commenting in Eagleton’s ‘licensed’

The situations, characters, or issues may be outside the
maturational-experiential scope of the reader, the language
may be beyond the recognition or experience of the reader,
and the reader may use ineffective reading strategies.
(Karolides, 1997: 8-9)

If a reader needs an adequate ‘maturational-experiential’ range in order to
imaginatively engage with a text, how are pupils in British schools to
draw upon their differing experiences and knowledge to produce the
normative, ‘valid’ readings expected of them?

In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie makes visible the implicit assumptions of
reading when his character Gibreel arrives in London to find it ‘dressed in
white, like a mourner at a funeral’ (Rushdie, 1992: 200). The Indian
tradition of funereal mourning in white is out of place in this London, and
the symbolic jarring with the customary English white wedding is
disturbing. Communicating the displacement Gibreel feels, Rushdie effects
that sense of dislocation in his mainstream British readers, giving them, for
a moment, the feeling of being out of place he implies is perpetual to a
migrant in Britain. Is this kind of jarring what pupils, who have not yet
assimilated the ‘correct’ reading strategies, experience every time they read
a text?

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Reader-response theory offers a way to imagine texts as actualised
through the experience of individual readers. It also posits the idea of
interpretive communities with ‘licensed ways of reading’; implying part of
learning to read is learning to operate within these acceptable structures.
It gives us a way to understand how pupils begin to make meaning when
they read, and also how they must begin to encounter the ‘licensed ways
of reading’ which will allow their reading to count. It does not tell us how
these contradictory skills are to be reconciled. Let us meet individual
readers, and see how they began to take on the challenge.

Real readers’ responses

Melody, Year 71
In my second school placement, I wondered whether giving pupils the
opportunity to play author would improve the confidence of their
personal responses, and give them insight into how writers attempt to
control interpretations. My school had detailed and prescriptive schemes
of work, and I noticed Year 7 offered a lot of imaginative, creative work,
which tailed off by Year 9, with Year 10 allowing only one piece of
creative writing, and scant opportunity for imaginative engagement with
texts. This coincided with a greater enthusiasm for the subject in Year 7
pupils, and more prolific writing.

Melody, a Nigerian pupil, flagged on the register for those with English as
an additional language, and identified by the class teacher as weak in her
command of English, showed the ease with which she could engage with
certain texts. During a project called ‘Myself’, the class were to re-tell a
fairytale with themselves in the main role. Melody gave me three–and-a-
half pages of typewritten story, plotted to perfection, complete with
markers like ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’ in their rightful
places, and with digitally manipulated illustrations. Although the
protagonist in her version of Cinderella was not called Melody, there is
no doubt she made the story entirely her own:

The prince’s name is Alex he replied ‘I won’t tell if u won’t
please stand up a woman with your beauty shouldn’t be
kneeling on the ground’ thank you by the way my name is
Rosella you’re your highness. Alex said that is a marvelous
name and for an amazing looking lady like you and please
is Alex not your highness. Rosella heard her name being
called by her step mum she said ‘have to go Alex’. Alex said
can we meet up some where please and she said ‘ok bye’
So rosella run into the house so happy and excited.

All students have been given pseudonyms.

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Melody scripts this first meeting with a fantastic ear for the flattery of
confident men. Her heroine is properly deferential and, after Alex sets an
informal register by asking her not to call him ‘your highness’, she
switches faultlessly to a more familiar tone: ‘have to go Alex’. This
mastery of register and dialogue is far in advance of her ability to use
speechmarks or punctuation correctly, but is a more sophisticated skill.

She is not simply ‘good orally, weak on paper’; her knowledge of the
broad structure of fairytale is undeniably sound, as is her ability to
structure a long linear narrative. She has an emerging understanding of
how to set out speech on a page, and although her punctuation and
grammar falter sometimes, she largely avoids tense-slippage. The instance,
‘the prince’s name is Alex he replied’, possibly derives from
understandable logical confusion – his name, presumably, is still Alex so
she uses the continuous present, but he spoke in the past.

The other instance, ‘run’, is a marker of Melody’s incomplete assimilation
of Standard English. We have visual evidence of her grammatical
progress, though, in her replacement of ‘you’re’ with ‘your’, which proves
not only her ability to self-edit, but that she is not, as may appear,
thinking in an exclusively oral mode. In other words she has begun to
produce written speech, which differs from oral speech not only in form,
but the thought processes which enable it. My understanding of this is
nascent. I was intrigued by Vygotsky’s assertion that,

Written speech is a separate linguistic function, differing
from oral speech in both structure and mode of functioning.
Even its minimal development requires a high level of
abstraction. It is speech in thought and image only.
(Vygotsky, 1962: 98 cited in Kerr, 2006: 6)

What this might mean for the mental processes Melody is beginning to
master, is fascinating.

Melody also has a sound understanding of the tidy justice of fairytales,
and is able to translate this to a contemporary setting:

And rosella’s step mum went to women’s prison for two
years and Julie and Sam became servants and Prince Alex
and princess Rosella lived happily ever after.

She might not yet be Stanley Fish’s fully ‘informed’ reader at the level of
language, but her ‘semantic knowledge’ is impressive. She also
understands ‘dialects’, and most impressively of all, we can make a case
for her ‘literary competence’; she has ‘internalised the properties of
literary discourses … from the most local of devices (figures of speech

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and so on) to whole genres’ (Fish, 1980: 48). This is certainly true of
fairytales, and as we moved on to the next project, her aptitude for
gaining broad-scale literary competence became apparent.

Pupils were working towards writing their first assessed essay. I asked
them to write a concluding verse for Ahlberg’s poem, ‘The Mad
Professor’s Daughter’, as a preface to commenting on the effect of devices
they had used themselves. We had begun by identifying different ways to
make a poem scary by using scary atmosphere words. Melody explained
why she had used the word ‘disappear’.

I wanted to create an exciting atmosphere by using the word
‘dissapear’ to make my reader imagine a scary picture of
someone just dissappearing without anyone knowing why.

It is clear Melody understands how words work upon the imagination to
create ‘pictures’, and how mystery can be used to create excitement. She
knows enough of how readers engage with texts to appreciate the
importance of leaving gaps in the story, allowing room for the reader to
attempt their own interpretations. She gained this knowledge through
personal engagement with reading and writing: had I asked her simply to
write about how Ahlberg uses scary techniques in the poem, she would
have found it difficult.

Critical reading and creative writing
‘I firmly believe there is no distinction between creative and critical
writing.’ Paul Muldoon, Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, is
quoted by Jenny Lewis to champion her work with undergraduates,
where ‘the creative and the critical are encouraged to enhance one
another’ (Lewis and Newlyn, 2003: x). If the critical reading skills of
Oxford undergraduates benefit from creative writing exercises, it seems
odd that opportunities for creative writing reduce as pupils progress
through secondary school.

I noticed some pupils in Year 10 writing less confidently than those in
Year 7 with comparable abilities because, I believe, of the lack of
opportunities for creative engagement on the one hand, and the limitation
of personal engagement by the need to adopt a ‘validated’ readership
role, performed in writing, in relation to marking criteria, on the other.
Part of this is no doubt due to problems specific to writing, but as
Melody’s writing, and that of other more challenged pupils shows, the
mechanics of writing are not necessarily a bar to taking pleasure in

My in-school mentor phrased the problem succinctly: ‘you wouldn’t give a
kid a car manual and expect them to be able to fix an engine; you’d give

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them an engine to play about with themselves’. By the time pupils reach
Year 10, we expect them to work with ‘manual’ terms for literature,
mostly getting them to label the bits, and then wonder why they can’t
explain how the engine of a text works, or how it feels to drive it.

Haroun, Year 10
I decided to give my Year 10 pupils the opportunity to engage creatively
with a text without taking on the additional role of ‘informed reader’, that
is without thinking in terms of exam criteria. They had to write a
paragraph on how Dickens uses surrealism to communicate emotion in
Great Expectations (it is beyond the scope of this article to consider
whether this proposition is valid), so I set an ‘automatic writing’ task
designed to teach some concepts of surrealism. I began by showing some
examples of surrealist art. Then, before moving into the task, I explained
to the pupils that some surrealists practised automatic writing; that is, to
write and keep writing without thinking about it, letting their hand move
almost on its own, in order to get in touch with their subconscious mind
and emotions. I also told them this is the way some songwriters work.
I wanted to see if encountering the text in this extremely raw and direct
way would allow pupils to engage with it creatively, and write about it

The responses were astonishingly frank, and I felt enormously humbled
by my pupils’ trust. I told them I would read what they had written, but
not mark it. I also said they could write whatever came into their heads,
even if it was in a language other than English, or involved swearing.
(Space does not allow the consideration of a wonderfully entertaining
piece of writing by a British-Turkish pupil, which is bilingual, illustrated,
and in places profane.)

Haroun was a quiet pupil with a poor attendance record. When he
showed up, he always had a smile, and seemed pleased to be noticed.
He kept his distance from other members of the class, choosing to sit at
the far corner of the room nearest the door. I asked pupils to write about
the last time they were angry:

I was angry because th I was getting bullied I wante tried
everything. I fought back I told the teacher but I was
outnumber I got chased home not by one not by two but by
3 I s eventually lost all m mu sp f I forgot that I was in
reality I eventually f started on all those who opposed me I
felt my anger my rage my lust for revenge I wanted to mud
murder them I saw the Images of me mude mud murdering
them In the most gruesome way I know knew how It was in
my old home town Newcastle.

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From the first scoring out, where Haroun decides to replace a possible
‘there’, ‘they’ or ‘the’ with the far more vulnerable and direct ‘I’, he has
taken on the challenge of the task – opening his emotions and memories
into his writing. This is something he was not able to do in his mock
exam paper, where he assumed the safe, ‘validated’ role of making points
dictated by the class teacher, and consequently scored poorly on personal

He edits his thoughts in order to communicate them more clearly,
showing he, too, is operating with written, not oral, speech.
Consequently, there is a clear sense of an implied reader, whom Haroun
wishes to influence. He replaces ‘wanted’ with ‘tried’, perhaps to set the
psychological scene before addressing his desire. Indeed, what he ‘wants’
turns out to be quite shocking, and his choice shows a sophisticated
attempt to provoke empathy before ‘confessing’. He manages to achieve
this stage-setting without stepping back from the immediacy and honesty
of his recollection, as we see in the next line: crossings-out proliferate as
emotion gets the better of him, and he finally explains ‘I forgot that I was
in reality’.

The build up of ‘not one not two but 3’, with the final digit in number
form, as the speed of the chase overtakes him, is another masterly device,
increasing the tension as the reader takes the position of the chased boy,
anxiously hurtling forward through the text to discover just how many
assailants are after him. Like Melody, Haroun clearly knows how a reader
experiences a text, and is able to manipulate this. Falling out of reality for
a moment, he gives us some idea of time passing while he pulls himself
together (‘eventually’), then proclaims his authority with formal and grand
language, ‘started on all those who opposed me’. He has redrawn the
relationship, and is now the one in control.

Haroun underscores this new sense of control, by choosing rhetorical
language to control his reader. He uses a ‘list of three’; something he
almost certainly could not identify in a studied text, but here deploys with
aplomb to add emphasis and heighten emotion: ‘my anger, my rage, my
lust for revenge’. The rhythm mimics a fistfight, with a precision worthy
of Ali. He repeats ‘my’, to emphasise his centrality, gaining momentum as
he follows it first with the quick one-two of a trochee, then a
monosyllabic uppercut before linking the final monosyllable ‘lust’ with the
bacchius ‘for revenge’, where the initial unstressed beat ‘for’ is like a
pause for breath before the final knock-out double whammy of ‘revenge’.

He slows the pace for the shocking, but prosaically stated, ‘I wanted to
murder them,’ but needs two attempts to write the appalling word.
Rallying, he distances and makes safe the emotion by clearly designating
it imaginary, and placing himself both within the imagined scene and

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safely outside it as an onlooker: ‘I saw images of me.’ He still has to
have three attempts before he can write himself a murderer, even in this
most ring-fenced of depictions. Finally, he inserts another distancing
mechanism, changing the immediacy of ‘know’ for ‘knew’, and adding
the matter of fact ending ‘it was in my old home town Newcastle’, as if
reminding himself of his temporal and spatial distance from this

Had I asked Haroun to write about techniques an author might use to
communicate a frightening memory and arouse strong empathy and
complex emotions in a reader, he would have protested he didn’t
understand. However, his work shows a remarkable understanding of
how to communicate emotion, motive, and suspense; and an instinctive
knowledge of how to manipulate reading pace, and different
psychological distances. None of these are things he could identify in a
text, if given a list of terms and definitions. When he is the author
communicating something he can picture vividly, and his reader has
explicitly taken away the hurdles of validation (‘I won’t be marking this’),
he is able to utilise them powerfully. How useful was this exercise in
giving him the confidence to enter someone else’s text as an equal, and
critical, maker of meaning?

I continued by asking pupils to write about the last time they were
happy, and Haroun wrote about his mother, and his extended family,
who ‘used to teach me how to become strong’. I then asked them to
imagine they were entering Miss Havisham’s room, and write about what
they saw and felt:

I hear nothing but my own foot-steps and my heard the
candle light crackeling I all I smell is decay & a rotting
coarpse. All I see in the conne corner is an a woman who
appears to be in her 50 years.
Ther as I go to check I Miss havisham I notice that she is
crying and I go to touch her face I feel more her smooth
complection and a Deep wrinkles wrinkly face And her dark
brown eyes I saw her It made me feel sorry because she was
preparing for death.

Has Haroun imaginatively engaged with the text? Emphatically so. Is he,
though, able to offer a ‘valid’ interpretation of it? If we return to the GCSE
marking criteria (AQA, 2007) for how successful is he?

We can certainly note that he has ‘made a personal response’. He also
understands ‘the way meaning is conveyed’. His interpretation is original
and compelling. Has he responded critically? I would argue he has begun
to. ‘It made me feel sorry because she was preparing for death’; a clear

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explanation of the text’s effect on the reader – himself. Does he begin to
understand how Dickens set up this effect?

He has absorbed much detail from the original text – not only the
candlelight, which he both sees and hears, but the tomb-like emptiness of
Miss Havisham’s room, in which his own footsteps are the only other
noise. This emptiness is accentuated by his choice of language, which
continually reduces; ‘nothing but’, ‘all I smell’, ‘all I see’. He has also
absorbed Dickens’ extended metaphor of Miss Havisham as an already-
dead body, but Haroun focuses on the process of death, which he finds
ongoing in the room: ‘decay’, ‘rotting’.

He switches paragraphs and perspectives, surprising us, after his funereal
preamble, with a living, breathing Miss Havisham, who still feels enough
to cry. He touches her face (is there a more powerful instance of a reader
engaging with a text?), looks into her eyes, and sees with precision what
the previous description has led up to: ‘she was preparing for death’.
This astutely anticipates three chapters ahead, when Pip visits Miss
Havisham on her birthday:

‘When the ruin is complete,’ said she, with a ghastly look,
‘and when they lay me dead, in my bride’s dress on the
bride’s table – which shall be done, and which will be the
finished curse upon him – so much the better if it is done on
this day!’
(Dickens, 1861: 84)

Bridal dress, arrested decay, seclusion: all are part of the ‘curse’ Miss
Havisham is preparing for her faithless fiancé, which will be completed
with her death. Haroun detected this momentum. But is he able to write
critically, take on the role of ‘informed reader’, offer a ‘valid reading?
He has used and responded sensitively to writing techniques, but has not
explicitly identified any of them. Let us examine his beginning response
for his formal article:

‘She seemed to be everywhere.’ He sees this because he
becomes intimidated and falls in love, but these emotions
are to [sic] powerful for him because he is only a ten year
old boy.

It is brief, because Haroun still finds this kind of writing difficult.
He called me over several times while writing it, to check if his idea was
correct, and rehearse orally what he was going to write. The intimidating
presence of those exam board ‘licensed ways of reading’ was palpable to
us both. But he has identified a passable example of surrealism (a difficult
achievement), and written an ‘original’ account of what it tells us about

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Pip’s complex emotions. His account is psychologically sensitive – Pip’s
age makes him unequal to this emotional complexity and so his
experience of reality is distorted and becomes ‘surreal’.

What is missing is an account of Dickens choosing this phrase in order to
affect his reader. Having engaged intimately with the text, Haroun is not yet
able to step back to a position of critical detachment, which would allow
him to construct such an account. I now see how I could begin to help him
reach this position, by looking at his own work, making explicit his
knowledge of how a text works on a reader, and then working with him to
transfer this to another writer’s words. Seeing how he has done this himself
would do more than show him techniques and effects in language he can
understand; it would give him power over the text, and go a little way to
help him vanquish the bogey of those ‘licensed ways of reading’.

He has already made the language, the semantic nexus, and the
experiences of Great Expectations his own, by drawing upon his own
struggles, his own floundering beneath the weight of a complex of
emotions so powerful they made him, for a moment, ‘forget he was in
reality’. Without prompting, he selected this most appropriate memory as
a means to responding, first to the humiliated and vengeful Miss
Havisham, then to the emotionally overwhelmed Pip. To return to
Rushdie, writing about Indian writers writing in English:

Those of us who do use English do so in spite of our
ambiguity towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps
because we can find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of
other struggles taking place in the real world, struggles
between the cultures within ourselves and the influences at
work upon our societies. To conquer English may be to
complete the process of making ourselves free.
(Rushdie, 1991: 17)

This article has explored how exam criteria require pupils to engage with
texts in a split, and often-contradictory way, using propositions from
reader-response critics to theorise the dichotomy, and suggests some
problems it presents in a multicultural classroom. On the way, it has
touched upon assumptions and power relations implicit in the idea of
‘licensed’ or ‘informed’ readings.

Practical considerations arising include how opportunities for creative
writing are minimised as pupils move though secondary school, and the
negative effects of this upon their motivation and ability to engage
personally with texts. This drain on creativity has implications beyond the
classroom. In September 2002, announcing a £40 million investment by

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the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in programmes to link
creative activity to the curricula in schools, Peter Jenkinson asserted
‘Reconnecting with the innate skills of creativity … will lead to… a
workforce more attuned to the requirements of 21st century society’
(Lewis and Newlyn, 2003: x). In stark opposition to this, my experience of
teaching in London suggests a culture of reading and writing to fulfil
exam criteria has all but destroyed opportunities for creative engagement
with texts. This, if Mr Jenkinson is correct, can only be a bad thing for
21st century society.

However, as my reading of individual pupils’ work attests, creativity is
alive and well, despite the gravest machinations of exam boards. Not so
well is the ‘informed’, or critically distanced reader, but working with
Melody and Haroun suggests s/he might yet be saved like Tinkerbell, if
we clap our hands loudly and say we believe in creative writing. Then,
we need space for pupils to stand back from their own writing and think
explicitly, with teacher support, about what they were doing. This, I
believe, is the next step towards being able to comment critically upon
what other writers are doing, and why. I now plan opportunities for this
kind of reflection in my teaching.

Given the unsavoury assumptions about power and cultural dominance
implicit in the idea of ‘licensed’ readings, I wondered whether it was
necessary for Haroun and Melody to take the final step to becoming
‘informed’ readers. Isn’t such a transformation tantamount to assimilation;
brainwashing? My conclusion is that without good GCSEs, the implicit
power relations of British culture will impact upon them in terms of
employment prospects; and more insidiously. In the course of this article,
I have evaluated their writing using a host of critical terms to make claims
for their abilities, and make these count in the terms of powerful
institutions like exam boards. It may not be fair that claims have to be
staked in these terms to be valuable, but given that they do, Haroun and
Melody deserve the critical tools to stake them for themselves.

AQA (2007) GCSE English Specification A,
pdf/AQA-3702-W-SP-07.PDF (accessed 21.11.07).
Barthes, R. (1967, repr.1988) ‘The death of the author’, in D. Lodge (ed.)
Modern criticism and theory: A reader. London: Longman.
Dickens, C. (1861, repr. 1994) Great expectations. London: Penguin.
Eagleton, T. (1983) Literary theory: An introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Fish, S. (1980) Is there a text in this class? The authority of interpretive
communities. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Karolides, N. J. (1997) Reader response in elementary classrooms. New
Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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Fiona Richards-Kamal English in Education Vol.42 No.1 2008

Kerr, P. (2006) ‘Finding a voice – exploring the relationship between
speaking and writing with a Year 7 class’, Changing English, 13(1),
pp. 3–16.
Lewis, J. and Newlyn, L. (2003) Synergies: Creative writing in academic
practice. Oxford: Chough Publications.
Naidoo, B. (1992) Through whose eyes? Exploring racism: Reader, text and
context. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.
Rushdie, S. (1991) Imaginary homelands: Articles and criticism 1981-
1991. London: Granta.
Rushdie, S. (1992) The satanic verses. Delaware: The Consortium Inc.
Vygotsky, L. (1962) cited in P. Kerr (2006) ‘Finding a voice: Exploring the
relationship between speaking and writing with a Year 7 class’,
Changing English, 13(1), pp. 3–16.

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