I’ve been working with a group of pupils in Year 11 whose aspirational targets, at the moment to them, seem a little distant. I’ve got six lessons with them to make some difference, and I can’t help thinking that understanding structure is one of the keys to unlocking reading. And unlocking structure is about slow-reading, stopping to think: what is happening here, why is this happening, why has the writer done this, what effect do they hope to achieve, why does this paragraph follow from this one, what is the connection …?
“The mighty imperative is to speed everything up, but there might be some advantage in slowing things down. People are trying slow eating. Why not slow reading?” Lyndsey Waters
We were reading the opening (slightly edited) from Stephen King’s The Stand. I chose it for the way it plants a seed in the first paragraph and then diverts the reader’s attention away before returning, with great impact, to that seed later on in the text. But I’m getting ahead of myself …
I wanted the group to understand the difference between suspense and shock, so I went to the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. In an interview, Hitchcock differentiates between suspense and shock thus:
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
If you want, the interview is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPFsuc_M_3E
After this first discussion which activates their prior knowledge of narrative techniques, I show a simplified version of the ‘bomb’ extract that I wrote and ask pupils why this sequence is an example of shock rather than suspense.
Pupils are able to see this distinction quite clearly and can draw on their own knowledge of texts (mainly cinematic or televisual) to underpin this. (In the past, I’ve taken a couple of balloons into the class, popped the first one to demonstrate shock, and then left the second one on a desk, walking round the class for the whole lesson with a pin in my hand!). You might get them to add their own sentences before showing them another model for how suspense can be developed – see below.
Keeping with Hitchcock (other directors are available), I show the sequence from his 1963 film, The Birds: the one where the birds attack the petrol station (you can get the clip here): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdOF7xg5lug
I like this because the shifts in focus from the female protagonist, Melanie, to the birds as they begin to terrorise the people at the gas-station builds just the right amount of suspense. In addition, Hitchcock draws attention to particulars such as the leaking petrol running off towards the parked cars. All of these techniques help to slow down the narrative – the following grid helps to focus pupils on key images at this point, and helps to illustrate in a sequential way, how the ‘narrator’ is manipulating his ‘reader’:
We want pupils to be using the vocabulary of our subject, and so I put some phrases on their desks for them to use (I insist on their use – or variations of them at least)
You can spend as little or as much time as you want on deconstructing the film clip: for the benefit of getting on with it, I reduced this to a brief discussion – mainly because the pupils ‘got it’. This led me on to the extract from The Stand.
This extract is taken from the opening to Stephen King’s novel, The Stand.
Hap owns a petrol station in Maine, a city in the United States of America. Hap and a few other men are talking in the office of his petrol station.
As Vic and Hap chewed it out, there was still a little dusk left in the sky, but the land was in shadow. Cars didn’t go by on Route 93 much now, which was one reason that Hap had so many unpaid bills. But there was a car coming now, Stu saw.
It was still a quarter of a mile distant, the day’s last light putting a dusty shine on what little chrome was left to it. Stu’s eyes were sharp, and he made it as a very old Chevrolet, maybe a ’75. A Chevy, no lights on, doing no more than fifteen miles an hour, weaving all over the road. No one had seen it yet but him.
“Now let’s say you got a mortgage payment on this station,” Vic was saying, “and let’s say it’s fifty dollars a month.”
“It’s a hell of a lot more than that,” Hap replied.
“Well, for the sake of the argument,” continued Vic, “let’s say fifty. And let’s say the banks went ahead and printed you a whole carload of money. Well then those bank people would turn round and want a hundred and fifty. You’d be just as poorly off.”
“That’s right,” Hank Carmichael added. Hap looked at him, irritated. He happened to know that Hank had gotten in the habit of taking Cokes out of the machine without paying the deposit, and furthermore, Hank knew he knew, and if Hank wanted to come in on any side it ought to be his.
“That ain’t necessarily how it would be,” Hap said weightily from the depths of his ninth-grade education. He went on to explain why.
Stu, who only understood that they were in about to be in an even more difficult situation, tuned Hap’s voice down to a meaningless drone and watched the Chevy pitch and yaw its way on up the road. The way it was going Stu didn’t think it was going to make it much farther. It crossed the white line and its left-hand tyres spurned up a red cloud of dust from the left shoulder. Now it lurched back, held its own lane briefly, then nearly pitched off into the ditch. Then, as if the driver had picked out the big lighted Texaco station sign as a flaming beacon, it arrowed toward the tarmac like a projectile whose velocity is very nearly spent. Stu could hear the worn-out thump of its engine now, the steady gurgle-and-wheeze of its dying carburettor and a loose set of valves. It missed the lower entrance and bumped up over the curb. The fluorescent bars over the pumps were reflecting off the Chevy’s dirt-streaked windshield so it was hard to see what was inside, but Stu saw the vague shape of the driver roll loosely with the bump. The car showed no sign of slowing from its relentless fifteen miles per hour.
“So I say with more money in circulation you’d be—”
“Better turn off your pumps, Hap,” Stu said mildly.
“The pumps? What?” Norm Bruett had turned to look out the window. “Christ on a pony,” he said.
Stu got out of his chair, leaned over Tommy Wannamaker and Hank Carmichael, and flicked off all eight switches at once, four with each hand. So he was the only one who didn’t see the Chevy as it hit the gas pumps on the upper island and sheared them off.
It ploughed into them with a slowness that seemed implacable and somehow grand. Tommy Wannamaker swore in the Indian Head bar the next day that the taillights never flashed once. The Chevy just kept coming at a steady fifteen or so, like the pace car in the recent town parade. The undercarriage screeched over the concrete island, and when the wheels hit it everyone but Stu saw the driver’s head swing limply and strike the windshield, starring the glass.
The Chevy jumped like an old dog that had been kicked, and ploughed through the gas pump. It snapped off and rolled away, spilling a few dribbles of gas. The nozzle came unhooked and lay glittering under the fluorescents.
They all saw the sparks produced by the Chevy’s exhaust pipe grating across the cement, and Hap, who had seen a gas station explosion in Mexico, instinctively shielded his eyes against the fireball he expected. Instead, the Chevy’s rear end flirted around and fell off the pump island on the station side. The front end smashed into the low-lead pump, knocking it off with a hollow bang.
Almost deliberately, the Chevrolet finished its 360-degree turn, hitting the island again, broadside this time. The rear end popped up on the island and knocked the regular gas pump asprawl. And there the Chevy came to rest, trailing its rusty exhaust pipe behind it. It had destroyed all three of the gas pumps on that island nearest the highway. The motor continued to run choppily for a few seconds and then quit. The silence was so loud it was alarming.
All too often, candidates in an exam forget the initial contextual bit. I’ve taken the time recently to direct pupils to this and to consider it carefully. The sentence I provided for this extract is hardly enigmatic, but it sets the scene enough:
Given these prompts, pupils make some interesting observations: ‘the men must be friends because they are in a private place’; ‘it’s a very ordinary, everyday scene’; and, given what they’ve just seen: ‘petrol stations can be dangerous places’. But they also bring in some prior knowledge: some pupils have watched/read some Stephen King texts and therefore anticipate horror, suspense, thriller elements from the extract.
A slowed down reading takes in one paragraph at a time and requires pupils to annotate in the margins: not necessarily the usual text-marking of language techniques, but comments that reinforce meaning, inference, understanding. After reading the first paragraph, pupils could make the following observations:
- The scene is an everyday one;
- But – Hap’s in trouble: petrol stations need cars;
- The description of the setting – darkness falling, a land of shadow, is obviously portentous, ominous;
- The writer has drawn our attention to the car coming – and only Stu has seen it.
Digging a little deeper into this final sentence (But there was a car coming now, Stu saw) teases out comments on the micro-elements of language – the conjunction ‘but’, or the adverb ‘now’ convey a sense of newness, perhaps even something out of the ordinary, about the oncoming car. The second paragraph continues the description of the car and confirms our ideas about the car’s oddness and potential danger – it has no lights on and is ‘weaving’ across the road. This, then, is the bomb: the seed that King has planted in the reader’s mind (and in Stu’s), a seed that he leaves for the next five paragraphs whilst the men engage in an inconsequential discussion about mortgages and money. Seemingly inconsequential but even though it appears to be such its presence in the narrative is vital: it draws attention away from the car and builds suspense. The reader, like Hitchcock with his bomb in the restaurant, is saying “forget about the mortgage, there’s an out-of-control car coming your way and, for Pete’s sake, you’re in a petrol station: do something quick!”
After reading the extract, I wanted pupils to explore the text more independently, but also reinforce the need to use the subject/topic specific vocabulary needed to refine the subtleties of their responses. You can do this in two ways, using the following list:
Pupils can either take one of the statements and verbalise a response; or else you can set this up as a group discussion. I did both. With the larger group, I cut up the statements and placed them face down on the desk. Each pupil picked up a statement and initiated a discussion around it. I let the discussion run for about ten minutes and was pleasantly surprised by the detail pupils were using, as well as their continued use of subject terminology. Finally, I got them to write a response to a typical ‘structure’ question:
You now need to think about the whole of the source.
This text is from the beginning of a novel.
How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader?
You could write about:
– what the writer focuses your attention on at the beginning of the source
– how and why the writer changes this focus as the source develops
– any other structural features that interest you.
And I used the following model to get them started:
And we can do some peer-assessment:
At the heart of this teaching methodology is the power of oracy. Getting pupils to talk about the text, explore it, take up and discard various triggers that can enable them to read more deeply. I’m always conscious of the ‘answer in full sentences’ strategy, and more importantly by giving pupils the vocabulary they are also assimilating the knowledge which will enable them to craft more developed responses. I’m not always convinced by the maxim ‘if they can say it, they can write it’ but in this case there is real mileage in spending time on discussion to slow down reading, and draw attention to the contrasts, juxtapositions, patterns and movement of the text.
The reading test favours speed reading: spend 15 minutes reading the articles, extracts, then go mad for it. This is great for all those candidates who can: those who read well and have been taught the strategies to extract meaning from what can be quite complex texts, synthesise this meaning and then produce new texts from their intellectual autopsies. But not all of our pupils have the reading experience, the cultural capital, the patience or simply the skills to unpack meaning from 45 or 90 lines of text in the time they are given. Therefore, we need to give them the confidence to explore the detail, to read slowly, to take a little more time to digest the texts and not feel the slavering presence of an empty answer booklet squatting on the corner of their desk waiting to be filled. Explore the detail; when everyone around you in the exam room is losing their head and writing furiously, stay calm, and read it again.
NB: In the past I’ve used reading pyramids to get pupils to slow down their reading. These are effective for group work as well as independent work: