The Book Bunch
The Book Bunch

The 'is it a snake/is it a man?' disaster

I set my class (a small Year 7 group of mostly weaker readers) this passage as an unseen comprehension.


Source A :

This passage is taken from a story about a tame mongoose (a small animal that looks a bit like a meerkat) in India who bravely defends a human family from a deadly cobra.


Rikki-tikki heard them going up the path from the stables, and he raced for the end of the melon-patch near the wall. There, in the warm litter amongst the melons, very cunningly hidden, he found twenty-five eggs, about the size of a bantam's eggs, but with whitish skin instead of shell.

'I was not a day too soon,' he said; for he could see the baby cobras curled up inside the skin, and he knew that the minute they were hatched they could each kill a man or a mongoose. He bit off the tops of the eggs as fast as he could, taking care to crush the young cobras, and turned over the litter from time to time to see whether he had missed any. At last there were only three eggs left, and Rikki-tikki began to chuckle to himself, when he heard the little bird screaming:

'Rikki-tikki, I led Nagaina toward the house, and she has gone into the verandah, and—oh, come quickly—she means killing!'

Rikki-tikki smashed two eggs, and tumbled backward down the melon-bed with the third egg in his mouth, and scuttled to the patio as hard as he could put foot to the ground. Teddy and his mother and father were there at early breakfast; but Rikki-tikki saw that they were not eating anything. They sat stone-still, and their faces were white. Nagaina was coiled up on the matting by Teddy's chair, within easy striking distance of Teddy's bare leg, and she was swaying to and fro singing a song of triumph.

'Son of the big man that killed Nag,' she hissed, 'stay still. I am not ready yet. Wait a little. Keep very still, all you three. If you move I strike, and if you do not move I strike. Oh, foolish people, who killed my Nag!'

Teddy's eyes were fixed on his father, and all his father could do was to whisper, 'Sit still, Teddy. You mustn't move. Teddy, keep still.'

Then Rikki-tikki came up and cried: 'Turn round, Nagaina; turn and fight!'

'All in good time,' said she, without moving her eyes. 'I will settle my account with you presently. Look at your friends, Rikki-tikki. They are still and white; they are afraid. They dare not move, and if you come a step nearer I strike.'

'Look at your eggs,' said Rikki-tikki, 'in the melon-bed near the wall. Go and look, Nagaina.'

The big snake turned half round, and saw the egg on the verandah.
'Ah-h! Give it to me,' she said.

Rikki-tikki put his paws one on each side of the egg, and his eyes were blood-red. 'What price for a snake's egg? For a young cobra? For a young king-cobra? For the last—the very last of the brood? The ants are eating all the others down by the melon-bed.'

Nagaina spun clear round, forgetting everything for the sake of the one egg; and Rikki-tikki saw Teddy's father shoot out a big hand, catch Teddy by the shoulder, and drag him across the little table with the tea-cups, safe and out of reach of Nagaina.

'Tricked! Tricked! Tricked! Rikk-tck-tck!' chuckled Rikki-tikki. 'The boy is safe, and it was I—I—I that caught Nag by the hood last night in the bath-room.' Then he began to jump up and down, all four feet together, his head close to the floor. 'He threw me to and fro, but he could not shake me off. He was dead before the big man blew him in two. I did it. Rikki-tikki-tck-tck! Come then, Nagaina. Come and fight with me. You shall not be a widow long.'

Nagaina saw that she had lost her chance of killing Teddy, and the egg lay between Rikki-tikki's paws. 'Give me the egg, Rikki-tikki. Give me the last of my eggs, and I will go away and never come back,' she said, lowering her hood.

'Yes, you will go away, and you will never come back; for you will go to the rubbish-heap with Nag. Fight, widow! The big man has gone for his gun! Fight!'

Rikki-tikki was bounding all round Nagaina, keeping just out of reach of her stroke, his little eyes like hot coals. Nagaina gathered herself together, and flung out at him. Rikki-tikki jumped up and backward. Again and again and again she struck, and each time her head came with a whack on the matting of the verandah, and she gathered herself together like a watch-spring. Then Rikki-tikki danced in a circle to get behind her, and Nagaina spun round to keep her head to his head, so that the rustle of her tail on the matting sounded like dry leaves blown along by the wind.

He had forgotten the egg. It still lay on the verandah, and Nagaina came nearer and nearer to it, till at last, while Rikki-tikki was drawing breath, she caught it in her mouth, turned to the verandah steps and flew like an arrow down the path, with Rikki-tikki behind her. When the cobra runs for her life, she goes like a whip-lash flicked across a horse's neck.

Rikki-tikki knew that he must catch her, or all the trouble would begin again.



At the end of half a hour, having already answered half of the questions in the comprehension, I asked the pupils to stop writing. They were full of questions about what was happening in the extract. One asked "is Nagaina the boy's father?" I pointed out that the text says she lay "coiled up…within easy striking distance of Teddy’s bare leg". I asked them what ‘coiled’ meant. Only half of the class knew. Without knowing what this means of course it was not immediately obvious that Nagaina was the cobra referred to in the explanation written in italics at the beginning of the extract.


I tried again from a different angle. "What does the explanation at the beginning tell us about what is threatening the family?" I asked. The reply was very telling. Not one of them had read that bit because it was in a different font. So once we'd ascertained that Nagaina was a snake we began again. "Is Nagaina dead?" a different pupil asked. I explained that she couldn't be dead because she was threatening to bite the little boy Teddy. "But it says Nag is dead" he replied. That was a different snake, I explained. "I thought it was just a nickname to shorten the long name of Nagaina". So I asked him how we could tell it was a different snake. No reply. "What about the fact that it says "she" about Nagaina many times in the passage? Does it say he or she about Nag?" I pointed the pupils to the place where Rikki-Tikki says "it was I that caught Nag by the hood last night in the bathroom ...he was dead when the big man blew him in two".


So with all pupils in the class now clear that there were two snakes and the male one was dead and the female one was now threatening to attack the human family, I pressed them further. "What is the relationship between the two snakes?" Silence. "Why do you think Nagaina says "my Nag"?" Only then were they able to guess at the fact the snakes were 'married'. I then asked them what the word "widow" meant. Not one of them knew, so again another potential source of information was closed to them. Now that they understood that Nag and Nagaina were married, what were the eggs Rikki-Tikki was destroying at the beginning of the extract? I asked them. They had all noticed that the eggs had baby cobras in them. So whose eggs might they be? "Do they belong to the little bird?" one pupil asked. "But you just told me they have baby cobras in them," I replied. "But birds lay eggs," the pupil insisted. They were astonished to learn that snakes lay eggs too.


So, a host of obstacles clearly lay between pupils 'reading' this passage (and not really understanding it) and really reading it. The good news, though, is that having read it with the right helpful pointers, this accumulated information could then form a layer of academic foundations that would assist in future reading. With enough of these layers in place pupils' confidence grows and they feel better equipped to work out what is going on in unseen texts. This is why reading regularly and thoughtfully is so vitally important.

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© Catherine Sabben-Clare