Document 496

Teaching Secondary English in Scotland

Author(s): James McGonigal

Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material


How secondary teachers approach English teaching

This paper aims to provide primary and secondary colleagues with an overview of the teaching of secondary English in Scotland. As with Position Papers 14, 15 and 20 on the teaching of Modern Languages, and others such as 5, 6, 7 and 18 with their main focus on reading and writing skills in primary and early secondary, the intention is to offer all teachers involved in children’s language development an insight into each other’s aims and practice.

Scottish teachers of English do share a broad rationale with their counterparts elsewhere. Briefly, every English teacher endeavours to ‘bring texts to life’, by creating an active engagement between pupils’ growing minds and hearts, on the one hand, and the meanings (explicit or implied) in the words or images of the text in question, on the other. Choice of text and also teacher performance in enactment and exploration are crucial to effective learning here.

But English teachers must also ‘bring life to texts’, by structuring active and social responses to what is read or heard: pupils’ first reactions are refined through being expressed in group or whole-class discussion; a more reasoned or reflective individual response then follows, frequently in writing, which may itself become the occasion for further discussion, or redrafting, or publication. Such writing, of course, can take a variety of forms, often literary or personal, less frequently transactional or functional. Ideally, both formative and summative assessment are natural elements in this dialogic process, as learners develop towards more confident self-awareness and control in language.

Such broad similarity of aims in English can mask quite deep differences, however. The very term ‘English Language’ is problematic, where Scottish English, Scots Language and, in some areas, Gaelic are spoken in the local community, a linguistic mix enriched by ethnic minority languages such as Urdu or Panjabi. Such dialects and languages are not merely spoken alongside Standard Scottish English in the context of groupwork, but also read or written about: classroom texts by Scottish authors often include linguistic and cultural features which would be misunderstood in England, and are selected for study precisely because they do provide opportunities for insight into Scottish experience, urban and rural, past and contemporary.

This was not always so, when, for example, the Scots ‘invented’ English as a subject of study. Almost a hundred years earlier than in England, 18th century Scottish professors of Rhetoric began to use such near contemporary English writers as Addison or Swift, rather than classical authors, as suitably elegant models for analysis and imitation by rough Scots. Adam Smith, rhetorician as well as economist, clearly intended that his students should not be linguistically, and hence economically, disadvantaged in their postgraduate pursuit of free trade in England and the Empire.

There has remained in Scotland something of this desire to support linguistic competence in Standard English as much as personal growth: the supposed ‘creative writing’ movement of the 1960s (which English traditionalists seem to have blamed ever since for declining standards in spelling and good grammar) never appeared to overwhelm English teaching here, which has always sought to enable educational progress beyond social or dialectal boundaries. A national assessment system offering ready comparison of results between schools, and generally close links between schools and their local communities, have also maintained a traditional stress on the English skills needed for written academic work. And yet those links also keep many classrooms open to the voices and rhythms of local and national literature, using Scottish Arts Council support for visiting writers.

Methods and assessment S1-S6

Those who were pupils in Scottish schools and classrooms in the 1950s or 1960s can still recall the hierarchical, academic lines on which they were organised, and how many of their English teachers adhered to that Scottish rhetorical tradition of canonical texts of (chiefly) English literature, combined with model compositions for imitation and de-contextualised grammatical exercises. Current methods and assessment developed in reaction to such rigidities, and aim to right the balance between directive teaching and active learning.

Most S1 classes in English are now taught in mixed-ability sets of about 30, often sub-divided into friendship or ability groups for discussion activities. During their 3 to 4 English lessons a week (about 200 minutes in total) pupils often experience a two-stage lesson, with initial teacher recapitulation or context-setting leading to individual or group follow-up on a focused task or diversified project. Group talk can also be used quickly at the start, to involve pupils in the day’s agenda by eliciting initial reactions to the topic, which the rest of the lesson will unpack or refine.

Contexts for both talk and writing are most frequently created from a literary text appropriate to the pupils’ level of maturity, with subsequent discussion arising from its conflicts and characters. Such texts are mainly by 20th century authors, although often set in a recreated past or imagined future. (There have been recent Inspectorate reminders of the range of older classic texts, including Scottish texts, being neglected in the process.) Quite often a social or personal issue, such as Growing Up, is explored thematically, combining a variety of factual or autobiographical texts and media resources with literary genres to explore its different facets. Teaching and learning are normally structured in units of work, developed by departmental or local authority staff, with photocopiable worksheets linked to a variety of language purposes.

Within such mixed-ability English classes, the teacher’s role in making texts and tasks accessible is vital. Differentiation may occur simply through accepting variation in the response of individuals to the same task; or by the creation of a hierarchy of tasks for different groups; or by additional texts or assignments to be tackled in extension work; or by the level of support offered through simplified worksheets, word-processing, or increased teacher contact, including co-operative teaching by learning support staff in the classroom. A recent Scottish study of differentiation (Simpson and Ure, 1993) found positive pupil reaction to the kinds of interactive support which feature in English classrooms more frequently than the tightly differentiated tasksheets of more ‘linear’ subjects. For example, group approaches to the reading of different novels, graded in terms of difficulty but clustered round common themes, have allowed some teachers recently to stretch more able readers while supporting the less able.

Evidence of pupil attainment in S1-2, increasingly gathered into folios reflecting a range of language purposes and skills, is used to set them in S3-4 into classes aimed broadly at Foundation/General or General/Credit levels in the Standard Grade examination. Differences between sets now become more evident in the depth and complexity of texts studied, and the techniques of close reading taught, which will include literal, inferential and stylistic understanding at varying levels, as well as reasoning skills. Assessment of Talk, both solo to an audience and in group interaction, will count towards the final grade along with Reading and Writing, so more opportunities for practice are given, sometimes using video tapes of pupil performance to help clarify skills and also the grade-related criteria being applied.

Much pupil (and teacher!) effort in S4 goes into the drafting and redrafting of a Folio of work for external assessment, which contains both discursive/informational and imaginative/personal writing together with three extended responses to literary or media work in different genres. This Folio, presented in Term 2, is internally and externally assessed, and combined in Term 3 with external examinations in Writing and Close Reading, and the internal assessment of Talk, to give a final award. The past 10 years have seen a steady rise in attainment in this examination, which is taken by almost the complete cohort of secondary pupils, including some in special schools and secure units.

Normally, a Credit grade in English was followed by a one-year Higher course, and a General grade by a two-year course, which combines SCOTVEC modules in S5 in preparation for a Higher English in S6; or such modules can be taken on a free-standing basis. The complication of this ‘system’, which has developed gradually in response to increased numbers continuing their studies post-16, has led through Higher Still developments towards a truly unified system with a staged modular approach, ranging from Access courses for those with special educational needs, through two Intermediate stages to Higher English and Advanced Higher (replacing the Certificate in Sixth Year Studies) in the National Qualifications framework.

In planning Higher Still in English and Communication, real ideological divisions began to surface between the vocationally oriented and skills-based modular SCOTVEC approach, and the more literary emphasis valued by school teachers of Higher English, where depth and complexity of texts and critical analysis have been central. Shakespeare and other classic texts have traditionally been taught alongside such 20th century works as "Lord of the Flies" and "The Crucible", the choice determined by individual teachers or departments. When Higher English was revised in 1991 to take account of Standard Grade advances, optional ‘set texts’ were included, with some initial teacher resentment at this ‘right wing revision’ of a liberal curriculum. But certain advantages of set texts were gradually recognised, in the preparation of candidates whose aptitude and motivation were more varied than formerly, and in the range and variety of new texts encountered.

Scottish works were regularly set at both Higher and Sixth Year Studies level. This has given wider currency to the use of Scottish literature in the classroom and in the substantial Review of Personal Reading which formed part of the Higher Folio, and also in the Dissertation of some 4000 words which was a feature of guided individual study and research in the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies. Although candidate numbers were small (only 6.1% of the year group in 1997), CSYS was innovative in its Creative Writing paper and critical exploration of literary, linguistic and media studies. Its influence is discernible in Advanced Higher arrangements, which now offer papers in Scottish as well as English Literature, and Scots as well as English Language. Set texts have been abandoned in Higher Still modules, but at least one Scottish literary work is now compulsory at every level.

Innovations and change over the past twenty years

The last twenty years, then, have seen almost continual ‘assessment-led curriculum development’, in which traditional teacher concern for examination results has been used to extend classroom strategies and materials. An early focus on the less able has swung in the 1990s towards the need for teaching that extends and challenges all, including those gifted in language.

But development in both assessment and curriculum was underpinned from the mid 1960s onwards by an influential series of Bulletins issued by the Central Committee on English, which set forth clear principles on which effective teaching of both language and literature could be organised at different stages of schooling, both in individual classrooms, in which teachers had some autonomy, and in coherently organised English Departments. By the early 1970s, a Centre for Information on the Teaching of English had begun to disseminate good practice through publications and projects.

Such initiatives provided a rationale for developments that were to occur powerfully through the central provision of exemplar materials for the Standard Grade developments of the early 1980s: units of work to illustrate how the ‘new’ purposes were to be addressed and assessed; inservice work and national publications on the development and assessment of talk, or listening, or drafting and redrafting in writing, or group methodologies. Imaginative resources were also created at regional level, and through BBC and ITV Education Officers, working with school colleagues.

The Scottish Examination Board brought out graded exemplars of talk, reading and writing, so that teacher confidence and skills in assessment grew steadily. This openness to sharing of criteria has had a powerful impact at many levels: from national conferences on the HMI’s "Effective Learning and Teaching in English" (1992) and their "Standards and Quality in Scottish Secondary Schools 1994-97: English" (2000), which outline the findings of hundreds of departmental inspections over recent years, to classroom interaction with a particular pupil aimed at improving performance in a Folio item.

Yet this progress in professional awareness also paradoxically made the introduction of the 5-14 curriculum in the mid 1990s less welcome in secondary than in primary schools. Whereas primary teachers appear generally to have welcomed the formulation of a Language curriculum in terms of key outcomes, strands and stages (while suffering from conscientious attempts to track pupil progress across the whole range of curricular targets), many secondary English departments considered that the progress they had made in structuring the subject coherently (in terms of Standard Grade modes and purposes) was being disrupted by new terminology and assessment procedures. The perceived loss of progression from S1 to S4 may be counterbalanced by greater (and possibly more vital) continuity from P6 to S2: but that is happening fairly gradually across the country. Progress may be further delayed as the focus of change now shifts to the upper stages with Higher Still developments in post-16 curriculum and assessment.

What may also have broken down is the consensual approach that enabled that earlier achievement. The break-up of larger regional authorities has often led to a loss of English subject advisors, who could link policy and practice in an identifiable way. Such changes have in turn led to a greater use in local authorities and schools (and hence English departments) of written policies and target-setting to achieve planning aims.

Will pupils be lost sight of in this more highly professionalised ‘management culture’? The Assessment of Achievement Programme, set up to monitor pupils’ progress in 5-14 language attainment, provides interesting feedback to teachers on the standards of reading and writing, most recently highlighting underachievement by boys in almost every area assessed. The Scottish Examination Board has regularly published analysis of results at age 16-18. What is surprisingly lacking is some public forum in which teachers can discuss such issues. The termly journal "Teaching English", published by the Scottish Curriculum Development Service, lost government funding at a time in the late 1980s when teachers were coming to grips with Revised Higher arrangements and 5-14 English Language developments. Attempts at founding a distinctively Scottish association for the teaching of English have struggled to make widespread impact, when teachers’ time and energies are already fully committed.

Yet the Consultative Council on the Curriculum, at least, continues to respond to the Scottish zeitgeist, with school-focused publications on such current issues as using information texts ("Into Print", 1996), Scottish language and culture ("The Kist"/"An’ Chiste", 1996), "Listening and Talking" (video, 1992) and "Assessment in the Classroom: Listening and Talking" (1998). It has recently merged with SCET (the Scottish Council for Educational Technology) to form Learning & Teaching, Scotland. The LILT project can now be added to such publications, carrying forward work done with SCCC staff in the 1990s, and responding to the assessment and development context of the new century. These offer vital opportunities for reflection on current practice through sharing that of others. As Scotland reassumes parliamentary powers, it would surely be damaging for teachers in English Departments to be talking to no-one but themselves.

(A version of this paper is published in Bryce, Tom, and Humes, Walter, eds, (2000) "Scottish Education" Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

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The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.


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Information about Document 496

Teaching Secondary English in Scotland


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Handwritten
Year of composition 1998
Word count 2576
General description One of a series of position papers on current educational developments in relation to language education

Text medium

Other CD Rom of teacher materials (LILT)

Text publication details

Publisher Scottish Education
Publication year 2003
Place of publication Edinburgh
ISBN/ISSN 0 7486 1625 X
Edition 2nd
Part of larger text
Contained in CD Rom: LILT Materials
Editor J McGonigal / C Kay
Part of a longer series of texts
Name of series Position Papers: CD Rom: LILT Materials

Text setting


Text type

Prose: nonfiction


Author details

Author id 78
Forenames James
Surname McGonigal
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 18
Upbringing/religious beliefs Catholicism
Occupation University lecturer
Place of birth Dumfries
Region of birth E & Mid Dumfries
Birthplace CSD dialect area Dmf
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Glasgow
Region of residence Glasgow
Residence CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation F.E. Lecturer
Father's place of birth Cleland
Father's region of birth Lanark
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Lnk
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Primary School teacher
Mother's place of birth Midcalder
Mother's region of birth West Lothian
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area wLoth
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes Work and home
French Yes Yes Yes Yes Used occasionally
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic No No No Yes Very limited vocabulary
German Yes Yes Yes Yes Used occasionally
Scots No Yes Yes Yes Work (language study) and creative writing
Spanish; Castilian Yes Yes Yes Yes Used occasionally