Can Senior Courses Inspire a Love of Reading and Writing?

Inspiring youngsters to maintain their interest in reading is always a challenge for teachers, and this is arguably most difficult to do during the Senior Phase. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are faced with so many demands on their time, and so many pressures. Parties and dances, assessment deadlines, relentless notifications pinging through on phones, practice for music, training for sport, revision for prelims, the overpowering need for sleep - all of these vie aggressively for teenage time. So what happens to that vital reading time? What happens to reading for pleasure, and therapeutic reading?

It’s probably unrealistic to expect many S4 and S5 youngsters to continue to browse, borrow and read many novels during the fraught senior years

I think it’s probably unrealistic to expect many S4 and S5 youngsters to continue to browse, borrow and read many novels during these fraught senior years. But, happily, the National Five English course provides plenty of opportunity for breadth, depth and challenge. The combination of classic Scottish Literature and the broader options offered through the critical essay really do provide the best of both worlds.

I like to offer classes the option of browsing two or more texts and then voting. This introduces some choice and helps to empower them as readers. The Scottish Literature is fantastic stuff and really helps our youngsters to understand their own country and culture, while the essay paper allows for exploration of wider world literature – this is the place for Harper Lee or William Shakespeare, or whatever it is that you and your class want to explore. And they might not often admit it publicly, but many teenagers just love to curl up with some Robert Louis Stevenson or Edwin Morgan, or maybe J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Yes, it might be an exam necessity - but for many youngsters this process does cross over into the magical kind of deep, reflective reading we all seek to promote.

They might not admit it publicly, but many teenagers just love to curl up with some Robert Louis Stevenson or Edwin Morgan

And when this reading is going well, young people should be encouraged to try out the tricks and techniques they are studying in these texts as they write their own pieces. The choice provided in the N5 portfolio is another aspect of the course that really appeals. Here, they can develop their creativity in writing that is imaginative or reflective – and another challenge for teachers is how to inspire the creative element in ‘life writing’ so as to avoid simple ‘recount’ style pieces. I like to start from the premise that this genre of writing is as creative as writing poetry or short fiction. As a teacher, you can develop pupils' ability to tell a story through lead-in activities like writing haiku or producing small comic strips.

Pupils must show off with language – so the sentence structures, imagery and word choice they learn about as they read are vitally important. The use of Scots language, whether as realistic dialogue or as the overall voice of a reflective piece, can also be extremely effective. I’ll sometimes ask teenagers to consider the interplay between Welsh and English in Welsh TV drama (with subtitles). This technique portrays the use of language in a realistic way, and a similar use of Scots can really bring a piece of reflective writing (or drama or fiction) alive. If young people can immerse themselves in a piece of creative writing to the point where it begins to take on a life of its own, they are on to a winner.

As a teacher, you can develop pupils' ability to tell a story through lead-in activities like writing haiku or producing small comic strips

Even though the course doesn't have built-in time to encourage reading for pleasure, it's still important to encourage youngsters to read outside of school if they can. The important thing to remember is that they should be encouraged to read what they want, without any stipulations about the perceived quality of what they're reading. This is an important message to spread to parents too. We want to encourage a lifelong love of reading, so pupils should feel comfortable reading exactly what they want to read outside of required reading for courses. The world of young adult books is now a rich and exciting one, so if you're lucky enough to have a school librarian, ask them for some great recommendations for your pupils. It doesn't take too much time to give a few recommendations at the start of a period, telling the pupils a little bit about the books and why you think they might enjoy them.

So, as this year’s cohort of youngsters moves on through prelims and assessments towards the final N5 exam, I hope it’s possible to remember that the development of a love of literature - both reading and writing it - remains at the heart of our practice, and at the heart of our most popular course.

Looking for some great recommendations? Check out our book recommendation blogs or our book lists for teens.

Top image by Alice Hampson on Unsplash

Dr. Simon Hall

Dr Simon W. Hall has worked as a Principal Teacher of English, a Scots Language Coordinator, and a Depute Head Teacher. His new book E-Grades: National Five English, is a fully interactive downloadable study guide for the N5 English course and is the first dedicated e-book study guide for any SQA course. It includes video tutorials, audio support material, and a range of brand new practice-paper style material, with example questions and answers for every part of N5 English. Details are available here, and you can read an extract at Simon's blog.