English is at the heart of the curriculum at St. Mary’s. Reading a wide variety of texts, having the opportunity to create compositions of their own, and receiving enthusiastic, specialist instruction on the mechanics of the English language are central to every pupil’s St. Mary’s experience.
Our aim is to build pupils’ confidence in their own abilities when interpreting texts or expressing themselves orally or in writing. We seek to equip them with the tools not only to access the rich, cultural resources of worldwide literary heritage, but to articulate their own understanding with accuracy, clarity and flair. Whether they will be poets or politicians, scientists or surgeons, the love and understanding of English which we strive to inspire in our pupils will be key to helping them discover their future.
Our emphasis on language skills begins in the Kindergarten, where stories, rhymes, imagination, songs and sharing are central activities. In Reception, pupils meet with a vast array of new skills, mastering pencil grip, perfecting their letter formation, learning common letter and sound patterns, telling stories, sharing experiences and most importantly of all reading, with increasing fluency and independence. Forms 1 and 2 build on this first step; these years are all about variety, with pupils experiencing a broad range of text types, and learning to write for many different purposes and audiences. These are also the years in which pupils become accustomed to more formal comprehension work, laying out answers in jotters and providing evidence from the text.
In the middle school, pupils begin reading novel-length texts, and their analysis of others’ writing becomes increasingly technical, supported by fun-though-thorough grammar teaching sessions. Variety is the theme again when it comes to pupils’ own written work, with stories, descriptions, speeches, letters, instructions, diaries, poems and newspaper articles all making an appearance. Subject specialist teaching is a feature in Form 5, and it is during this year that we work towards completing the ISEB Common Entrance 11+ syllabus.
At the top end of the prep school, English is a core subject, with pupils receiving nearly four hours of English teaching per week with a subject specialist. Pupils are set by ability in Forms 7 and 8, allowing all to progress through the challenging program of comprehension, composition, grammar, literature and poetry at a pace that suits them. The department has an excellent track record in the 13+ Common Entrance exams, and in Scholarship and Entrance exams to various senior schools across the UK, but central to our curriculum design is the idea that pupils should emerge as articulate, engaged and well-informed individuals, whose love of reading and the English language stretches far beyond their examination years.
I read for pleasure, and that is the moment I learn the most.
We aim to inspire a passion for reading in all of our pupils, from Kindergarten to Form 8. Indeed, books are important to the whole St. Mary’s community, and as you wander around the school, you will spot many ‘I’m Currently Reading’ postcards, displayed by the staff to show their shared involvement with the enriching hobby of reading for pleasure. A firm foundation for reading is put in place during Reception and Forms 1 and 2, where progress is closely monitored by teachers as pupils work their way through challenging and enjoyable schemes of reading books. In the middle school, reading is carried out in small groups in Forms 3 and 4, with the Reading Detectives scheme helping to develop analytical and critical skills so that by Form 5, the whole class can work together on the same text. In Forms 6 to 8, the idea of the class text takes off in earnest, with dedicated literature study sessions building key close reading and analysis skills not only for Common Entrance, but for GCSE beyond that.
Of course, while sharing literature study with others is highly rewarding, it’s often the books we choose to read alone, for enjoyment and for escape, which influence us the most. The English department at St. Mary’s is passionate about children’s and young adult fiction, and publishes a list of Reading Recommendations three times per year which aims to draw pupils’ attention to the latest and greatest in children’s publishing. Hosting a Travelling Books fair every year around World Book Day gives pupils an exciting opportunity to shop for a new page-turner in the comfort of their own school. We are especially well-served for reading in Melrose, with the local library only a short walk away, and the Borders Book Festival taking place next door annually. The children’s programme for this event is always jam-packed with exciting and inspiring speakers. During our summer holiday, the Edinburgh International Book Festival takes place over a month, only a short train ride away, and is very well-attended by St. Mary’s pupils.
In 2013, with the help of the Friends of St. Mary’s, we relocated the school library to the Hamilton Building, where it is now housed in a custom-designed room that has proven highly popular with all members of the community. St. Mary’s is now truly the place to find “the book” to spark off your lifelong love of reading.
I think poetry should be alive. You should be able to dance it.
Understanding and talking about poetry is often seen by adults as a very daunting task, but rhyme, rhythm, word play and figurative comparisons are all things that delight young children, and it is this enjoyment of poetry’s vivaciousness that we seek to capture and build upon at St. Mary’s. From nursery rhymes in Kindergarten, through frequent poetic composition in the middle school, to the analytical dissection of increasingly tricky texts at the top of the school, poetry is a topic that never falls off our pupils’ learning ‘menu’.
In Forms 5 to 8, a ‘Studied Poet’ each term gives structure to our exploration of poetry, and allows pupils to see how historical context and poets’ lives can influence their work, as well as providing rich, high-quality examples of techniques such as metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia and personification. Having a wide variety of Studied Poets to investigate allows pupils to experience poetry from a range of different cultures. We are also keen for them to engage with the Scots language, and so while Robbie Burns looms large, with recitals at our annual Burns’ lunch and pupils in the senior part of the school trying their hand at ‘standard habbie’ stanzas, a number of modern Scots poets are studied as well.
In terms of school events, the poetic highlight of our year is the Melrose Literary Society Poetry Recital Competition. This sees all pupils in Forms 3 to 8 participate in learning a poem by heart, and performing it in front of their class, and then if successful in this round, in front of the gathered school, parent body and an external judge in the final. This is always a superb event, with parents pleased and often somewhat surprised by the children’s evident love of poetic expression.
Who often reads will sometimes wish to write.
Five important words shape our curriculum design at St. Mary’s: resilience, responsibility, resourcefulness, reflection and risk-taking. Nowhere else in the English classroom are these more thoroughly tested than in composition work.
Venturing forth your thoughts and ideas always feels like a risk, but our aim is to help pupils overcome self-consciousness about their own creative voices, and to be keen to share their written work. Being resourceful helps here; analysing and absorbing the techniques and tricks of published writers helps pupils to build the complexity of their own work. In the English classroom, you have to take responsibility for the creative process. The class discussions and creative games that help spark the imagination, the varied planning techniques we use, the actual composition stage, the drafting and the editing, all take a lot of hard work, but if you commit to them and take ownership of what you are producing, you will have a finished product of which you can be proud. Reflection helps our pupils to build on previous efforts, and peer- and self-assessment are at the core of our writing sessions. Being able to identify your own strengths and weaknesses makes you a writer focused always on improvement. Lastly, as any adult writer will tell you, it’s impossible to get far without a certain degree of resilience. Battling through the sentences which don’t quite work, the poems which tangle themselves in knots and the essays that don’t quite say what you want them to say is all part of the process, and in the English department we feel it is important for pupils to experiment, try new things and have to re-draft, even if that results in some pieces along the way which don’t quite work out.
For some examples of compositions that certainly did work out, please see our school Writing Blog. Enthusiasm for creative writing at St. Mary’s goes from strength to strength, with pupils participating in competitions such as the Glenalmond College Junior Schools Competition, but also writing in their free time for simple enjoyment.
A word is dead when it's been said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.
Oral work is always present as a basis for written work, but we are also keen for our pupils to learn to speak for speaking’s sake. Presentations and debates are important features of our curriculum, encouraging the careful articulation of ideas and information for certain audiences, and the ability to think quickly on one’s feet.
Our annual Andrew Garman Lecture Competition gives pupils in Forms 4 to 8 the opportunity to present to an audience and receive feedback on their oral skills. All pupils participate in the heats round in front of their class, with chosen representatives advancing through to a final, which is held in front of the whole school, the parents and an external judge. All sorts of topics - personal, historical, scientific, political, geographical, charitable – have been covered in recent years, and the event always informs as much as it entertains.
At the top of the school, the opportunity to argue and argue well is presented in the form of the Debating Society, which meets weekly to set the world to rights, and to learn the etiquette and rhetorical forms common to this fulfilling pastime.
What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?
In providing pupils with a wide range of reading opportunities, we include a variety of play texts, both as extracts and, further up the school, in full. Pupils learn to interpret the layout of a play script, and reflect on how a dramatist conveys character, scene and plot. It is our aim that the requirement to read and analyse play scripts at GCSE is not a surprise to our pupils, and that they have some grounding in how to go about this.
In this pursuit, as with many other aspects of our literacy instruction, we are expertly supported by a fantastic drama department, with which we have very strong cross-curricular links.
Making Percy dyslexic was my way of honouring the potential of all the kids I’ve known who have those conditions. It’s not a bad thing to be different. Sometimes, it’s the mark of being very, very talented.
Like 10% of the population, popular fictional character Percy Jackson is dyslexic. Like Rick Riordan, we believe that being different is definitely no bad thing. A dedicated and passionate ASL department supports English teachers at St. Mary’s in ensuring our programme of study is accessible to all, and works closely with individual pupils to support their progress in literacy, whether they are dyslexic or encounter other specific learning difficulties. A well-stocked supply of ‘dyslexia-friendly’ reading books in the main library and the ASL resource centre help keep a love of reading alive, and reflective teaching practice across the department helps us share techniques for bringing out the powerful creativity that can be a part of ‘thinking outside the box’.
Miss E. Simpson
Director of Studies & Head of English