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English explained 4 (grammar and composition); Warriner (grammar/vocabulary/composition techniques)

Grammar and punctuation: ‘Grammar to 14’ if not completed. Here is a simple schedule to cover ‘Grammar to 14’ in one year.

Alternatively, Warriner or equivalent for selected grammar and vocabulary exercises

Comprehension and analysis:  ‘Comprehension to 14′ selections or equivalent. Useful terms
for literary analysis can be found here and here.

CompositionOriginal compositions as suggested by your English course book.


Poetry and prose of England: Anglo Saxon, Medieval, Reformation and Elizabethan literature:
(click on the name for question sheets)
1. Beowulf, ballads
2. Sir Gawain, Chaucer, Everyman
3. Thomas More, Lyric Poetry, the Sonnet, The Bible, Edmund Campion

 Middle and Secondary level
For older children, comprehensions can serve more of a purpose inasmuch as they can introduce a child to the more subtle aspects of writing.  Good comprehensions will stretch a child to look beyond the obvious to find implicit themes, hidden meanings and oblique references. Likewise, they will have a strong emphasis on language analysis (why does the writer use this word? What other words might he have used? Why is this phrase so striking and memorable?), and this is an area which does need a good deal of practice as it possesses a vocabulary and type of questioning all of its own (see language analysis below for more ideas).  Understanding what a writer is saying is only the first level of reading comprehension: trying to explain how the writer uses language and structure to achieve his effects is far more challenging. These are the kinds of skills you’ll need to focus more on as you approach GCSE level (they are also essential if your child intends to sit an English Literature exam).

Most secondary English texts will have some work on comprehension, but if you want a book specifically on this subject, this one is not too bad: Comprehension to 14 by Geoff Barton. The older edition is much cheaper and, as one Amazon reviewer writes, has some advantages over the newest offering: “This older edition provides an excellent selection of texts, in my opinion. They are very classical, and may not appeal to everyone, but provide food for thought for gifted or interested children. Unfortunately the new edition of the book panders to mediocrity.” I can’t quite agree on describing the chosen texts as ‘classical’: the section on drama, for example, includes a TV sketch from French and Saunders and a rather boring excerpt from an Inspector Morse episode, and many of the offerings in the drama and non-fiction sections are contemporary. Still, if you are selective there are some very useful exercises here, included some quite thought provoking extension exercises, mainly in the prose and poetry sections.

Another suggestion for ages 11+ is Developing Comprehension Skills by David Kitchen. I haven’t used this yet but hope to review it soon. The book which precedes this – Developing Basic Comprehension Skills – might be more suited to either a younger child or a child who had no experience of written comprehension.

Language analysis

This is a topic which comes much more to the fore in English Literature than in English Language, but there is an important place for it here too, since to read a text appreciatively it helps to have some understanding of how the writer is achieving his effects – in other words, of why the writing ‘works’. Obviously, the more aware a child is made of these literary devices and how they are employed, the more likely he is to begin to use them more effectively in his own writing.

Again, though, as with comprehension, I would tend to say that formal language analysis is best kept for the middle and secondary levels. It’s true that you could teach a seven or nine year old what alliteration or personification are: he might understand, and perhaps be able to identify examples or even create examples of his own when required to, but, as with the formal terms of grammar one has to ask, “Is it really going to help him write well and appreciate stories more if he knows the names for these literary devices?” It is a constant complaint of GSCE examiners that pupils frequently identify/ name literary devices but show absolutely no understanding of the effects those devices are intended to produce. Rather, the examiners advise, offer a decent piece of analysis that perhaps doesn’t even use the correct technical term – you’ll get more credit for it! If you read with your child and discuss writing in any detail you can draw out his appreciation of language long before you need to give him the technical names with which to articulate his understanding. If we ‘get technical’ too soon, there’s a danger that we produce a ten year old who bandies around words like alliteration but is hard pressed to explain to anyone exactly what purpose the alliteration he has identified serves. There is a certain level of maturity needed for proper, technical literary analysis.

So, where do you start? Secondary level comprehension exercises are one area in which basic literary analysis will begin to be studied. Standard English textbooks for the 11-14 age range should contain at least some exercises in analysis. Letts/Lonsdale offer three separate books for the three years covering this age group in their ‘Essentials’ range. You can see the book aimed at 11-12 year olds here: Year 7 English Coursebook.

Having said that, a good amount of the technical language of literary analysis will be easy to introduce if you have been studying poems with your child. By the end of primary you might already have encountered alliteration, personification, metaphor, simile, imagery, perhaps even oxymorons, juxtaposition and onomatopoeia. Teaching the names for these devices and how they are used to create effects will be much easier if your child is already familiar with seeing them used in poems and understanding what they do.

For the study of poetry in particular, the book Developing Poetry Skills by Geoff Barton is aimed at the 11-14 age range (though once your child has been taught these poetry analysis skills, there isn’t much to add to take him up to 14+/ GCSE level so this might be the only book you need).

Composition Age 9-13

Somewhere in this age group, you can start to expect better quality writing as the child begins to apply what he has learnt in handwriting skills, basic grammar rules, spelling accuracy and so on and pull it all together as he begins to form his own written compositions.  If you’ve been very clear and methodical about the basic rules, and your child has been exposed to (and has been modelling) good literature, he should at this point start to see good results. You’re not expecting full-blown essays, but by about 12 you can expect properly punctuated sentences, correctly spelled words, effective use of vocabulary and short paragraphs which stick to the point and say what the writer wants to say – all in an attractive, legible hand. If you achieve that, your child already has an advantage over many adults!

As Ruth Beechick points out in The Three Rs, this is the time to branch out into a wider variety of writing – not just standard prose passages but dialogues, letters, news reports, for example. At this point, you can continue with the modelling, but you can encourage the child to do this for himself, rather than have you dictate. To do this, he would find a piece of writing in a style he would like to imitate, study the piece for grammar, spelling, vocabulary etc, making simple notes to help him remember. After a gap of a few days he might then try to re-write the passage (using his notes to help). Finally, he would compare his version to the original. In this way he becomes used to really looking closely at what he is reading and having an eye for what makes good writing work. As ever, discussion with you about why the writing works well is very important.

At this point, you will find that your child naturally begins to write more of his own compositions modelled on those he likes. Help him to edit and improve/correct where necessary. This provides a bridge between modelling and independent, original work, but your child has a distinct advantage over one who has simply been asked from day one to ‘write creatively’, with little guidance.

Towards the upper end of this age group, say 12, you can start to focus more formally on how to construct the sort of paragraphs which will be needed later for essay writing. Click here for some ideas on paragraphing. However, if you are happy with how your child is progressing, you can leave the more formal study until 13+ and treat it as a pre-amble to essay writing.

More formal literature study, 12-13 onwards

At somewhere around age 12 or 13, you might want to set out on a broad sweep of English Literature, starting with our great Anglo-Saxon heritage and moving on over the next few years through the ages to the twentieth century. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, most children at this age love the older stories such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain (especially if they are already familiar with them from their earlier reading). At this age you can really begin to look at (albeit in a very simple way) the historical and literary background of such stories, their style, their authorship – in a word, what it is that makes them just what they are, and makes them classics. Secondly, many students’ knowledge of literature is confined to whatever texts are set for (I) GCSE – usually, a Shakespeare play, a modern play, some poetry and a novel from the 19th or 20th centuries. With my eldest son I found myself suddenly having to teach him from scratch about Shakespeare and 19th century Romanticism and Gothic literature (and how to analyse poetry) –  all in the year before his English Lit exam. It was not the best approach!

By covering a broad sweep of literature starting at about age 12, by 15 you will already have studied a Shakespeare play, learned how to analyse poetry, read a range of novels, and be able to put the 19th century (be it Austen, Dickens, Stevenson or Poe) firmly in its historical context. This provides a connectedness and contextualisation which is often lacking in a school approach to literature study.

One other consideration is that in our English schools, literature seems to begin with Shakespeare: this misses out on a wealth of English and European literature in the Catholic tradition which we don’t want our children to forego (The Dream of the Rood, The Song of Roland, and Dante’s Divine Comedy spring to mind).

There is an excellent textbook which covers a broad sweep of English Literature, from a Catholic perspective, and give suggestions for further reading. It is, ironically, an American publication but is available for a very reasonable price second hand. The title is ‘Prose and Poetry of England’ by J.Maline and J. Divine, published by Singer in 1955 as part of the St. Thomas More Series.’ Don’t mistake it for another volume of the same title published at around the same time which is quite anti-Catholic in tone! It is also available from Seton Homeschool, here. The book comes with exercises for word study and appreciation (for which Seton sell an answer key), though these are pitched at High School students not 13 year olds. I’ve written simpler ones for the earlier chapters which are available on the relevant age level page (including scene by scene study questions for Macbeth aimed at pre-GCSE level, as an introduction to Shakespeare).