three children reading Harry Potter books

Want to help teenagers pass English exams? Start when they’re toddlers!

I’ve often heard parents (or even grandparents) of teenage exam candidates say, “I just wish I could go in and sit that exam for them…”, and having experienced similar sentiments when our own three offspring were sitting academic, music or any other type of exams, I fully empathise.

Of course, the reality is that – unlike the desperate heroine of John O’Farrell’s novel “may contain nuts” – there is little chance of any adult being able to pass themselves off as one of their progeny to ace an exam on their behalf.

However, while you may not be able to pose as your child and sit their National 5 or Higher English for them, there are several things you can do when your offspring are far younger to give them the best chance in their English exams at secondary school in the dim and distant future. Here are just a few suggestions!

exam desks in rows in school exam hall

Exams can be a stressful time for teenagers. Encouraging children to be thirsty for knowledge in the early years can boost their exam results later.

Tell them stories

From the moment babies are able to focus on a picture, reading to them is a low-cost (especially if you join your local library) way of entertaining them. Nursery rhymes and fairy tales have entertained generations of young people, since time immemorial, and these have been added to in huge numbers over the years. The range of books available these days for babies and toddlers is incredibly diverse and there is children’s or youth literature to cater for almost every interest imaginable.

When my brother and I were still very young, he was given the first book in the Animal Farm series by Jane Pilgrim; these books were to become our firm childhood favourites, establishing an early love of reading. Living on a farm, we could relate to the anthropomorphic characters (not that we knew that word at the time!) and to their adventures in the countryside. Memories of my mum reading us those stories still make me smile to this day.

Nurture a love of words

Of course, reading out loud to children offers the perfect opportunity to cultivate an interest in words. Point out words that are new and/or interesting (such as ‘headstrong princess” or “blundering badger”).

Talk together about words that have a double meaning (ambiguous), and linger over words that sound similar to the sound they describe (onomatopoetic words such as sizzle or boom or meow).

Discuss the main characters in the stories you’re reading – this is an aspect of literature which 10 or more years down the line, your budding literary critics will have to write about in their English essays. Is the villain of the story all bad? Or, in spite of his character flaws, does he have some redeeming features, such as being kind to an orphaned kitten? What would have happened if one of the characters had made a different decision at a certain point in the story (turning point)?

Talk about the plot, too – did your young listener(s) expect the story to end the way it did or did the ending come as a complete surprise (with a twist in the tale)?

What about setting? Discuss where the story takes place (setting in place – which country, town or even building/room) and when it is set (setting in time, e.g. in the future, in the past, in the present).

Always make reading appear a pleasurable pastime. For example, if your youngster is pleading to keep their light on for a little longer at bedtime, you could allow them an extra five minutes of reading time ‘as a special treat’ (it’s all in the marketing!).

Make up stories and characters – and get your youngsters to help!

My dad used to tell me stories about a fictional old man who lived in his hometown and who got himself into all sorts of interesting situations. Many years later, my mum used to tell my own trio of scallywags wildly improbable stories about a naughty rabbit.

In both instances, all the stories were made up – often on the spot – by the respective story-tellers. In the case of granny’s mischievous rabbit stories, the grandchildren would readily dip into their own fertile imaginations and suggest new characters or plot scenarios – what they didn’t realise during all this fun was that these experiences were also ideal preparation for the creative writing tasks  they would face later on in their young lives at school.


The above hashtag is widely used on social media, promoting the same message that this post seeks to communicate: if you catch children’s imagination and light a passion for words and literature in their early years, the literacy benefits will be long-term. The simple truth is that one of the most important advantages of being read to as a child is developing an extensive vocabulary, which will be a lifelong asset.

Whether you are reading from a book or inventing stories yourself, the key thing is to make story-time fun for the young people in your life – a treat that they look forward to with eager anticipation. These early experiences of literature and creativity will help nurture the avid readers and eager story-tellers of the future.

PS: If you’re approaching exam season 2018 and want to make the last couple of months of revision as productive as possible, here’s our blog post from last March, which featured several helpful revision planning tips.

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