How to Get Ready for Secondary School

When you start secondary school in Year 7, you will be joining Key Stage 3. There will be lots of things to get used to, such as making new friends and navigating your way around the building.

Your lessons will look different too. History and Geography will be taught as separate subjects instead of being part of a topic; Art will open up exciting possibilities when you discover mediums you have never used before, and you will learn how to saw wood and shape metal in Tech. 

A Whole New World!

Your timetable will be strict, your day will be organised by bells, and you will soon notice that expectations for learning are serious. It's tempting to coast through the next few years until the proper exams start - but learning, like any skill, needs to be practised or else it is forgotten. These are formative years where you will learn the basics in many subjects. These basics will affect your ability to grasp the more complicated aspects of school as the years go on.

By the time you reach Year 9, you will be deciding which subjects you want to focus on at GCSE. Your timetable will become individual to you, meaning that you can ditch French to learn Spanish; drop History for Business Studies and take Drama instead of IT.

Some subjects, though, will never stop. PE, for instance, is compulsory for everyone until the end of Year 11 (although you won’t be examined on it unless it is one of your GCSE options). Religious Education is usually taught up to Year 11 too, with the majority of students sitting an exam.

The Core Secondary School Subjects

Then there are the three ‘core subjects': English, Maths and Science. Every student must sit a GCSE exam in these subjects by law so there is no getting out of them. 

English and Maths come with the added pressure that if you fail to achieve a Grade 4 pass in either subject by the end of Year 11, you will have to keep studying and retaking it until you eventually pass, or reach your 18th birthday.

Lots of sixth forms and further education colleges won’t accept you without GCSE English or Maths. So even if you do scrape in on your other merits, do you really want the burden of having to spend time out of your busy timetable preparing for resits, when you could be focussing on the subjects you enjoy? 

The hard truth of the matter is this - whether you love them, hate them, or feel indifferent towards them, English and Maths are serious. If you don’t treat them with respect, they will come back to bite you!

From now on, this article will focus on English. It will cover what your English lessons will look like in Key Stage 3 and explain how the skills you learn in Year 7 filter into that all-important GCSE exam.

The Key Stages of Education

If you are confused about what the different key stages mean in schools, then this table should help:

Who decides what you learn?

The lessons that you learn in school are decided by ‘The National Curriculum’. All state-funded schools in England follow the guidance set out by the Department of Education which tells schools the program of study they must follow. 

The complete Statutory Guidance for the National Curriculum in England is available to read online here

But if you haven’t got time for that then don’t worry: this post will tell you everything you need to know about what is law today and included in the documents below.

Studying outside of England.

Everything I tell you from now on relates to the law in England. But what if you live in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or outside of the UK altogether?

Rest assured, much of the advice will be common everywhere - especially in terms of expectations in writing - but there are some differences on the reading texts you will study, depending on where you are.

To be clear about what applies to you, wherever you live, you can find out more about the details of the curriculum by visiting the websites of the course coordinators: 

1. Wales

Educational Board: Department for Education and Skills, Welsh Government.

Curriculum: Curriculum for Wales: Programme of Study for English, Key Stages 2–4

2. Scotland

Educational Board: Education Scotland

Curriculum: Broad general education | Scottish education system | Education Scotland

3. Northern Ireland

Educational Board: Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, Northern Ireland

Curriculum: Language and Literacy | CCEA

4. International Students

For international students studying English in the UK, there are two main education boards.

Educational Board: Cambridge Assessment International Education

Curriculum: Cambridge Lower Secondary curriculum

Educational Board: Pearson Qualifications

Curriculum: International Lower Secondary Curriculum - English | Pearson qualifications

English at Key Stage 3

The Key Stage 3 English curriculum feeds directly into what is tested at GCSE and the better you are at each of them, the higher marks you will get in your final exams. There four key skills that are assessed:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) 
  • Spoken English.


There is a big emphasis on studying texts which challenge and enlighten you, to introduce you to books you may not have read before and with the aim of creating an enjoyment of reading. This includes both fiction and non-fiction and must include the following:

  • English literature written before 1914. (This will include 19th Century novels; letters and diaries from over 100 years ago and poems written long ago.)
  • Two Shakespeare plays. (Most schools study a Shakespeare play every year.)
  • Texts from around the world. (You will read books and extracts from authors in different countries.)


Lots of new vocabulary is introduced at Key Stage 3 and students are expected to look closely at a writer’s choice of words. You will need to explain how these word choices affect a reader and what they will imagine in their minds when they read them. (e.g. ‘This particular verb/ simile/ onomatopoeia is a good choice as it helps the reader understand that …’)

There is a huge focus on making inferences from the text and showing an understanding of what the writer means.(e.g. ‘The description of the girl ‘wrapping her scarf close around her shoulders’ suggests that she was leaving home in the winter when the weather was cold.This would make her journey much harder…’ )

There is a requirement to talk about the way a piece of writing is organised and structured (e.g. How the focus of the action or the mood changes from the beginning, through the middle, to the end).

You will also be asked to make comparisons between different texts and say what is the same or different about the way they present their message. (e.g. ‘Both poems discuss how it feels to be bullied. In Poem A, the writer feels … whereas in Poem B the poet deals with the consequences in a different way…’)

Choosing a quotation from a text and analysing it in great detail will become the most valuable skill you learn in order to get top marks in exams.


You will write in many different styles and formats at Key Stage 3, so you need to be full of creative ideas and confident about your opinions. You will write:

  • A narrative essay (e.g. ‘Write about a time when a particular thing happened to you’)
  • Express your opinion (e.g. ‘Do you think it is right to keep animals in zoos?’)
  • Imaginative writing (e.g. ‘Write a story based on this photograph.’
  • Poetry (e.g. Write your own sonnet.)
  • Transactional writing (e.g. ‘Write a speech; a letter; a magazine article; a report; a review; a leaflet, on a given topic’.)

There is a strict emphasis when writing to show that you understand the purpose, audience and form (e.g. What is your topic? Who is it for? How should it be set out?

You also need to show you can plan what you intend to write and be sure to use appropriate words for your reader. (e.g. You would not speak in the same way when addressing your Headteacher as you would talking to your friends in the playground.)

You must also be able to proofread and edit your completed work to pick up on any mistakes or make it better. 

Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG)

The good news is that you will know lots about SPaG from your primary school SATs and there aren’t many new rules to learn at Key Stage 3.

The bad news is that you are expected to show you understand why they are used and demonstrate them in your own writing. Marks are awarded for SPaG in most GCSE exams (not just in English) so even if the content of what you write is brilliant, you can still lose vital marks if your SPaG is not the best it can be.  

Spoken English

The way you express yourself is important too, and some time is spent in English lessons to practise speaking in different situations. This may be as part of:

  • Classroom discussions
  • Speeches and presentations
  • Reciting Poetry or scripture out loud
  • Debates
  • Performing play scripts

Try not to worry if you are shy, teachers are kind souls at heart and won’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.

If you don’t want to stand up and speak on your own then you will be able to do it as part of a group where it will feel less daunting. Although public speaking is a skill that some people are naturally better at it than others, just remember that the more you practice, the more comfortable you will become.

It's a great skill that comes in handy all throughout life, so it's a great opportunity to face that fear while you are young and have a teacher to help you.


If you feel like screaming after reading any part of this post and are wondering how on earth you are going to cope, then you are not alone. Everyone is nervous on their first day at secondary school and everyone finds it confusing in the first few weeks.

Your teachers know this happens and will be there to help you. You will soon find your level and you will be fine!

Even so, there are still lots of things you can do over the summer holidays to get a head start and make you feel more confident. Here are a few suggestions: 


You can find study guides for English in all major bookshops and online stores. My favourite two publishers for Key Stage 3 English are CGP and Collins as they provide a balanced mix of topics and are linked directly to the English National Curriculum. Choose from the following suggestions for a spot of home study:


You can browse these titles on the CGP website, where you can look inside to see sample pages. Most CGP books have a code so that you can use them online as well as having your own book. Follow this link to the CGP site for recommended KS3 English Resources.


Collins books are also designed according to the National Curriculum and with future GCSE exams in mind. Take a peek inside the pages on the Collins website here

Quizzes & Tests

Official SATS for Key Stage 3 were abolished in 2008, however, most schools still carry out exams at the end of each school year to assess the progress of their students. Some schools set their own local exams whilst others use national papers which are structured very much like a GCSE exam paper but differentiated for earlier school years.


CGP offers a workbook of practice tests, providing an insight into what an English exam may look like. 

You can also test your SPaG online with these free ten-minute tests provided by CGP:

Education Quizzes

Education Quizzes is an excellent site linked to the National Curriculum which has over ninety free online quizzes aimed at Key Stage 3 English alone. Each topic has guidance on what you need to do before testing your knowledge. There are pages for other levels and subjects too, but your link for Key Stage 3 English can be found here.

BBC Bitesize

BBC Bitesize is a superb free online resource. There are longer courses or shorter chunks to choose from, offering videos and activities to boost your knowledge. Other subjects and levels can be found on the wider BBC Bitesize site too, but for Key Stage 3 English specifically, follow this link.

Take a Course

Here on Sherpa, we have our very own Key Stage 3 English course running throughout the summer holidays. You can choose from three different weeks and work through four morning sessions to give you a taste of what your English lessons will look like over the coming school year.

It is the perfect opportunity to learn and practise new skills as part of a small, online group where you can keep the lesson recordings for help later in the year.

Hire a Tutor.

If you prefer to develop your skills 1:1 with a tutor who can teach you at your own pace and according to your individual needs, then there are plenty of fully qualified English teachers to choose from on the Sherpa site too. 

Browse from the link here to find someone you like and then book a free introduction for a chat with them.

And finally …

Starting secondary school is a scary time for any student and will impact everyone in the family. I hope you feel a bit more prepared for your English lessons after reading this post, and have an idea what to do if you need some extra reassurance. 

You’ve got this!

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English Teacher; SEND trained; EFL trained; patient and encouraging.

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