If you enjoy reading, then the English Literature A-Level was probably created especially for you. You will be expected to read, analyze and criticize some of the greatest all-time classic works of literature in depth. The texts will be of different periods, primarily novels, plays, and poetry, from William Shakespeare to Samuel Beckett.
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How will it differ from GCSE?
The main difference in difficulty in the step up from GCSE to A-Level is in the level of response expected of you as students. No longer can you come to lessons and reply with “I thought it was ok”. Quite often, you will find that things come back to the writer more than at GCSE. For example, at GCSE level, you might talk about how a character is presented. But for A level English Lit, it is better to talk about the characterization: how the writer creates that character: what could their intentions be? The onus is on you to engage with the texts you will be reading and formulate your own opinions and interpretations. Furthermore, you will be expected to communicate these ideas effectively, not just in essays and exams, but also during verbal discussions, which tend to make up a large part of the teaching structure. The upside is that once you understand the technique, it becomes much more straight forward to approach essays. You can usually apply a similar, good technique to all the essays that you write.
The workload can seem a lot harder for those students who are slower readers. As with all A-Levels, the workload will be higher than at GCSE as you are studying at a more focused level. Each week you may be expected to read a certain number of chapters of novels, or acts of plays; to write a critical response to a set question about your reading – which could be “Discuss the presentation of Iago in Act I of Othello” or “Evaluate how effectively the final verse of this poem portrays the feeling of loss” etc.; you could be asked to write a creative excerpt – such as a diary for the character of Juliet after Romeo’s first visit.
If you can find out which texts you are studying prior to the start of the course, it can be a good idea to read them through before the course begins. This will allow you to approach the text with a decent initial understanding of its themes and style. You will probably be studying longer and more complex books than at GCSE, so it’s no longer the case that you can just be taught them from scratch as you proceed through the year. Try and get a good grip of the chronology of the book so that you don’t have to frantically cram as much information as possible the week before the exam. The workload will seem much more manageable if you work through it at a consistent, steady pace.
Of course, all teaching methods differ, but in class you can expect to be reading – silently or aloud, answering a series of short questions or an essay length one, and discussing various important issues.
Required Individual Study
On top of what your teachers set you, you will also be expected to utilise your free time to further your own studies. This could be by reading secondary material on the society that Oscar Wilde lived in, for example, or more academic texts that discuss and analyse a particular writer’s style, such as a book that analyses Larkin’s use of simile, metaphor and enjambement in The Whitsun Weddings. You may also wish to read around, either for personal pleasure, expanding your knowledge and, hopefully, vocabulary, or by reading texts relevant to your study – so if you’re studying the Regeneration series by Pat Barker you may wish to read other WWII novels.
How is it assessed?
English Literature at A-Level will be made up of two modules per year – one exam based and one coursework based, with a weighting of 60% from the exam and 40% for the coursework.
- AS – This is an open book exam where you will be expected to answer questions on the core texts you will study across the year. Section A is usually about two novels, and Section B will focus on two collections of poetry.
- A2 – This will be a closed book exam focusing on a minimum of three texts. Section A will be single text specific, expecting you to show your knowledge of one text in great detail; Section B will see you asked to think comparatively between texts. Often, all of the texts that you are taught might come under a general linking category, such as the Gothic. This makes it easier to draw links between the texts.
- AS – The AS coursework unit will see you produce two pieces of work based around two plays. One will be a tradition analysis or investigative piece, while the second offers more creative opportunities, allowing you to write a short story, monologue or script based on the text you have studied. Note that it is usually possible to carry out two analyses instead if you do not feel comfortable with creative writing linked to your play.
- A2 – Here you will study at least three texts and again will be split into two essays, with one giving more creative opportunity. (Spec A – one coursework approx 3,000 words comparing 3 whole texts; one Shakespeare play, and two others of any genre (prose, poetry, or drama)). One is a comparative essay on two of the texts you will have studied, whilst the second will expect you to engage with and apply an aspect of critical theory, e.g. post-colonialism or feminism, to the text you wish to write about.
- AS – A closed book exam where you will have to write two essays – one on whichever of the four poets your teacher has chosen to do, where you will be given one poem and expected to make comparisons with others you have studied, and one on whichever of the four novels you’ve been studying, where it will be particularly important to hit AO3 and AO4 – other interpretations and context. (60% AS Level / 30% A2 Level)
- A2 – This will be a closed book exam. Again, two essays – one on the set Shakespeare you’ve been studying, and one comparative essay where you will look at pieces of pre-18th century prose and poetry.
- AS – There are two pieces of coursework. One is a close reading of a short text of your own choice (or, depending on the school, your teacher’s choice) where most marks will be awarded for AO2. Another is a comparison of two texts – one of which must be post-1990 – with no marks on AO2 but lots on AOs 3 and 4. Word limit of 3,000 across both pieces- you’re meant to use roughly 1000-1200 on the close reading and 1800-2000 on the comparative piece. (40% AS Level / 20% A2 Level)
- A2 – A single comparative piece – ‘Texts in Time’ where you will study three texts – One of them must be post-1990 and another pre-1900. Marks to be had in all AOs but in particular 3 and 4 (lots of comparison will be needed). Word limit of 3,000.
Field trips and excursions
Getting to know the plays you’re studying in detail is vitally important, and given that plays are written to be performed, this could include knowledge of how it would be carried out on stage. You may have theatre trips arranged by your teachers so you can get to see how these plays are performed, although you may simply have opportunities to see other related works by the authors you’re studying. And don’t forget, a theatre trip to London (if your school is close enough) should also give you some free time in the city!
Where can I go with an English Literature A-Level
It’s a common misconception that English at A-Level, and subsequently degree level, limits your options to being a teacher. This simply isn’t the case. Studying English develops your written and verbal communications skills, your ability to use words to your advantage and to think and respond analytically. Whilst this obviously does transfer from A-Level to degree level, these skills would be of benefit to students who wish to study Law, Forensic Science, Psychology, or Business – the list goes on. In the work place, communication skills developed through English study would benefit anyone who wishes to move up to management level; while a number of employers in the finance and computing sectors look to employ students with an English background to tailor their existing skills into the industry.
If you are interested in Law specifically, it could be worth considering doing and English to Law conversion course at uni. They are becoming very popular at the moment, and it might be worth looking into.