• English Literature A Level

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The study of English Literature at A-Level naturally leads on from GCSE English. The course is 2 years and is examined twice. The entire GCE A-Level is split into two sections, AS and A2. The difference between these varies considerably in terms of the amount of work involved, teaching style, and the level of written work you will be expected to produce. English A-Level would suit anyone with an interest in Literature, however diverse this maybe for you. If you're predicted a B (OCR stipulates a minimum of a grade C at GCSE, but I think to access high marks at A-Level, you should be expecting a B) at GCSE or above, then English Literature A-Level might just be for you.

Doing English Literature will encourage the development of your interest and enjoyment or reading widely and learning to critically analyse as you read. As you progress through the course you will hopefully become a confident reader of a range of texts and your skills of response and analyse will be improved, especially with expressing your responses in a successful way. You will learn to use critical concepts and a wide range of new terminology and you will also be encouraged to work independently and deciding on your own interpretations of the texts that you read.

(Please note that this article needs updating. The new A Levels (first teaching September 2008) only have four units: 2 AS units, 2 A2 units)


Depending on which exam board you are on, the exact nature of the syllabus will differ naturally, so what follows is only an outline of what kind of things will be expected from you at AS, and what happened for me.


The AS syllabus will normally consist of 3 sections.

Drama: Shakespeare (No text will be allowed into the exam for this module).

This is exam is by far the hardest one you'll encounter at AS Level. It's worth 30% of your AS grade, or 15% of your entire A-Level. The paper is split into 2 sections. The 1st is, according to the cheif examiner of OCR English, the hardest thing you'll have to do at AS. This will be a passage based question, a little like Practical Criticism (see 'English at Cambridge'), but clearly not as advanced. You are advised to spend about 45 minutes on this. It is challenging, but you should get lots of practice, and you can practice yourself easily. Section 2 is an essay and again you're expected to spend 45 minutes on this.

Poetry and Prose (Texts are allowed in this exam).

This exam is worth 40% of your AS grade, or 20% of your A-Level. This exam requires the most preparation and work, but you're allowed your texts, so learning quotes for this isn't an issue. Again, 45 minutes on each essay here is advised. You're asked 1 essay question on your poetry text, and one on your prose text. I enjoyed this module thoroughly and was by far the best thing about AS.


This is the compulsory coursework element at AS. Your teacher will choose any text for you to follow. It's worth 30% of your AS or 15% of your A-Level. This is the module where you can really get marks in the bag. It can often balance out a poor performance on either of your other two papers.

--ninjapanda. 13.08.2006 13:24 BST



Unit 1: Aspects of Narrative (assessed by examination) Four texts will be studied, two of which from section A and the other two from section B. Two will usually be novels and the other two will be collections of poems. At my school we do The great Gatsby, The kite Runner for novels and Auden and Browning for poetry collections.

Unit 2: Dramatic Genres (coursework assessment) This is studying two plays within the genre of tragedy. At least one will be by Shakespere. You produce two pieces of written coursework both focused on the aspect of the dramatic/tragedy genre. My school chooses to do Othello and Death Of A Salesman for the two pieces.

Overall, the coursework unit equals 40% of the overall AS and the exam unit equals 60%.



AS 1: The Study of Drama - Internal Assessment (Coursework)

Section A: The Study of Shakespeare

Students study one of the following texts:

  • Henry IV Part I
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • The Tempest
  • As You Like It
  • Richard II

Section B: The Study of a Twentieth Century Dramatist

Students study two plays by one of the following post-1900 dramatists:

  • Edward Albee
  • Alan Bennett
  • Caryl Churchill
  • Brian Friel
  • Arthur Miller
  • Sean O’Casey
  • Harold Pinter
  • Peter Shaffer
  • Tom Stoppard
  • Timberlake Wertenbaker
  • Tennessee Williams

AS 2: The Study of Poetry Written after 1800 and The Study of Prose 1800 - 1945

Section A: The Study of Poetry Written after 1800

Students study a set of paired texts by one of the following paired poets:

  • Hopkins and Dickinson
  • Duffy and Lochhead
  • Heaney and Montague
  • Thomas (E) and Frost
  • Yeats and Kavanagh

Section B: The Study of Prose 1800 – 1945

Students study one of the following texts:

  • Jane Austen: Mansfield Park
  • Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
  • E.M. Forster: A Passage to India
  • Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South
  • Thomas Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge


The A2 syllabus naturally follows on from AS and consists of 3 further units. I believe this is pretty standard across most boards.

Poetry and Drama (Pre 1900, no texts allowed in this exam).

This paper is challenging. Since you're not allowed texts in this exam learning quotes is a must. Often you'll encounter your most difficult A-Level texts here so secondary reading is a must (see below). The exam is 2 hours long and is worth 15% of your A-Level. In this paper you are asked 2 questions. The paper is very much similar to the Poetry and Prose paper at AS but is more challenging in terms of secondary criticism and general feel of the essay (see tips below).

Prose (Post 1914, either coursework or exam).

This is probably the easiest paper/ module at A2. The format is pretty straightforward. You'll have 1 text you'll study and then be asked 2 questions on it and they'll either be exam ones or coursework. Again, follow the advice given about the AS coursework. It's a good bank of marks for your final grade.

Comparative and Contextual Study (No texts are allowed into this exam).

This is probably the hardest thing you'll do in your two years studying A-Level English. You'll be set a genre, be it Victorian Novel, 20th Century American Literature (what I'm doing) etc etc. Basically, you can read anything within these baggy titles and you can use anything you've read in your exam. It is vital you do read around the set texts that you will study in class as contextual knowledge is vital. The exam is 2 hours long, but you'll have 15 minutes reading time before. The paper is split into 2 sections. Section A will require you to comment on an unseen passage (what the reading time is meant for), again this is similar to Practical Criticism. Knowledge of other texts in this genre will be vital for comparrison etc. Section B will be an essay and the essay will usually relate to the context of a particular text. Mentioning other texts you have read will be invaluable as the more you read within the genre, the more material you have to refer to etc.

--ninjapanda. 13.08.2006 13:24 BST


AQA Unit 3: Texts and Genres (assessed by examination) A minimum of three texts will be studied from elements of the Gothic genre. One of which must be from 1300-1800. In the exam there are two questions that you must answer, one Section A question and one Section B question.

Unit 4: Further and Independent Reading (coursework assessment) You study at least three texts, one of which will be a pre-released anthology and there will be two pieces of written coursework. The first piece will be a comparitive study and the other will be on an aspect of critical anthology to literary text.



A2 1: The Study of Poetry – 1300-1800 and Drama

Section A: Poetry from 1300-1800

Students study one of the following texts:

  • Chaucer: The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale
  • Donne: Selected Poems
  • Pope: The Rape of the Lock
  • Goldsmith: Selected Poems

Section B: Drama

Students study one of the following sets of paired texts:


  • Johnson: Volpone
  • Sheridan : The School for Scandal

Historical Drama

  • Eliot: Murder in the Cathedral
  • Bolt: A Man for all Seasons

Drama of Social Realism

  • Isben: A Doll’s House
  • Osborne: Look Back in Anger


  • Shakespeare: King Lear
  • Heaney: Burial at Thebes (Sophocles’ Antigone translated by Seamus Heaney)

A2 2: The Study of Prose – theme based

Section A: Close analysis of an extract from a post-1990 novel

Students must closely analyse an extract from one of the following novels. The themes appear in italics:


  • Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried

Women in Society

  • Jennifer Johnston: The Illusionist

The Outsider

  • Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy


  • Roddy Doyle: Paddy Clarke Ha-Ha-Ha

Section B: Comparison of two novels on the same theme as that chosen for Section A

Students compare two novels from the selection of three for each theme:


  • Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage
  • Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five

Women in Society

  • Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
  • Jean Rhys: The Wide Sargasso Sea
  • Alice Walker: The Colour Purple

The Outsider

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
  • Albert Camus: The Outsider
  • JD Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye


  • Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Toni Morrison: A Bluest Eye
  • JG Ballard: Empire of the Sun

Extra reading at A-Level

As I've already mentioned, reading secondary criticism around your chosen texts is vital to success at A-Level. This can be done by going into your Library etc. and even just using 'The Casebook series' as these give great introductory essays about an author, text etc. As you get used to inserting quotes from critics into your essays you'll get more critical yourself and you'll begin to argue with a critics opinion, giving your essay some energy and orginiality which is vital for Band 1 (A Grade) marks at A-Level. Often you'll find some good introductory information in the introductions of classic novels which maybe useful as background reading or reference.

A useful text of reference throughout your A-Level career, and certainly if you decide to continue English to University, is 'The Poetry Handbook' by Lennard. I bought a copy of this for my AS Coursework as I was doing Keats and for the passage based essay question this helped me considerably as you will be expected to use a lot of technical words etc.

--ninjapanda. 13.08.2006 13:24 BST

General advice

So that's pretty much it. English A-Level is very enjoyable indeed. You'll find the teaching style very different to GCSE as you'll be less spoon fed and you'll be required to form your own opinions and to defend them. This is excellent practice for University study if you choose to continue with English. If you feel constricted whilst studying GCSE English, then you'll definitely enjoy English at A-Level because, especially at A2, there is much more scope to read more and around your interests too. I cannot recommend it enough. It's highly enjoyable and you'll get a lot out of it.

--ninjapanda. 13.08.2006 13:24 BST

You will find English literature A level will combine well with most subjects, especially History and most humanities subjects.

In addition, A Level English Literature exams are known to be notoriously hard even for the brightest students with over 90% of students gaining C grade or less, making it the hardest and most facilitating subject along with the likes of History and Chemistry. It has also been a joke among academics and students that any student who manages to get an A should seek medical attention due to the hard nature of the essays.

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