A Guide to GCSE English Literature

GCSE English Literature

What is English Literature? 

The other half of English studies is the GCSE English Literature course. This differs from English Language, in that it is focused on in-depth study of themes and characters, rather than English Language which considers all the different ways we use language to communicate. English Literature focuses predominantly on fiction (although there is a literary non-fiction genre as well) and is concerned with how writers develop ideas across a whole text. It is much more centred on forming interpretations of a text and generating debate. 

What is the examination? 

As with English Language, there are two papers to sit for English Literature. Students will study set texts, and these will be selected by the school/teacher from a number of set options. The format of the papers will differ depending upon the examination board, but as with language, they will tend to assess similar skills in each one. 

English Literature Paper One 

Shakespeare and the Nineteenth-Century Novel 

For the first section, your child will have studied a Shakespeare play in class with their teacher. The examination normally includes an extract question and a question about the whole play. 

Similarly, the second section on the Nineteenth-Century novel, and again there will be an extract question and one on the whole novel. 

English Literature Paper Two 

Modern texts and poetry 

The first section of the paper will focus on twentieth-century texts, such as An Inspector Calls or Lord of the Flies. It could be either prose or drama. 

For the second section, your child will have studied a collection of poems with their teacher, linked to a theme. They will write about some of these poems, and there will also be an unseen poetry section of the examination. 

What skills does my child need? 

One of the key skills needed to achieve high marks in English Literature, is the ability to form interpretations of a piece of writing. This means deciding for themselves what the key message of the text is and what effect the writer was trying to achieve. The top level students will understand that texts can be interpreted in a variety of ways and that it is possible to come up with different readings. 

Another crucial skill is being able to come up with the evidence in order to support these interpretations. Since the examinations are normally closed book, this means students will need to have spent some time learning quotations as part of their revision. 

Once they have identified the evidence, they must also show that they understand and analyse the methods that the writer has used. These can include the use of language (metaphor, simile, adverb and so on), the use of form (narrative voice/perspective, dialogue and so on) and structure (flashbacks, cliffhangers and so on). The vital thing the examiners are looking for here is not just that the student can analyse these devices, but also that they can fully evaluate how these techniques are used by the writer in order to develop his/her key message. 

Another element of GCSE English Literature that your child needs to explore is the historical context of the set text. This means thinking about the time period in which it was written, and how this may affect the way in which we see the text and understand it. For example, when studying A Christmas Carol, students need to have an understanding of the conditions that the poor were living in during the Victorian period, and institutions such as the workhouse. Without this knowledge, students cannot truly understand Dickens’ full message. 

How can my child develop these skills?

Read the text multiple times – I am always surprised at how many students have only read their set text once in class with their teacher. Rereading a set text is not a waste of time – it is a valuable process that is necessary in order to develop the required knowledge to be able to write about it effectively. Reading also needs to be an active process, whereby students are annotating in their copies or using sticky notes to mark key passages they may wish to come back to. Having their own copies of their set texts is also a must, as it is their most important revision resource. 

Devise effective strategies for learning quotations – this is something that students tend to find tricky. Learning quotations can be a highly overwhelming task, unless there is a clear process in place. Students should ensure that they are selecting the quotations to learn by theme or character, and that they are not attempting to learn quotations that are too long. Often students are not selective enough when it comes to which quotations to learn, and they are wasting their time learning long quotations that they are never going to use. 

Look at exemplar answers – exemplar answers will show your child how to develop and extend their own answers to achieve greater depth. They can also see that there is no one strategy for achieving top mark answers and it is about them finding the style and technique that works best. 

Get involved in discussions and debates about the texts – This can include class discussions, but if your child tends to withdraw in classroom discussions, then meeting up with a few friends to revise together can help with this. It is really beneficial to have to come up with a point of view and then practice defending it, with evidence from the text. 

Work on planning skills – structuring answers is another area that students struggle with. They have lots of excellent ideas on the texts, but they do not know how to actually express them effectively. Planning answers can help with this. In particular, mind maps can be a good way to follow the development of an argument in an essay, and to check that the ideas flow together. Every paragraph in a literature essay needs to have a clear point, that is then developed with evidence and analysis. Mind maps naturally lend themselves to this structuring, and help students to organise their thoughts more clearly. 

Looking for further English support for your child? Bright Sky Tutoring offers one to one and small group tuition for KS2 upwards. To find out more, get in touch at hello@brightskytutoring.com

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