Unlike the sciences, while English is split into different sub-subjects, they are still somewhat similar. You might find yourself asking, what exactly is the benefit to studying them separately? Should you pick one over the other, and if so, which one? It’s completely normal to be asking these questions. I know I did when it came to my own studies
The most important thing is obviously the answers to these questions, which I’m here to help you with! Keep reading this guide to clear up all your confusion about the two sides to English at any educational level.
Table of Contents
What does it mean to study English literature?
When you think of “English literature”, you probably think of Shakespeare or Dickens. English literature is all about analysing important texts and authors.
A huge part of English literature revolves around meaning. If you enjoy looking for hidden meanings in texts, then you’ll definitely want to study English literature, whether just at GCSE level or even further.
English literature as a subject involves thinking about literary techniques – why a writer has chosen to do something. This might be in the language they use, or the form the text takes. Similarly, in English literature, you’ll study how context influences a text.
The key difference between this and English language is that English literature is a constructive process. However, below, I’ll discuss in more detail how English language differs.
What does it mean to study English language?
English language can seem a lot more ambiguous than English literature. After all, you aren’t looking at set texts or certain people.
English language focuses on how we use language to communicate. This involves using materials like transcripts to study how we communicate with other people effectively.
English language isn’t just limited to the use of words. It also involves looking at things like pitch and tone. If you’re interested in the more “human” aspects of English as a subject, then you’ll definitely find English language an interesting subject.
You have to study English language for GCSE, but it becomes optional at A-Level and beyond. I’d seriously recommend taking English language beyond GCSE. Not only is it favoured by universities and a good subject to have under your belt, but I found it really interesting and engaging.
What is the difference between English language and literature?
The main difference between English language and English literature is that, in English language, you tend to study speech, whereas in English literature you study writing. While in English language you will study speech in text form, it was still designed to be said aloud, unlike literature. As I mentioned earlier, literature is widely considered an art form.
Sometimes, the subjects do overlap. For example, in English language and literature you’ll look at meaning and how it’s conveyed. The techniques are very different, but the skill you gain is the same. This is one reason why I found studying both incredibly helpful, because they support each other nicely.
Another difference that catches students off guard, including myself, is that with English language there are a lot of terms you have to learn. Surprisingly, there is less terminology to learn for English literature. This is mostly because you focus more on meaning. English language involves a lot more theory and concept than English literature.
GCSE English Language and Literature
GCSE English Language and GCSE English Literature are both compulsory GCSEs. Alongside GCSE Maths and GCSE Science, you must pass these GCSEs to further your education.
This is because the skills you gain in these GCSEs are considered ‘essential’. If you fail these subjects for whatever reason, you’ll have to retake them.
Earlier in the article, I went through what it means to study English literature and English language. Having studied English up to degree level, I’d say that the English language and literature GCSEs teach you the basic skills you’ll need for later academic life, no matter what subject.
What is GCSE English Literature like?
In GCSE English Literature, you’ll study the “Big 3” forms of texts: novels, plays and poetry. You have to study at least one Shakespeare play.
From my experience, the novel you study will almost definitely be written by a famous literary figure like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. The main aim of GCSE English Literature is for you to analyse the texts that have had the greatest influence on literature.
GCSE English Literature is essentially all about your ability to “read between the lines”. It develops what are called critical thinking skills, which are needed in both education and employment.
I’d definitely say that, from my experience, GCSE English Literature is more complex than GCSE English Language. If you want a full guide to the GCSE, I’d recommend taking a look at this Think Student article.
What is GCSE English Language like?
In GCSE English Language, you’ll analyse interviews, speeches and articles. This teaches you how language is used to communicate our wants and needs, and thoughts and ideas, with others. You’ll also be asked to produce your own creative writing pieces, fiction and non-fiction, to see how you use language to communicate.
GCSE English Language is quite broad, which makes the content difficult to learn. If you feel like you want to get ahead of other student, this Think Student article has recommendations for good books to read.
A big component in English language is speech, as I’ve already discussed. For your GCSE you will have to give a speech to receive your full qualification. This can definitely seem daunting, but it was actually one of my favourite parts of GCSE English Language!
Unfortunately, I can’t cover everything about GCSE English Language in this article. If you want to learn more, this Think Student article has an in-depth guide to the subject which will be useful if you’re doing GCSEs.
Are English language and literature separate GCSEs?
English language and English literature are two separate GCSEs. When you receive your GCSE certificate on results day, you’ll be given two separate grades.
If you happen to pass one and fail the other, you’ll only have to retake the GCSE that you failed. Hopefully it won’t come to that for you, though! Tips on how to smash GCSE English Language and achieve a grade 9 can be found in a Think Student article linked for you here.
For more information on how many GCSEs subjects are worth, I’d recommend checking out this Think Student article.
What are the GCSE English exam boards?
In England and Wales, there are four different exam boards for GCSE English: AQA, OCR, Pearson Edexcel and WJEC/ Eduqas. You might be thinking, why do you need different exam boards?
Well, different exam boards have slight differences between them. For example, they may have different texts for you to study. For example, I studied ‘A Christmas Carol’ at GCSE, but my friend under a different exam board studied Pride and Prejudice.
While the final decision on texts is up to your school, each exam board will have a list of set texts to choose from. You can find more about these by clicking on the respective links with each exam board to find their specifications: AQA, OCR, Pearson Edexcel and WJEC/ Eduqas.
Exams are also formatted differently between the boards. For example, you might be given an article to analyse for GCSE English Language.
Whereas someone under a different exam board might be given a speech. GCSE English exam boards vary between schools, but never within a school.
Revising for GCSE English Literature can be hard when different exam boards set you different texts. I struggled with this a lot, because there were no specific online resources I could use. For the ultimate guide into revision for GCSE English Literature, check out this Think Student article.
Which is more important: GCSE English Literature or GCSE English Language?
I studied both English language and English literature for my A-Levels and degree, and I would argue that English language is more important. The reason I say this is because English language is all about how language is used in our everyday life. Therefore, a good understanding of language will benefit you more than literature.
Plus, GCSE English Language is compulsory. This means that unless you get at least a grade 4 in your final exams, you will have to repeat it until you do or until you get to 18.
Don’t get me wrong, analysing literature is still a great skill to have. I really enjoyed both my GCSEs, which is why I carried on studying both at A-Level and degree level – I couldn’t choose! However, I find that I get more use out of my English language GCSE.
Due to its importance, I put in a little more work revising for my English language GCSE than I did for my English literature GCSE. However, I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you’re struggling with English literature. However, you can find some useful revision tips for GCSE English Language here in a Think Student article.
While I can’t get into the full debate in this article, you can find a much better, more detailed discussion in a Think Student article here.
How many English GCSE papers are there?
The GCSE papers you’ll have to sit for English depends on your exam board. Thankfully, for GCSE English, all the exam boards have the same number of papers, which is 4.
For each exam board, there are 2 papers for GCSE English Language, and 2 papers for GCSE English Literature. GCSE English Literature and GCSE English Language papers are always separate, so don’t worry about being caught out by a mix of the two.
Remember that for all exam boards, you’ll also have to give a speech as part of your English language GCSE. For more on this, check out this governmental guide.
Depending on the exam board, you might also have coursework as part of your GCSEs. For more information about this, this Think Student article has all the details you’ll need. You can also look here for information by WJEC on the non-exam assessment for GCSE English Literature.
A-Level English Language and Literature
A-Level English Language and Literature was my favourite subject. I originally wanted to pursue History at university but taking this A-Level completely changed my mind.
Some exam boards offer English language and literature as separate A-Levels, while other exam boards offer it as one combined A-Level. This is commonly referred to as English Lang/Lit.
In the following sections, I’ll take you through the major differences between the combined and separate English A-Levels. I’ll also talk more about how to revise for English at A-Level, and in general, so keep reading
How is A-Level English Language and Literature different to A-Level English Language or A-Level English Literature?
For the combined A-Level English Lang/Lit, you’ll study a mix of texts and spoken language pieces. For my A-Level, I still studied plays, novels, and poetry, but I also analysed transcripts, speeches, and non-fiction texts.
The specification for A-Level English Lang/Lit is a lot broader than the individual English A-Levels. If you like studying across a wide range, it’s definitely for you!
In A-Level English Language, you won’t study the literary works of great writers like Shakespeare. Instead, you’ll look more at language function and theory.
A-Level English Language is definitely a lot more technical than A-Level English Literature. This is why there’s such a big jump between GCSE and A-Level work.
In A-Level English Literature, you’ll look at big collections of “classic” texts. By classics, I mean both old and contemporary writers, from Shakespeare to Ian McEwan.
You’ll look in depth at big novels, poetry collections, and multiple plays. If you love exploring meaning and style, A-Level English Literature is right for you.
A-Level English Lang/Lit, A-Level English Language and A-Level English Literature all require coursework. However, this is really about the only thing that connects them in terms of structure. You’ll have very different experiences depending on which area of A-Level English you decide to choose!
Is A-Level English Language and Literature worth it?
In my opinion, A-Level English Language and Literature is absolutely, one-hundred-percent worth it. As I mentioned previously, it was my favourite A-Level and the reason I changed my mind with my degree choices.
I couldn’t be happier studying English Lang/Lit at degree level now! If you have an enthusiasm for the subject, I’d strongly advise you to take the A-Level.
Even if you have absolutely no intention of pursuing English beyond A-Levels, it’s still a super fun and interesting A-Level to take. I have friends who took the A-Level and loved it but went on to do STEM subjects such as Computer Science at university.
English language and literature degree
English language and literature at degree level is quite similar to A-Level study. I find myself going back to work I did for A-Level English Lang/Lit to help me with university work! If you enjoyed the A-Level, then I almost guarantee you would enjoy an English language and literature degree.
While degree content differs between university, in my degree there is less focus on the English language aspect of study. Most of the degree is focused on analysing novels, poetry and plays, like at A-Level and GCSE. However, you can still introduce English language aspects to your work!
One of the great things about English language and literature at degree level is that you have the freedom to write about the works/authors you want to. In GCSE and A-Level English, there isn’t much freedom of choice, whereas there is in your degree, which is something I’m really enjoying!
How to revise for your English exams
English exams are notoriously hard to revise for, because it all depends on the questions you’re given in the exams. However, there are still some certified revision techniques that’ll get you through exams. In the following sections, I’ll guide you through how to revise for English literature and English language.
English exams, whether language or literature, involve a lot of essay writing. Essays will be your main exam feature all the way through GCSEs, A-Levels and university. If you need help writing essays, I’d recommend either this Think Student article.
How to revise for English literature
The best tip I can give you for revision for English literature is to revise key quotes. It’s guaranteed that at least one of, if not all your exams will be closed book. Key quotes are an absolute must, because you won’t be able to get above a passing grade without them.
Another thing to revise is terminology. It’s important that you don’t fall into the habit of feature-spotting, but you need terminology to explain your ideas.
Plus, terminology is what sets you apart from other students. If you throw in a few good pieces of terminology, your examiners will definitely be more impressed because they know that you know what you’re talking about.
If you’d like more tips for revising English literature, particularly A-Level English Literature, check out this Think Student article.
How to revise for English language
Revision for English language is both similar and very different to English literature. Like English literature, the most important focus for revising English language should be on terminology.
Since meaning isn’t as important as it is in English literature, terminology is what will get you the most marks.
If you’d like more tips on how to revise for A-Level English Language, you can find them in a Think Student article linked here.