GCSE English Literature: A Student’s Guide

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Each year, hundreds of thousands of students across the UK take their GCSE exams. As one of the traditional core subjects, English Literature is among the most common subjects taken. However, the exact structure of these exams can be complicated. While most school lessons focus on studying the content of the exams, it is also important to be familiar with what the actual test will look like. This can help you feel better prepared for exam day, as you know what to expect.

This article will go through the details of how GCSE English Literature qualifications for the main exam boards in the UK are organised and assessed. With this knowledge, you will be prepared for the exam, and ready to show off your best work.

How many GCSE English Literature exams are there?

As with most GCSEs, there are multiple exams taken at the end of the English Literature course, which are collectively used to give you a final grade. Generally, exam boards require you to sit two papers. Because there are multiple exams, you might not know how many GCSEs English is worth. If this is the case, this Think Student article has information for you.

Each paper has clearly defined topics that will be assessed, meaning you know which texts and skills to focus your revision on before each exam. There are four main areas you study for this subject: a Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel, a modern play or novel (i.e. from the 20th century), and a poetry collection.

Texts are typically chosen by your school or teacher, but there is a set list of options given by the exam board. For lists of the possible texts you could study for GCSE, including which of these four topic areas they fit into, have a look at this article from thenationalcurriculum.com.

Although the overall content you learn is similar, exactly how the content is split between the two papers varies depending on your exam board. This article will focus on the main three GCSE exam boards in England – AQA, Edexcel and OCR.

GCSE English Literature paper 1

The first GCSE English Literature paper is typically sat in May. The specific date of your exam should be available several months in advance on official exam board websites. As well as this, closer to your GCSE exams, you will be given a timetable by your school with the necessary information.

Of the four general areas of GCSE English Literature listed above, two of them will be assessed in paper 1, and the other two will be assessed in paper 2. Exactly which ones depend one your exam board.

It is always helpful to check your official exam board websites, which have all the information you need about the exam, as well as a specification of exactly what you are expected to know. The specific pages for GCSE English Literature are linked here for AQA, Edexcel and OCR.

If you are unsure which specification you are doing, make sure to check with your English teacher at school, as the details definitely differ between exam boards.

Paper 1 – AQA

If you are taking an AQA exam, paper 1 will first test your knowledge and understanding of the Shakespeare play you have studied. As part of this section, you will be given an extract of the play to analyse, as well as discussing the play as a whole. In the same exam, there will be a question about the 19th century novel that you have gone through in English lessons.

Once again, you will have to write in detail about a given extract, as well as about the themes and context of the novel as a whole.

For AQA, the timing isn’t evenly split between the two papers. This first paper lasts for 1 hour and 45 minutes, and counts towards 40% of your final grade.

Paper 1 – Edexcel

For the exam board Edexcel, paper 1 will also first assess your understanding of your chosen Shakespeare text. The format of this question is very similar to its equivalent in the AQA paper. You will be given an extract and a related question to answer, and then a question that requires you to explore a theme throughout the play.

The second part of this paper, however, will be focussed on the modern British play or text that you have studied. There will be a choice of two essay questions about the text as a whole, out of which you answer one. There are many possible themes for this question, from plot, to characters, to general themes of the text.

Once again, the two papers are not of equal lengths. For Edexcel, the first paper is 1 hour and 45 minutes long – but it counts for 50% of your final grade.

Paper 1 – OCR

If your exam board is OCR, the first part of paper 1 will assess the modern text. Unlike the other exam boards, you will be asked to compare an extract of the text you have studied with a similar extract from a previously unseen text. There will also be a related question focussed on the text you are familiar with. Following this, you will have to answer one essay-style question on the 19th century text that you have studied.

For OCR GCSE English Literature, the time and marks are evenly split between the two papers. The first paper lasts for 2 hours, and counts towards 50% of your final grade.

GCSE English Literature paper 2

There will generally be a bit of a break between the two papers; the second one is most often taken in June, a few weeks after the first. It can be helpful to reflect on how the first paper went, and anything you think you want to improve upon for the second time around.

For example, if you found it difficult to finish your answers in the time given, that can be something you focus on when revising for the second paper.

For the content of paper two, both areas you have studied that are not assessed in paper 1 will be in the second paper you take. This includes the poetry section, and one of the set texts you have been learning about in English lessons.

Paper 2 – AQA

This paper assesses your understanding of the specific modern text you have studied. There is one main essay question – as you will most likely be aware by now, these exams involve a lot of essay writing! Have a look at this article from Think Student for plenty of tips and advice on writing essays for English Literature.

As well as this, there is a poetry section in this paper. First, you will be asked to compare two poems from the anthology you will have studied in school. There is then a question on a poem you have not seen before, as well as a comparison with another unfamiliar poem.

This tests your ability to understand and discuss poems without guidance from a teacher, as the other parts of this qualification are centred around texts you have studied extensively in school.

The total time for this paper is 2 hours and 15 minutes – slightly longer than the paper 1 – and it counts for 60% of the final grade you achieve.

Paper 2 – Edexcel

The first section of this paper focuses on the 19th century novel you have studied. The question will follow the common format of giving you an extract from the text with an associated question, as well as a question that asks you to write about the novel as a whole.

The poetry section of this paper is organised similarly to the AQA paper. Initially, you compare two poems from the variety that you have previously learnt about. This is followed by a comparison of two unknown poems.

Again, this paper is slightly longer than the first. You have 2 hours and 15 minutes to complete it, and it makes up 50% of your final grade.

Paper 3 – OCR

Poetry is the first section of this paper. In a slightly different format, this involves comparing a given poem from the collection you have studied with another poem that you will be unfamiliar with. There will then be a related question, which you can answer with reference to a poem in the set anthology that you choose. The final part of the paper is an essay-style question which focuses on the Shakespeare play you have been learning about in lessons.

Given that the OCR papers are evenly split, this second paper lasts for 2 hours and counts towards 50% of the final grade.

Does GCSE English Literature have coursework?

From 2015, a number of major changes were made to the way GCSE qualifications were assessed and graded. As part of these reforms, there were changes to the importance – and inclusion – of coursework for GCSE English Literature. For a thorough guide to the reforms, check out this article from theuniguide.co.uk.

One part of these changes was making the majority of GCSE courses linear. This means that you study the content and skills necessary for some time (usually two to three years), and then take an exam at the end of your course. Your entire grade is based upon these final exams.

This was a change to the previous system, where many subjects required you to complete non-exam work that would be counted towards the grade you received.

Therefore, the current GCSE English Literature qualification does not include any coursework. Unfortunately, this does not mean you have less work to do while studying for the final exams!

There is lots of content to learn and skills to develop, so schools will set smaller tests throughout the course. Even though these do not have an impact on your final grade, treat each of these tests as a good practice opportunity for the real exams.

How is GCSE English Literature marked?

Once you complete your exam, a copy of your paper is sent to examiners for marking. Often, each examiner will only see and mark a section of your work, rather than a whole paper, which helps with continuity of marking. GCSE marking is anonymous, so the examiner won’t know it’s your paper.

As with all major exams, the process of marking, grading and quality-checking the papers takes a while. Results for GCSE exams are typically released in mid-August. Another part of the GCSE reforms involved changing the grading system. Instead of letters, numbers are now used, so your grade will be on a scale from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest you can achieve.

Knowing what to expect in the exam can help ensure you can complete some of your best work on the day, but revision beforehand is also important. For more tips on revising for GCSE English Literature, check out this Think Student article.

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