Get to grips with English Literature GCSE

In our last post we looked at some tips and tricks for success at GCSE English. Today it’s the turn of GCSE English Literature.

It’s important to clear up the confusion that exists between the two subjects. GCSE English is a compulsory subject for school students. It covers a range of skills that are broadly divided into reading, writing, speaking and listening. It usually includes some study of literary texts (usually short poems), but mainly focuses on day-to-day English skills. As we saw in the last post, GCSE English is sometimes referred to as English Language or “straight” English to differentiate it from GCSE English Literature.

Unlike “straight” English, English Literature is not compulsory at GCSE, but because it is so closely related to GCSE English many schools teach the subjects side by side, and enter a substantial number of students for English Literature as a matter of course. Less able students will sometimes not take GCSE English Literature in order to focus on the basic skills needed for a pass at GCSE English.

To clear up a further point of confusion, when colleges, universities and employers stipulate that applicants should have “GCSE English and Maths”, they are referring to GCSE English, not GCSE English Literature.

Your child will almost certainly have the same teacher or teachers for both GCSE English and GCSE English Literature. Any qualified English teacher will be able to teach both. So if, for example, you approach 121 Home Tutors for English assistance, we’ll be able to put you in touch with a tutor who can help your child with both subjects.

What does GCSE English Literature involve?
GCSE English Literature is focussed entirely on the study of literary texts – poems, novels, short stories and plays. This may seem pretty distant from the demands of everyday life, but in fact the subject helps students to develop a range of very valuable skills, and reinforces some of those developed during the study of GCSE English. In particular, studying English Literature is useful for developing close reading skills – the ability to “read between the lines” of documents that will come in useful during a career in law or business.

Your child will study a range of literary texts, and will be tested by a combination of written exams, coursework and – possibly – coursework written under controlled conditions in the classroom. In the past, some exam boards made it possible to complete a GCSE in English Literature just by submitting coursework. These days, the balance has shifted back towards exams. Most boards award final marks based on written exams (usually around 70% of the total mark) and coursework (usually around 30%) combined.

One of the key areas of difficulty students face during GCSE English Literature is dealing with literary texts written prior to the twentieth century. All English Literature GCSE specifications include a pre-twentieth century component, and all require students to study at least some Shakespeare.

Quite a few students – the technically and scientifically minded as much as the less able – find Shakespeare and other pre-twentieth century authors mystifying and intimidating. If you’re helping your child approach GCSE English Literature, there are some strategies you can use to help him or her cope with older texts:

    Remember that Shakespeare and co. weren’t writing in ‘Old English’ – people stopped speaking and writing genuine Old English half a millennium before Shakespeare was even born. Shakespeare’s plays are, in fact, written in early modern English, which uses some different vocabulary and constructions from the English we use today, but is basically the same language.

    The secret to reading books and poems that were written a hundred or more years ago is to take it slowly. It’s only in the last couple of centuries that the majority of people have become ‘silent readers’, able to understand the written word without reading aloud. In the 1600s, the poet John Milton – author of Paradise Lost – was considered remarkable because he could read without moving his lips. Because of this, writers in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries expected their readers to go steadily – they certainly weren’t writing for people who use the silent, ‘scanning’ method of reading that’s common today. Slow down, and everything will begin to make sense.

    A good dictionary is really useful. Go back a century or two, and most books were owned and read by wealthy, educated people. Writing for such an audience, authors didn’t feel the need to simplify the vocabulary they used. As such, some words are quite tough. If your child is struggling with a pre-twentieth century text, working through it slowly with a dictionary can be a big help.

If you and your child are really struggling with older texts – or with GCSE English Literature in general – feel free to get in touch with 121 Home Tutors. We’ll be happy to match you with a suitably qualified English tutor in the Manchester or Cheshire area.

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