A-Level English

What is A-Level English?

In studying English Literature A-Level at dOverbroecks you will explore the rich psychology of unforgettable characters, the motives of writers, and the political, social and historical contexts in which texts were written and read. Quite simply, the English Literature A-Level is about almost everything.

The texts that youll be studying date from 1390 to just a few years ago, but they are timeless in that they explore the fundamentals of what it is to be human. Mary Shelley may only have been 18 when she wrote her gothic tale, Frankenstein, but she understood all too clearly the exhilaration and the dangers of being in the grip of an obsession. Meanwhile, in Othello, Shakespeare lays bare those dark human drives jealousy and envy, complicated by issues of race and otherness.  Margaret Atwoods highly topical dystopia The Handmaids Tale will transport you to the horrors of living in a fundamentalist society. And if that all seems less than cheerful, on a brighter note, you cannot fail to be amused by the Wife of Bath, one of the most vibrant, life-loving and downright shameless characters ever created! 

How do writers – and that includes you – succeed in shaping the responses and opinions of their readers? How do they draw you into the worlds they create? Why do they make you laugh, cry, empathise?  Do writers from different eras write differently?

The study of English Literature trains the brain and frees the imagination; it is about life and living and where you fit into the world around you.

What you'll do

The course offers students the chance to study a rich variety of literature from many different periods. The texts are stimulating and interesting and there are several opportunities for students to develop their own interests and bring their own independent skills to the tasks.

We study a total of eight literary texts over the two years in preparation for the four ‘components’ of the A-Level.  The three written exams are taken at the end of the second year, while the coursework is completed in the Autumn term of the second year.

  • Component 1: Drama.  This written exam lasts 2 hours and 15 minutes and is worth 30% of the total qualification.  It consists of two sections, one on ‘Shakespeare’ and one on ‘Other Drama’.  We will be studying William Shakespeare’s Othello and Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus.  For the former play, students incorporate ideas culled from a range of critical interpretations.
  • Component 2Prose.  In this 1 hour written exam, worth 20% of the total, students write an essay comparing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The answers should include analysis of the effects of various contexts such as Romanticism, the Gothic, and Feminism.
  • Component 3Poetry.  This written exam lasts 2 hours and 15 minutes and is worth 30% of the total.  It comprises two sections.  In the first section, students answer one question from a choice of two comparing an unseen poem with a named poem from their Poems of the Decade anthology.  In the second section, students answer a question on our set text, Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Students need to comment on the meaning of the text and explore the decisions made by the writer in terms of structure, form, imagery, language and so on. For the set text, relevant contextual factors also need to be discussed.
  • Component 4Coursework.  Students produce one extended comparative essay (2500-3000 words) referring to two texts.  This is worth 20% of the total qualification. Schools are given a free choice of texts, and we have chosen to examine American Drama after the Second World War – a tried and tested topic that has always proved very popular with students.  In preparation for the coursework, we look closely at the relationship between text and context and students tend to find this period of American History particularly interesting. It covers, for example, the Presidency of JFK, the importance and power of ‘The American Dream’, the Cold War, and many other things.  Two plays are studied: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee – but we also study the views of other readers, performances of the plays on stage and screen and the enduring relevance of the two central plays.

Whom does this subject suit?

Youll enjoy studying English:

  • If you like ideas and discussion and studying how others seek to manipulate us.
  • If you enjoy reading and becoming immersed in the worlds others create, and wonder how they were able to exert such an influence upon you.
  • If you want to explore times past, times yet to come and times that will never be.
  • If you cherish words and think that it would be useful – in all aspects of your life – to have a richer reservoir of words and the freedom to articulate your thoughts clearly and compellingly.
  • If you like reading and enjoy putting pen to paper in a robust and imaginative way.

It will help to have an open mind, an enquiring brain and a willingness to work hard. The requisite academic skills are a clear mind, a pithy and precise writing style, sensitivity to nuance and hidden meaning and a good level of general knowledge in order that you can de-code’ symbols and imagery.

Many of these strengths you will gain and polish throughout the two years and we will encourage you to do this through debate and discussion. The study of literature is about sharing perspectives and opinions and challenging received assumptions in order to reach a strong personal understanding. In our small groups we want to stimulate debate and give students the confidence to express their own judgements and develop these so they are based on close, accurate textual understanding. A good sense of humour and a willingness to laugh are undoubted advantages.

What might the subject lead to?

Almost anything. Well, not an Engineer, Vet or Doctor, obviously (though the subject is highly valued by medical schools, for example), but that still leaves plenty of room for manoeuvre. Universities value English A-Level because it develops transferable skills such as critical thinking, oral and written communication, and the ability to carry out independent research.  Employers also tend to believe that a degree in English is a good thing, reflecting a creative and rigorous mind, an ability to communicate effectively and self-discipline. Past students are to be found in TV and journalism, commerce and finance, politics and the law. Some have become teachers, actors and writers.