Subject content – A-level

English Literature A’s historicist approach to the study of literature rests upon reading texts within a shared context. Working from the belief that no text exists in isolation but is the product of the time in which it was produced, English Literature A encourages students to explore the relationships that exist between texts and the contexts within which they are written, received and understood. Studying texts within a shared context enables students to investigate and connect them, drawing out patterns of similarity and difference using a variety of reading strategies and perspectives. English Literature A privileges the process of making autonomous meaning, encouraging students to debate and challenge the interpretations of other readers as they develop their own informed personal responses.

Given the spirit of the specification, rather than imposing a uniform list of prescribed set texts, various options are offered in terms of both time period and genre. Across the course, students will study texts both diachronically (produced across a very broad time period) and synchronically (produced within a clearly defined time period).

The specification encourages the exploration of texts in a number of different ways:

  • the study of a literary theme over time
  • the study of literature through engaging with two of the main historicist perspectives, the diachronic (reading texts written across widely different time periods that explore the same theme) and synchronic (reading texts written within a narrower and clearly defined time period)
  • the study of various texts, both singly and comparatively, chosen from a list of core set texts and a list of chosen comparative set texts
  • writing about texts in a number of different ways.

Working within historicist principles means students are required to read widely across a range of texts and connect them across time and topic. Working with texts over time involves looking at ways in which authors shape meanings within their texts. It also involves thinking about a wide range of relevant contexts, some of them to do with the production of the text at the time of its writing, some (where possible) to do with how the text has been received over time and, most of all in this specification, contexts to do with how the text can be interpreted by readers now. And finally, because texts and their meanings are not fixed, interpretation is not fixed, and multiple interpretations are possible.

This specification reflects the belief that the assessment objectives (AOs) work best together, producing a rounded and holistic view of English literature. Thus all five AOs are assessed in each question. See Assessment objectives section.

When used in AS and A-level English Literature questions, the term ‘significance’ has a very specific use and gives access to AOs 2, 3, 4 and 5. Its use here derives from semiotics and involves understanding the idea of 'signification'. In the way literary study is configured in this specification, significance involves weighing up all the potential contributions to how a text can be analysed: through the way the text is constructed and written; through text specific contexts that can be relevantly applied; through connecting the text(s) to other texts; and then finding potential meanings and interpretations.

Whilst the course invites a variety of written response types, these will all encourage critical debate. In each task, students will be required to argue and to show personal responses and critical preferences, supported by the terminology relevant to the topics and contexts with which they are engaging. In doing so, they will be able to show 'creativity'. Taken as a whole, therefore, English Literature A not only equips students with the knowledge and skills needed for both exams and non-exam assessment, but also opens up a rich, challenging and coherent approach to English literature that provides an excellent basis for studying the subject at university.

Both examined elements of the course have the methodologies of historicism at their centre. In Love through the ages, the theme of love, one of the most central themes in literature, is explored across time. In Texts in shared contexts, students explore texts written within a narrower and clearly defined time period: either WW1 and its aftermath, or Modern times: literature from 1945 to the present day. The non-exam assessment element offers students the freedom to compare texts either diachronically or synchronically.

Connecting and exploring texts: principles and rationale

This specification promotes as wide a choice of texts for you and your students as possible within a clear and helpful framework. The requirement in the subject criteria for students to study a minimum of eight texts from particular genres and periods has been organised as follows:

Component Section Text type Genre requirement Text requirement
Love through the ages A One core set text One drama text Shakespeare
B Two comparative set texts One poetry and one prose text One must be written pre-1900
Texts in shared contexts A One core set text One drama, one poetry and one prose text One must be written post-2000
B Two comparative set texts
Texts across time   Two independently chosen texts Choice of genre One must be written pre-1900

Within and across each examined element of the course, a shared context links the texts studied and thereby opens up fruitful areas of comparative study. The shared context gives the students’ reading a clear focus and encourages them to develop close and comparative reading skills. With the ability to select texts from the lists relevant to each component, you have not only the high degree of autonomous text choice but also the knowledge that students will be well prepared for the specific demands of each exam. This flexibility is enhanced by the non-exam assessment, which offers as free a choice of independently selected texts as possible for both you and your students, ensuring that you have the freedom to create a coherent course of study for your students.

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