Wednesday 28 November 2001
What is it? It is the study of eight texts from different periods and genres of English literature. Students read novels, plays and poetry from a selection of both the old and the new, which are then looked at critically in the context of the time at which they were written. There is a wide choice of pre-1770 texts, including, of course, Shakespeare, and post-1900 texts.
Why do it? Because you love reading, and you enjoyed those English lessons where you really got to grips with a novel, a play or a poem.
What skills do you need? At least a C at GCSE English, plus application and perseverance for the coursework. At A2-level, you will be doing 2,500-word assignments that need plenty of original thought to get the good marks.
How much practical work is there? None, but you must budget for time to spend reading around the books that are central to your studies to get a sense of the time in which they were written.
Ratio of coursework to exams: At the most, 30 per cent (some courses are examination-only).
Is it hard? It's harder than some people think.
Who takes it? The majority are girls, but a healthy proportion of boys take it, too – around one third.
How cool is it? Pretty cool, because you are reading great books, some of them pretty hip, with some controversial themes, and getting your head around them. Margaret Walker, chief examiner in English Literature for Edexcel, says: "You study things that strike a chord in today's society. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood, can raise the subject of the treatment of women by the Taliban, for example."
Added value: Theatre trips, and learning to form opinions and make judgements that you can support – a vital life skill.
What subjects go with it? Just about anything goes with it in the new, broader A-level studies, but history, languages, psychology and English language go particularly well.
What degrees does it lead to? English, linguistics, media and cultural studies, and law are just some of the degrees that it could help you in.
Will it set you up for a brilliant career? It depends on you, really. It is an extremely versatile subject that could take you just about anywhere, although a lot of English graduates do veer towards teaching and journalism. Publishing is another big favourite, so if you discover the next JK Rowling, you'll never have to worry about mortgage interest rates again.
What do the students say? "Literature is always something that I've wanted to study. I learnt to read when I was really young and I'm fascinated by novels," says Charlotte Gray, 17, a pupil at Bromley High School, who is also doing French and business studies at A-level. "The course is just what I expected – all about literature – and I enjoy it very much. I'm looking at the subjugation of women in The Handmaid's Tale for my coursework."
Which awarding bodies offer it? AQA, OCR, Edexcel.
How widely available is it? It's available everywhere.
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