A level English Literature

Exam Board: Pearson Edexcel

What is the A level about?

In studying A level English Literature at Kingham Hill, you embark upon an intellectually lively and challenging discipline that can be successfully paired with all subjects. Pupils study a wide variety of texts, ranging from 21st-century speculative writing to the metaphysical conceits of 17th-century poetry. Exploration of the literature often leads to the lively and imaginative discussion of philosophical, political, historical and sociological topics. English Literature is, at its heart, the study of the human condition. Pupils will delve into the course and expand their minds and ideas, all whilst honing the qualities of Kingham Hill English: thoughtful reading, critical thinking and creative, eloquent expression.

What does the A level consist of?

A level English Literature comprises four components: Drama, Poetry, Prose and Coursework. Literature specialists in the English department are passionate about their subsections and devise courses that challenge and inspire pupils with deep reading lists, dynamic debates and critical, compelling written assignments.

Drama (30%)

As an A level English Literature pupil, you will study works of drama from arguably the most exciting period in the history of English culture and society: the English Renaissance. Spanning the period between the early 16th and early 17th centuries, this crucial artistic period took its lead from the intellectual revolution begun in Florence in the 14th century, and saw the birth of two of English Literature’s most celebrated sons, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

As a pupil of Elizabethan drama, you will recognise how antipathy between those who adhered to two different forms of Christian worship created a schism illustrated within the literature of the period. You’ll recognise the significance of the Greek and Roman world upon this period of intellectual and educational revolution and appreciate how the genius of Marlowe and Shakespeare means that their works are the cornerstone of our A level syllabus.

Year 1

The first year of the course is dedicated to understanding something of the intellectual climate of the period, including an introduction to Renaissance Humanism, key biographical analysis, and the tension between Catholicism and Protestantism. We also begin to think closely about the technical characteristics of works of this period, including Marlowe’s pioneering use of blank verse and classical allusion as well as the manner in which he made use of features of the medieval morality play tradition. Finally, we consider to what extent the play Dr. Faustus is illustrative of the biography of this highly controversial figure whose life was taken from him before his thirtieth birthday, probably at the behest of the English state.

Year 2

During the second year of your study of Renaissance drama, we’ll look at Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet, a play that stands as his most comprehensive analysis of the complexity of the human condition. We will also explore the minds of the great thinkers who inspired this extraordinary intellect. As part of your study of Hamlet, you will consider the steps required to construct convincing critical arguments that make reference to well established critical perspectives, whilst also allowing you to conceive of your own original viewpoints. As part of this unit, you will join visits to the Royal Shakespeare Company and partake of drama workshops, allowing you to practically appreciate the impressive extent of Shakespeare’s dramatic skill. To study Renaissance drama is to explore worlds that explain why we think and feel in the manner that we do in the twenty-first century.

Poetry (30%)

Poetry is the beating heart and soul of history, and this dynamic paper combines the best of the old and new. In the Post-2000 section, we study a comprehensive range of contemporary poets, from UA Fanthorpe and Seamus Heaney, to Patience Agbabi and Simon Armitage. Analytical skills are taught and stretched at every stage of the course, in both this section of the paper, and the Metaphysicals. We consider specifically the extent to which poetic form is related to the meaning of poetry, as well as developing our understanding of poetic devices. Another focal point is the use of metaphor, which leads us to the very core of poetic decision making and is further consolidated as we consider the Elizabethan and Metaphysical use of the conceit. In the Post 2000 section, we combine our study of set texts with plenty of unseen poetry written in the last two decades, extending our knowledge beyond the classroom with the help of poetry club and trips to hear Professor of Poetry lectures at Oxford University. The issues of the heart, society and community, and the world of imagination reflected in the set texts provide a diverse and accessible way to become readers and critics of the very latest poetry, as well as acting as an introduction to the best living poets of today.

The study of Metaphysical poetry extends our contact with the familiar world of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, by exploring the weird and wonderful verse which was rising up beyond the doors of the theatre, and which was being passed around in manuscript form by the young gentlemen of London. The far-fetched, intellectual, intense, paradoxical, and sometimes naughty poetry of the metaphysicals begins in the 1590s and takes us right to the end of the 17th century. We look at the ways historical factors such as Renaissance learning, religious conflict, court life, and the Civil War shape the poetry of the age, and we examine an impressive range of poets writing in this mode, giving pupils an amazing insight into the diversity of a truly fascinating period: from the well known John Donne and George Herbert, to the Cavalier elegance of Thomas Carew and Richard Lovelace, to the personal and often surprising poetry of Anne Bradstreet and Katherine Phillips, through to the mysterious Henry Vaughan and the virtuosic artistry of Andrew Marvell.

Year 1:

  • Introduction to the Post 2000 set texts, unseen poetry reading skills and essay techniques
  • Introduction to poetic form: free verse, sonnet, villanelle, sequence, dramatic monologue, elegy, lyric, blank verse, verse paragraphs, stanzas, rhyme
  • Metaphysical poets: John Donne, George Herbert & Thomas Carew.
  • Historical context to Metaphysical poetry: 1500s-1640, Renaissance, Petrarchism, Reformation, London, Age of Exploration, the Elizabethan Court, the Jacobean Court, the Bible, Anglicanism & Calvinism, the Caroline Court.

Year 2:

  • Completion of the Post 2000 set texts, unseen poetry reading skills and essay techniques
  • Poetic form: revision + ekphrasis
  • Metaphysical poets: Richard Lovelace, Anne Bradstreet, Katherine Phillips, Henry Vaughan & Andrew Marvell.
  • Historical context to Metaphysical poetry: 1640-1695, Civil War, emigration and 'the New World', 17th century women, Cromwell & the Commonwealth, Neoplatonism, Puritanism, Anglicanism and Catholicism.

Prose exam (20%) and coursework (20%)

The prose and coursework components of the A level explore the literary form of the novel. Here, we study fictitious prose in two spheres: prose as human story and impetus to philosophical contemplation, and prose as craft. A crucial difference between novel prose and dramatic prose is that novel prose is meant to be read individually, privately and quietly—to be absorbed and pondered over in the comforts of one’s own mind. At A level, we must ruminate and challenge; grapple with and question; connect the story with our own experiences, opinions and ideas. We examine each novel always remembering that all stories are about the human condition in some form—human nature, human folly, human purpose, life and death: all of it. We bring this awareness and critical thinking to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, where vastly different human experiences are presented in each novel. Sitting under the umbrella of ‘Science and Society,’ these novels frequently inspire debate on ethics, monstrosity, religion and responsibility.

In studying prose as craft, we recognise and appreciate how an author has created meaning. At A level, we continue to scrutinise the basics: language techniques, structural techniques, form. But we also delve into other (often more subtle, compelling and interesting) ways that meaning is created: inciting incidents, settings, foils and stock characters, reversal and recognition, use of dialogue, narrative voice(s), production and reception context, functions of a novel (critical, political, social, cultural). The list goes on. Studying craft at this level also enables us to explore the novel as one whole piece of artistry. We continue to study the text at word-level, yes, but now we also take into consideration the novel’s overall arc, circularity (or linearity), key passages, contrasting chapters and where these lie, character development from beginning to end. We take a step back and think, ‘How do I feel about this? What is being communicated in the story?’ And we follow these questions with, ‘How has the author made me feel this way? What has he done to effectively communicate these messages and feelings?’ And thus, we have an enriched appreciation for the novel as a work of art.

Pupils will have the chance to read and compare two Gothic novels of their choice for the coursework component. This is often the favourite component of pupils who relish the opportunity to read beyond the text, dig deeper into topics they are passionate about and take ownership of an extended piece of writing on a title of their own devising. Novels from the first and second wave of Gothic literature serve as fascinating stimuli to critical thinking and rich analysis. Examples of texts studied for the coursework component include: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, The Monk by Matthew Lewis, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Dracula by Bram Stoker.

Year 1

  • Introduction to the art of fiction: Aristotle, Henry James, David Lodge, John Gardner
  • Reading and Writing about Prose at A Level
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Year 2

  • Introduction to the Gothic: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole; Botting
  • Coursework: two Gothic novels of pupil’s choice
  • Exam revision

Do I need to have studied the subject at GCSE?

Pupils should have a 6 or higher in I/GCSE English Literature. If a pupil with a more modest grade is interested in the subject, he or she is welcome to discuss this with Mrs. Heywood-Lonsdale; often, dedicated and passionate pupils have a chance of securing a respectable A level grade, given a diligent work ethic and commitment over the two-year course.

Whom does the subject suit?

The course will appeal to pupils who take pleasure in reading a wide variety of literature, who enjoy expressing their opinions in lively discussion and imaginative, articulate writing, who have a love for words and stories, and who are stimulated by a subject that draws upon their other academic interests. It is for pupils who like to ask questions--about the world around them, about what it means to be human, about how ideas and stories of the past have influenced how we think today. In short, the best pupils of A Level English Literature are the ones who are curious.

What might the subject lead to?

Graduates of A level English Literature go on to enjoy successful careers in almost any field. Although the subject has traditionally been linked to fields like journalism, theatre, education, advertising, media and publishing, it is also highly regarded in business, law, finance, policy and even medicine amongst other industries. A level English Literature is valued by universities and employers alike because it develops a pupil’s ability to speak and write with accuracy and eloquence, to conduct independent research, to creatively and critically think and reflect.