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Comparing English Literature and Language

02 JUL 2021

One of the most commonly-studied A Level subjects are English Literature and Language. Both courses run from International GCSE to AS Levels. A Levels are offered only for the Literature paper at the moment.

However, there is a substantial difference between the two courses. 

English Literature

The International GCSE and A Level English Literature courses are about learning from works of literature: poetry, novels, drama. Within each genre, the courses also cover several eras, such as: Shakespearean, 17th Century poetry, Victorian novels, as well as modern-era literature. 

Students learn to analyse the texts and to write analytical essays of increasing complexity as they progress from International GCSE to A Level. 

At IG level the study is largely about themes and characters and poetic techniques. At AS and A Level more is required about the era and context in which texts were written, along with appreciating extra critical perspectives at A Level and writing lengthy essays in a much more sophisticated style.

English Language

The International GCSE and AS Level courses in Language are not Second Language or ESOL courses at all. They are more like studying Linguistics. Students need to have a good ability in English and be fluent and capable writers.

Learn more about CGA’s Academic ESOL Programme.

The Language courses are about how the English language works across varying situations, and how the language continues to change and develop. Specifically, the Language courses are about learning how meaning is shaped in speech and writing.  

The International GCSE course is about learning how structural and language techniques shape and direct the impact of the text on a reader; how suspense and tension are developed through punctuation, sentence and paragraph structure; the effect of a metaphor to help the reader visualise a person or object; and how repetition can reinforce an idea or theme. 

At AS Level the analysis focuses increasingly on the context of the language - its use as a political tool or as a way to manipulate attitudes towards social groups, individuals or causes. 

The courses also look intensively at how the English language has evolved and how language functions.

Who should take these courses?

The Literature courses are more successful for students who like reading and writing, and who have a good facility with English. Generally speaking, most students can take these courses, but A Level requires good ability demonstrated at AS Level. In Literature, your use of language is not quite as critical as it is in Language. Markers will overlook spelling, punctuation and grammar errors, to an extent, as long as they do not impede understanding.

Learn more about International GCSE and A Level English Literature courses.

The Language courses are for students who have a secure knowledge of English to be able to study the complexities of language (linguistics). 

An example of English Language topics at AS Level:

  1. Context and Identity. This looks at how language changes depending on the speaker and audience (autobiographer to reader; editor to subscriber, politician to voting public, blogger to follower, activist to general public…) and function (speech, autobiography, letter, newspaper report, feature article, editorial, blog, website, promotional leaflet or brochure).
  2. Directed Writing. This involves using knowledge of stylistics and discourse to create a text for a particular purpose and audience.
  3. Transcript Analysis. Identifying and analysing what is revealed about a speaker’s linguistic identity through comparing the speech patterns, vocabulary and pronunciation with Standard English.
  4. Language Change through Time. Considering how and why language changes, the social and political influences on change and the ways in which attitudes towards English are evolving as the number of global speakers increases.

Learn more about International GCSE and A Level English Language courses.

Progressing to University

Both qualifications are excellent foundations for any university courses of study, all of which will demand advanced comprehension, analysis and communication skills. All subjects require students to think for themselves and express those thoughts fluently, precisely and accurately. Ability in English is the key across all subjects.

Both courses are excellent preparation for university studies as they advance students’ abilities in written expression and analysis. A further advantage is that these courses are richly academic across a breadth of topics, so that students reach university with a vast knowledge of literature and language and a very advanced ability to write well. 

An example of the great breadth of the Literature courses is how at IG level, students are required to understand 16 poems by writers over several centuries and eras; at AS level and A Level the students study 30 substantial poems, some from centuries past. At all levels students are taught how to analyse and how to write comparatively about several poems.

For the Language courses at IG level, students compare two texts on a similar theme or topic considering the effect of the writers’ use of language techniques. At AS Level, students analyse how the context of the text’s production affects language choices, how these choices present the identity of the speaker/writer and how both context and the speaker/writer’s identity affect the reception and impact of the text on the audience.

Both courses can also help students progress to a variety of university subjects. The Language course can lead to students taking language options in university English courses or even full time courses in Linguistics. Language, and your use of it, underpins all study - indeed all human life! 

How to be successful in these courses

To take literature at A Level requires good grades at AS level, meaning a student can write extensively with good academic depth of commentary. It’s also likely that an A Level student will have been a regular independent reader over a number of years and have an appreciation of all styles of literature.

Key to success is how well you know the texts. You cannot hope to do well if you have only read part of the text or revised via a film, you may well fail if that is your strategy. To know the text to exam level, you must read it several times. With each reading, you will see and understand more. Although some of the exams are “open book” ( you can take an unannotated copy into the exam with you), that is no excuse for not knowing your text. You need to be able to analyse language and its impact in some detail. Your teacher will help you acquire this skill over the year.

Like learning to play a piano, you also cannot hope to do well unless you practise. Your week’s assignment or homework is thus a cornerstone of your approach throughout the year. If you try your best, these assignments will improve over time!

Vital to A Level studies is reading around your text. Read books of criticism or articles. Your teacher will again help and guide you in this.

To take Language at AS/A Level requires good grades at IGCSE English Language or in an advanced English course such as IELTS 5.5, TOEFL 50+ or CEFR B2.  

A high grade in an IGCSE English as a Second Language course does not sufficiently equip students with the language skills required at Advanced Level.  

Students who have studied a GCSE/IGCSE English course will quickly realise that Paper 1 extends analysis from this level to include consideration of the ways in which language communicates identity and how language, power and influence are synchronous.  

Students who are bilingual, or, who live in societies in which there is an official language or several official languages, bring a wealth of background knowledge and experience to class discussions, particularly when discussing Paper 2 topics - analysing the differences between a dialect form of English and Standard English - and exploring language change and attitudes to various types of English.   

The key to success is to think critically about language, not just what is said, but how the ideas are presented and how this presentation can change with varying situations. Students must be able to demonstrate an extensive knowledge of language techniques (many of these will be familiar from a study of literature in English or other first language) and be able to comment on the intended effects. Students must be fascinated with the workings of the English language.

Take a look at our guide on International GCSE English Literature

- By CGA English teachers Barry Gough, Steve Walker and Elise Marlow.

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