The first thing you will notice when you come to GCSE season is the number of subjects and exams that you will have to do. Each one is different and requires a different approach to your revision meaning that you won’t revise for GCSE biology as you will do for GCSE maths or religious studies.

And if this wasn’t challenging enough, English is split into two GCSEs! English literature and English language involve different skills and the exams text different skills. English language looks at how we use English for different purposes such as to advise, to persuade, and to inform. English literature on the other hand focuses on historical contributions to the English language. In other words, you will study novels, plays, and poems from various periods in history.

The exact specifics will differ slightly depending on which exam board you take your exam with because boards such as AQA, Edexcel, OCR, and Eduqas each operate a slightly different specification. However, the overall content is roughly the same; Shakespeare, nineteenth century novels, poetry, and post 1914 drama.

All of this means that GCSE English literature is diverse in its content and therefore your revision will need to cover a number of different bases to ensure that you get a good grade. In this blog, we will take a quick look of each aspect of the English literature syllabus at GCSE, as well as giving you some revision tips and exam strategy advice to ensure you get the best GCSE grade that you can.

English Literature GCSE: Shakespeare

The work of William Shakespeare is arguably one of the most important contributions to English literature. It is therefore no surprise that GCSE students across the country still study his work over 400 years after his death.

Each exam board looks at his work on its own and as such you will almost definitely have to answer a question on one of his plays such as:

  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Macbeth
  • Merchant of Venice
  • Tempest
  • Twelfth Night

To answer any GCSE exam questions on Shakespeare, you will need to know your chosen play (chosen by your English teacher) inside out. We will quickly show you the sort of things that you will need to know, followed by some tips about how to revise for, and answer the Shakespeare question.

A colourful mural of Shakespeare. Reading some of Shakespeare's sonnets can be informative for poets.
Shakespeare's plays are a key component of GCSE English Literature. (Image: CC BY 2.0, Ungry Young Man, Flickr)

What Do You Need to Know?

Naturally, the first thing you will need to know about any Shakespeare play is the plot. Let’s take the example of Macbeth. This play is about a man’s violent rise to the throne of Scotland and how he uses further violence to strengthen his grip on the reins of power before he meets his own gruesome end. And in order to understand the plot and what is going on, you will need to know who the main characters are and what is their role in the play. In Macbeth, the main characters are:

  • Macbeth
  • Lady Macbeth
  • The Three Witches
  • Banquo
  • Macduff
  • Malcolm

Now there are two favoured types of questions when it comes to Shakespeare and his plays. These relate to the characters and their characteristics, and the themes that run through the play. Your answer will nearly always have to look at both of these because the themes are shown through the characters and their actions, and the characters and their actions are governed by the themes that Shakespeare chooses to have running through each play. In Macbeth, some of the main themes are:

  • Ambition
  • Violence
  • Appearance vs reality

How to Answer a Shakespeare GCSE Question?

As you go through your GCSE revision and the more exam practice that you do, you will notice one thing very quickly; the Shakespeare exam question nearly always has an extract for you to base your answer around. The first thing to note here is that the extract should not be the only thing you write about in your answer. It should be the starting point but don’t forget to situate it in the context of the overall play.

For example, if the question asks about the characteristics or traits of a specific character then you should aim to analyse whether the extract shows the character in the same light as the rest of the play, or whether there are any noticeable differences between the two. If there are any differences, then think about the reasons for this (has something happened to the character to force this change?)

So, how should you approach a question on Shakespeare on your GCSE English literature exam? The first thing to do is to pick out any language in the extract that relates to the question. Why is this language important? Why do you think Shakespeare chose to use it? Once you have done this, you can start to plan your answer. This should include an introduction and a conclusion with the main body of the answer consisting of three of four key points that you want to make.

learning the basics of calculus
Practice papers are a great way of revising for your English Literature GCSE. (Source: Unsplash)

GCSE English Literature Texts: 19th Century Prose

In the same way that Shakespeare is an important figure within English literature, so are 19th century novelists such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and H. G. Wells. These are the sorts of names that you will come across in the 19th century novel aspect of GCSE English literature. Once again, the exam boards will have their own specific texts that they will use, but novels such as A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice are common across different boards.

Preparing for the 19th Century Prose Question

There are a number of similarities with the Shakespeare part in terms of the format of the question. First of all, you will only have to study one novel. This will likely be chosen by your English teacher or by the English department at your school. Secondly, you will more than likely be given an extract to use as a basis for your answer.

You will also need to know the novel inside out, just like you do with whichever of Shakespeare’s plays you study. This means you need to know the plot, the main characters, and the key themes in the novel.

How to Tackle the 19th Century Prose Question

For the GCSE 19th Century prose question, the extract that you are given should be your starting point for your answer. Obviously, you should pay close attention to it and base your answer around it, but you also need to place the extract in the context of the novel as a whole. Start by underlining important parts in the extract that are related to the question. In particular, this should be closely related to the language used by the author. There is always a reason for the language that they use, and their reasons or motivations are key for this.

Given that the novel that you have to do was likely written in Victorian England, you should think about what was going on at the time which influenced the novelists and what they were writing about. This is an important part of your preparation and whilst you are revising you should not neglect this. For example, Charles Dickens often wrote about social injustice and the plight of the poor. Therefore, this is essential when thinking about his choice of language and how he builds his characters.

Social classes were often a central theme of Dickens' novels. Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via VisualHunt / No known copyright restrictions

Poetry and English Literature

The poetry part of your GCSE exam in English literature differs from the two parts that we have already discussed. You will probably have a poetry anthology with a group of poems in it based on a particular theme. In the exam question you will have to compare and contrast two poems. Sometimes these are two named poems, and other times you will be given one named poem and you will have to choose the second poem from the anthology.

Advice for Answering the Poetry Question

The poems that you are given will be linked by theme (such as conflict, age, relationships etc). If you have to choose a second poem to compare and contrast, then make sure that it has a similar theme to the named poem that you are given!

Once you have your two poems and you have planned your answer, you can start writing. The best way to approach your answer is to pick some key points that you want to discuss and then look at both poems together, rather than looking at one poem completely followed by the second. Also, bear in mind to give equal attention to both poems. Don’t allow one to dominate your answer more as this will negatively impact on your comparison and contrasting of the two.

Given that the question structure is slightly different for the poetry question, you should do plenty of exam practice before the big day. Past papers and revision guides are essential here and the more writing skills that you pick up from your practice will only benefit you in the exam itself.

Can English Literature Past Papers Help with Post 1914 Prose/Drama?

The simple answer here is an emphatic yes! The more exam papers that you look at, the better prepared you will feel for your GCSE exams. The exam paper that you sit on exam day will feel more familiar because you will have seen plenty of questions and the structure that is used.

However, you should also do plenty of revision to complement this. A good revision guide can help here, but also looking back over your notes from class is a good way of going about it.

Just like the 19th century novel that you will study and the Shakespeare play, you will only need to study one post 1914 novel or play from a list given by your exam board. Their lists will include novels such as Animal Farm by George Orwell and plays such as An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley.

An exam setting in a classroom
The more preparation you do, the easier the exam will feel! Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay=

Tips for the Exam

You will more than likely be given an extract from the novel or play that you have studied around which you should base your answer. But once again, you should move beyond this to look at how the extract fits into the overall text. When planning your answer, think about the language that the author uses. Why do they use this language? What are they trying to achieve?

One important thing to remember for your revision is the themes that run through the text. Keep these at the forefront of your mind when you are planning your answer for the question because they are often essential to discussing character development and are a vehicle for the author to use for development of said characters.

How Can Superprof Help You?

GCSE subjects are extremely varied. These are the exams where you could find yourself sitting an exam in GCSE history in the morning and GCSE science in the afternoon. Covering such a wide-ranging list of subjects and sitting exams in each one in such a short period means some things can fall by the wayside. Remember, your timetable could be unkind, and you might not have as much time to prepare as you might think, meaning that you will have to work extra hard the get the best GCSE results possible.

This is where Superprof comes in. Our tutors are on-hand close by to help you with the specifics of what you are struggling with. Whether it’s Shakespeare or Animal Farm, the poetry anthology or Pride and Prejudice, there is a tutor out there for you. Our tutors are all rated by their students and their personal biography can help you choose a tutor with the experience that you need.

So, don’t struggle alone! Log on to the Superprof website and find your perfect GCSE English Literature today!

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