The exact content of what you study for your English literature GCSE will depend on the exam board that you take the exam with. There are a lot of things that are general across exam boards such as AQA, Edexcel, and OCR, but the specifics for each one may differ slightly.

What we mean by this is the following: you will almost certainly have to do two papers. They will cover Shakespeare and his plays, 19th century novels, poetry, and post-1914 prose fiction and drama, although what is on each paper and the structure of the questions will depend on the exam board and their specification.

As you will no doubt already know, GCSE exams differ from subject to subject. GCSE maths is different to GCSE English language which in turn is different to English literature. As such your revision for your exams will be different for each subject.

For English literature, and in particular for the poetry component, you will benefit from doing a lot of practice and past papers. You will need to know your poetry anthology (the group of poems that you will have to study) in depth which is different to other subjects where you will need to learn a lot of facts or processes.

One of the things that GCSE students will quickly notice about the poetry part of their English literature exam is that it often asks you two compare poems, rather than write about one text as is the case with other components in the exam such as the Shakespeare question.

This requires a different technique to how you approach the other questions in the exam paper. Therefore, in this blog we will look at how to approach such questions and provide some tips to ensure you can achieve the best grade possible.

Empty exam hall
Preparing for your GCSE English Literature exam will make the exam hall feel a lot less lonely!

What Poems Will I Have to Study?

The collection of poems on your GCSE English literature exam will depend on the exam board that you sit the exam with.

For AQA specification, there are two ‘clusters’ for students to choose between, with each containing 15 poems:

  • Love and Relationships
  • Power and Conflict

The poems in each of the two clusters are linked by themes and all have been written since 1789. In the Love and Relationships cluster, you will study poems by poets such as Thomas Hardy, Simon Armitage, and Maura Dooley. The Power and Conflict cluster includes work by poets such as William Wordsworth, Seamus Heaney, and Carol Ann Duffy.

The Edexcel syllabus has four collections to choose from:

  • Relationships
  • Conflict
  • Time and Place
  • Belonging

Each collection has 15 poems to study and poems are broken down into genres (romantic, lit heritage, contemporary).

OCR’s poetry anthology has three themed clusters to choose from:

  • Love and Relationships
  • Youth and Age
  • Conflict

Each cluster contains a mixture of modern and literary heritage poems, as well as a range of styles, genres, and themes.

The Eduqas GCSE English literature exam involves answering two questions based on its poetry anthology. The first question is on a named poem from the anthology and the second question allows you to choose a second poem to compare to the first.

The anthology contains 18 poems by poets such as William Blake, Philip Larkin, and Rita Dove but to name a few.

Things to Think About

With 19th Century prose at GCSE, you will only study one novel and the question will involve an extract from the text. However, the comparison of two poems is a different structure to an exam question and it allows you to see how they differ and how they are similar which gives you a deeper understanding of how different poets approach their work.

There are a number of different things to be on the lookout for to give yourself such an understanding and the more GCSE revision and exam practice you do, the better prepared you will be to use these things to help you understand one poet’s aims when compared to another when it comes to exam day.

You can find room for GCSE revision at your local library
Most libraries provide ample space and resources for revising (Image by David Mark from Pixabay)

Some of the key things to think about are:

  • Context: When were the poets writing their respective poems and what was going on at this time? Or alternatively, what was going on at the time that the poems are set?
  • Themes: Do the poets deal with the same themes or are they different?
  • Attitudes: How do both poets approach their themes? Are their attitudes the same or different?
  • Language: Is the language used similar or markedly different?
  • Composition: How have the poets structured their respective poems, and what is the intended impact of this?

By drawing all of these aspects together in your comparison you will quickly see the similarities and differences between the two poems that you are comparing.

How to Structure Your Answer?

Probably the best advice is to tackle the two poems simultaneously to best show the comparison between them. What we mean by this is that you should address each of the different aspects listed above for both poems at once. That way you can draw direct comparisons in the same sentence rather than a few paragraphs later which would be the case if you analysed each poem separately and in turn.

However, make sure you give equal time and space to each poem and don’t let either one become too dominant in your answer!

When it comes to the substance, you will have to decide what is the common thread that runs through both poems (there will be one and if you have to choose a second poem to compare then make sure it has something in common with the first!)

This will act as your starting point and will usually be the theme (perhaps it could be relationships, conflict, or age) or the context (e.g historical, location, cultural, literary etc). Once you have this then you can start to ask yourself more questions.

When you look at the themes and the attitudes, you need to think about the characters and/or narrators in each poem; do they have similar or diverging views? How do they each approach the theme? How strong is the opinion being expressed and is one poem a lot stronger than the other?

As you develop your thinking about the two poems, you will need to look at the structure, language, imagery, and meaning of the poems. When you look at the structure and the language, you will need to think about the specific reason(s) as to why the poet has organised their poem in such a way (length of lines, number of stanzas, length of stanzas etc), as well as the words that they choose to use and the imagery that these conjure.

Poetry library.
There is often a lot more to a poem than what you see at first glance! (by Dima Barsky)

Remember you still shouldn’t have written a word at this point. Your next step will be to look at what the question is asking you to do; compare and contrast, understand what the poet is doing, explore a theme or character etc. From here you need to highlight keys words in the poem which will help you in your answer.

As you start the plan of your answer, remember that it needs to help to keep you on track as well as pinpointing the points you want to make at each junction and the evidence from the poem(s) that you will use.

Your introduction will map out your answer. It will say what you are going to do and how you will do it. The body of the answer will be the paragraphs that have been described in the introduction which should cover things such as themes, structure, language, imagery etc. The key underlined words will be used here. Finally, the conclusion will tie everything together in a way that sums up everything you have discussed in the body of the answer.

Superprof is Here to Help

GCSEs can be stressful. You have so many subjects and you can often feel bogged down in revision guides, exam papers, and practice questions. Having a good revision timetable can help you juggle everything from your GCSE biology to each science GCSE, with some English literature in between! But what happens if you get completely stuck with a particular part of the curriculum, or even worse, a particular exam paper?

Here at Superprof, we know that studying poetry for your English literature GCSE can be tricky. It doesn’t come naturally to all of us and sometime a little bit of extra help is all that is required so that we properly understand what we need to do to get the best possible marks in the exam.

On the Superprof website you can find your perfect English literature tutor close by. Not only can you choose your tutor based on location, but also based on how much they charged per class as well as their experience and areas of expertise.

That means that if it is poetry that you need help with, then choose a poetry specialist. What’s more, all of our tutors are also ranked by their students so you can see how others found the experience of learning with them. What could be better?!

So, don’t struggle alone with your revision guide and difficult exam questions. Get your exam revision of to the best possible start by finding your perfect English literature tutor to talk you through the finer points of poetry to get you well prepared for exam day.

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