The new A-Level Literature (B) specification: making the right choices

Making the right choices

Anyone delivering A-Level English/Literature will be well aware of the changes that are to be implemented in September. Love them or loathe them, they are coming. One of the main changes with the Literature course will be the unit options: we will be losing the ‘Aspects of Narrative’ unit and it will be replaced with ‘Aspects of Tragedy’ or ‘Aspects of Comedy’. The second year of the full A-Level will no longer comprise of ‘Elements of the Gothic’, but will be a choice between ‘Elements of crime writing’ or ‘Elements of political and social protest writing’, with the coursework unit remaining very similar (the coursework will still be an independent reading portfolio but the critical anthology will be altered).

A few months ago the three members of staff (including myself) at my institution that deliver A-Level English/Literature arranged a meeting consisting of discussions about how we are going to approach the changes. We spent time going over the new specification, working out what exactly is changing and what the choices are to be in terms of texts. We decided that we would focus solely on the next academic year rather than making any decisions on the second year of the full A-Level at this stage- so, as a result, I will not be commenting on the ‘Elements of crime writing’ or ‘Elements of political and social protest writing’ in this post.

Something that we acknowledged, was that we need find the right balance for ourselves in the sense of retaining any texts that we have an abundant supply of books of, and what we would like to teach for a fresh and exciting start to the next academic year.

The text combinations for the AS Level (Aspects of Tragedy unit) are as follows:

A Level choices 1

A Level choices 2

…and for the full A-Level (Aspects of Tragedy unit):

A Level choices 3

When considering what texts to select for teaching from September, we thought of some combinations that could work but soon realised that we were in fact quite restricted. For example, I was particularly keen on selecting The Great Gatsby, but it was soon highlighted that if this was selected as the prose text for the full A-Level, then we would have to select (due to the limitations applied for the paper in the full A-Level specification) Richard II, Tess of the D’Urbervilles or a collection of poetry by John Keats, as the specification stipulates that at least one of the texts must be pre-1900.

However, there could be a way around this:

If students studied The Great Gatsby in the first year, they would take the AS exam and be assessed for their efforts, but they wouldn’t answer the question on The Great Gatsby in the exam at the end of the full A-level as it wouldn’t be an assessed text. So why bother teaching this text? Arguably, students will develop their analytical skills by studying any of the texts on offer, so it would be beneficial for this reason alone- but we do need to think of tangible assessment. As well as developing the skills associated with the study of literature, students will also answer a question on this text for the AS Level- it’s just that this will only be a practice test (so to speak) if they decide to “transfer” to the full A-Level (as far as I am aware, at my institution, all students will be entered for the AS initially, then transferred to the full A-Level if they are to continue to the second year). If that is the case, then they do have the option of writing about The Great Gatsby when it comes to their coursework in the second year.


What we prefer vs what will be better for our students

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t love the idea of delivering some Shakespeare… then some more Shakespeare, but  we need to be realistic and think of what students will both prefer and be more likely to engage with; they need to study texts that will develop their skills when it comes to studying and interpreting literature. As a result, we must ultimately put the needs of our learners before our own preferences. Yet, a fine balance between personal interest of those who deliver the course, and learners can be found…I think we have just about managed this.

Final choices

Following much deliberation, we have opted for the following *queue drum roll*:

AS Level

  • Othello
  • Death of a Salesman
  • The Great Gatsby (this will not be assessed on at the end of the full A-Level)
  • A selection of John Keats’s poems

I think that what we have opted for allows for a broad exploration of literature from different time periods; there is to be an analysis of the roaring twenties with The Great Gatsby; an exploration of Shakespeare’s age that moves on from what students have learned at GCSE with Othello; a study of Romanticism and what this literary movement has contributed to poetry, with the work of Keats; then, a study of American culture shortly after WW2 with Death of a Salesman.

(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

What have other institutions opted for and why?