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Your A Level English Literature: What the examiners are looking for

By Marcella Turley

Marcella has been an English teacher for nearly 20 years and has been joint Head of English with Sarah Cochrane at Wellington College Belfast for the past four years. She has also worked as a CCEA examiner for GCSE and A Level English Literature.

Put simply, giving the examiner what they want is the way to achieve top marks. Having an understanding of the examiner’s wish list and making sure that you tick these boxes is the way to get the best results.

It’s about the Key Terms and the Assessment Objectives:

  • Remember the key words of the question. This will help you stick to the title and actually answer what is being asked. Every paragraph must present an aspect of your argument that addresses these key terms.
  • Stay focused on the Assessment Objectives (AOs). These are the skills and abilities which the units are designed to assess.
  • AO1 assesses how well you write -the fluency of your expression, your vocabulary and how you select your knowledge and organise your analysis to produce a logical, persuasive argument. Don’t forget spelling, punctuation (including proper paragraphing) and grammar. Very few top candidates are sloppy with SPG.
  • AO2 deals with methods (characterisation, form, imagery, symbolism, irony, tone etc) However, it is not enough to identify these. You must discuss the effect of the writer’s methods in relation to the key terms of the question.
  • AO3 focuses on the effectiveness of your argument and the compare /contrast element. When responding to a comparative question, weave the similarities and differences into your discussion of the methods and key terms as you go along. Remember to use comparative connectives such as ‘In contrast..’. Similarly.., On the other hand..’
  • AO4 is the context AO. These contexts –whether social, historical, cultural, biographical, literary – must be addressed in terms of their relevance to the question.

During the exam:

  • Start by unpacking the question: Don’t rush in. Scrutinise the question. What is it asking you? How many parts are there to the question? Again, what are the key terms to keep in mind?
  • Plan your answer. This may take 5 -10 minutes but it is worth it. Remember, you are expected to produce a cogent and convincing response to the question so work out what points are going to constitute your argument. How are you going to organise them in a series of connecting paragraphs? In a closed book exam, it’s helpful to jot down some abbreviated quotations beforehand so you can ‘dip’ into these as you go along.
  • Writing your answer. Obviously, any skilfully executed response will have an introduction, development and conclusion. Your introduction is a signpost telling the examiner what they should expect. Engage directly with the key terms and state what your response is going to argue. This provides a confident opening and the examiner will anticipate that you will stay on track. In the development, each paragraph should open with a topic sentence which indicates the aspect of your argument now being dealt with.
  • Use short, embedded quotations to support your points.
  • Avoid lapsing into narrative or description. There are no marks for ‘telling the story’.
  • Be specific. Select knowledge that is relevant to your key terms.
  • Beware of regurgitating too many teacher resources. Often these ill –digested notes expose poor understanding of the text. Only write down what you understand.
  • Don’t crow-bar in answers that you’ve memorised. Examiners can detect these! Don’t answer the question you wished you’d been given. Select what is relevant to this question.
  • Your conclusion should draw your points together without needless repetition. This should be the logical culmination of all your preceding points.
  • Leave time to proof –read your answer. Crucial errors may be picked up here.

Skilled candidates adapt their knowledge to meet the specific question. It is what you do with all you have learned in your study of English Literature that will determine whether you can push that C to a B, that B to an A and, even, that A to an A*.

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