GCSE English: Getting Started


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July 30th, 2021

GCSE English: Getting Started

In this blog post, tutor and teacher Graham provides an overview of GCSE English, explaining its format and content as well as exploring its development and new innovations. It's a great place to start if you are looking to learn more about GCSE English.


GCSE English and English Literature examinations were introduced to England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1988 alongside their equivalents in other subjects, replacing the older CSE and O Level examinations with a single qualification. GCSEs have since become the exams taken by the great majority of students at British schools, although a number of (mostly independent) schools have favoured the alternative I (International) GCSE or (more rarely) the IB Middle Years Programme, while Scotland retains its own separate system of qualifications.

The GCSE course traditionally spans Years 10 and 11 and forms the final stage of compulsory education, ending at age 16 in Year 11, although it has become increasingly common to begin GCSE in Year 9, especially since the abolition of national testing at the end of Key Stage 3. Schools manage English Language and Literature GCSEs in different ways.  English Language is a compulsory subject for all students but some schools make English Literature an option.  Others mix the two subjects together since the skills and understanding involved cross over.  Students may not know whether they are studying English Language or Literature in any given year but this does not matter since they are such complementary subjects.  Some schools, notably independent schools, used to enter students for English Language at the end of Year 10, a year before English Literature at the end of Year 11.  This is less common now, given that schools want students to have the best chance of success. Furthermore, the skills of judgement entailed in the study of English language and literature tend to develop with emotional maturity.


As with other subjects, the assessment methods used for English Language and English Literature at GCSE have been frequently altered since its introduction, as waves of ‘reforms’ first introduced, and then abolished, things like coursework and modular assessment, and as ever-higher nominal pass rates have provoked controversy over the examinations’ rigour and standards.  Broadly speaking, the last three decades have seen a move away from ‘coursework’ to more examination-based assessment.  

Most recently, and in common with other subjects, in 2017 the A* to G grading system was replaced in England by an alternative ‘9-1’ system, intended (like the A* introduced in 1993) to increase differentiation among students at the top end.

As of 2021, all three exam boards in England (AQA, Edexcel and OCR) offer two ‘tiers’ of difficulty, Foundation (grades 1-5) and Higher (grades 4-9). A high-scoring student at the Foundation tier can therefore score no more than a grade 5, while a Higher tier candidate runs the risk (at least in theory) of having his or her exam “ungraded” should they not achieve at least the lowest grade threshold – though this is very rare in practice, not least because of grade thresholds which, controversially, can run as low as 10-20% for the bottom grades.

Both tiers are assessed by two terminal exam papers of 1 hour and 45 minutes. 

Wales and Northern Ireland, meanwhile, retain A*-G grades. The Welsh exam board WJEC also retains an Intermediate tier, while in Northern Ireland the CCEA board offers two tiers like its English counterparts, albeit in conjunction with the older grading system.

Skills developed

The assessment criteria of GCSE English Language and Literature are determined by Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (OFQUAL), the body which the Department of Education assigns to assure uniform quality in the various examination boards.  Thus, all examination boards work to the same Assessment Objectives for their various syllabuses (or specifications, as they are now known).

The Assessment Objectives for GCSE English Language for all examination boards are as follows: 

AO1:  identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas • select and synthesise evidence from different texts 

AO2: Explain, comment on and analyse how writers use language and structure to achieve effects and influence readers, using relevant subject terminology to support their views 

AO3: Compare writers’ ideas and perspectives, as well as how these are conveyed, across two or more texts 

AO4: Evaluate texts critically and support this with appropriate textual references 

AO5: Communicate clearly, effectively and imaginatively, selecting and adapting tone, style and register for different forms, purposes and audiences. Organise information and ideas, using structural and grammatical features to support coherence and cohesion of texts 

AO6: Candidates must use a range of vocabulary and sentence structures for clarity, purpose and effect, with accurate spelling and punctuation. (This requirement must constitute 20% of the marks for each specification as a whole.) 

AO7: Demonstrate presentation skills in a formal setting 

AO8: Listen and respond appropriately to spoken language, including to questions and feedback on presentations

AO9: Use spoken Standard English effectively in speeches and presentations

The Assessment Objectives for GCSE English Literature for all examination boards are as follows:

AO1: Read, understand and respond to texts. Students should be able to: 

• maintain a critical style and develop an informed personal response 

• use textual references, including quotations, to support and illustrate interpretations

AO2: Analyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects, using relevant subject terminology where appropriate

AO3: Show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written

AO4: Use a range of vocabulary and sentence structures for clarity, purpose and effect, with accurate spelling and punctuation

It can be seen that there is considerable overlap between the AO for both English Language and English Literature.  This, again, supports the decision of many schools to teach the two subjects together.  

Of additional note is AO3, which requires learners to demonstrate their appreciation of the ways in which literature reflects the context of the time and culture in which it was created.  In turn, this AO invites learners to make use of cross-curricular links from their study of other subjects such as History.  

Syllabus content

As with other subjects, teachers and tutors of English Language and Literature have needed to stay abreast of minor revisions to the syllabus, as well as more substantial changes to the exam format. Furthermore, and without wishing to complicate the matter unnecessarily, it is fair to say that this subject area is, perhaps, more hotly contested than the domains of mathematics and science. Debates continue, for example, over the importance of technical accuracy, what constitutes classic or appropriate literature or texts for children to study and over the place and nature of Standard English. 

All that said, a glance at OFQUAL’s Assessment Objectives above confirms that they continue to articulate a recognisable consensus regarding what British 16 year olds should know about and be able to do with their own language and literature.  

Of note, therefore, are the following, which may have changed since parents took their own GCSE or equivalent examinations:

  • All assessment of English Language and English Literature GCSE is by examination.  There is no longer a ‘coursework’ element to assessment. 
  • OFQUAL demands that at least 20% of marks on each board’s examination syllabus are awarded for technical accuracy in spelling and punctuation.  
  • There continues to be an assessment of a candidate’s speaking and listening skills via a Spoken Language component.  The grade a candidate receives for this is not included in her/his overall grade but is recorded separately as a Pass, Merit or Distinction. 

Given all the above, it therefore remains true that the best way to ensure success in English Language and Literature is to take every opportunity to develop reading and writing skills.  In particular, as the digitisation of communication has led to us working with shorter and shorter pieces of text, consumed in shorter and shorter units of time, learners should work hard to keep their familiarity and skills with much more substantial pieces of writing. It pays to keep reading serious literary (novels, short stories, plays, poetry) and non-literary (newspapers, articles, travel journalism etc.) texts as often as possible. Thus, it can be easily seen that the study of English Language and English Literature are complementary, which is why they are invariably taught together in schools.  The skills required for the study and close analysis of English Literature texts transfer well to the close reading required for the English Language examination.  

I hope this has provided you with a useful understanding of GCSE English Language and Literature.  I would be delighted to answer any further questions you may have by email or in response to the comment board below. 

GCSE English tutors

More about Graham

Graham qualified as a teacher in English in 1987, and now works as a tutor with Owl Tutors.

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