GCSE English Explained

GCSE English examinations have undergone various changes over the years. This relates to the content of the courses, the way the exams are set up, and how the students are graded. Typically, GCSE English is split into two main topics; language and literature.


The Department for Education announced plans to reform GCSE English language and literature in 2013. These changes came into effect in 2015 as the new teachings began, and the first exams were held in 2017. 


The English language GCSE focuses more on developing students reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. By comparison, the English literature GCSE is more focused on developing knowledge and understanding of prose, poetry and drama texts. 



GCSE English - both kinds - is held in extremely high-regard throughout the UK. A lot of Universities will ask for this GCSE as part of the degree qualifications. 


Exam Boards & Topics

As of right now, three exam boards offer papers for both English Language and English Literature: 


  • Pearson Edexcel
  • AQA
  • OCR


Unlike GCSE Maths, there is no foundation or higher paper for either GCSE English exams. All students will sit the same papers and be graded based on the results. While the content across the exam boards may differ slightly, the structure of the courses and the topics covered are the same. 


English Literature

For English Lit, the topics look like this: 


  • Shakespear plays
  • 19th-Century texts
  • Modern texts
  • Poetry
  • Modern drama texts


Obviously, the exact texts and plays that pupils will look at and analyse are going to vary ever so slightly from board to board. 


English Language

With the English language GCSE, some of content and topics will be: 


  • Creative reading
  • Creative writing
  • Fictional texts
  • Descriptive/narrative writing
  • Extended writing
  • Non-fiction texts
  • Literary non-fiction texts
  • Use of standard English
  • Presenting
  • Responding to questions & feedback


What are the exams like?

The content for the English GCSE is taught across the two different focus points. In total, there are four different exams that need to be sat in the exam hall - two for English Language and two for English Literature. 


English Literature Exam Structure

The typical English Literature exam structure has changed over the years. The previous GCSE allowed for three exams that totalled around 3-hours. Now, the exams are split across two exams with a total of 4-hours between them. 


Now, here’s where things get slightly complicated as the different exam boards prepare these exams differently: 


  • AQA: The AQA exams consist of one paper on Shakespear and the 19th-Century Novel, and one on Modern Texts & Poetry. The first exam lasts 1 hour 45 minutes and has a total of 64 marks, making up 40% of the GCSE. The second exam is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, with 96 marks and a 60% weight towards the GCSE. 


  • OCR: The OCR exam includes one paper on Modern & Literary Heritage Texts and one on Poetry & Shakespeare. Both papers have a total of 80 marks available and are split evenly at 50% of the overall grade. They’re also equally split at 2 hours each. 


  • Pearson Edexcel: The Edexcel exam has one paper on Shakespeare and Post-1914 Literature and one on 19th-Century Novel and Poetry since 1789. Both papers are worth 50% of the overall GCSE, though they are of different lengths. Paper one is 1 hour and 45 minutes long, while paper two is 2 hours and 15 minutes. 


English Language

All three exam boards have two papers for the English Language GCSE, and they also all have a Spoken Language Endorsement. Interestingly, the spoken language part of the qualifications doesn’t actually count towards anything at all. It makes up 0% and is seen as a separate grade to the English Language GCSE. Pupils will get either a pass, merit, or distinction for their performance. 


The individual exam boards set up the Language exams as follows: 


  • AQA: One paper on Exploration in Creative Reading & Writing that’s worth a total of 80 marks and 50% of the GCSE. The second paper is on Writer’s Viewpoints and Perspectives, which is also worth 80 marks and 50% of the GCSE. Both papers will last 1 hour and 45 minutes. 


  • OCR: One paper on Non-fiction texts and one paper on Literary texts. Both are 50% of the GCSE and will last for 2 hours with a total of 80 marks available on both. 


  • Pearson Edexcel: One paper on Fiction & Imaginative Writing worth 40% of the GCSE and a maximum of 64 marks available. One paper on Non-Fiction & Transactional Writing worth 60% of the GCSE and a maximum of 96 marks available. The first paper lasts 1 hour and 45 minutes, the second lasts 2 hours and 5 minutes. 


All of these exams will include reading and writing elements across the papers. They will typically each have two texts to analyse, with one section focusing on reading and the other on writing. 


GCSE English Grades Explained

As you should be aware, the current GCSE system uses the 9-1 grading system. This replaced letters and means that 9 is the highest grade a GCSE English student can achieve. 


The top three grades of 9, 8, and 7 are supposed to correlate to the old grades of A* to A. 


6, 5, and 4 equate to B and C grades of old, with 5 seen as a strong pass and 4 as a standard pass. 


3, 2, and 1 are the equivalents of D E F and G grades under the old system. There is also a U grade that means ‘ungraded’, and it is technically the lowest grade you can get when sitting a GCSE English exam. 



All in all, GCSE English can be one of the most challenging GCSEs out there. This is largely because there are two different elements of the study that need to be covered. It’s conceivable to pass the Language section and fail the Literature - or vice versa. 


However, with the right support systems and teachings in place, pupils have a much greater chance of passing. The choice of exam boards also matters as they cover slightly different texts and topics. Having a GCSE in English Language and Literature is seen as essential for your further education and career. 


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