Updated: May 30
If your child is in Year Ten, you may have already started having conversations about which subjects to take at A Level. English is often a subject that students who are uncertain get pushed towards, as many parents see it as a safe academic choice that will enable students to get into university. However, English is not a subject to do for the sake of looking good on an application form, and as a former Key Stage Five Coordinator, I have seen how unhappy students can be when they find they have signed up for an A Level course that is really not for them. How can you tell if English is right for your child? Here are some questions that may give you a clue!
Please note: I am mainly talking about A Level English Literature, as this is the most common English A Level offered, although many schools now also offer English Language separately, or a combined Language and Literature course. Many, if not all, of the points I am making below apply to the English Language A Levels, as well as Literature.
Do they enjoy reading?
This may seem quite obvious, but you would be surprised how many students sign up for A Level English Literature, only to declare in their first lesson that they do not like reading. I even once had a student ask if he really needed to read the books, as he could get it all from Sparknotes!
Not surprisingly, A Level English requires a high level of independent reading. By this, I mean that a lot of the time, students will not be reading in class with their teachers, but will be expected to have read the set texts on their own in advance of each lesson. They will also be advised to do additional reading around the set texts. If your child had to be dragged through their GCSE texts, and forced to read them, then this subject is probably not for them. Students do not have to have read everything ever written, or worry about whether or not they have read enough of the classics, but they do need to enjoy the process of reading independently. They are unlikely to be able to write about the texts with the required level of insight if they found everything about the process of reading them boring. If they do not want to read, they are going to find English Literature a depressing choice of A Level subject, as it will comprise a large part of their independent study time.
Do they like being part of discussions?
As I said, not much time in English lessons will be given over to class reading, students will be expected to do this in their own time. This is because class time will be given over to discussion of ideas and planning/writing examination answers. A Level English is not about taking notes from your teacher and then regurgitating these in an examination. At GCSE, the questions are more formulaic, and teachers need to help students of all abilities to pass, so they do give set formats for students to present their answers. A Level students need to be able to come up with their own interpretations. They will be given viewpoints and expected to construct their own arguments that either support or challenge this viewpoint.
This means that discussions in class are vital, as this is where the students get used to having to come up with their own opinions and ideas about the text, and finding the evidence to support their points. Debates are a stronghold of many A Level lessons, as they develop the skills students will need to demonstrate in the examination. Your child does not need to be the chattiest student in the class, but they do need to be willing to present their ideas when they are asked for them, and to interact with the interpretations of other students in the class. Sitting there passively taking notes will only get students so far with this subject, they need to be fully engaging with the discussions taking place.
Are their writing skills up to scratch?
During my time as Key Stage Five coordinator, this was probably one of the biggest issues that came up. As well as strong reading skills, it is imperative that A Level English students are confident writers. This is why often the English Language grade is a better indicator of a student’s potential to study A Level English Literature than the literature grade. Students are not directly marked on spelling, grammar and punctuation, but if these are poor, then the examiners will not be able to reward the content. It does not matter how good your child’s ideas are, if he/she cannot construct a coherent argument to express them, the examiner cannot credit them.
That is not to say that students with additional educational needs cannot succeed at A Level, as access arrangements can still be put in place, such as using a laptop and additional time. I have known people with dyslexia who went on to study English Literature at university, as they were able to flourish when the correct arrangements were made. But if your child still struggles to write, even with the additional support, then it is likely that the demands of A Level English may prove too much.
As well as being technically accurate, students’ writing at A Level needs to be structured effectively, with the use of appropriate quotations to support their points. If your child really does not like analysis work, and struggles to construct answers to essay questions independently, then again it may be that English is not the best choice for them. The examinations are long and intense, and students need to have strong foundational skills in reading and writing in order to succeed in them.
Of course, ultimately Post-Sixteen is about your child making decisions about his/her own future, but many students will still need a lot of guidance on the choices they have to make. Post-sixteen is about a transition, students do not suddenly become adults overnight! These are just a few pointers to consider if your child is thinking about A Level English Literature, not an exhaustive list. If you are still not sure, reach out to your child’s English teacher for further support, as every child is different, and will have a different path to follow in order to fulfil his/her potential.
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