A level English Literature: Intensive One year A courses

Misconceptions seem to have an enduring life of their own; “Harry Houdini died during one of his tricks.” “Humans only use ten percent of our brains.” “The plays of Shakespeare were not written by Shakespeare but by another man of the same name.” One popularly held view that we at Rochester Independent College can debunk with complete and cheerful confidence is this “A levels are two year courses.” As RIC students show with year after year of fantastic results, A levels can be done, and won, in just a single year of study.

One year A levels

While A levels are designed as two year courses, it must be remembered that, in the normal course of things, year 12 is hardly filled by academic study alone. The jump from GCSE to A level is a big one, which not everyone makes at the first try. The first term can be easily swallowed up just by adjusting to the new level of study. It is also a year that is busy with other activities. Students take part in DofE expeditions, extended projects, trips abroad, drama performances and all of the many other things that school can offer beyond academic qualifications. Strip all of that away, concentrate on the core of three A levels, and a year’s study is perfect time in which to take on three subjects, even if all three are from scratch. Some subjects, it is true, lend themselves rather better to this than others do. English Literature is one of the former.

a level englishone year a levelEnglish Literature A level at RIC

“I hated English at my old school but at RIC the teachers prepared me for the exams, inspired me and made me love English again. I went from a D to an A. sasha miles, joined ric from simon langton, canterbury


English Literature is one of the Russell Group’s “facilitating subjects”, one of Trinity College Cambridge’s “keystone subjects” and an outstanding addition to any university application. The warmth with which further education establishments regard the subject is one of the major advantages the literature course holds over its siblings in the English family of A levels. Our current syllabus, AQA’s B specification, is assessed by two exams, worth 30% each and by coursework worth a total of 40%. This healthy chunk of coursework makes the subject a good choice for people who find exams intimidating. And why wouldn’t you find exams intimidating? They’re a bizarre invention, resembling nothing in the working world. They often do more to test the ability to work under artificial stress than knowledge of a subject. This is something that we understand at the college and we do everything to prepare students for exams, with regular mock papers and in-depth feedback throughout the year.

One of the most commonly asked questions about English Literature is “Do I need to be a big reader?” Obviously this helps, especially for the very highest grades, but it is by no means the only element in a successful A level course. Riding a bicycle will help you learn to drive a car and having listened to lots of music will help when learning to play an instrument, but you can still learn to drive and take up the oboe from cold starts. The only requirement is that you do read the small number of set texts. Only six of these are prose (five novels and a collection of short stories), three are plays and two poems (or collections of short poems); what is more only seven of these eleven texts are studied in the exam, the others are assessed as coursework, when you can have them sat open on the desk beside you as you write. And, as befits a one year course, for the most part the prose texts are quite short. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is only 75,000 words long; The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald just 47,000.[1] Reading The Great Gatsby would be like reading this article (but with much better writing!) three or four times a day for a fortnight. The difficult part is the discipline of doing a bit of work every day, not the reading. It is just this sort of daily, regular work that is one of the excellent life skills that A levels teach.

But thinking about the set texts this way, as a necessary chore, is to (dare I say) misread the situation. Literature is one of life’s highlights; an uncapped pleasure and an enduring consolation. Each of the texts we teach is a window, opening onto worlds of idea and sensation. Our authors tackle the big themes, love and sex; class and aspiration; science and ethics. Teaching this course I am reminded again and again that canonical texts endure for a good reason. As Matthew Arnold wrote, culture (and particularly the literary part of it) is “the best which has been thought and said in the world”.

People sometimes complain that studying a book can ‘ruin’ it for them, but I have never once found this to be the case. Opening texts up, deconstructing their themes and techniques, teasing out the threads of meaning that run throughout their narratives and to the lives and societies beyond; this is not a ruining but a beginning, a blossoming, a detonating of potential. It is not unusual for students to leave with one or more of the works they have studied installed as a new favourite, to be read and mulled over again and again.

1 year intensiveOne Year A level at RIC

Lessons at RIC are a mixture of in depth analyses and informal, seminar-style discussions. By the time students sit down in the exam they will have had two hundred and fifty hours of tuition. We also use a lot of one-to-one feedback, especially for devising and developing coursework. Our course is a flexible one, which welcomes students of all abilities. Every year students go on to study a Literature or Creative Writing degree at university, as well as such complementary fields as Law, History, Classical or Modern Languages and Film. But we also give variety and depth to applications for subjects like Medicine, Dentistry and Optometry. With our small class sizes, it is easy to tailor the levels of stretch and support, depending on what students are using our course for. A future Medic, with a head full of neurones and synapses, wants a lean and functional English course. Someone applying to read Comparative Literature at university on the other hand needs and receives extra reading of primary and secondary texts and suggestions to help them take their studies further.

“RIC understands the university entrance system. They take the time on first meeting to listen to your child’s wishes, and to advise on the best possible course by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of results to date. Sometimes they suggest a complete change of subject as in the case of my youngest daughter being advised to take English A level in one year which resulted in an A. ” susan morley

english literature a levelOne year A levels are a way of getting an academic career back on course. Countless students have started in Autumn with a very low opinion of their academic worth and dismal prospects for the future. Those same students have left in August with a handful of high grades and a place on a fantastic course. Let the preconception be that this can be you too.

[1] By way of comparison the Harry Potter novels are between 77,000 and 257,000 words long. Even the shortest is longer than our core exam texts.

1 year a level intensiveDavid Thornthwaite BA Hons Warwick, MA UKC, Head of English, Rochester Independent College

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