How to Ace the English Literature A Level

by Chloe Peratikou
Experienced Tutor and Literature and Arts Masters Student at the University of Oxford, with a BA (with Honours) in English Literature, First Class

Posted May 2024

Put your hand up if you’ve been personally victimised by the English Literature A-Level exam. 🙋‍ 🙋‍

Did you choose English Literature after breezing through the GCSE, thinking it will be just as easy? Are you now trampled and confused by the increased expectations? Does your teacher keep telling you that you need to be more critical, and you just don’t understand what that means?

Do not fret! You are not alone. Writing an English Literature exam is no easy feat. It demands that you analyse literary works, understand the context in which they were written in, and engage with them critically. At the GCSE, examiners want to be encouraging, but at A Level the marking standards can be a lot harsher.

When I first started my A-Levels, I wasn’t doing too well… I was struggling to understand the assessment objectives and couldn’t get my writing on that level. By the end, I managed to receive an A* in all of my modules, and even achieved 95-100% on a couple of them, and I have since helped countless students achieve similar results! So buckle up as I teach you the secrets that high-achieving students are gatekeeping from you. Learn about the best strategies to help you achieve those top, top marks, and how to apply them to write essays that stand out to examiners.

Headshot - Chloe Peratikou

Blog Contents

Learn the Specification!

Understand exactly what examiners are looking for, and how many marks are awarded for each Assessment Objective. This will help you to decide how to structure your essays and what to focus on. For example, you don’t want to spend half of your essay discussing context, if it is only worth 5% of the overall mark, as this will limit how much time you have to write about the other assessment objectives which are worth more marks. Each exam board is different, so make sure that you look at your own specification; but even with their small differences, many of them ask for similar things. Let’s look at AQA as an example:

AO1: Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate, written expression.

Achieving high marks in this learning objective would mean that you have developed your own unique writing style which clearly states your opinion, whilst maintaining a tight structure and signposting throughout. For A Level, you need to show that your response is mature and thoughtful so the examiners will be a lot more particular. You need to really come up with well-developed points that make the examiner go WOW! It also requires you to use a wide range of terminology sprinkled throughout your essay, so make sure that you revise all the vocab!

AO2: Analyse the ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts.

To achieve high marks in this learning objective, you need to have deep, detailed analysis that pulls quotes apart and really engages with the text dynamically. When writing analysis, I like to think about the formula A + B = C. A is your quote, B is your analysis, and C is your conclusion. The mistake that many students do, is that they jump from A to C, including a quote and then stating its significance in the text, without describing the thought process that led them to this conclusion. It is important to include every step of your thought process, even if you think it is obvious! Also, you can get more marks by integrating form and structure into your textual analysis. For example, saying that a point you just made is further strengthened by the use of enjambment, and then explain how.

That being said, at A-Level, you can diverge from the PEEL paragraphs taught to you at GCSE. It’s actually best to include 2-3 examples per paragraph (e.g. one for form, one for specific language analysis, and one for overall plot). You still want to have a tight structure by making sure that your first and last sentences directly link to the question, and that you sprinkle the question’s vocabulary throughout, but including more points into your analysis allows you to tap into deeper analysis. But be careful, these should be mini points that build on each other, not entirely new ideas.  You can follow the structure: This is my opinion and I can prove it to you using this and this and this.

But how do I actually analyse texts?

The best way to analyse texts is to read them twice. The first time you read a text, you are just getting into grips with the plot and general narrative devices. Try to do this as quickly as possible so that you don’t forget anything that happens in the plot. For plays, you should ideally be reading them in one sitting. Remember, they are designed to be watched in one sitting! You can use audiobooks to help you. During this reading, it’s also a good idea to make note of all the themes that come up.

Then, the second time you read a text, you can annotate and colour code it based on the list of themes.  Have a separate document sub-sectioned into all the different themes and add quotes and analysis to it as you go along.

You can do something very similar for poetry. Remember that you need to read a poem at least 2-3 times in order to fully understand it.

Pro-tip for understanding Shakespeare and poetry: pause only when you see a punctuation mark, not between lines. It makes a lot more sense when you read it this way!

AO3: Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.

For A-Level, context takes on a much bigger significance. You can no longer get away with making general historical comments about the period that the text is written in. Context needs to be super specific and fully integrated into your analysis. You should never reference a contextual point if you are not going to talk about how it links back to the analysis you have just written and how it answers the question. It’s also important for the context you use to be specific to the question you are answering.

Context also includes cultural and thematic points, so it doesn’t always need to be historical knowledge. For example, for the genre papers, you want to have a deep understanding of the genre by reading critical papers and looking at the way in which the genre responds to political events and develops throughout time. You need to be able to engage with the genre critically, for example pointing out where a writer fails to ascribe to a particular genre feature, and where the writer might be deliberately choosing to do so. You can’t do this unless you have a really detailed understanding of context!

For all texts, but especially for plays, it’s also important to consider how audience reception changes throughout time. For example, how might a contemporary audience understand the role of women in Twelfth Night and how does that change for a 21st century audience?

AO4: Explore connections across literary texts.

Not every paper includes a comparative essay, but for the ones that do, it’s important for your analysis to centre on this comparison. Before writing, make sure that the points you are going to make about each text are easily relatable to each other. You can compare texts by saying that they deal with the same theme, but in different way (e.g. different techniques, different perspectives etc.), or you can compare them by saying that they use similar techniques to explore different themes/perspectives. It’s helpful to think about comparative paragraphs almost as having 3 thesis statements: a general (main) statement that is applicable to both texts, and then one specific thesis statement for each text. The specific statements should branch off from the main one and address the individual qualities of each text within the context of the main thesis. Doing this ensures that your analysis maintains a comparative element throughout. 

The mistake that many students make is that they focus on the differences and similarities of each text separately, but this can be flat as you are not making nuanced, personal observations about the texts.

AO5: Explore literary texts informed by different representations.

Engaging with texts critically has two main parts. Firstly, you need to be aware of general trends and literary theories, and secondly, you need to be aware about specific conversations around your texts.

  1. Knowledge of general trends and literary theories:

You need to be aware of some of the main literary critical perspectives, such as Marxism, feminism, psychoanalytic thought (such as Freudian theories) and post-colonialism. Read about these theories, and consider how they can be applied to your texts. Pretend you are a feminist or Marxist critic and think about how you would approach the texts. What opinion would you have about them?

  1. Knowledge of specific conversations around your texts:

In order to do this, you need to be well-read around your set texts. In your free time, try to go on sites like JSTOR and see what academics have written about. When reading, try to figure out what their main argument actually is. What are they trying to convince you about by writing this?

You want to make a note of their name, their overall argument, and some important quotes. Categorise them into themes, and think about what analysis you would use with them, so that you are ready to go when writing your next essay. Don’t stress if these texts are difficult to understand at first! They can be dense and complicated, but the more you read them, the easier it becomes to understand them. You also don’t need to understand every little bit of their argument. It’s okay to just get the general gist. There are thousands of books and articles out there so if you think something is too complicated, put it down and try something else.

After you’ve done your reading, it’s important to also critically engage with the texts. But what does being critical even mean?

Essentially, being critical means that you can pinpoint flaws in another person’s argument, and pick out parts that you agree with and parts that you disagree with, rather than taking it all for face value. It’s easier to do this if you can find some critics who you don’t agree with.

The difficult part is that it is up to you to define what being critical means for you as it depends on your own writing style, but for the most part, you can say something like: some people think this, and other people think this, but this is what I think and I’m going to prove to you why I’m right.

It’s okay to also agree with a critical perspective, but you can’t just state it and move on. You need to use that criticism to propel your argument. Think about how you can use your own analysis to push that argument even further. You can also think about combining two critical perspectives to come up with your own interpretation.

Okay, so you’ve nailed your spec. What do you do next?

Build your knowledge

If you’ve followed all steps from part 1, then you hopefully have detailed notes on analysis, context, and critical perspectives that you can use in an essay. However, in order for all of this to be useful in an exam, you need to be able to quickly tap into this knowledge. Remember, that you are quite limited on time and you can’t afford to spend too much time thinking of ideas and planning your answer.

In my opinion, the best way to practice accessing your memory is through blurting. This involves quickly writing down everything you know about a topic on blank piece of paper. Give yourself a 5-10 minute timer and try to jot down as much as possible, as quickly as possible. You can start by doing this for characters and themes, but as you progress, it’s even better to do it for specific questions. In these 5-10 minutes, try to be as detailed as possible and try to hit all assessment objectives.

After the time is up, take a moment to look at what you’ve written. Check that you’ve answered the question and addressed all assessment objectives. Compare it to your notes and see if there is anything else that you forgot to add. Have you used the best possible quotes, or were there better options that you didn’t think of? Did you include terminology? If you forgot to include anything, add it to the sheet of paper in a different colour. Repeat the processes regularly until you manage to remember everything.

You can combine this method with spaced repetition. This means that as you become confident in a topic, the intervals between each study session will get bigger and bigger. As you begin learning a topic, the intervals between each study session should be really small. For example, if you are really uncertain about a theme or question, you might do the blurting method daily, or even multiple times a day. Then, as you start feeling confident, you might start to look at it every other day. This then progresses into every couple of days, every week, every two weeks, every month, etc., until it becomes ingrained into your long term memory and you are able to easily tap into that knowledge. As you do this, it frees up space in your schedule to pick up new topics and continue this process.

If you are struggling to remember terminology, context points, and quotes, you can also use flashcards. Flashcards are difficult to make for literature since the subject is so subjective. If you want to use them, try to make the questions as specific as possible, otherwise you will get confused with all the different possibilities. They’re most effective for factual knowledge, such as terminology and context, but use them in whatever way works best for you. You can combine flashcards with spaced repetition if you are really looking to consolidate your knowledge.

This is the way I like to do it: I pick up a stack of flashcards and start testing my knowledge. If I get a question right, I put it down. If I get it wrong, it goes to the back of the pile. I then keep going like this until there’s no flashcards left in my hands. As you become confident in a topic, revise those flashcards less and less, and move on to topics that you find more challenging.

Do essay plans

Now that you’ve got the content down, it’s time to practice putting it all together. Look at essay questions and try to come up with essay plans that address all assessment objectives. Think of what your argument would be and how you would structure your essay. At first, you can do this slowly by going through all your notes, but as you progress, give yourself 5 minutes maximum and pretend that you are planning an essay for an exam.

Practice, practice, practice!

The best way to prepare for any essay exam is to practice your writing skills. If you want to be really dedicated, do daily exam practice and time yourself answering a question that you’ve never seen before.

(Secret tip: If you’ve already done all of the past papers and have run out of questions to answer, you can upload past papers into Chat GPT 4 and ask it to come up with more questions which follow the same structure. It isn’t always perfect but it can be helpful if you are looking for more questions to answer)

After you’ve written the essays, get your teacher or tutor to check through them and give you constructive feedback. Then, have a go at re-writing the essay using that feedback. This can help you to understand your mistakes and can prevent you from making similar ones in the future. The next day, before writing the new essay, look through the feedback and try to keep it mind.

Don’t worry if you don’t have access to a teacher or tutor, examiners reports are a gold mine for information. They often highlight common mistakes and offer insight into what makes an answer excellent. Make sure to read all of them and make notes of the key takeaways.

Mark schemes are also great to refer to. They can help you understand the general rubrics of the exam and what is expected of you. Make sure to check your answer against them!

Remember that technology is also on your side, and you can use it wisely. You can upload the question, answer, and mark scheme onto chat GPT and ask it to give you a mark and feedback. If you find that what it says isn’t quite right, you can upload past answers and say what mark and feedback your teacher gave you, and it will adjust accordingly.

So here is my guide to acing the A-Level English Literature exam. Don’t panic, you’ve got this! The expectations are high, but if you work hard and stay dedicated, it will pay off. To sum up, it’s all about learning the learning objects and understanding exactly what is expected of you, consolidating your knowledge so that you can quickly tap into it without needing to think much, and practicing your essay writing.

If you have your exam coming up really soon and you feel like you don’t have enough time to go through this entire process, then spend 10-15% of your time familiarising yourself with the assessment objectives, 25% consolidating content and doing essay plans, and 60% practicing essay writing. This means that if you have your exam in 2 weeks, you would spend 1-2 days understanding the assessment objectives, 3-4 days consolidating content, and the rest of your time should be spent on practicing essay writing skills. If you are really pressured with time, it’s also better to practice essay questions that haven’t come up yet as they are more likely to come up on the exam! For critics, you can do google searches as there are often condensed versions of academic works online.

If you are in Year 12 and still have the whole year ahead of you, then utilise these tips as early as you can, so that you can maximise your chances of success. 

Best of luck to everyone sitting their exams this summer! Remain dedicated and stay positive and your hard work is sure to pay off! If you need the extra little boost, remember that we are here to help you. There are countless revision courses for you to pick from, so what are you waiting for?