Exam Insights: AQA AS/A Level English Literature

Exam Insights

Author: Gwen Nelson

Reading a set for exam reports for AS and A-Level for different versions of the A-Level course is no mean feat, but nowhere near as difficult as actually doing the marking and leading a bunch of exhausted assistant examiners. So, to all assistant examiners and team leaders, I thank you for a really informative and useful set of reports.  It was also quite comforting for me to read in many respects, not least because the advice I give students when discussing how to answer an exam question has been reiterated (more than once) in these examiners reports.

Now, as there are two different versions of the AS and A-Levels reviewed, and a vast array of texts covered across the specifications, there is not the blog space to write about each text individually, plus the examiners have already done that. Instead I will highlight and discuss recurring themes and patterns in the reports, with a separate post for the NEA.

  1. Answer the question you were set, not the one you wish you had, or the one you wrote a really good practice answer for. The reports were especially critical of students who wrote ‘rote’ and ‘rehearsed’ essays because most of the time, they failed to answer the question set. It pays you to follow the instructions of a question carefully. For example, if the exam question DOES NOT require you to discuss other poems, because the extract given in the question is substantial, then DON’T. Many students missed some very clear instructions in these poetry questions, so wrote about poems they did not need to. My teaching tip would be to highlight and annotate past questions focusing on the mechanics of the language used, so that students know HOW to interpret the question actually given, and NOT misinterpret, or miss altogether the key words in the given question, and the question focus itself.
  2. Contexts – social, historical, political, and critical.  The best answers referred to the above types of contexts when pertinent to the task set, and were woven carefully into the essays.  Context, carefully used, added layers  and depth to the analysis, thus gaining these students particularly good marks. Weaker student answers ‘bolted on’ contextual factors, or let the social and historical context swamp their response so completely; they lost sight of the task set.
  3. Scripts are not weighed, then graded. Across all reports there was a definite sense of the ‘please don’t fill an answer book AND ask for extra paper’. An examiner is trained to find marks, not remove them. Write with concision and precision, which is achieved by paying close attention to the question set – see No. 1.
  4. Know your text well. The examiners took great pains to reiterate this advice over several reports. In some instances students tried to invert the exam question, so that they could utilise what they did know; for example, making poor selections from their given poem, and choosing comparative poems unwisely.  Furthermore, examiners took great pains to re-iterate ‘know the facts of the text’ and these are elements that CANNOT BE DEBATED. It is the interpretation of the facts of the text that you can debate, but NOT the facts of the texts themselves.
  5. Know the form of your text well. You need to have very secure knowledge of the conventions of a range of literary genres. For example, when studying Othello, you need a clear understanding of the conventions of Shakespearean tragedy (what did he inherit from Greek and Roman tragedy? What did he invent or adapt?), this then allows you to discuss, with some authority, how typical, or atypical Othello is as a Shakespearean tragedy. If there are deviations from the ‘norm’ then why?
  6. Read extracts given in the paper with great care. The students who produced the best answers, after making sure they understood the task set, paid close attention to the given extracts in the papers. The extracts were analysed closely with the question focus in mind at all times. This in turn enabled carefully planned, precise and concise responses that never lost sight of the question focus – the students’ persistence and consistence in this way were praised many times over by examiners.


As well as all of the key messages above, examiners were keen to emphasise that students must choose the authorial methods that best answer the question set.  You cannot write about everything, so be selective and use the question focus to do so. The other key message for prose texts was to remember that characters are a construct of the author, not real people. Often the weakest responses were subjective, too general and failed to address the question focus precisely because the characters were discussed as real people.


Not too dissimilar to the above re. prose and characters, too often students confused the poet with the narrative voice within the poem, and failed to explicitly deal with the poetic voice as a construct. Those who did identify the poetic voice wrote much more focused, analytical and cogent responses. Some of the strongest advice regarding poetry questions was concerned with feature spotting, especially with rhyme schemes, meter, and punctuation. Unless you are able to discuss any of these elements in terms of how they make meaning in the poem, AND their relevance to the question focus, then leave well alone.  


There is a quotation from Hamlet the best sums up the examiners advice here, ‘The play’s the thing’ (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2) which is something I repeat ad nauseum to my students when teaching a drama text. Never, ever lose sight of the fact you are discussing a drama. Never, ever, ever refer to the play as a ‘book’.  Students who did best at these questions took full account of the dramatic form, so payed close attention to the action as well as the dialogue. Several times examiners pointed out that Aristotlein terms were a double-edged sword: when applied well they aided the discussion of the play and the dramatic  construction of characters; when used poorly they were often misapplied – especially the term ‘catharsis’ which seemed to be used like confetti by some students, ergo wrongly more often than not.

Coming up: Look out for Gwen’s summary of the NEA report with advice to pass on to your new students.

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