English Language GCSE – (ComprehensiveGuide 2019)

English GCSE is a fundamental qualification to havebut acing your way to a 9 shouldn’t be a struggle!

Whatever exam board you’re with – AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC, CCEA or another, Tavistock Tutors are on hand to help.

English GCSE will equip learners with skills to read fluently and write effectively. They are encouraged to engage with a wide variety of high-quality texts both literary and non-fiction, across a range of familiar genres. They will develop the skills to analyse critically and synthesise and evaluate ideas and information across unseen texts. Learners will also be given the opportunity to experiment in their writing across a range of contexts and styles.

The English Language GCSE is an exam based on skills rather than acquired knowledge – so expect the unexpected. But by reading our definitive guide, you should feel much more confident in what to expect.

If you’re looking to ace your exams, look at some of our blog posts on “Steps to English GCSE success’ or our ‘English GCSE Analysis Toolkit’. We also have a resource bank of ‘English GCSE Past papers’

Each exam board has different requirements, and the format of each paper will vary slightly. But despite minor differences, they’re all looking to assess the same skillset.

Main requirements

For GCSE English Language students should be able to:

  • read fluently, and with good understanding, a wide range of texts, including literature and literary non-fiction as well as other writing such as reviews and journalism
  • read and evaluate these texts critically and make comparisons between texts
  • write effectively and coherently using Standard English appropriately, with correct use of spelling, grammar and punctuation.
  • listen to and understand spoken language and use spoken Standard English effectively.

New exams

The 2015 reform of GCSE qualifications in England has provided a profound change to the education system. The new system provides a numerical marking system with grades ranging from 1 – 9.

This new English language specification is designed to help learners explore communication, culture and creativity, to develop independent and critical thinking and to engage with the richness of our language and literary heritage.

As this exam was only reformed a few years ago, it is important that you are mindful of the changes from the old specification.

Tavistock Tutors’ top tip
Looking at past papers from the old specification can be useful for example unseen texts, as the skillset remains the same. But one of the most useful revision techniques is to practice with past papers. Please see our ‘English GCSE past papers’ resource bank to find plenty of papers for each exam board.

Practice really does make perfect!

Assessment Objectives

Each exam board (whether it’s AQA, Edexcel, OCR or another) will examine the English GCSE in a slightly different way:

Each exam board may place their assessment objectives in different parts of the exams, but they’re still looking for you to employ the same skill set. Below is a diagram of Edexcel’s overall Assessment Objectives, which correspond to most other exam boards.

It’s important that you get to grips with these assessment objectives and know what is required of you.

Each assessment objective (also known as an AO) corresponds to a different skill that the exam board want you to achieve. Each individual paper will examine different assessment objectives, and it’s important that you know how which AOs are being assessed and to achieve each them.

Tavistock Tutors’ top tip

For your exams, it’s a great idea to know which AO’s you’re successfully achieving, and where you’re lacking in others.

A great way to try and make sure that you’re hitting each assessment objective successfully is by using a colour-coded system. If you can colour code each assessment objective, it will make it easier to pick them out of your work by highlighting them!

Different examined skills

The English language GCSE covers a wide range of skills from analysis to producing coherent writing.

But what should students be able to achieve?

Find below the different examined skills:

Analysing fiction

Students will read a wide range of high-quality prose fiction texts which are to be drawn from the 20th or 21st Century. They may include works from some famous fiction writers such as Charles Dickens or Zadie Smith, but can also include extracts from novels, short stories or literary non-fiction.

Learners shouldaim to engage with the detail of the text by drawing inferences. They should recognise that there may be multiple possible interpretations of a text, but they should be able to support their own conclusions with carefully selected evidence from the text.

To make strong arguments they should explore the impact of writer’s use of literary devices, by developing an understanding of linguistic and literary terminology to support their analytical skills.

Students should aim to:

  • Comment on writers’ choices of vocabulary, form and grammatical features and how these create meaning
  • Analyse and compare writers’ use of language, paying attention to detail
  • Identify the main themes and ideas in texts
    • common themes include power, money, birth and death, love.
  • Evaluate how form and structure contribute to the effectiveness and impact of a text
  • Use a broad understanding of the text’s context to inform their reading.
    • Is the setting real or fictional?
    • Does the text indicate a particular geographical location or event?
Tavistock Tutors’ Top Tip
Analysing a text and drawing your own conclusions can be difficult.

But by using our guide ‘English GCSE analysis toolbox’ you should feel more confident and equipped to annotate texts whether fiction or non-fiction! Our MRS FORLAP method provides the perfect checklist to make sure you’ve identified different literary devices.

Also look at our example exam responses to see how other students structured their examination answers!

Analysing non-fiction

Analysing non-fiction is very similar to analysing fiction, so the skills learned for one exercise will be useful for another!

Literary non-fiction is a type of writing which uses similar literary techniques to fiction, but its content is based on factual information.

You may be wondering what non-fiction texts include:

Non-fiction texts are incredibly varied – some example types include advertisements, reviews, letters, diaries, blogs, newspaper articles, leaflets, autobiographies or travel writing.

By using the MRS FORLAP technique taught in our ‘Textual Analysis toolbox’ you will be able to make sure you have discussed a wide range of literary devices deployed by the author. You should be able to then evaluate how their choice of literary devices and structural features contribute to the effectiveness and intended impact of a non-fiction text.

Comparing Texts

The English GCSE will require students to compare texts. This involves making direct links between texts by commenting on both their similarities and differences. It is very important that the learner discusses both texts equally and writes about them together, not separately.

There are many ways in which texts can be compared:

  • You can link texts through the purpose they are aiming to achieve
    • There are many reasons someone may write a piece of fiction or non-fiction text. Try and think what their main reason for writing may be
    • Are they writing to entertain, to inform, to advise, to persuade or to argue?
    • Sometimes writers will often have more than one purpose – so keep that in mind!
  • You can compare texts through the form they use
    • Is the form for a public or private audience? This will affect the intended aims of a text
    • What kind of form is the text? Is it an article, a blog, a letter, a newspaper?
    • How is this form effectively used to reach the writer’s purpose
  • You can discuss the different methods used by writers in each text
    • If they have the same purpose, do they use similar methods to achieve this?
    • If they have different purposes but the same subject, do they treat the subject differently?
    • How have they used literary devices and structure to reach their purpose?
    • Use our ‘GCSE English Analysis Toolkit’ and the MRS FORLAP method to create a checklist for different methods used
Tavistock Tutors’ Top Tip
As with any question, planning your response is super important when comparing texts. Spider diagrams are useful to get out your initial thoughts, but organising your plan into a table or Venn diagram will ensure that you cover both extracts equally and will also enable you to visualise your comparisons!

Make sure that once you have connections between your points, that you only pick the most important! There isn’t enough time to cover everything in detail.


As well as being expected to read and analyse texts, GCSE English requires students to write accurately and effectively for different purposes and audiences.

But what does this include?

This may include writing to describe, explain, inform, instruct, argue or persuade. Students should be able to select appropriate vocabulary, form and structural features to write for the intended purpose and audience.

Learners should apply their knowledge and understanding of appropriate linguistic conventions and be able to use them creatively within their own writing.

They will be expected to produce imaginative, original texts in a range of forms such as short stories, letters or autobiographical writing. They should organise their ideas and information in a clear and coherent manner, whilst demonstrating accurate use of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Students should also maintain a consistent point of view; maintaining coherency and consistency throughout their writing. They should aim to write for emotional impact by using language creatively to create meaning and influence readers. They should also be able to adapt their tone, style and register depending on the audience and purpose of the text.

Tavistock Tutors’ top tip
Similarly to analysing texts, the MRS FORLAP technique from our ‘GCSE English analysis toolkit’ will come in handy here. You can use it as a checklist for different literary devices to include in your writing.

BUT remember:
You will not need to use ALL of these literary devices in your writing, only select those which you think are most appropriate for the purpose and audience of the required text .

Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar

An important element of the English GCSE which most students forget is their SPAG.

But what is SPAG?

‘SPAG’ is an abbreviation of Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar – and it’s just as important as you’re content.

Beyond analysing texts and writing coherently – learners should make sure they do this in a sophisticated manner. They are expected to write grammatically correct sentences, with accurate spelling and punctuation, whilst utilising a range of structural devices.

This involves creating a strong framework for written responses, often including an introduction and conclusion to frame their work. This can be achieved through the use of paragraphs which allow ideas to be organised more effectively.

To improve the quality of their written work, students should seek to acquire and apply a wide vocabulary, which they can apply throughout their arguments. This will be supported by an understanding of grammatical terminology and punctuation, as well as linguistic conventions for reading, writing and spoken language.

The ability to nail SPAG will ensure that you’re guaranteed marks in your exam – don’t let poor spelling and grammar let you down and stop you from reaching your deserved grade.

Spoken Language

The spoken language element of the English GCSE often forms a separate part of examination.

You may be wondering what it involves:

The spoken language presentation may take a variety of forms, including:

(a) a speech or talk by a student, followed by questions from the audience or

(b) a formal debate or dialogue, such as an interview where the student is able to prepare extended responses to questions or prompts which have been shared in advance, followed by questions from the audience.

In all cases, the presentation should be prepared and performed in front of an ‘audience’ including at least the teacher. It is expected to last no longer than 10 minutes.

Aims and Assessment

Despite being separate to written exams, the preparation and assessment of Spoken Language is a compulsory requirement for all English language GCSE courses. It appears on all students’ certificate as a separately reported grade, alongside their overall grade issues. For the spoken language assessment, there is often no numerical marks (1-9), but instead students will receive a holistic grade. Students will seek to achieve a pass, merit or distinction.

Learners will develop a confident control of spoken Standard English and demonstrate the ability to use spoken language appropriately in formal settings. The ability to have confidence in public speaking is a valuable skill which is widely sought after by universities and employers. The spoken language element of the English GCSE emphasises the importance of the wider benefits that speaking and listening skills for students. The endorsed unit will draw on good practice to suggest how engaging formative tasks can lead to a single summative assessment.

The criteria will address the following assessment objectives:

AO7 – Demonstrate presentation skills in a formal setting

AO8 – Listen and respond appropriately to spoken language, including questions and feedback to presentations

AO9 – use spoken Standard English effectively in speeches and presentations.

Students should be able to select and organise their ideas effectively and persuasively, and plan effectively to speak for different purposes and audiences.

More information

We hope you enjoyed our comprehensive guide for the English GCSE. If you would like some more information on your exam board’s specific guidelines, please follow the links below:


CCEA: https://www.rewardinglearning.org.uk/microsites/english_language




Additional resources:

English Language GCSE Past Papers
English Language GCSE Revision Tips
English Revision Guide

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