The New English a Level: Further Thoughts on the New 2008 Specifications: Barbara Bleiman Offers a Practical Perspective on the New A Level Specifications in English Literature and English Language & Literature, Aiming to Contribute Further to English Departments' Decision-Making Process

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The NATE Post-16 Committee's feature on the new A Level specifications for 2008 in the last edition of EDM was a welcome addition to discussions about what the specifications have to offer, summarising, at an early stage, some of the key changes within the new Subject Criteria and significant features of different specifications. Because of the later than anticipated publication of some of the final approved versions of the specifications and final Sample Assessment Material (question papers and mark schemes), the NATE summaries of the specifications focused largely on questions of ideology, as evidenced by the statements and prescriptions in the specifications. They provided an interesting analysis of the extent to which the specifications matched the 'ideal' A Levels that NATE had set out in a manifesto document about A Level, Text: Message--the Future of A Level English (2005).

While there was much that we at the English and Media Centre would agree with in the NATE analysis of the specifications, we would like to offer an additional approach, that takes into account more of the pragmatic issues of how specifications look once you translate them into practice. Looking closely at the specifications in this way, using the question papers and mark schemes as well as reading closely the fine print of the specifications, can offer a different perspective on the choice.

The Literature specifications

More reading--sharing out 12 texts between exams and coursework?

The specifications take radically different approaches to the new requirement of the subject criteria to read a minimum of 12 texts. Different kinds of reading and responses to reading are required. Some specifications make more of the opportunities to read at different levels than others, for instance identifying some individual texts for close reading, to act as a 'foil' to a core text or for wide reading leading to re-creative writing.

Some specifications require significant amounts of comparison of texts in their exam units. For instance, AQA B Unit 1 Section A on narrative texts has one question comparing 3 texts and Section B of the A2 exam paper also requires comparison of 3 texts for the Gothic or Pastoral theme. In both of these sections, the questioning focuses on comparing the way the texts develop aspects of the genre--interesting and valid tasks --but nevertheless, this is a substantial reading and comparison weighting within the exam elements.

In both examined elements, AQA A involves comparison between unseen text extracts and wider reading. Edexcel has a question comparing two novels at AS but in Unit 3, where 3 texts have to be studied, only 2 have to form part of an exam answer. This seems to recognise a distinction between the requirement to study 12 texts and the assessment of them. WJEC has a 'paired text' approach, with a core and partner text, in one element of each exam, as well as a comparison of a set text and unseen poem at A2.

By contrast with all of these specifications, OCR places more of its reading requirements and comparison of texts within coursework units, as opposed to exams. There is only one element of comparison in the A2 exam, where a poetry and drama text are compared in response to a choice of generic questions.

This division of texts between exam and coursework, and the number of comparative tasks, may be one factor in deciding on a specification. The two exam units are worth 30% of the marks and the two coursework units only 20%. In strict terms, you might expect more reading to take place within the exam units. But the QCA Subject Criteria make it very clear that reading should take place in different ways for different purposes (with, for example, one text acting as a foil to the primary text) and there is nothing to stop an Awarding Body from choosing to fulfil more of the reading requirements in coursework.

Where the bulk of the extra reading falls may also influence the viability of Year 12 January entries. …