Gatsby adds glitter to A-level list

English literature students will be expected to read more books and make comparisons between texts in the new exam

tens of thousands of teenagers are going to have to get used to reading more books under plans to make A-level English literature more demanding.

From next year, the number of texts students must study will increase from eight to 12, meaning that they will no longer be able to get away with swotting up on a few trusted favourites.

Instead, A-levels are to move in the direction of the International Baccalaureate, with young people being asked to make connections between several different works and to analyse the backgrounds against which they were written.

It is hoped that the increased emphasis on a range of texts will also serve as better preparation for university, where undergraduates often face daunting reading lists.

Among the works that A-level students will be asked to grapple with are F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust and poetry by Wilfred Owen, Robert Frost and Christina Rossetti.

The OCR exam board's draft A-level specifications for 2008 also include an AS coursework module in which students choose their own texts and are then invited to make connections between them.

The board said that, at A2, a new "texts in time" coursework assignment would require candidates to link three texts, including one piece of prose and a poem.

Gary Snapper, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "Students are going to have to do more reading and they are going to have to be taught about narrative context more thoroughly.

"The idea will be to try to push A-levels away from the focus on single set texts read in isolation from one another. The drive will be to make context central to the study of English literature, by grouping texts together and looking at the way they relate.

"Students might be comparing texts in terms of how language changes from one period to another, or how they deal with particular themes, or how they represent a particular form."

Mr Snapper, the former head of English at Impington village college in Cambridgeshire, is working on a PhD study which followed a group of teenagers through their first year at a well-regarded "new" university.

He found that they became frustrated by the gap between their A-level work, which focused on understanding the narrative themes of single texts, and their university studies, where understanding the cultural, political and linguistic significance of writing came to the fore.

Bethan Marshall, principal lecturer in English education at King's College, London, said she could see both strengths and weaknesses in the new approach.

"The good thing about A-level is that it teaches you to read a text really thoroughly, which reading between texts and making comparisons will not do," she said.

"On the other hand, the more reading you do, the better prepared you are for university, because there you will be reading dozens of texts in a short time."

The English literature changes are among a raft of reforms, which will include greater emphasis on open-ended questions and essay-writing. The number of modules is to be cut from six to four in most subjects and an A* grade added.

Among the changes revealed by the OCR are the scrapping of options in science exams, while concerns about an overemphasis on the Nazis in history exams have been addressed by extending the study of Germany to 1963.

A creative buzz

England's pupils could be given the chance to follow in the footsteps of award-winning authors such as Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro by taking an exam in creative writing.

Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, is among those backing the campaign for an A-level in the subject, amid a proliferation of university courses for aspiring writers.

Its supporters believe that offering exams in the subject will give any future JK Rowling or Philip Pullman a chance to map out a career path.

The National Association of Writers in Education, which promotes creative writing in schools and universities, is drawing up proposals.

Paul Munden, its director, said that while other expressive subjects, from music to drama, were offered as GCSEs and A-levels, it was "extraordinary"

that creative writing was not.

Mr Munden said: "Children write at primary level and then it gets squeezed out of the curriculum in secondary schools. We would really like to do something about that."

The association has been in discussions with two boards about its plans, but creative writing will not feature in the A-levels being developed for 2008. Any course would be trialled first.

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