Examine the changes

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Rachel Redford picks out features and differences between the new specifications for English AS and A-levels

The new AS modules being introduced this month, together with the A2 modules which will be taught from next September, represent the most radical restructuring of post-16 exams since A-levels began. New criteria and assessment objectives (AOs) common to all the awarding bodies have been laid down by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and teachers have spent months familiarising themselves with the new specifications and terminology.

The assessment objectives reported to have caused most concern in the support meetings organised by the awarding bodies were:

* AO5i and AO5ii requiring candidates to evaluate the significance of the contextual influences on their texts and areas of study * A04 requiring candidates to "articulate independent opinions and judgments informed by different interpretations of literary texts by other readers".

Teaching and the setting of students' assignments now require a much sharper focus on the prescribed A0s. A substantial task ahead for teachers is learning to assess coursework according to new criteria and at the different AS and A2 levels.

There are now three separate specifications: English Language and Literature, English Literature, and English Language. The English Language and Literature option is proving popular with students wanting to cut down on the reading and linguistics load in the two separate subjects, although some centres cannot cope with the administration or timetabling of a third AS and A2 English course. AS and A2 English Literature have by far the most candidates.

Awarding bodies

AQA specification A(formerly AEB)

AQA specification B (formerly NEAB)




Common features

All the awarding bodies' specifications:

* organise the subject into three AS modules in year one, and three A2 modules in year two

* offer external assessment of all modules in January and June l cover pre-1770, pre-1900 and post-1900 prose, poetry and drama

* weight AS and A2 coursework together at 30 per cent

* set a final exam on the Synoptic Unit weighted at 20 per cent

* set open and closed book exams which last from one to three hours

* offer some flexibility in choices of texts and topic areas.

Main differences

The detailed prescription of QCA's criteria and assessment objectives means the new specifications are not excitingly different from each other. This was QCA's intention: to eliminate the problems raised when differences between syllabuses led to rumours that A or E grades were easier to get with a particular awarding body. Coursework is the main area where differences occur. With coursework an option at AS and A2, teachers could have a huge amount of work to deal with. So, except in AQA Specification B, where coursework is compulsory, awarding bodies offer the choice of coursework or exam. Coursework is also the area of greatest flexibility in the choice of texts and area of study.

* AS coursework for three of the awarding bodies is on Shakespeare, and the choice of play is free so long as it is not the one studied for GCSE; OCR's coursework is a Complementary Study with the choice of texts depending on what the student is studying elsewhere in the course.

* A2 coursework offers greater freedom in he choice of texts:

AQA A - Literary Connections: free choice

AQA B - Comparing Texts: flexibility of texts

Edexcel - Modern Prose: free choice

OCR - Post-1914 fiction or non fiction: free choice.

"Free choice" is the negotiated choice of the student and teacher subject to the approval of the adviser, the new-style moderator appointed by the awarding bodies.

Other differences

In the Synoptic Unit, the final culmination of the whole course, which is approached differently by the awarding bodies' exams:

* AQA specification A - Reading for Meaning: unprepared texts in prescribed topic area; three-hour exam

* AQA specification B - Exploring Texts: pre-release material (given out on a Friday for Monday exam and not to be discussed with teachers) in addition to unprepared texts; three-hour exam

* Edexcel: Criticism and Comparison - unprepared text and comparative work on five areas of study chosen from six; two-hour exam

* OCR - Comparative and Context: on topic area chosen from six; two-hour exam.

Creative writing

There is an opportunity for creative writing, making up half the AS coursework in OCR's Complementary Study, and half A2 coursework for Edexcel's Modern Prose. OCR requires a "recreative" response, such as rewriting a text's ending, while the choice for Edexcel is free, but for both, students must write their own commentary on their creative work.

Prescribed texts

It is not easy to seduce new centres with exciting choices of pre-1770 drama, but there is more scope for post 1900 texts. Louis De Berniere's Captain Corelli's Mandolin is a popular option, AQA specificaton A, offering it rather curiously under the humorous area of study. Recent publicity of the novel's historical objectivity should certainly make it a lively choice for considering different interpretations as required by A04. Edexcel is strong on offering the option of non-Eurocentric writers such as Narayan, Walcott and Emecheta.


Common features

QCA's subject criteria and assessment objectives are so specific that the various specifications are more similar than different. They all:

* provide some continuity with the pre-2000 syllabuses

* present the course contents to students in coherent units that are rooted in their own experience of language in use

* introduce the frameworks for the description of spoken and written English

* provide opportunities for students to conduct their own

investigations into language and to write for a variety of audiences and purposes.

Main differences

The main differences occur in the AS coursework:

* AQA specification A - Using Language. Language production with a commentary (exam option)

* AQA specification B - Original Writing. Writing for different audiences and purposes (no exam option)

* Edexcel - Language of the Media. One piece of writing can be personal composition with commentary (exam option)

* OCR - Original Writing. Writing in two modes with commentary (no exam option).

Other differences

Although for all the awarding bodies the A2 coursework is the student's own language investigation, with considerable freedom given in the choice of topic, Edexcel stands out as exercising significant control over the structure of the study.

Rachel Redford is an ASA2 adviser and GCSE principal examiner

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