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A Parent's Guide To GCSE English Exams

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

Rows of tables and chairs in an exam hall

In recent years, the GCSE exams have undergone many changes and many parents are, understandably, unsure about what they involve. The GCSE English exams no longer include Foundation or Higher Tier papers, any coursework or controlled assessments and you can't take the set texts into the exams.

For GCSE English Literature, you are expected to know the plot, characters, themes and context of a Shakespearean play, a 19th Century novel and a modern prose or drama text and memorised a range of quotations. And then there's the poetry!

This parent's guide to GCSE English Language and Literature exams will, hopefully, provide an overview of what parents and their child need to know and answer some of the most common questions.

Overview of the GCSE Exams

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GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education and these exams are taken by Year 11 students at the end of their secondary school education.

The first GCSE's were taken in 1988 and had been introduced to replace both O Levels (Ordinary Levels) and CSE's (Certificates of Secondary Education). Initially, they were graded from A - G, with A* being added in 1994.

In 2015, a new style of GCSE English exam was launched and the grading system changed to 9 - 1. Grade 9 is now the highest and is only awarded to the top 20% of students who achieve Grade 7 or above.

Students sat these new exams in English Language, English Literature and Maths in 2017 and more subjects were added in later years.

Teenagers sat at desks in exam hall

How many GCSE exam boards are there?

The exam boards are responsible for creating the content and structure of the GCSE exams; including a list of set texts from which schools can choose. They also issue the exam dates, train their examiners, mark the exam papers and distribute the results.

Your child should know which exam board and set texts they are studying and the school will provide more information throughout the GCSE course; either at Parent Information Evenings or on their website.

You might also like to look at the relevant exam board's website as, in addition to exam information, they also provide useful revision advice and resources, including practice papers.

The five main ones in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are:

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What do I need to know about the GCSE English 9-1 exams?

Most exam boards require students to sit a total of four exam papers for GCSE English; consisting of two for English Language and two for English Literature.

Depending on the exam board, the GCSE English exams generally last between 1 hour 45 minutes and 2 hours but the exact content, length and structure will vary. Therefore, it is essential to know which exam board your child is studying.

The government has stated that they consider a "good pass" to be Grade 5 (the equivalent of a low Grade B / high Grade C on the previous system). In addition, the majority of sixth forms and college require a minimum of a Grade 4 (previously a low Grade C) in both English Language and Maths and, usually, if this is not achieved, students will be expected to study these subjects in addition to their college courses and retake the exam the following year.

Female student standing up and reading a speech in a classroom

What does the GCSE English Language exam involve?

As mentioned, the exact content and structure of the exam paper will vary depending on the specific exam board but all GCSE English exams require students to read, analyse and compare unseen texts from the 19th, 20th

and/or 21st centuries, using key quotes and relevant subject terminology.

There will also be a compulsory assessment of Speaking and Listening skills which is known as "Spoken Language Endorsement." This will involve students giving a presentation on a topic and being assessed by class teachers on their ability to present information and respond to questions and comments. All the presentations will be recorded and a sample will be sent to the exam board who will check that grades have been awarded correctly and consistently. Students will receive either a Pass, Merit or Distinction for Spoken Language Endorsement. However, if they do not achieve the minimum standard, they will receive Not Classified.

The Spoken Language Endorsement grades will not count towards the final 9 - 1 grade that they receive. GCSE result statements will show one numerical grade between 9 - 1 for GCSE English Language and either Pass, Merit or Distinction for the Spoken Language Endorsement.

A bookshelf full of colourful books

What does the GCSE English Literature exam involve?

In English Literature, students will be required to demonstrate their knowledge of the "set text" they have studied over the last two years from each of the following categories:

  • Shakespearean play

  • 19th Century novel

  • Post 1914 British novel or play

  • Selection of Poetry

The set texts available in each category are decided by the exam board. However, schools have the freedom to choose which of these texts their students will study. Some may decide that all their GCSE students will study the same text in each category but others might wish to teach different texts to different classes.

In order to achieve high marks, students will need to analyse these texts using quotes and relevant subject terminology.

A white question mark on a grey wall

FAQ about GCSE English

How can you revise for GCSE English?

This is one of the most common questions asked by both students and parents so I have compiled a few tips below.

For a more comprehensive list of ideas with more detailed explanations, you might like another of my blog posts, "How to Revise for GCSE English Exams."

1) Encourage your child to read a wide variety of texts, including fiction and non-fiction.

Some teenagers can be very reluctant readers but it really will help them to develop in all areas of English.

2) Use a variety of online learning and revision resources.

These might include revision websites, Youtube videos or podcasts.

3) Make sure they are familiar with the set texts.

They can read them, listen to audiobooks or watch the films but they need an in-depth understanding of the plot, characters and themes.

A hand writing with a pen on yellow & pink sticky notes

4) Invest in a printed revision guide / textbook…and make sure they actually use it!

Does my child have to retake the exam if they don't get a Grade 4?

Current government legislation requires all students to retake their GCSE Maths and GCSE English Language exams if they do not achieve a Grade 4. However, most sixth forms and colleges will allow students to study for these retakes along with their A Levels or other courses.

If you are disappointed by your child's exam result, it's possible for the exam paper to be resubmitted and re-marked. However, it is important to remember that grades can be moved up or down. Ask your child's English Teacher for advice and, if they agree that your child could achieve a higher grade, the school will organise for the exam paper to be resubmitted.

Alternatively, GCSE English and Maths exams can be retaken in November but it is likely that you would need to pay a fee.

Smiling female teacher helping a young female student at a desk

What support is available for dyslexic students or those with other additional needs?

If it is recognised that your child needs special arrangements, these will be organised by the school and are called "access arrangements."

The Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) and the school will decide what to provide but these might include:

  • Extra time

  • Rest breaks

  • A quiet room away from other students and distractions

  • A laptop or computer (without a spell check) so that answers can be typed instead of handwritten.

  • A computer with voice activated software to enable students to dictate their answers.

  • A reader who will sit next to your child and read the questions.

  • A scribe who will sit next to your child and write down what they dictate.

I am not a trained specialist in dyslexia but have found useful advice and resources on the following websites:

Scrabble tiles: Success Favours the Prepared

The last thing you need to know about GCSE English Exams

Effective preparation for all of the GCSE exams will involve a lot of work and, particularly for English, will involve a lot of reading and writing. Many schools start learning the GCSE content in Year 9 to ensure that students become familiar with the plot, characters and themes of the set texts and to try and prevent them feeling overwhelmed and unprepared in Year 11.

Ultimately, the students must accept most of the responsibility for their own exam preparation and performance but teachers and tutors can do their best to encourage and guide them. You can help with this at home by talking to your child about their set texts, asking them to explain the plot, what the characters are like and perhaps watching the film versions at home or taking them to see relevant performances at the theatre.

You might also like to invest in a revision guide or textbook and, of course, there is a multitude of free and affordable GCSE English resources available on the internet, such as BBC Bitesize, Seneca, RevisionWorld, EdPlace and the YouTube videos of Mr Bruff and Mr Salles.

Private Tutor and the Owner of English Home Studies

About the Author

I’m a private tutor, a former qualified and experienced secondary school English Teacher and the founder of English Home Studies. In addition to offering 1:1 tuition sessions for students from 9 - 16 years old (Year 5 - Year 11), I create digital and printable revision guides and activity packs.

I often post advice and links to free and affordable English resources on the English Home Studies Facebook and Instagram pages but, if you have a child in KS3 or KS4, you might like to join one of my Facebook groups:

If you would like to find out more about my qualifications and experience, read some of the lovely reviews I've received from previous clients or have any questions, please have a look around my website or send me a message. Many thanks.

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