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English Literature vs Language – How They Differ

13/07/2023 / English Tuition

Throughout the UK, English is a compulsory subject taught in primary and secondary classrooms. However, while you study English as a general topic in primary years, this subject is split into two categories when moving into secondary education.

The reason for this is that English language and literature, while appearing similar, are pretty different regarding learning objectives, comprehension and application outside the classroom.

When children move into secondary school, English literature and language are tackled separately, and most students complete GCSEs in both at the end of this educational experience. But for many, there is some confusion about the two subjects and what each involves at different levels of study.

In this article, we look at both subjects and explain the key differences in English literature vs language to help students and parents understand what’s involved during study.

What is English language?

Sometimes it can seem difficult to define what English language is compared to its literature counterpart, as the topic covers a wide range of concepts. This area of study mainly focuses on, of course, language – more specifically, how we communicate and the varying aspects within this.

As English is spoken and written every day, many students feel they know the ins and outs of the subject. It’s an unavoidable part of society, after all. However, when you compare it to what you learn when taking a foreign language, for example, French, its much more than just speaking and writing French words.

Again, words are just part of English language study. Pitch, tone and how language is communicated merge into this subject area.

In school, English language is a compulsory subject and must be studied at GCSE level. It’s a well-recognised qualification, and most colleges, universities and employers require this qualification as a minimum.

What is studied in English language classes?

As English language focuses on reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, the curriculum covers a variety of aspects, such as:

  • Creative reading and writing
  • Descriptive/narrative writing
  • Non-fiction and literary non-fiction texts
  • Presenting
  • Language construction and how it’s used in standard English
  • Reading and responding to questions and feedback

The English language GCSE exam is typically split into two papers. The first covers Creative Reading and Writing, making up 50% of the mark. The other focuses on Writer’s Viewpoints and Perspectives and completes the remaining 50% of the marks. Different examining boards have slightly different names for the papers but generally cover the same concepts.

What is English literature?

Most people have some idea of what English literature covers – think Shakespeare and Dickens. But it’s not just about reading these texts and answering some questions about the books. There’s a lot more to it than many students anticipate.

While this subject isn’t compulsory nationally at GCSE level, most schools include it as a compulsory subject, meaning students must study the subject alongside English language. This area can often present more challenges for students as it focuses on the meaning of different texts and uncovering the hidden elements within the content to discover the deeper context.

The subject also involves understanding literary techniques and thinking about why a writer has decided to write something the way they have. This could be in terms of the language used or the form of the text. Context is also an important factor.

English literature overall plays a vital role in education and understanding the English language in more depth. While the English language GCSE is often required for higher education, literature is sometimes not – but that doesn’t make it any less desired among further education establishments.

What is studied in English literature classes?

The English literature GCSE syllabus covers a variety of areas, including different pieces of literature within the qualification. For example:

  • Poetry
  • Drama texts
  • Prose
  • Shakespeare plays

Different schools may have various texts depending on the area of study, but the exam structure follows a similar pathway. There are two exams to sit, and depending on the examining board, each is worth 50% or a 60/40 split.

English language vs literature – what’s the difference?

It may first appear that English language and literature studies are similar – so why would you need to learn both? In fact, they quite different areas of study and require different thought and learning processes to understand the concepts included.

English language primarily focuses on reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. In comparison, literature hones in on the study of writing. In some cases, the subject areas may overlap. For example, each covers meaning and how it’s conveyed within language and literature. While in each, there are some differences, what you learn remains the same.

Another difference between literature and language is there are fewer terms to learn in literature. For example, in English language, there are eight terms regarding speech:

  • Noun
  • Pronoun
  • Verb
  • Adjective
  • Adverb
  • Preposition
  • Conjunction
  • Interjection

And they are just a few examples. There are the rules of grammar, structure, poetry and a whole host of general terms that explain different areas of language and how it’s used.

Do I have to take GCSE English language and literature?

GCSE English language is a compulsory subject at secondary level education. It sits alongside Maths and Science, and passing English Language in particular is essential to progress into further education. Unfortunately, if you fail English Language, then you’ll have to retake the exams to proceed to lots of other qualifications.

On the other hand, GCSE English literature is not compulsory for all students, though most schools include it as a subject studied alongside English language. As such, it is rarely listed on college course entry requirements – with the exception of related courses like English Literature A Level or an English degree.

Why are English literature and language two separate GCSEs?

The subjects of English language and literature are split into two qualifications due to the diverse nature of the subjects. Each has different concepts to cover, thus providing separate areas of study and testing.

On results day, you’ll get two grades. If you fail English language, it may need to be re-sat to get onto your chosen course.

Which is more important – English language or literature?

The answer to this question is subjective because each student wants different things from their educational career. In terms of progression, English language may be considered more important as you need to pass to get into most levels of further and higher education.

After your secondary education, choosing whether to move forward with either subject can benefit your future career. So, making time for each subject and approaching both as equal at this stage will help your understanding and comprehension for each exam.

How to revise for English exams

Due to the differences between the two subject areas, English as a whole can be more challenging to revise for. The main difficulty is you never know what type of question you’ll be given in an exam, but there are some tried and tested techniques to improve your revision strategy.

In both exams, essays form a significant part of the marks. So, it’s essential to feel confident in this area.

How to revise for an English literature exam

English literature can feel daunting for many students, not just at exam time but also throughout study. You will study texts during the course, and at the exam, it’s important to remember some key quotes and passages as these are bound to help out in the test. Learning literature terminology also helps to set you aside from other students. The more you can show you know the deeper side of literature, the better your marks.

Revisiting past papers is also helpful during revision. This will give you an idea of the type of questions that may be asked. But more importantly, you can practise how to answer them.

Another area to go back on is the texts you learned in class. Even if the book you studied didn’t motivate you to read again, it’s essential to go back through it and recap the main features. When reading this, compile notes on key quotes and theme and character analysis.

How to revise for an English language exam

Similar to the English literature exam, students will do well if they can learn and use terminology and concepts correctly. Essays will again feature heavily, so practising essay writing is a key skill area.

Past papers will help to cover how to answer questions and what type of questions might be asked. It’s also worth going over the texts you studied during the course to recap on important areas.

Most schools allow students to practise mock exams in the run-up to the real thing. This will give you a chance to sit the exam with actual timings and get feedback on areas you need to improve on.

Make English language and literature study simple with an online tutor

English language and literature are two essential subjects to pass at GCSE level. However, they can be the hardest to learn and revise for. To support study and achieve success in each area, hiring an online tutor can help.

At Principal Tutors, we have qualified teachers specialising in both GCSE English Language and GCSE English Literature. Because we tutor-match for all students, you can rest assured your child will have a qualified professional who can help with their specific requirements.

If you’d like to explore the benefits of a private tutor for English courses, contact us at 0800 772 0974 or book an online tutor today.


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