A-level English Language

A collection of facts and figures by Dick Hudson

[This page is no longer maintained. It was last updated in 2010.]

  1. The options and their names
  2. The history of A-level English Language
  3. OfQuals specification for English Language (EL)
    1. Aims
    2. Specification of Content Knowledge, Understanding and Skills
    3. Assessment Objectives
  4. QCA‘s specification for English Language and Literature
  5. The various exam boards specifications for EL
  6. EL as a preparation for university
    1. Two reports on transition
    2. How is EL regarded by admissions tutors?
  7. How many students take the various qualifications
  8. How many students apply for university courses in linguistics or English language
  9. English Language exams in other countries.
  10. A collection of documents about the history in England of the subject called ‘English’.

Note: this page incorporates facts and links from documents compiled by Ewa Jaworska and Tony Tinkel.

1. The options and their names

This information page relates to the education system in England, but does not try to cover Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. In England, school students in Years 12 and 13 have the following options for studying English Language at Advanced Level (a two-year course which is recognised for university entrance; a student typically takes four AS subjects in Year 12 and then continues three of them in Year 13 to A2 level):

  • level:
    • AS = Advanced Supplementary, taken in Year 12; may be taken as the first half of:
    • A2 = Advanced Level, normally taken in Year 13 after AS.
  • subject:
    • EL = English Language
    • ELL = English Language and Literature
  • examining board:
    • AQA = Assessment and Qualifications Alliance
      • an amalgamation of NEAB (the Northern Examinations & Assessment Board – the old JMB Joint Matriculation Board), AEB, SEG and City & Guilds.
    • EDEXCEL = The Foundation for Educational Excellence
      • combines London Examinations: the former ULEAC (the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council) and BTEC.
    • OCR = Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations
      • formerly OCEAC; a combination of UCLES (Cambridge Local), UODLE (Oxford Local), O&CSEB (Oxford & Cambridge Joint Board), MEG and RSA (Royal Society of Arts).
    • WJEC = Welsh Joint Education Committee
  • mode: this distinction applies only to the AQA exams, which distinguish:
    • mode A
    • mode B

2. The history of A-level English Language

“English Language was first introduced as an Advanced Level subject in 1981-2 following experimental papers and pilots in London and JMB Examination Boards. The Joint Matriculation Board syllabus was taken up by a very small number of schools: by 1985 there were only 210 entries. It was then opened up to schools nationally and by the end of the 1980s other exam boards were offering an English Language Advanced level syllabus.” (English at A Level. A Guide for Lecturers in Higher Education. Barbara Bleiman & Lucy Webster, 2006)

See further the collection of documents below about the history of ‘English’ in England.

3. OfQual’s general course specifications for EL

All the various exam boards follow guidelines issued by OfQual, which has replaced QCDA (the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority, formerly QCA) as the body responsible for regulating qualifications. In September 2006, QCA introduced a new set of general principles for A level (e.g. the number of units is reduced from six to four); these new principles apply to AS from 2009 and to A2 from 2010. (A brief analysis of the changes can be found in the report by Goddard and Beard, which also includes the subject criteria for the pre-2006 exam.)

Unfortunately, as of November 2009 there are no ‘subject criteria’ for EL on the OfQual list. The QCA’s ‘subject criteria’ for EL from 2006 (no longer available on the internet) included the following:

2. Aims

2.1 AS and A level specifications should encourage students to deepen their interest and
enjoyment in the use of English as they:
• develop and apply their understanding of the concepts and methods appropriate for the analysis and study of language
• undertake independent investigative work related to language in use
• engage creatively and independently with a varied programme for the study of English
from the past to the present day
• develop their skills as producers and interpreters of language.

3. Subject content

3.1 AS and A level specifications in English language should build on the knowledge,
understanding and skills established in GCSE English.

3.2 All AS and A level specifications should introduce students to the concepts and methods
of the discipline of linguistic study in relation to a wide range of spoken and written forms
of English, including electronic and multimodal forms.

3.3 Students’ contextual study of language should be based on sound theoretical knowledge
developed through a coherent course of study.

3.4 All AS and A level specifications must ensure that the combination of materials and the
tasks set on them are of sufficient challenge for advanced level study.

Knowledge and understanding

3.5 AS specifications should require candidates to show broad knowledge and understanding
of some of the key constituents of language and how they contribute to meaning in spoken and written English, including:

  • the characteristic speech sounds and intonation patterns (phonetics and phonology)
  • the vocabulary of English, including the origins, meanings and usage of words (lexis)
  • the forms and structures of words, phrases, clauses, sentences and texts in speech and writing (morphology, grammar and discourse)
  • how meanings and forms in language are influenced by variations in mode (spoken and written, including multimodal and electronic forms) and context, including personal, cultural and social factors.

3.6 In addition, A level specifications should require students to show deeper knowledge and
understanding of:

  • how some of the following frameworks can be applied to the systematic study of meaning in language:
    • phonology and phonetics, lexis, morphology, grammar, discourse
  • the influence of mode and context, including time and place, on the meanings and forms of English
  • connections between different areas of study in their course as a whole.


3.7 AS and A level specifications should require students to:

  • apply linguistic concepts and methods of analysis appropriately and systematically to the study of meanings and topical issues in language
  • describe, explain and interpret variation in and between spoken and written texts,
    including multimodal texts
  • develop their skills in using spoken and written English accurately and creatively for a
    variety of different audiences and purposes
  • use linguistic terminology and concepts appropriately and accurately in discussions of
  • make accurate references to texts and sources.

3.8 In addition, A level specifications should require students to:

  • sustain informed, critical judgements about issues raised through the study of language
  • undertake independent investigations of language, selecting appropriate linguistic
    methods and techniques
  • draw on their knowledge of the forms and structures of spoken and written English to
    create imaginative and informative texts for different audiences and purposes
  • synthesise and reflect on linguistic knowledge and understanding drawn from different
    areas of their studies of English language.

Assessment objectives

5.1 There are four assessment objectives (AOs) covering both AS and A level specifications.
They aim to describe the areas in which evidence for knowledge, skills and understanding
should be collected.

5.2 Knowledge, understanding and skills are closely linked, as are the individual assessment

5.3 Differences in demand between AS and A level specifications may be shown through the
choice of different weightings for AOs either singly or in combination to reflect the
differences in the depth and breadth of the requirements of the specifications.

5.4 The weightings of AOs in each part of the course must in combination offer a balanced
approach to the assessment of knowledge, understanding and skills appropriate to
advanced level literary study.

5.5 Specifications must require that all candidates meet the following assessment objectives
in the context of the content and skills prescribed.

[Extracted from table which also includes marks per objective.]

AO1: Select and apply a range of linguistic methods to communicate relevant knowledge using appropriate terminology and coherent, accurate written expression.

AO2: Demonstrate critical understanding of a range of concepts and issues related to the construction and analysis of meanings in spoken and written language, using knowledge of linguistic approaches.

AO3: Analyse and evaluate the influence of contextual factors on the production and reception of spoken and written language, showing knowledge of the key constituents of language.

AO4: Demonstrate expertise and creativity in the use of English in a range of different contexts, informed by linguistic study.

4. QCA’s general specification for English Language and Literature

QCA’s specifications for ELL are very similar but (of course) include literature.

5. The various exam boards’ specifications for EL

2009: See the survey (by the previous Chief Examiner for AQA B, Tim Shortis) of material on the web related to the EL exams .

The new specifications (for examining from 2009) can be found on the boards’ websites as follows:



6. EL as a preparation for university

Two reports on transition from EL to university

  • As Simple as ABC? – Issues of Transition for students of English Language A Level. by Angela Goddard & Adrian Beard (ISBN 978-1-905846-05-4)

For some time university schools and departments have needed to get a better picture of recent trends, changes and developments in the study of English Language in the A Level curriculum. This report establishes a comprehensive overview, providing helpful survey data and indicating significant conceptual distinctions in the ways in which English language is studied.

Download the As Simple as ABC report in PDF format

  • English at A level – A Guide for lecturers in Higher Education. by Barbara Bleiman & Lucy Webster (ISBN )


This report is a guide to the three A levels in English and was written specifically for lecturers in HE. It describes curricula and teaching methods, and includes information gathered from a survey of secondary teachers.

Download the A level report in PDF format

How is EL regarded by HE admissions tutors?

The report by Goddard and Beard shows how uncertain some HE tutors are about the relation between ELand the more traditional A-level English Literature (and also about the combined Language and Literature A-level). It may be that some tutors take English Language less seriously than the more traditional A-levels, but this is not an institutional view. For example, although Cambridge University has published a list of non-traditional subjects which are not accepted as suitable general qualifications, EL is not in this list.

As far as the subject requirements for ‘English’ degrees are concerned, there is a great deal of variation. Predictably, EL is accepted as the subject-basis for degrees in English that include a significant language component; for example:

  • Liverpool University requires an A at A-level in ‘English (Literature or Language)’ for its BA in ‘English Language and Literature’

Equally predictably (and reasonably), more traditional literary degrees in ‘English’ that include very little language work require an A-level in Literature or Literature and Language. These include:

  • Oxford University requires an A in English Literature, but specifically advises candidates with only EL to contact the college to which they are applying.
  • Cambridge University requires an A in either English Literature or English Language and Literature.
  • UCL requires for its BA in ‘English’ an A in either English Literature or English Language and Literature.
  • Likewise: Reading

Rather surprisingly (and encouragingly for EL enthusiasts), there are some literary degrees which will accept EL. For example,

  • Leeds University requires simply ‘English’ at A-level for all its English degrees, including the one called ‘English Literature and Theatre Studies’, as well as ‘English Language’ and ‘English Language and Literature’.

7. How many students take the various qualifications

For an overview of trends in A-level English language which incorporates most of the following data and also brings them up to date, click here.

The following figures for June 2003 are from the web sites of the examining boards concerned. The figures in brackets show the A2 numbers as a percentage of the corresponding AS numbers. No figures are available for WJEC. [The figures for 2003 quoted in the report by Goddard and Beard are significantly different from these figures, and are shown here in red; I suspect they are different because they include entries for January as well as the main entries in June. This report also includes a great deal more statistical analysis of these figures for result grades, school type and sex.]

EL AS 4,658
631 2,188 24,387
EL A2 2,795 (60%) 3,758 (72%) 9,130 (70%) 11,223 (78%) 1,268 (65%) 1,494 (76%) 487
380 (60%)
1,515 (69%) 18,370 (75%)
ELL AS 4,926 7,370 4,026 ?   16,322
ELL A2 3,274 (66%) 4,942 (67%) 3,273 (81%) 954   11,489 (70%)
all AS 9,584 20,410 5,951 ?   35,945
all A2 6,069 14,072 4,541 1,441   24,682 (69%)

Here are the figures for 2005 and 2006 according to the statistics supplied by the two main boards, AQA and EdExcel:

June 2005

  AQA A AQA B EdExcel AQA + EdExcel
all AS
all A2

June 2006

  AQA A AQA B EdExcel AQA + EdExcel
[not available]
[not available]
all AS
all A2

In terms of its position relative to other subjects, English language (without literature) has increased its percentage of the total A-level market from 6% in 2001 to 8% in 2006, bringing it up from sixteenth place to eleventh.

The table below is based on figures supplied by AQA for entries to their A-level English Language – i.e. entries to JMB, which turned into NEAB, which turned into AQA. Figures prior to 1990 are not available.

8. How many students of EL apply to universities to study linguistics or English language

It is very difficult even to guess an answer to this question, as can be seen from the following two observations:

  • The report by Goddard and Beard says that 48 out of a sample of 271 (i.e. 18%) AS EL students intended to apply for a BA degree in linguistics or English language. Presumably all these 48 AS students intended to continue EL to A2, so (assuming 69% of AS continue to A2), 48 out of (69% of 271 = 187), i.e. 26% of A2 students would apply for linguistics or English language at university.
  • About 1,200 new students join university courses which include some element of linguistics each year (HESA figures for Q1 registration in 2002-4). According to the Goddard/Beard report (p. 41), 61% of a sample of second-year linguistics students said they had taken A-level EL, so we may perhaps assume that about (60% of 1,200 = 720) A2 EL students progress each year to a degree in linguistics. This implies a much smaller proportion of all A2 EL – e.g. in 2003, 720 is only 4% of the total 18,370 AS EL candidates.

This discrepancy may be an artifact of the way in which universities classify their degrees, or it may be because Goddard and Beard’s group of 271 were untypically enthusiastic about EL (this is quite likely, as they were participating in a study day on EL).


9. English language exams in other countries


A similar exam (called ‘VCE English Language’) for the last two years of secondary school has been developed in Victoria, Australia. The academic impetus has come from Jean Mulder, who describes the history and content of the exam in an online article. The exam is modelled on the UK EL exam, and has been equally successful.


Singapore’s Junior Colleges (for the last two years of secondary education) offer a very similar course at ‘Level H2’, called ‘English Language and Linguistics’. Click here for the official syllabus.

10. A collection of documents about the history of the subject called ‘English’ in England

Click here.


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