How to revise for English Literature: a 7-step guide for GCSE and A-Level

Has a friend ever told you; “You can’t really revise for an English Lit exam”? Don’t listen to that friend. Just like any other subject, you need to revise for your English Literature exam to make sure you’re prepared to answer any of the possible questions that could come up and get the best grades you can.

So, how do you revise for an English Literature exam? By arming yourself with textual knowledge and memorised quotes, so that when you march into that exam room, you’ll do so with confidence. You’ll be ready to deploy those quotes to back up any argument and answer any question you are faced with.

That doesn’t just mean watching the film version of your text and that doesn’t just mean reading SparkNotes.

We’ve created a seven-step guide to help you revise your English Literature texts, whether you’re preparing for GCSE or A-level, or any equivalent exams. Bookmark this guide and keep coming back to it so you can work through it step-by-step.

Read on to learn how to improve your knowledge of your texts, come up with your own personal literary insights, and give yourself the upper hand when it comes to exam day.

1. Remind yourself what you will marked on

Whether you’re revising for English Literature GCSE or A-Level, and depending on which exam board is putting together your exam, your mark scheme will differ. That’s why it’s so important that you make this your starting point: ask your teacher what exam board is marking your exam and find their English Literature mark scheme online.

Print out that mark scheme, highlight it and hang it on your wall. Make sure that all of the revision you do from now on will help you tick off all of the criteria your exam board are looking for on the day of the exam.

2. Refresh your memory with study guides

SparkNotes, CliffsNotes and York Notes are great tools to remind yourself about the plot, themes and contexts of your texts, as well as prompt new ideas. Find a guide for your text, read through it and make note of anything that’s new to you.

What was the context your text was written within? How are the main characters presented? What themes does the author emphasise throughout the text? Study guides will help you begin to think about these important questions.

But, be careful with these study companions. I remember my GCSE teacher once told me to “Avoid SparkNotes like the plague”. He was being a little over-dramatic to emphasise his point, but what he really meant was; “Don’t make study guides the basis of your entire English Literature revision strategy.”

These resources are a great food for thought, but they are no substitute for the original texts you’re studying. In particular, don’t rely on the “translations” that these resources will offer for your older texts. Although they may help you decode words and phrases that you may be unfamiliar with, it’s your interpretation and understanding of the original text that you are going to be tested on.

3. Organise your notes

Now, you need to take all of your thoughts about a text and organise them into one central place to make sure you can remember them.

First, review all of your old work, including any:

  • Notes about the context or themes of a text.

  • Important quotes.

  • Analysis of literary techniques.

Now, use those old notes to create a new page of notes for each key character, and each key theme in your text. On each of those pages, you need to write:

  • A description of that character or theme.

  • A list of quotes about that character or theme.

  • A brief description of what each quote means.

  • Textual analysis for each quote, focusing on how the author is using specific literary techniques to emphasise the point you think they are making about the character or theme.

By organising your notes this way, if a question comes up about any character or theme, you’ll be ready to answer it.

Say a question in your exam asks; “In Frankenstein, to what extent does Mary Shelley present the monster as an evil character?”. In this example, you could think back to all of the notes you made on the monster, pick out the most relevant quotes you remember, support those with your specific textual analysis of each quote and use all of this to argue your perspective.

From now on, make sure to add to this with any further quotes and notes which you find during the revision process. Everyone works differently, but I recommend typing these notes in a word document on your computer. That will make it easy for you to add any new quotes and analysis as you continue to revise.

Getting organised can be the trickiest step. If you need more help, follow the link below:

4. Re-read the texts

When I was preparing for my English Literature exams, the idea of re-reading Wuthering Heights made me wince. It hadn’t inspired me the first time around, so I dreaded the idea of struggling through it a second time. But, it was on the second time of reading that I realised how interesting some elements of the book actually were. Think about your favourite film or TV show – they can get even better the second time around!

But don’t worry, as long as you’ve read your texts in full the first time around, there’s no need to re-read them word-for-word.

When re-reading your text, focus first on the sections you don’t remember very well. Within these sections, you will have missed important quotes, character development and interesting themes.

Secondly, you should revisit key sections of the text that your teacher highlighted. What else can you add to the analysis of these sections?

You should also think back to any memorable discussions you remember during your classes. Were there any points in the text where you felt there was more you wanted to ask about, but didn’t get the time? Now is your time. Re-read the sections that those discussions centered upon, and now, with your new insights, think about what else you might add to those discussions if you had a second chance.

As you re-read sections of your text, add to the notes you started in step 3. Keep building those notes until you have a library of quotes and analysis for every key character and each key theme.

5. Discuss your ideas

By now, you might be starting to feel the mind-numbing effects of revision fatigue. Don’t worry; it’s completely normal and with the right strategies you can overcome it.

One of the best ways to refresh your tired mind and come up with new ideas is to talk to your class-mates and share your thoughts. Have they found any interesting quotes that you didn’t discuss in class? What do they think of your ideas on a certain theme? What do they think it means when this character says that quote?

If you’re super-organised, you could even host a discussion group with your friends.

But, if you’re not that close with anyone in this class, you can always discuss your ideas with fellow students on online forums such as The Student Room.

6. Practice past papers

When you’re nearing the big day, past papers are the best way for you to practice taking your new-found knowledge. Past papers prepare you for the kinds of questions you’re going to be asked, and they give you the opportunity to practice using quotes and textual analysis to form an argument.

When you try your first past paper, try it with your notes at hand. On your second paper, do it in timed conditions, and without your notes.

Due to the nature of English Literature marking, you won’t get a grade on your past paper answers, but you can compare your answers against the marking scheme you found earlier. Be honest with yourself – do your answers fulfil the different criteria of that mark scheme? Where might your answers be lacking, and how can you improve?

7. Review your notes

You’re nearly there! Now all that’s left is to review all of your hard work, and do your best to memorise it.

The hardest part of this process is learning the wording of each quote. You’re going to end up with a long list of quotes, and you’re probably going to panic when you think that there’s no way you can remember all of them. Don’t panic!

Remember: if you’re taking an exam where they don’t allow you to bring in your texts, your markers will be lenient if you can’t remember the exact wording of some quotes. And if you need more help, try out the techniques we highlighted in this blog post.

The scariest thing about English Literature exams is not knowing what you’re going to be asked. But, if you’ve done all the available past papers you know what to expect and there’s only so many variations of characters and themes they could ask about.

You’ve put the hard work in to learn your texts, and on exam day your markers are looking for you to share your unique ideas. Embrace that freedom. Express your opinions, back yourself up with your analysis of the text and go for it.

Still looking for help? Follow the link below to get in touch with one of our tutors. Or, if you’d prefer, ask me a question in the comments section!