A list of books recommended for students preparing for their GCSE English exams.
1. Why is reading books important for GCSE English?
Reading widely and extensively is one of the best ways to become a better user of the English language. Familiarity with the vocabulary, grammar, style conventions and structural patterns of different genres of text will help you to understand better what is being communicated in those texts and will help you to write similar texts of your own.
Therefore, I recommend that you read lots of texts, especially focusing on the three main genres that GCSE students are required to write in exams: short story, non-fiction, literature essay. Of course, other genres are set for reading, and then writing essays about, in GCSE English Literature exams (poetry and drama) so familiarity with these is also useful.
All this seems like stating the obvious, but the argument does need to be made as some will contend that it is possible to, say, write an essay despite having no familiarity with the genre, transferring knowledge and skill from familiarity with another genre (spoken language, perhaps) to this genre. And yes, there is truth in this. Of course, it is possible to transfer skill from one domain to another. However, there is a point at which familiarity with the genre being written, and being assessed, becomes absolutely vital.
Consider, for example, what would happen if you put someone on the spot and asked them to write an Anglo-Saxon style alliterative poem, in Old English, complete with caesurae and kenning. Few would know where to start because few are familiar with that particular genre, or indeed, that early version of what is now Modern English.
For some students, the writing required at GCSE is almost as unfamiliar as a text from the deep past. Few students read fiction and, of those, few read short stories. Few students read non-fiction prose and those that do so may not have familiarity with the quality required by examiners – a thread of discontinuous snippets on social media is not the same as a single piece of continuous prose. Finally, few students will ever read an essay on a literary text. Hence my recommendations below.
But, “hang on a second,” you cry, doesn’t all this reading happen in the classroom? Well, some of it does, but nowhere near enough. A typical Year 8 scheme of work may mean a student is in the classroom for the reading of one short novel (which may, in fact, only be studied as extracts), one play (again, possibly only studied as extracts), a handful of poems and maybe one or two non-fiction pieces. Given that it is very easy to appear to be reading, many students can be in the vicinity of reading, without actively doing any reading at all. Add to this the fact that few students will choose to read independently without the compulsion of homework, some GCSE students will arrive in the exam having read, well, next-to-nothing.
So, what this all boils down to is this: some students simply do not read beyond the bare minimum of engagement with written language (instructions, signs, social media) that is required for day-to-day life. Of those that do read beyond this bare minimum, many do not read enough, or enough of the genres of text most useful for GCSE preparation.
So, I recommend that students make time to read and hope to see the benefits: improved reading confidence, extended vocabulary, wider and deeper knowledge of the world in all its glory (and despair) and, of course, higher marks.
Please note: many books touch on disagreeable topics, portraying disturbing events and immoral characters. Please be aware of this before you read. If you are unhappy with the text, for any reason, select a different book. There’s no compulsion to read any of these books; these are recommendations.
2. Why have you chosen these books?
Writing lists of book recommendations is a mug’s game. Lists, by their very nature, are incomplete so there will always be something missing. Moreover, lists of books, especially fiction recommendations, are likely to be very subjective and rooted in a particular time and place. A list written by someone in Norfolk in the mid 21st century will be different from a list written by someone in Sri Lanka, Gabon or Mexico.
The global nature of the English Language, as well as the availability of texts in translation, means that, in theory, I could make selections from almost the entirety of the history of writing. Clearly, lines need to be drawn somewhere and so my primary criteria here are:
- How useful is this text for helping GCSE English students to improve their reading and writing?
- How does this text connect with the GCSE English course (including set texts) and assessment objectives?
For example then, a text written by a 14th century anchoress, though excellent, will not make it onto this list. Many excellent texts by writers from beyond the UK and Ireland will not be recommended. The great religious and mythic texts are not on this list. They are all powerful, important books to read and should form part of a lifetime of reading, learning and wondering.
However, my main concern as a tutor is not primarily with posterity but with a much more pressing deadline: GCSE exams in May and June of Year 11. Whatever can help GCSE English students feel better prepared, feel more confident and calm, with a wider vocabulary and deeper knowledge of the culture of English writing is my focus and my reason for the choices below.
3. The Set Texts
Obviously, the most important books to read for GCSE English are the set texts. If you are in Year 11, read and re-read your set texts (e.g. Macbeth, An Inspector Calls etc). Bear in mind that there are many different exam board/set text combinations. Check with your school/exam provider to make sure you are reading the right set texts.
Once you’ve read the texts, read the other information often included in good classroom editions of the texts: introductions, plot summaries, character summaries, timelines, biographical information, historical background, marginal notes, footnotes. Also, look up words and ideas that you do not understand in a good dictionary or encyclopedia.
Then, read the texts again.
You would be surprised by how many students enter the exam hall not having recently re-read the text they are about to write an essay on. Even more surprising might be the fact that there are definitely some students who enter the exam hall not having read the texts at all. Sure, they were present in the classroom when some reading occurred. As noted earlier, they were in the vicinity of reading, but did not actively do any reading themselves.
So, give yourself an edge in the exam hall by knowing your set texts really well. If you know what Ross and the Old Man talk about, if you know whether Mrs Birling ‘married up’ or ‘married down’, if you know “what happen to de Caribs,” then you have read well and should hope to excel in your exam.
(All references in the previous paragraph are to commonly chosen set texts for the AQA GCSE English Literature specification. Again, check with your teacher to confirm what your set texts are.)
If, however, you have a bit more time before the exams, there is a lot of benefit to be gained from reading other texts. So, read on for recommendations on how to improve your reading comprehension, your vocabulary and your writing skill.
Fiction short story writing is a key skill assessed by most GCSE English Language exams. Moreover, exam boards often choose extracts from short stories to create their reading comprehension tasks. So, reading lots of short stories is an excellent way to prepare for the GCSE English Language exams.
Here is a list of excellent anthologies. There are more than enough short stories here, in a wide range of differing styles, covering a vast world of themes and ideas, to keep you going to Year 11 and beyond.
- The Penguin Book of the British Short Story 1: From Daniel Defoe to John Buchan
- The Penguin Book of the British Short Story 2: From P.G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith
- That Glimpse of Truth: The 100 Finest Short Stories Ever Written
- The Time Traveller’s Almanac: 100 Stories Brought to You From the Future
- The Art of the Glimpse: 100 Irish Short Stories
- Stories of Ourselves: Volume One
- Stories of Ourselves: Volume Two
Some of the exam boards produce anthologies of stories and extracts, for example AQA’s Telling Tales. If you can get your hands on them, why not read through them? For copyright reasons, they are not usually available for sale or legal download (with at least one exception) so keep your eye on bookshelves at the back of English classrooms which is where, in my experience, forgotten piles of anthologies tend to lurk. Just watch out for the dust. Or, ask your English teacher who, after picking themselves up from the floor, will no doubt be happy to empty the department stock cupboard for you.
What? No novels? It’s a controversial move, I know, but, given how important the short story is for GCSE English Language, I don’t generally recommend students read novels, other than the set texts of course. That’s not to say I reject novels. I can’t get enough of them, and if you’ve read through all the short stories above, why not try some novels? The BBC Culture list of the 100 greatest British novels is a good place to start, as is a good library, or why not do what I did, 90s style, and hit your local second-hand bookshop with 50p in your pocket, all the time in the world and a good eye for water-damaged Edwardian hardbacks!
Non-fiction writing is also a major part of GCSE English Language assessment so familiarity with non-fiction writing genres, as well as a greater knowledge of current affairs, history and culture, will be really helpful preparation for the non-fiction writing task.
The best starting point is, naturally, my own collection of non-fiction model answers. Beyond that, have a look at some of these texts below which all demonstrate good English style of the level that would attract marks from an examiner: excellent vocabulary, long detailed paragraphs, well-structured arguments, emotive and descriptive language used where relevant. The texts are also good resources for knowledge about history, culture, politics etc, snippets of which could be useful in an exam answer. The collections of speeches are also useful because a speech task is often set by examiners.
- The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches
- The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches
- The Penguin History of Britain
- A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin
- Why We Read: 70 Writers on Non-Fiction
Another source of good non-fiction writing is, of course, the internet – you may have heard of it. So, make a habit of reading lots of news articles in full every day, not just the headlines, and not just from one source.
You have whole world of options here. Start with BBC News, head over to the EDP, see what they have to say at the Southern Star and then check what their take is at The Yorkshire Post. Beyond that, of course, is a vast ecosystem of blogs, newsletters and magazines with texts on any topic, far too many to even begin listing here.
The crucial factor is that the non-fiction articles you read should be long-ish (more than 500 words), should be written in continuous prose (not bullet points, not mainly graphics, not disjointed social media threads) and you should read lots of them.
6. Literature essays
As well as your preparation for GCSE English Language, you also probably need to prepare for GCSE English Literature. Assessment in GCSE English Literature is usually done via a series of essay tasks. So, familiarising yourself with what a good essay looks like, alongside reading your set texts, is a good way to prepare for the exams.
Take a look at my bestselling collections of model essays, available to download immediately and also available in paperback and hardback editions. New editions are added all the time so if your set text is not covered, check back soon as I am probably working on it right now.
Coming autumn 2023:
- Unseen Poetry
- Love and Relationships Poetry
7. Poetry and drama
The study of poetry forms a large part of GCSE English Literature courses so it is worth taking some time to read a wider range of poetry to become more familiar with the many different poetic styles, themes and techniques.
You can also read lots of poetry online. Consider reading the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day every day.
Finally, drama texts, including Shakespeare, are studied on GCSE English Literature courses. Reading some drama texts and watching a performance of them, live or filmed, is good practice.
Best of luck in your exams!