Curriculum for English Literature

Written by kaelyn moore
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Curriculum for English Literature
There are many heated debates about what should be included in English literature curricula. (old book image by Pontus Edenberg from

There is no standard English literature curriculum. The curriculum for English literature varies from country to country and school to school. Material included in English literature curricula is chosen at the discretion of the instructor or educational institution. Many works included in English literature curricula are canonical texts, like "Beowulf" and "The Mill on the Floss."


Sean O’Brien explains that English literature canon formation began in the “18th century with Johnson's 'Lives of the Poets' and Warton's 'History of English Poetry.'” Literature was seen as a means of defining British culture. Eventually, the canon of English literature became an important part of Britain’s imperialist efforts as a means of acculturation through education. Thus, O’Brien also explains that “the moral seriousness of a Victorian critic such as Matthew Arnold coexists with imperialism.”

England, the United States and Canada

Works commonly included in traditional English literature curricula include those of Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Eliot. Today, works from English-speaking countries other than England are commonly included in English literature curricula. In Canada and the United States, literature by Canadian and American authors is regularly included in curricula. Alan C. Purves writes that from the 19th to the mid-20th century, "White American" texts were added to British curricula and "African-American" texts to American curricula as a means of accommodating new populations.


Epic poems, poetry, music, drama, and novels are all commonly included in English curricula. Religious texts and mythology may also appear. Most English literature classes cover certain areas, regardless of the texts that are on the syllabus. Structure and style; prosody; etymology; language ambiguity; plot development and socio-historical context may all be touched upon by instructors.

Methods of Evaluation

Testing methods for English literature courses vary by course, instructor and country. In-class essay exams are one of the most common testing options. Students may also be asked short answer or true-or-false questions about individual works of literature. Most students in English literature courses are asked to write extended essays about an individual work or a group of works by one or more authors.

Postgraduate Requirements

Students who seek to enter a doctoral program in English literature in the United States must usually take the GRE subject test in literature. This test covers a wide range of literature in English as well as critical theory. It is meant to test students' breadth of knowledge as a means of gauging their preparedness for postgraduate studies. Students who are successful on this test have usually been exposed to standard English literature curricula.

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