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Subject Choice

Leaving Certificate


Career Zone
NFQ Level
2 Years


At Leaving Cert level, the English course aims to develop:

  • The ability to critically analyse information, as preparation for the responsibilities and challenges of adult life;
  • A respect and appreciation for language used accurately and appropriately, and a competence in a wide range of oral and written language skills;
  • An awareness of the value of literature for widening horizons, for enhancing their sense of cultural identity, and for personal enjoyment.

Why Study English

  • Universities generally require a student to pass English
  • Leaving Certificate English invites students into rich experiences with language so that they become fluent and thoughtful users of it and more aware of its significance in their lives.
  • The study of English develops a range of literacy and oral skills in a variety of areas - personal, social, and cultural.
  • Students develop a wide range of skills and concepts which will allow them to interpret and enjoy a range of material so that they become independent learners who can operate independently in the world beyond school.
  • Students interested in furthering their English studies beyond second-level have a wide variety course choices available.

What kind of student would English suit?

  • Anyone who has ambitions for a career in creative writing, politics, or entertainment.
  • English also forms a key part of journalism courses and good presentation skills will be required for courses in history, politics, law and almost all other courses.
  • Students seeking to develop and improve their communication skills.


It is recommended that a student has achieved at least a grade (C) at Junior Certificate higher level, to continue into higher-level Leaving Certificate English. Other cautionary notes that parents should be aware of include:

  • The study of English at higher level places significant demands on the Leaving Certificate student.
  • The syllabus is very broad in its range of prescribed materials can be quite time consuming.
  • The higher-level (course) exam rewards good writing skills and an independent learner.
  • The extended composition features largely on both papers at higher level and students are expected to write between 750-1000 words in these essays, during the time available.
  • There is the assumption at higher level that students will read widely and independently over the two years.
  • An interest in social, political and current affairs is vital.
  • Highly developed writing skills and critical analysis skills are prerequisite at Higher level.
  • Conversely, at ordinary level, textual material is printed on the exam paper for students e.g. in the poetry sections, poems are printed for the students. Less extended pieces of writing are also expected.
  • Texts at ordinary level are less challenging, particularly bearing in mind that students at O.L. do not have to study a Shakespearean play.
  • Texts prescribed at O.L. are very student friendly and aimed at encouraging the more reluctant reader.
  • There is a vast difference in the study of English at higher level for Junior Certificate and the Study of English at higher level for the Leaving Certificate.
This subject builds skills and knowledge that are particularly useful for careers in the following Career Sectors:

Grades Awarded

Marks Distribution 2019:

Listed below are the percentage distributions of marks from the 40216 students who sat the Higher Level English exam in 2019.

Listed below are the percentage distributions of marks from the 14477 students who sat the Ordinary Level English exam in 2019.


Explore Marks Distribution for all Subjects:

Course Overview

English is a core subject and is compulsory in all schools. 

The exams at both higher and ordinary level require students to sit two papers. Junior Certificate results are often a good indication of what level a student should choose for Senior Cycle English. A large number of students take English at higher level but you should not underestimate the amount of work required to obtain a high grade.

Course Content

Core Elements

Students are required to study the following five designated areas of language in a wide variety of contexts, functions and styles.

1. The Language of Information.
2. The Language of Argument.
3. The Language of Persuasion.
4. The Language of Narration.
5. The Aesthetic use of Language.


  • Students are required to study one literary text from a list of prescribed texts.
  • Students are required to study three other texts in the Comparative manner, according to the comparative modes prescribed for that year.
  • Students are required to study at least six poets from the eight poets prescribed at higher level.  At ordinary level, 36 poems are prescribed.

Compulsory elements:  At higher level, a Shakespearean Play must be one of the texts chosen for study on its own or as an element of the Comparative study.

Optional Elements:  At ordinary level, the study of a Shakespearean play is optional.

Exam Structure

Exam Structure

Paper I            Higher and Ordinary Level - 170 mins. - 200 marks.

Section I Three texts - one which is visual - are presented to students on a general theme.  Two sets of questions, an A and a B follow each text.  Candidates must answer a question A on one text and a question B on a different text.    (100 marks)
Section II (Composing)  Candidates must write an extended composition in a specific genre of language from a list of seven choices.    (100 marks)

Paper II            Higher and Ordinary Level - 200 mins. - 200 marks.  

Section I    The Single Text    (60 marks)
Section II   The Comparative study  (70 marks)
Section III  Poetry     (70 marks)

Higher Level 
(i)  Unseen poem   (20 marks)
(ii)  Prescribed poetry  (50 marks)

Ordinary Level
(i)  Unseen poem   (20 marks)
(ii)  Four poems will be printed on the exam paper and students must answer questions on one of the four.   (50 marks)

Exam Tips

Paper 1:

Composing: (100 marks) Long before the examination, identify the type of composition (short story, personal essay, discussion or descriptive essay) that is likely to gain you the highest grades and practise this. Bear in mind that the personal essay can be written as a narrative or a discussion, so it provides an alternative back up for both the short story and the discussion essay.

Short story: A short story is an exploration of a personality caught in a defining situation, indicating that the life of a character must be shown, through appearance, behaviour, and voice, both internal and external. The phrase "defining situation" means a situation that exposes the essence of that personality. It is useful to reduce the description of your central character to a single word so you know how the character looks, acts and speaks. Read as many short stories as possible to understand how the very best material is written.

Personal essay: The best preparation for the personal essay is to write short, colourful paragraphs that express your own personality. If approaching the personal essay as a narrative - the description of you caught in a defining situation, read the tips on the short story above. Be mindful that correctors are directed to look for reflective elements that capture your thoughts, feelings and judgments and interpretations on your experiences not just descriptions of things that happened to you.

Discussion essay: The key to a good discussion essay is to reduce the topic you are given to the point you wish to make. Using techniques such as exaggeration for effect, colourful illustrations and rhetorical questions influence a good discussion. It is important to read outside the course, for example the newspapers.

Descriptive essay: The task is to evoke a mood or atmosphere, the technique of settling on a single scene and bringing it alive with expressive and revealing details.

Paper 2:

The Single text: (60 marks) Be guided by the question, not by any standard essays that you may have prepared or learned which cannot offer a relevant discussion of an unseen play or novel. Use your opening paragraph to explore the implications of the given quote, your concluding paragraph to assess its merits, whether you wholeheartedly agree or disagree with it or indeed if you have mixed feelings about it.

Comparative study: (70 marks) In answers to questions in this section, students may compare and contrast (address similarities and/or differences) in both the content and style of their chosen texts. The most important thing to remember is to understand clearly your modes of comparison, compare your texts in each paragraph you write and do not summarise your texts, rather refer to key moments to support your points.

Poetry: (70 marks) two sections; unseen and prescribed. In the unseen part your ability to engage with a poem you have not seen before is tested. To do this you need to think about what poetry is and why it is different to prose. Remember poetry is compressed communication, you see it, hear it and feel it. While you need to learn about a poet's work and life from the writings of others in the prescribed section, do not underestimate your own honest responses to gain top grades. Be guided by the question not by the responses you have prepared. Discuss both the themes and techniques of your chosen poet, the characteristic images and expressions as well as the recurring experiences and emotions. Demonstrate a good understanding of the poem by providing quotes.

Other tips for English exam:

  • answer the question you are directly asked
  • always sketch out your ideas on a page first
  • plan before you write (arranging points in paragraphs)
  • replace commonly used words with less common synonyms (there are many = there is a plethora)
  • buy a good dictionary and thesaurus

Career Possibilities

English is valuable for a wide careers in a wide range of areas including: Advertising, Broadcasting, Journalism, Law, Librarianship, Politics, Speech Therapy, Teaching, Sales, Linguistics, Interpretation and Translation to name just a few.

Career Guidance

Subject Group: Humanities

These subjects explore the ways in which humans live and communicate in the world. Human life is examined by looking at our past, our present and into our future. These subjects help people to express themselves clearly and develop their reasoning ability.

Required for 3rd Level?

Universities generally require a student to pass English. However, in some cases a pass in English or Irish is accepted (e.g. for most courses in the Institutes of Technology).

This subject is essential for entry to some Third Level courses. Click on the link below to view courses that require, or may require this subject for entry:



What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

Brian Kelly, Science Entrepreneur

I did the following subjects for my Leaving Cert: Irish, English, Maths, French, Physics, Chemistry, Accounting and Applied Maths.

When choosing my subjects in 5th year in School I deliberately ensured that I did at least one business and one science subject because this gave me more flexibility in my choice of courses. I would recommend this strategy - particularly for those who aren't sure what they wish to study in college.

... View Full Interview

Padraig Parle, Teacher - Special Needs
History, Biology, French, Art, Maths, Irish and English.  Taking Art for my Leaving Cert. enabled me to go to Art College, but it was the Honours Irish which was essential to get into Primary Teaching

... View Full Interview

Paul Galvan, Resource Teacher
For my Leaving Certificate I studied English, Irish, Maths, Physics, French, Geography and History. My favourite subjects were Geography, Physics, French and English. I knew that I would like to study a combination of these subjects in further education. I think as regards a career path it’s a good idea to study subjects you like and are good at.

... View Full Interview

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