Thinking about curriculum choices? Cambridge and NCEA are the two main options here in New Zealand. Cambridge and NCEA both have pros and cons, like any curricula; your decision depends on what you want and value, and what fits with your situation.
I've been an English tutor for many home-educated and school-educated students and have often helped older students work towards Cambridge or NCEA syllabuses. For this blog, I wanted to pass on some basic introductory knowledge to home educating parents who are considering Cambridge English.
1. Levels of study
As most of you know, the Cambridge International Examinations started in the UK but they have now become widely available and recognised by employers and universities in 160 countries around the world. This is one of the positive aspects of the program; having a Cambridge qual looks good on a CV and achievement levels are easy for employers to decipher as simple grades and percentage marks are given for subjects rather than the plethora of units listed out for NCEA. Students can work towards IGCSE level qualifications (for 14-16yr olds) which usually takes a year of study to complete, if students have the foundational skills needed prior to the course. IG is roughly equivalent to the old 'School Cert' level or NCEA Level One. AS level is the next qualification on the ladder (recommended for 17-18yr olds) and finally, students have the opportunity of sitting exams at the highest level, A level, in their final year. AS is roughly equivalent to a Year 12 course of study and A level can be seen as equivalent to Year 13/ University Entrance. Each level can be completed as a stand-alone qualification i.e. it's not necessary to complete IGCSE exams in order to study and sit AS exams. If students want, they can just sit the AS exam. If both AS level and A level courses are completed (usually over two years) then these two qualifications combine to form what is called an 'A level' overall. The A level qual is the only one that has an official prerequisite (completing AS level). Many schools who use Cambridge syllabuses will have students sitting IG level subjects in Year 11, 12 and 13, not just year 11. This means they can build up a wide portfolio of IG subject passes, and then select just two or three subjects that will be studied up to AS or A level.
There are several different syllabuses even within the subject of 'English' when it comes to Cambridge, and this can be a little confusing to the uninitiated (or to my generation, the last of the 'School C' brigade). Most people choose from the mainstream options of 'English - First Language' or 'English -Literature' as courses of study. Each of these is a comprehensive and rigorous syllabus in its own right, so if a student wanted to do both syllabuses, serious time commitment would be needed and it would be very challenging. I usually recommend that students either do one or the other. 'English - First Language' (or 'English - Language' as it is called at AS level) focuses on passage analysis, imaginative writing and persuasive writing in various genres. 'English - Literature' focuses purely on literature studies. A student will typically study a selection of poems, a novel, and two drama texts (plays, e.g. a Shakespearean play and another more modern play). English Literature exams consist solely of writing essays in response to these studied literature texts. For the English Language syllabus, the student will sit two exams at the end of the year for their final grade (typically) and English Literature students will also sit two exams. Some choose the less popular option of an English syllabus that involves some assessment via coursework during the year that counts towards the final grade, but all syllabus options include an exam or two.
3. Time commitments
As mentioned, Cambridge is a rigorous curriculum, and many get caught in the trap of thinking they can prepare students for the exam in less than one year with just a few lessons to help them fine-tune their skills. In my experience, students need to start building their skills specifically towards the Cambridge syllabuses at least the year before they hope to sit the exam. Keep in mind that if they start tuition in the year they sit exams, you essentially only have three school term equivalents, which works out to be less than 30 weeks, to get them completely ready, as exams are sat in October and November if following mainstream choices. Cambridge's official recommendation is that students have 130 guided learning hours per subject over the duration of an IG course in order to be prepared. It's certainly not the sort of course that can be done with just a few haphazard hours of study here and there. If one-on-one tuition is undertaken, then less than 130 hours of guided learning time is needed, but this guideline gives some idea of the regular, consistent study required to build the skills needed for each course.
Students will need to register at a local Cambridge-curriculum school in order to sit their final exams. Each exam is up to 2 hours long depending on the English syllabus you have chosen. You will need to approach a school and discuss whether it's an option for your child to register with them. Some schools are accommodating; others are not. Schools are under no obligation to allow home educators to register and sit exams on their premises, so communication is based on goodwill, as far as I understand. Getting advice from other home educators is great if you're going down this road; they will be able to give you helpful info. I'm certainly not an expert in Cambridge liaison but this is my basic understanding of the situation.
5. Skills and knowledge
For English Language, some of the skill requirements are: reading passages (unknown passages that haven't been seen before; excerpts from longer texts) carefully, understanding and summarising the key points in the passage, identifying important language features in the passage and being able to explain the effects of these features in a specific and logical way, being able to write creatively/imaginatively on a given topic (usually there is a choice of about 3 topics), being able to write more formally in persuasive/argumentative/discursive tasks, adapting vocab, structure and style to suit the given purpose, knowing the purpose and typical features of a range of over a dozen different writing genres.
For English Literature, some of the skill requirements are: being able to read, understand and analyse the components of a literature text (components could include but are not limited to plot, characterisation, themes, setting, style), being able to read and understand specific essay questions about literature texts, being able to identify and analyse specific language devices used in the studied texts (I usually give my AS students a 6-page glossary of these devices - there are a lot of them), being able to write essay answers that are logical, structured, and evaluative, being able to memorise and use quotes from the studied literature texts during closed-book exams.
What does this all mean?
So, overall, Cambridge may seem intimidating if it's the first time you've looked at the syllabuses, but it produces readers and writers who can confidently evaluate a wide range of written texts, students who are able to produce compelling pieces that elucidate their own personal opinions about topical issues that affect the world today, and creative writers with flair and originality. It's well worth considering; and with a little hard work, the results can be excellent. Most of my students have achieved great grades in IG and AS Cambridge studies, with two students from little old New Zealand achieving 'Top in the World' awards for English.
It may not be a subject you can tackle all on your own in terms of teaching it to your child (unless you were a Bursary English buff!) because language devices like paradoxes, oxymorons, malaproprisms, consonance, and inversions are just not that easy to identify or explain, let's face it, and writing academic essays is an art-form that takes practice and precision, but you or a friend/family member might have a good-at-English side that will help to get your child going with their IG level skills, and there are always tutor websites where you'll be able to find the help you need for preparing your student further. There are official Cambridge textbooks but I have found these to be too limited and although they can provide a good foundation, they shouldn't be treated as an entire course of study. Please note that Cambridge does make revisions to its syllabuses on a regular basis so you can't take for granted that previous exam papers will be the same as the exams sat in your child's year of study. Check out Cambridge's official website for more detailed and up to date syllabus info: www.cambridgeinternational.org
I sometimes have time-slots available for IGCSE and AS level English Language tuition (via Skype video-call, anywhere in the country) so feel free to email me (email@example.com) or check out my website www.paperlamp.weebly.com or Facebook page for any queries or further info if this would be helpful: www.facebook.com/paperlamp7/ Click here for testimonials / references if you're interested: paperlamp.weebly.com/testimonials.html
All the best!
Alicia Leitch has been a tutor for over ten years, mainly in the subject of English. She has worked extensively with both home educated and school educated students. Alicia is also interested in Art and has her own creative pursuits in writing and painting. She loves encouraging people to reach their creative and expressive potential.