The other Transition: from Pre-U to A-Level without losing the plot

By Dr Helen Laurenson

Cambridge International’s decision to set its last Pre-U exams in most subjects in 2023 (2024 for re-takes) has forced a volte-face on those predominantly independent schools which offer the Pre-U qualification across a range of subjects at Sixth Form. 

Pre-U’s take-up in Spanish has been driven by its clear focus on two areas: current affairs in Spain and Latin America, and key skills in language and literature akin to introductory undergraduate study. These include Paper 3’s Grammar Section and Discursive Essay and Paper 4’s literary deconstruction in the commentary option. The three-year cycle of original texts and films makes for an attractive Topics and Texts syllabus.  

This combination offers a buen camino for potential Modern Languages undergraduates to acquire ‘pre-university’ experience of the subject.  Can this degree of intellectual stimulation possibly continue under A-level?

The good news is that aspects of the Pre-U have been adopted by the new A-level syllabuses. These legacy features are particularly pertinent to higher achievers and potential Oxbridge candidates.  What follows is my evaluation of Pre-U’s strengths and how these can be carried forward into the post-Pre-U environment.

Wider reading

The Pre-U syllabus in Spanish for Paper 4 ‘Topics & Texts’ features in-built breadth of both reading and overview through the quasi-undergraduate format in its Topics section. The cluster approach to the teaching and learning of three examples of cultural production in the target language – usually a mix of films, texts, songbooks – under an over-arching theme, such as Representaciones de la mujer hispana del siglo XX or Dictadura y el individuo, exposes pupils to the ethos therein.  This gives them the opportunity to develop an analytical overview, rather than a purely narrative or descriptive approach. From a teacher’s perspective, this multi-media approach fosters what Robert Bjork defines as desirable difficulty – essential in challenging pupils and producing resilient and autonomous learners. By contrast, the A-level syllabus features single texts and films only.

Close Textual Analysis

The ability to analyse, deconstruct and cross-reference complex literary texts is a central assessment objective in the optional commentary question in Pre-U Paper 4, and constitutes a major shift in learning style between the study of Modern Languages at GCSE and Sixth Form studies. The good news is that this skill remains central to the grade descriptors of all A-level examination boards, across both film and literature, with evidencing the text and demonstrating analytical rather than narrative ability key to accessing the highest mark in the essay. 

Literary study at this level can be intimidating.  A gradual, scaffolded approach works well. Google Forms is useful in the current remote context for targeted, low-stakes exegesis, as is a shared Google document. Collaborative projects via docs, where pupils take responsibility for a key theme, symbol or technique of a film or literary text, work extremely well, especially with some imaginative pairing of pupils. JStor is an invaluable repository of secondary source material in the current situation.  The skill of summarising – unfashionable as it is, yet underexploited – and exposing the pupils to short extracts of critical material, along with an informal and relaxed technique of oral elaborative interrogation in the light of a corresponding scene in a play or filmic sequence, fosters both confidence and comprehension of the text at hand.

Knowledge of Current Affairs

This is both a rewarding and challenging aspect of the skill-set for Pre-U Modern Languages. The incentive for 16-18 year olds to gain exposure to political, social, cultural and economic aspects of Spain and Latin America is inspiring (or daunting, depending on your point of view). 

A central part of teaching Pre-U thus focuses on reading and listening strategies when encountering and deciphering the unknown. Such resilience can equally be inculcated from early in Year 12 for A-level via the use of carefully selected reading fichas which grow in length and complexity, and are prepared ahead of weekly speaking lessons. 

Areas of particular interest to individual pupils can be developed further via EPQ study and in Speaking Paper Research Projects where possible. Equally of interest as starters are short headlines from El País, La NaciónTelediario en 4 minutos and News in Slow Spanish which foster reading for gist, vocabulary acquisition and cultural competence. 


Whilst most pupils would not admit to grammar being at the top of their list in opting for Spanish A-level, it is nevertheless indispensable in the successful pupil’s arsenal of skills. Whilst in Pre-U this is an explicit component and assessed in Paper 3, in A-level the approach is more tacit. 

An explicit approach can be taken to grammar in the drafting of new A-level SoWs – for example, dedicated grammar lessons, a separate grammar Scheme of Work, the regular use of online applications such as Spanishdict.comMemrise and the wonderful Lyricstraining if you are missing El Flaco himself, Joaquín Sabina. Extension work for potential Oxbridge candidates is well served by MLAT papers, the marvellous ‘Spanish Pages’ by John Witney and by Pre-U Paper 3 past papers.

Cinematographic Study

Film is an essential part of A-level study and proves extremely popular with pupils, with a good number opting to research an EPQ with a Spanish or Latin American film focus. Higher-level skills can be developed using a multiplicity of online resources – such as FILTA – and whilst the examination boards are keen to stress that a top-level Spanish film essay does not have to include analysis of cinematography, doing so certainly enhances critical engagement. An overview and appreciation of the filmography of a given director through viewing more than one film can also only enrich pupil engagement.

All the above can of course be enhanced by the tremendous range of articles in this and previous editions of the Bulletin (see ‘Past Editions’ in the menu bar).

In conclusion, whilst the examination terrain is changing, the possibilities for cultural enrichment, wider reading and supra-curricular activities remain as vibrant as ever. The next task on which to work is ensuring that numbers at A-level post-Covid remain high, not least given the lack of trips, exchanges, foreign travel and visiting speakers of late.