There are many things that an English major might study on the way to an English degree, but there generally are four areas on which a student might focus: literature, composition, linguistics or English education. The area on which a student focuses can depend on his or her interest or career goals. Although there are general courses that virtually every English major must complete, the area of focus generally dictates the other courses that a student must take.
English is usually considered a liberal arts major, so students often must complete classes in other disciplines, including science and math. There also often are required English courses that an English major must take as well, regardless of the area on which the student plans to focus. After these required courses have been finished, the student can then focus on the English courses that are specific to his or her goals.
Courses often required of all English majors are surveys of American and British literature, which cover a broad time period and a large breadth of writers. A Shakespeare course is also often a requirement of all English majors. The specific English course requirements can vary from college to college, however.
An English major focusing in literature, for example, will need to take courses that are comprised of reading novels, plays, poetry and short stories by English-speaking writers. Students often must then examine what is read and develop an opinion about the work. Some ways in which an English major focusing in literature might be required to show his or her knowledge is by writing papers and participating in course discussions. Within a literature focus, English majors can often refine their focus even further by looking at a specific literary time period or author.
Focusing on education, on the other hand, an English major will be required to take courses on how to teach students in English classes. This might include taking classes on how to develop English course lesson plans, for example. Students who focus on composition will take English writing courses, and students who focus on linguistics might take courses that study the history, use and structure of the English language, for example.
Many English majors are also required to also take a theory or criticism course. Depending on the focus, it might be a literary criticism class or a composition criticism class. These courses look at different ways of interpreting works and are important for developing critical thinking skills.
In addition to required English courses, students also have the opportunity to take elective courses, and a broad range of options are available for students. For example, they might take courses in creative or technical writing or journalism if composition is the focus. If literature is the focus, electives could include Romantic literature, women's literature or world literature courses. Other possible electives include public speaking and philosophy.