English Literature Paper 1

Things to DO:

Things to AVOID:

Pick Poetry

A large chunk of the criteria in Paper 1 is about literary devices . In other words, your ability to identify literary devices and their effect will make or break your grade. Since poetry, by definition, is densely packed with literary devices, it is quite easy identify literary devices. Most IB Lit examiners I spoke to claim that poetry is much easier to write about than prose, and I tend to agree. In my case, for both my Mock Exams and final IB exams, I chose poetry.

The only reasons you should pick prose is if you’ve already read the text (apparently it does happen in rare cases), or if you have absolutely no idea what the poem is saying.

In other words, if you “get” what the poem is saying, always pick the poem.

Who wants prose when you can have poetry?

~ Edward, Duke of Windsor (In "The Crown)


- Re-read the poem at least three times before you even touch your pen

You need to “get” what the poem is saying completely - otherwise, your interpretations might be completely off track. Try to find an overarching theme or motif during your readings. Often, there will be a possible reading that goes beyond a literal description of the poem, such as social criticism, emotions, or metapoetry. Discern what the poem is saying.

Acknowledge Complexity

- Acknowledge the complexity and plurality of possible readings

There may be many allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic readings of a poem. Acknowledge the wide, legitimate variety of possible readings. In the introduction, try to summarise the poem at a bare, literal level, then go deeper (you can literally say, “However, one possible reading at a deeper level is…” then give your thesis). In the body, use words like “perhaps” and phrases like “In one possible reading” to show that you understand the multifaceted nature of interpreting poetry. The best essays will try to synthesise these many interpretations in their final paragraphs.

Key Words from Rubric

- Mention key words from the rubric

Even if these seem trivial in discerning the meaning of the particular poem you are given (which sometimes happens), at least try to mention “Form”, “Structure”, “Tone”, and “Style” in your essay somewhere. If you feel that these literary devices are pivotal in the poem, expand on them in some of your body paragraphs, and try to synthesise them with other literary devices. If you feel some of these are less relevant in your poem, at least mention them somewhere in your introduction. I often started my essay like this: “[Poem title] by [Poet] is a lyrical/narrative poem with a free-verse form, structured in [X] stanzas.” It kind of works if these are not so relevant to the poem as a whole - just mentioning these, though, tells the examiner that you’ve considered these, and also perhaps allows them to tick the relevant boxes for your exam.

Slash Marks for Multiple Lines

- Use slash marks when quoting from multiple lines

Something very minor, but it was mentioned several times by Lit teachers I know - when you quote from multiple lines, use slash ( / ) marks, as this is a convention when writing essays in literature, apparently.

For instance, if you are quoting multiple lines from Tenebrae (Denise Levertov), you would write, “At the sound level, the use of alliteration is a powerful literary device to emphasise the unpleasant nature of warfare. This is exemplified in lines 1-3, ‘Heavy, heavy, heavy, hand and heart. / We are at war, / bitterly, bitterly at war.’ Through alliteration in the first line, the speaker evokes the sound of huffing, intensifying the image of a war, which is burdensome, both physically, and on the “heart”. The repeated “bitterly” also resembles gunfire, thereby evoking the unpleasant image of warfare. Thus, through combining the negative connotations associated with the diction of “heavy” and “bitterly” with their unpleasant sounds,the speaker emphasises the difficult nature of war and criticises society, which is distracted from this burdensome war.”


- Don't spend your time merely describing - ANALYSE

A key difference between Paper 1 essays that score in the 3-4 range and essays in the 6-7 range is between describing and analysing. In other words, don't spend too much time summarising what happens in the poem - spend that time identifying literary devices and how they are used to intensify a key motif or theme the speaker is emphasising.


- Don't speculate on what is not written in the text

Of course, you need to read deeply - but in order to do so, you need to be able to read your text closely. Close reading leads to deeper reading, as it allows you to contemplate possible motifs the speaker might have wanted to raise. What is implied or discussed indirectly in the text are fair ground for analysis - but you must be careful, as if there is little evidence in the text to back up your analysis, your analysis will be seen as far too speculative.

Perhaps another way of illustrating my point is to say that IB Literature Paper 1 has a markscheme, which examiners look at. Needless to say, this document is much more liberal than the Mathematics markcheme - but if your response resembles the markscheme in some way, or if it is reasonable but not on the markcheme, it potentially has a higher chance of scoring more highly. Do not be afraid, but narrow your arguments to supporting a probable, rather than a speculative analysis.

Step-by-Step Videos (coming soon)