How to score top marks in your Paper 1 Commentary (IB English A Language and Literature)
The Paper 1 Commentary requires a unique set of essay writing skills, particularly given the tight time constraints. Read Tim's top tips to ensure that you are adhering to the strict criteria. Many of these have been compiled from previous marking experience!
- Your thesis must appear towards the end of your introduction, and must make some reference to a wider idea. A safe template to use is, ‘This extract engages with the idea of … through the use of … , … and … .’
- You must identify the extract’s key literary features, which you feel are working together to convey the wider idea.
- The point of the thesis is to answer the question ‘so what?’ – if it does not, then what is the point of the examiner reading further? You are making no argument.
- Your topic sentences must be stepping stones in developing your argument (and must cover the literary features that you mentioned in your introduction).
- A good tip is to write these topic sentences out in your planning time, and ask yourself whether they constitute a coherent, developed commentary plan.
- If you are able to swap any two topic sentences, and it makes no difference to your commentary, then you have a list (not an argument).
- Your paragraphs must be well-planned, and centre around the points you wish to make.
- Long paragraphs (anything over three quarters of a page) suggest a lack of planning, and increase the likelihood of drifting far from your topic sentence.
- Similarly, watch the introduction of new material mid-paragraph, which also suggests a lack of planning.
- Points do occasionally need reinforcing, but unnecessary repetition undermines development.
- You have a choice between a linear and a thematic structure, but your choice must be dictated by the nature of the passage.
- It is also worth keeping in mind the limitations of each structure – linear commentaries can resemble a list of points, with ideas piled upon ideas (and thus suggest less planning), whilst thematic commentaries can extend way beyond the remit of the initial extract.
- Superficial analysis will never score more than 3 for criterion B.
- Avoid extensive plot retelling or description – the examiner already knows the passage.
- Make sure you don’t miss opportunities to discuss key devices – if there is an extended metaphor running through the poem, you are showing limited understanding and analytical insight if you fail to discuss it.
- All points must be supported by evidence and analysis.
- You are strongly encouraged to make reference to the overall structure / shape when discussing a prose passage (is there a climax? A denouement?).
- Equally, think about how images work together across stanzas when writing on a poem – the poems in Paper 1 are usually chosen because they develop in some way.
- Finally, there is usually a speaker / narrator. Think about the effect of such a narrative device. And remember – you have never met, and most probably will never meet, the writer of the extract. The closest you can get to the writer is their narrator, so do not write as if you know what the writer’s purpose is!
- Be wary of bandying about huge terms like imagination, beauty and nature – they are unspecific, and shed light on very little. This is especially important when constructing your thesis (and thinking about the wider idea behind the text).
- Spelling, punctuation and grammar all equate to an easy 5 marks in a commentary, but do not forget that your register must also be appropriately formal and engaging.