How to choose the best commentary structure for your IB English Paper 1 commentary

Having a strong commentary structure is the easiest way to earn marks in your IB English Paper 1. But wait–there’s even better news: The best structure doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated at all. In fact, the simpler the structure, the better!

In this guide, I will answer the following questions:

  1. What is logical flow in a commentary?
  2. How many points should I have in my commentary?
  3. What’s the best way to organise the points in my essay body?

If you’ve just discovered LitLearn, be sure to read our complete guide on IB English Paper 1. Not to brag, but it’s amazing!


What is logical flow, and why is it important?

The key ingredient of a strong structure for your Paper 1 commentary is logic. What do I mean by logic? I mean that the points in your commentary must flow seamlessly from one point to the next in chain of reasonable connections.

If you want to take your commentary to the next level, you should use these logical connections to not just connect points but to develop the argument of the commentary.

To illustrate what I mean by logical flow, consider a bad example where there is absolutely no reasonable connection between subsequent points:

  1. The bully is characterised as an arrogant individual.
  2. The author uses metaphor to construct the excited atmosphere of the annual event.
  3. The use of structure in the poem portrays the tragic consequences of the car crash.

Huh? These points have no connections between them. They could easily have been scrambled and presented in another order, and it wouldn’t have mattered. Always ensure that your points connect and develop from one to the next.


The ideal number of points for IB English Paper 1

Always aim for 3 points. A commentary with four points is also highly effective, especially for HL English students, given the complexity of your texts.

Avoid having only 2 points in your commentary. You can still get a good mark, but this structure is not ideal because it doesn’t allow for a sufficient breadth of analysis. Breadth is just as important as depth of analysis.

As a funny side-story, I almost had to stick with 2 points for my final IB English Paper 1 exam, but luckily at the end I was able to conjure a third and final point to save my Paper 1 grade from the hot embers of failure… I’m just kidding. I’m sure the essay would’ve been fine if I’d only had 2 points. But of course, it’s the ideal.


Types of point organisation

My recommendations for the best commentary structure is no doubt a biased opinion. Your teachers might have different recommendations, but what follows is simply an honest expression of what has worked well and not-so-well for me in my IB English experiences. Can you write a great essay with SPECSLIMS as your mode of organisation? Certainly. I just have haven’t seen the merits of this particular organisation, and of course, I’m not a perfect human.

Type of organisation Effectiveness rating
SPECSLIMS ⭐️
Technique ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Idea / theme ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Section ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Techniques

Having your points as techniques is the best approach in only one scenario: When the text conveys one central idea, message or theme. This scenario happens about 10% of the time. Clearly, organising by techniques is a bad—or at least a non-ideal—choice in 90% of all Paper 1s.

Let’s be specific. Organising a commentary by techniques has two main disadvantages:

  1. The points are usually difficult to integrate in a logical, flowing manner. How do you link metaphor, sound and poem structure in a logical flow? Not easy.
  2. You cannot analyse multiple techniques together to support a single point because each point must focus on a single technique; this leads to the isolated analysis of techniques (there is a way around this, but we’ll keep it simple here) and hence a low score for Criterion B—Appreciating writer’s choices.

SPECSLIMS

This type of organisation requires you to have a separate paragraph for each of the following: subject matter, writer’s purpose, emotion of reader (mood), and craftsmanship, which is in turn broken down into structure, language, imagery, movement, and sound. This structure is disorganised and the paragraphs clearly have no logical progression between them. I avoid SPECSLIMS without hesitation, and I recommend that you do the same for the sake of your Criterion C Organisation mark.

Ideas and Section

Through five years of IB English experience as both a student and a tutor, I discovered that organising a commentary by idea and section are the most effective structures. Organising by section means to split a commentary into several parts and analyse each section in relation to an idea or technique that is present in only that particular section. There are two main reasons for why these structures are the best:

  1. They offer the most opportunity for a logically-developing argument and a 5/5 on Criterion C—Organisation. This is because ideas can be naturally connected by reasonable logic, and sections are already structured by definition.
  2. They allow you to analyse multiple literary techniques together in relation to a single point, which helps in scoring 5/5 on Criterion B. You aren’t just analysing techniques in isolation but appreciating how different language choices work together.

Categories: Paper 1

Jackson Huang

Jackson is an IB 45 graduate and English tutor. He is studying at the University of Melbourne and teaches an online IB English analysis course.

10 Comments

Ellie · October 6, 2017 at 8:54 am

Hey Jackson, this is super helpful. If you structure it by section, what do you do if you have, say, an extended metaphor that runs through the entire piece. Or simply a motif or recurring theme. Do you talk about it as you go, when it’s first mentioned, when it’s last mentioned, or, should you allocate a separate paragraph for ideas that span the whole text?
Thanks loads!

    Jackson Huang · October 6, 2017 at 10:45 am

    Hi Ellie, glad it helped you out 🙂 If there is evidence throughout the whole text for a recurring technique like an extended metaphor, you should pick the quote that is most ‘analysable’ (i.e. a quote that contains complexity and can be unpacked/elaborated extensively). Does that make sense?

      Ellie · October 6, 2017 at 12:27 pm

      Definitely.
      Thank you!

Bruno Marin · November 3, 2017 at 12:46 am

Hi jackson, i have the examen in an hour and i was wondering i didnt get clear what do you refer by section.

Karie Lyn · May 7, 2018 at 5:57 am

Is section and idea organization mean that you analyze a poem through a linear approach? like stanza by stanza?

Abood Yeep · August 22, 2018 at 12:47 pm

What do you rate the big 5 for a lang lit paper 1?

Aidan Trevor · March 23, 2019 at 11:00 pm

My english teacher is teaching specslims at the moment and it honestly just doesn’t make sense in my brain for the same reasons you’ve put forward here. 100% on the Idea/theme/section approach. Cheers.

Shantanu · April 16, 2019 at 3:21 am

Could you please elaborate a bit on how to organise a commentary using ‘Ideas and Themes’?

Thanks
Shantanu

Rae · April 17, 2019 at 5:39 pm

The section by section (or linear analysis) often does not score well in the Oral exam, or Commentary. It is better to work from a thematic concept and move forward from there. It is also important to note, that many devices compliment one another- IE: if you are discussing diction- no doubt you would also want to talk about tone, atmosphere, and even imagery. That is three/four techniques in one paragraph.

Isabel · April 24, 2019 at 5:57 am

Hi Jackson,
I’ve always been taught to organise my paper 1’s in a technique by technique sense but I’ve had problems with that and completely see why you suggest doing it by theme/idea. I was trying to practice a plan for the SL English exam from Nov 2013 (this is the article: https://ibdocuments.com/IB%20PAST%20PAPERS%20-%20YEAR/2013%20Examination%20Session/November%202013%20Examination%20Session/Group%201%20-%20Studies%20in%20language%20and%20literature/English_A_Language_and_literature_paper_1_SL.pdf) but I’m not completely clear on how to do it. Would ideas include one such as the strangeness of how they play ping pong, the cultural differences and the effect of the tsunami? If they aren’t, what would they be? Also, would you then talk about different techniques within the paragraphs to support that point and thus the overall purpose of the article? One thing that I struggle with is seeing a purpose but not finding specific techniques to analyse. For example, I know that the information about the tsunami is put in the article for a reason – I’m assuming to include information about the lives of the people and the struggles they deal with (not completely sure) – but I’m not sure how I would successfully analyse this.
Any help would be greatly appreciated,
Thanks.

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