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IB English Higher Level Essay (HLE) Explained

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In this guide, May 2022 IB grad Lareina Shen shares her wisdom to help you tackle the IB English Higher Level Essay (HLE). Lareina received a predicted 7 for her HLE, so take notes! 📝

Over to you, Lareina!

Congratulations on surviving IB English so far… 🥳 I’m sure there have been difficult times, so give yourself a pat on the back. If you’re feeling discouraged about the IB English Higher Level Essay (HLE), just remember that you are almost at the finish line.

Stay strong and keep working hard to ultimately write an essay that you are proud of!

Topics covered in this guide

  1. What is IB English HLE?
  2. How do I choose my text for HLE?
  3. How do I choose my line of inquiry for HLE?
  4. How do I ensure my HLE question has a good scope?
  5. The story of how I found my HLE question…
  6. The importance of analysis in getting a 7 in IB English HLE
  7. You need to understand the marking rubric!

What is IB English HLE?

The HL Essay (HLE) is a 1200-1500 word essay about a text studied in the IB English course. For Lang Lit, the work can be literary or non-literary, but for Lit the text must be literary.

The HLE will make up 25% of your final IB English HL grade, and is graded externally. You must choose your own line of inquiry (i.e. question) to answer in the HLE–a challenge in itself that will be discussed soon in this guide.

How do I choose my text for HLE? 📕

I only have one thing to say for this: do NOT choose the “easiest” text!

Instead, choose the literary / non-literary work that interests you the most, so that you can at least better enjoy the HLE writing process.

You could start by thinking of a theme that you find particularly interesting and determining which text studied in class demonstrates this theme well.

OR, if you have a favorite text, simply choose that! Personally, I enjoyed reading Frankenstein (I may or may not have shed some tears at the end), so I immediately decided to write my HLE on that novel.

How do I choose my line of inquiry for HLE? 💡

You must formulate your own line of inquiry that you will be answering in the HLE. This question must fall under one of the 7 main concepts of IB English, which are listed below.

If you’re having trouble picking your text and question, then use this simple 20-minute process to brainstorm potential questions for your HLE:

  1. For each text / non-literary work, go through each concept in the table below.
  2. Write down a question for each of the two prompts for each category.
  3. Repeat for all of your texts.
ConceptSuggestions for your line of inquiry
IdentityHow is the identity of a particular character or group of characters represented?
OR, how does the text relate to the identity of the writer?
CultureHow is the culture of a particular setting, institution, or community represented?
OR, how does the text relate to a particular culture/cultural perspective?
CreativityHow does the text represent a collective or individual creativity/lack of creativity?
OR, how does the text reflect the writer’s creativity?
CommunicationHow are acts of communication/failures in communication conveyed?
OR, how does the text represent an act of communication?
TransformationHow is transformation represented?
OR, how is the text transformative to other texts through reference to them, or to the reader in terms of transforming their beliefs and values?
PerspectiveHow is a certain perspective conveyed?
OR, how does the text represent the writer’s perspective?
RepresentationHow are different themes, attitudes, and concepts represented?
OR, in what way is reality/the world represented?

How do I ensure my HLE question has a good scope?

Choosing a question with good scope is extremely important, and it’s one of the biggest challenges in the HLE. Here’s why:

  • If your scope is too broad, you may have too much to write about in order to answer the question, and therefore you won’t be able to write deep analysis (which is super important–more on this later…)
  • If your scope is too narrow, you may not have enough to write about and end up overanalyzing unnecessary and obscure details. Also something to avoid!

So, to help you get the balance just right, here are three examples of HLE questions, specifically for the concept of Identity which we mentioned in the table above (btw, the example is a made-up novel for illustration purposes).

  • Too broad: “How does Irene Majov in her novel Deadly Men effectively make her narrator a powerful mouthpiece?”
  • Too narrow: “How does Irene Majov in her novel Deadly Men effectively make her narrator a powerful mouthpiece for the concerns of Asian-Americans toward discrimination in the workforce in the 21st century?”
  • Just right: “How does Irene Majov in her novel Deadly Men effectively make her narrator a powerful mouthpiece for the concerns of Asian-Americans in the 21st century?”

Perhaps it’d be useful if I shared my own journey of finding my HLE question. Story time!

How I found my IB English HLE question… 🧠

Like I said before, finding a question with the right scope is challenging. In fact, it was one of the biggest challenges for me when conquering the IB English HL Essay. Initially, I knew that I wanted to write on the theme of dangerous knowledge in the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

So I started off with a question like:

“how is dangerous knowledge presented?”

first version of HLE question

However, it felt too broad because it is such an obvious topic in the novel and is demonstrated through many characters and events.

Then I considered a second version of the question:

“how does [a certain character] demonstrate the theme of dangerous knowledge”

second version of HLE question

However, this question seemed too narrow in scope as it was restricted to just a single character in the novel. This began my period of constantly asking for help from my teacher – which I recommend you do too – and having lots of brainstorming sessions (even in my dreams…).

Eventually, I discovered a common thread that is shared by three characters in Frankenstein. This common thread is transformation. And so ultimately, the question I settled on for my HLE was something like:

How does the motif of transformation contribute to the theme of dangerous knowledge?

third version of HLE question

So the moral of my story is to give it time (and start earlier so you have this luxury of time!). A good idea won’t come instantly – it’s the product of a lot of brainstorming. Be patient, and you will have your eureka moment too! 💡

How to get a 7 on IB English HLE

Surprise, surprise. It always comes back to analysis!

Analysis is the key to a 7 in IB English, hands down. It doesn’t matter if it’s Paper 1, Paper 2, HLE, IO… Your grade is determined by how deeply you can analyze quotes, and how well you can structure this analysis.

Ideally, you’d like to write analysis that makes your teacher absolutely SHOOK… but in a good way.

The first step of writing 7-level analysis is to choose the right quotes. Use the following rules of thumb when selecting quotes for your IB English Higher Level Essay:

  • Quotes should contain strong literary or visual techniques.
  • Quotes should relate to the thesis and question of your HLE.
  • Quotes should be integrated smoothly into the paragraphs, and not be too long.

Some good sources where you can find relevant quotes include: Goodreads, SparkNotes, LitCharts, and Cliffnotes. Personally, I used a combination of Sparknotes, Goodreads, and skimming the whole text and then carefully re-reading the sections most relevant to my HLE question. 

Once you’ve got great quotes, you can then analyse it!

How do I write good analysis?

Explaining the ins-and-outs of writing amazing analysis is a bit too intense for this HLE guide. You can learn all of this in Analysis Simplified (get started for FREE!)–LitLearn’s flagship course that teaches you EXACTLY how to write 7-level analysis in IB English.

In fact, I joined Analysis Simplified in 2022 to sharpen my Paper 1 analysis… and this is the review I wrote on Trustpilot after my final May 2022 exam.

Lareina’s 5-star review of Analysis Simplified for IB English

Understanding the IB English HLE rubric

An essential step to getting a high mark on the HL Essay is understanding the rubric! It is SO important that you know what IB English examiners are looking for when grading your essay, as this helps you to shape the content of your essay to match (or even exceed) their expectations.

The IB English HL Essay is graded out of 20 marks. There are 4 criteria, each worth 5 marks.

Use the checklist below to make sure you’re not making simple mistakes! Note that this is not the official marking criteria, and I strongly recommend that you reading the official rubric provided by your teacher.

Criterion A: Knowledge, understanding, and interpretation

  • Accurate summary of text in introduction
  • Focused and informative thesis statement
  • Effective and relevant quotes
  • Relevant and effective summary and ending statement in conclusion

Criterion B: Analysis and evaluation

  • Relevant analysis of a variety of stylistic features 
  • Relevant analysis of tone and/or atmosphere
  • Relevant analysis of broader authorial choices i.e. characterization, point of view, syntax, irony, etc.

Criterion C: Focus, organization, and development

  • Introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion
  • Organized body paragraphs – topic sentence, evidence, concluding statement/link to question
  • Appropriate progression of ideas and arguments in which evidence (i.e. quotes) are effectively implemented

Criterion D: Language

  • Use expansions (e.g. “do not”) instead of contractions (e.g. “don’t”)
  • Use of a variety of connecting phrases e.g. “furthermore”, “nonetheless”, “however”, etc.
  • Complete sentence structures and subject-verb agreement
  • Correct usage of punctuation
  • Appropriate register – no slang
  • Historic present tense: the use of present tense when recounting past events. For example, we want to write “In The Hunger Games, Peeta and Katniss work together to win as a district” instead of using the word “worked”.
  • Avoid flowery/dictionary language just to sound smart; it is distracting and difficult to read. As long as you concisely communicate your message using appropriate language, you will score a high mark under this criterion.

Relevant meme:

Summary

Here’s everything we discussed:

  • IB English HLE tough work! Start early.
  • Brainstorm using the table of concepts to come up with a strong HLE question. Don’t give up on this!
  • Analysis is the key to a 7 in IB English HLE (and in fact ALL IB English assessment). Check out Analysis Simplified for immediate help on the exact steps to improve in IB English analysis.

I hope that you have found this guide to be helpful! If you’re feeling good about the HLE, great! If not, just keep in mind that you are not alone – every single IB student in HL English, including myself, is going/has gone through the same thing (just go on Reddit and you’ll see). If they can do it, you CAN, too! Believe in yourself and your ability!

Good luck, and may the odds be ever in your favor 💪 

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Level 1 Techniques

Start with the 4 Basic Techniques for IB English

Diction

8 Minutes

FAQ: "Why should I learn to properly analyze diction?"

Diction is the most fundamental technique, yet most students struggle to analyze it correctly. Diction is found in every text you'll ever come across in IB English Lang & Lit and IB English Literature.

This 8-Minute lesson will cover:

  1. What is diction?
  2. Quick Example of diction in a quote
  3. Exemplar Analysis using the Diamond Analysis Formula
  4. Practical Analysis Advice for Diction
  5. A Word of Warning for IB English students

What is Diction?

Diction is the simplest literary technique, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to master.

Pay close attention!

Diction means “word choice”: the specific words that a writer deliberately chooses to use in their writing.

Actually analysing diction in your IB English assessment would sound something like this:

  • “The writer’s use of emotional diction in line 5 illustrates…”
  • “The religious diction such as ‘communion’ and ‘confession’ suggests…”

Now, the problem we face as IB English students is that every word on a page technically counts as diction. We obviously can’t analyse all of them! So we need some rules. Two to be exact.

The rules of diction

  1. Never analyse boring words.
  2. Always analyse interesting words.

So how can you tell if a word is interesting and therefore worthy of analysis?

Connotations

Every word has a denotation (i.e., a boring, literal meaning found in the dictionary) and connotations.

A word is interesting if it has interesting connotations. In analysis, we tend to care less about the denotative meaning of a word because it’s not interesting.

Take the word “gold” as an example.

Denotation: “a yellow precious metal, the chemical element of atomic number 79”

Yawn. BORING.

The word “gold” obviously means a lot more to us than just its boring denotation. The word “gold” instantly makes us think of:

wealth, money, luxury, prestige, royalty, quality, beauty, perfection, big fat Rolexes

These ideas, feelings, and impressions that we naturally associate with certain words are called connotations. They are distinct from denotations: Denotation is what the thing literally means; connotation is what we think and feel about that thing.

Big difference.

Since analysis is about wading into the deeper layers of meaning, we care much more about connotations when we analyse diction.

Let’s take a look at the diction in this sentence:

“The town was an infested den of thieves and smugglers.”

Which words have interesting connotations?

The word “infested” is interesting. When we read/hear the word “infested”, we immediately think

Ewwwwwwwwww!!!

We think of a gross mental image of disgusting cockroaches and rats crawling around in some old basement or sewer. To us, the diction of “infested” connotes disgust, and the writer probably chose this word precisely because it makes the town seem dirty and disgusting.

“Infested” also connotes a sense of corruption; in this case, it’s not so much the biological disease, which is the literal meaning, but instead the moral corruption of these thieves and smugglers who work in morally-questionable professions.

There’s also another really interesting layer of meaning. We usually associate the diction of “infested” with animals and insects, as opposed to humans. So the writer uses animalistic diction to dehumanise these criminals to the level of animals, making us view them with contempt (remember this word from the tone list?).

By thinking about the connotations, we got some great analysis about amorality, disgust and dehumanisation.

Recall the 5 steps of the Diamond Analysis Formula from the Analysis Foundations section. Well, all we have to do is apply them here, and voila, we cook up some decent analysis like this:

The author characterises “the town” to be “infested” with criminals. Here, the deliberate use of animalistic diction in “infested” serves to dehumanise the “thieves and smugglers” as creatures comparable to cockroaches or rats, which evokes a sense of disgust in readers. The animalistic diction thus captures the squalid, corrupted state of this “town” and builds an unsettling atmosphere.

Great new adjectives to use in your next essay to boost your Criterion D Language mark:

  • “squalid”: lacking in moral standards
  • “unsettling”: disturbing, making someone feel uneasy or anxious

When you use the word “diction”, try to precede it with an adjective. For example, avoid writing

“The diction in ‘infested’…”

Instead, write

“The animalistic diction in ‘infested’…”

The reason is because ‘diction’ itself is meaningless unless we specify a particular type of word choice. In some cases, the diction is neutral and that is when you have no choice but to just write “diction”.

The same rule applies to tone, atmosphere and mood. Add a preceding adjective. There’s no meaning behind tone unless it’s a specific tone. The same goes for atmosphere and mood.

If you get tired of writing “diction” all the time, you can vary your diction by replacing it with “language”. For example, you can write “emotional diction” or “emotional language”, “formal diction” or “formal language”. They mean the same thing.

Yes, diction is the most fundamental technique and it’s important to understand.

Many students stay stuck at Level 1 in IB English, forever analysing this word, and that word, and this diction, and that diction.

To increase your IB English grade, you must learn more techniques, and rise up in the sophistication of the techniques that you analyse. You must learn the rest of the Level 1 techniques, and from there catapult into Levels 2, 3 and 4.

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Learn the same analysis secrets that helped Aanya, Ethan and countless other IB English students skyrocket their grade in weeks, days and even overnight in some cases…

In the Level 1 to Level 4 Techniques lessons, you will find:

  • Refreshing examples and analysis exemplars that show you exactly how to write 7-level analysis.
  • Practical Analysis Advice on how to approach analysis for each key technique, including the common effects and purposes. This helped Ethan Cheng improve from a 12 to a 17/20 in 1 week!

Essay Essentials

11+ Key Lessons on IB English Paper 1, Paper 2 & HLE Writing

How to Craft a Strong Thesis

10 Minutes

FAQ: "Why should I learn how to write a strong thesis?"

IB teachers and examiners form a first impression of your Paper 1 (...and Paper 2, IO and HLE!) based on 1 sentence in your introduction: the thesis. First impressions are important, so your thesis better be good!

This 10-Minute lesson will cover:

  1. What is a thesis?
  2. The Two Crucial Ingredients of a Strong Thesis
  3. The Bulletproof Thesis Formula
  4. Practical Example: How to Improve a Thesis statement
  5. A Word of Warning: Depth can kill

After successfully deconstructing and interpreting a text (explained in another Essay Essential lesson), you will have three things in your hot little hands:

  1. several main ideas
  2. annotations of techniques
  3. the writer’s overall purpose

Now, the hard part…

We need to summarise these three things in a single sentence called the thesis (or subject statement). At this point, we still haven’t started writing the Paper 1 yet. We are still in the planning phase. By doing all of this planning, the writing process will be much, much easier.

“OK, but what–actually–is a thesis?”

The thesis is a single sentence in the introduction of a guided analysis that states how the writer achieves his/her overall purpose. This sentence—this thesis—is also the main argument that you are trying to prove in your IB English Paper 1 guided analysis. The marker can usually judge the strength of your analytical skills from your subject statement alone, so it needs to be well-written.

A good subject statement must tick two boxes:

  • it must be clear and concise
  • it must convey the writer’s intention

1. Be clear and concise

Students often write a long, winding sentence for their thesis. This is bad because the marker cannot easily distinguish your thesis from the rest of your introduction. This is particularly bad when you realise that a marker spends only a couple of minutes reading through each essay (ain’t nobody got time for dat).

As such, you should always write a clear and concise thesis that is no longer than ~30 words.

“In the story, the author looks at how the main character is sad and how he always fights with his parents when he returns home from school.” (27 words)

This is a bad subject statement:

  • The language isn’t clear. In particular, the verb “looks” is too vague and informal. The word “how” is also informal.
  • The sentence isn’t concise. The subject statement should focus only on the main ideas: sadness and familial conflict. The contextual detail of “coming home from school” is distracting. Avoid excess information in the thesis.

A better subject statement looks like this:

“In the prose extract, the author conveys the sadness of the protagonist through the portrayal of his frequent conflict with his parents.” (21 words)

  • The language is clearer and more sophisticated. Notice how instead of writing “In the story”, we can write “In the prose extract”.
  • The sentence is also more concise. The language in “conveys” is much better than “looks at”.

Another great subject statement might look like this:

“In the prose extract, the author characterises the protagonist as a sad teenager who suffers frequent conflict with his parents.”

  • Here, the subject statement is explicit about the literary focus of the essay by including the term “characterization.”
  • In the poem/prose extract/article, (author X) explores/ criticizes/ ridicules/ portrays/ highlights/ illustrates the (subject) in order to (purpose).

In general, use this formula for clear and concise subject statements.

In the poem / play / prose extract / article (genre), the writer explores / criticises / ridicules/ portrays / highlights / illustrates (some verb) _________ (idea, effect, or meaning).

Our subject statement is now clear and concise, but there’s one problem. It feels too simplistic. There’s no depth. The reason is because we’re missing something essential.

2. Sprinkle the writer’s purpose

At the moment, our subject statement is simply saying: “In the text, the writer does this.” But that’s only half the picture. We need to add the writer’s purpose. The subject statement needs to say:

“The writer does this, this and that in order to achieve a purpose.”

By explaining not just what the writer does but also why the writer does it, the subject statement immediately becomes deeper and more complete.

For example:

“In the prose extract, the author characterises the protagonist as a sad teenager who experiences frequent conflict with his parents in order to highlight the harsh estrangement of adolescence.”

where the bolded part of the subject statement expresses the intention (why) behind the writer’s use of characterisation (what).

The subject statement sounds even better if we move the author’s intention to the beginning of the sentence:

In order to highlight the harsh estrangement of adolescence, the author characterizes the protagonist as a sad teenager who suffers frequent conflict with his parents.”

Or, we can be a little less explicit about the purpose by expressing it as a theme: .

“In the prose extract, the author explores the distressed emotional landscape of adolescence through the portrayal of the teenage protagonist’s constant melancholy and familial conflict.”

  • Here the writer’s message is expressed instead as a central theme: the distressed emotional landscape of adolescence.

We now have a new template for writing strong subject statements that have both clarity and depth.

In the poem / play / prose extract / article (some genre), the writer explores / criticises / ridicules/ portrays / highlights / illustrates (some verb) _________ (idea, effect, or meaning) in order to __________ (some purpose).

After you get used to using this template, it will start to feel formulaic and boring. At that stage, feel free to do away with the training wheels and express your thesis however you like, as long as it is clear, concise and conveys the writer’s intention.

Improving a real subject statement by a real student

Student’s version
“Banville utilises situational irony created by the characterisation of the parents, and the situational irony of the narrator’s depressing holiday to express a bittersweet tone by the narrator.” (28 words)

One of our lovely LitLearn students wrote this subject statement for a Higher Level Paper 1 guided analysis. We are going to identify what’s wrong with it, and then we will improve on it.

  • First, the subject statement is not concise. Situational irony is mentioned too many times, and the overall idea of the narrator’s depressing memories can be conveyed more succinctly.
  • Second, there’s an issue with the purpose. The student has made the bittersweet tone the writer’s core purpose. But tone is never the purpose. Ever. Tone is a technique used as a means, a vehicle, a way to achieve a purpose. So the purpose needs to change.
Fixed version
“Banville ironically constructs the narrator’s depressing memories of her childhood holidays in order to portray the fractured relationships within her family.” (21 words)
  • This version is clearer and more concise. It’s seven words shorter. The two uses of situational irony have been replaced by just one use of “ironically”. The reason for doing so is because situational irony is distracting detail that is irrelevant in the thesis but can be mentioned later in the introduction or in the points of the commentary.
  • Also, the purpose is now an actual purpose. The message of the story was really about the horrible relationship between the narrator and her parents, and this purpose is now adequately summarised in the phrase, “fractured relationships within her family.” Notice how an accurate understanding of the writer’s purpose is starting to become important just in the introduction; make sure you’ve deconstructed a text well before you even attempt to write the subject statement, because otherwise your interpretation will be wrong and your Knowledge and Understanding Criterion will go down.
  • Also, we removed the reference to tone from the thesis. The reason why tone is removed entirely from the thesis is because, like situational irony, tone is a distracting detail that is not important at the Big Picture level and should instead be mentioned later in the introduction and body paragraphs.

Depth can kill

A common question that students ask is this, and you might have wondered about it many times before…

The question is this:

“Hey <Teacher / Tutor / LitLearn>, does the subject statement (or thesis, or argument) have to be really, really deep?”

In other words, does the writer’s purpose need to be highly philosophical message about things like, “What is the meaning of life?”

I’m sure you will be glad to hear that the answer is a definite “No.”

Don’t try to make up some deep message that doesn’t exist in the text. It might sound impressive, but it won’t help you at all. In your subject statement, simply write down what the writer’s purpose is, and as accurately as you can. If you have genuinely interpreted the writer’s purpose to be a deep message, like “the meaning of life”, then great. But if the writer’s purpose is clearly just characterisation, then simply use that as the purpose and don’t make up some corny, cheesy message that doesn’t even represent the text at all.

Accuracy is what you should be worrying about, and you should not be worrying about whether the purpose in your subject statement sounds intellectual or philosophical.

Essay Essentials

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IB English Practice Papers

Detailed Video Solutions to help you prepare for Paper 1

Lang & Lit: Poster Ad

Get hints when you’re stuck:
  • Language Hints video (3 min)
  • Visual Hints video (3 min)
Check your answer with the full solution:
  • Full Annotation & Analysis video (20 min)
  • Exemplar 20/20 Essay Plan video (10 min)
  • Exemplar 20/20 Essay Response (1000 words)

Literature: Prose

Get hints when you’re stuck:
  • Knowledge & Interpretation video (7 min)
Check your answer with the full solution:
  • Annotation & Analysis Video Part 1 (20 min)
  • Annotation & Analysis Video Part 2 (20 min)
  • Exemplar 20/20 Essay Plan Guide
  • How to Write Analysis Paragraph (10 min)
+ More Practice Papers for Lang Lit and Literature
Speeches, Prose, Poems, Ads
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"[LitLearn] helped immensely in terms of building up the fundamentals such as knowing the techniques and their effects, which were key for my improvement. [...] I managed to improve my grade from a 12 to a 17."

Ethan Cheng, IB English Literature student
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IB4 to IB6 in 12 days

"I went from a 4 to a 6 in IB English [in 12 days], something that I had not seen coming at all! LitLearn helped me understand exactly what I was doing wrong and how to improve upon those mistakes."

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