Complete Guide on How to Analyze for IB English HL & SL

Step-by-step guide to IB English analysis
The ultimate free guide to analysing IB English like an absolute pro.

To get a 7 in IB English Literature or IB English Language and Literature, you must understand not just how to analyse, but how to analyse properly and correctly. It’s so easy to be confused by all the contradictory advice that different IB English teachers and textbooks seem to be spouting out, but it’s not as hard or as confusing as it seems.

In this detailed guide, I explain the easiest, five-step approach to writing strong IB English analysis. In this guide, I go into the intuition behind analysis and the five simple steps that you can take to transform your analysis from an IB grade of 4 to 7. No more headaches. No more confusion. So what are we waiting for? Let’s get into it!

What exactly is analysis?

Analysis is the act of explaining how and why a writer uses specific language choices.

This is the fundamental task of IB English. If you understand this statement, then you will understand the whole of IB English. Let’s break it down.

“specific language choices”: We are intensely interested in the specific wording, literary techniques, punctuation, and grammar used by the writer of a given text. All of these aspects fall under language, so we must analyse all of them.

“explaining”: Always seek to explain these language choices rather than just stating the fact. Always go deeper. For example, don’t just say that “The writer uses technique X” and move on. You must go further in analysis, by addressing the two key questions:

  1. How / in what way is technique X being used?
  2. Why is technique X being used in this way?

“how”: Is it being used to construct an idea or create an emotional effect, or both at the same time? Is the technique being contrasted or combined with another technique to enhance its effectiveness? How a writer chooses to manipulate and utilise a technique is a unique to every text. There are infinite ways in which a technique can be used, but your job is to just consider and explain a particular usage by a particular writer of a particular text.

“why”:  Why did the writer choose to use this specific word (or technique) instead of all the thousands of other capable options in the English language? Why this particular word? What makes this technique so special and important that the writer couldn’t help but use it?

Steps of analysis in a diagram

Teachers never teach English with diagrams, but they’re actually extremely useful in understanding how analysis works.

Here is a diagram to summarise what your understanding of analysis should look like at this very moment. Forget what you’ve learned before reading this guide, because everything that I’m teaching you now is the proven blueprint for IB English analysis. I used it to score high marks in IB English Literature, including a 20/20 in Paper 1.

How to analyse IB English

The next step in this guide is to show you how to address these key questions of “how” and the “why”  in your analytical writing. But first, let me introduce the five step formula that I know you’ve been waiting for.


The Five Step Formula to IB English literary analysis

So you have a quote that you want to analyse. An example might be:

The wind danced to the music of the autumn birds as it wound its way through every branch, every tree, and every leaf in the quiet forest.

Step 1. Identify specific language choices

The first step of analysing any quote is simply to

  1. Annotate the quote.
  2. Find interesting language choices (i.e., literary techniques).
  3. Decide on one or more techniques to analyse in your point.

Steps 2 and 3. How to address “how” specific language is used

So you’ve picked a specific technique from an imaginary quote. To address the “how” to a satisfactory standard, there are two things that you need to do:

  • Step 2. Explain how that specific technique creates a meaning (aka: idea, theme, notion).  As an example, the metaphor “the man was a mountain” constructs the notion of the man’s strength.
  • Step 3. Explain how that specific technique creates an effect on the reader. This is the component that probably 80% (?) of IB English students fail to include, and yes, it’s also the thing that drags down their mark. As an example, the language choice of “the man was a mountain” creates a feeling of fear in the reader, but that only occurs if “the man” refers to an evil character. If “the man” refers instead to a heroic figure, then the reader would feel an entirely different emotion, namely admiration, etc.

Here’s a more detailed diagram to show Steps 2 and 3.

IB English Literature analysis

Notice how the “why” has been left out. We’ll add it back in after the next section.

Steps 4 and 5. How to address “why” specific language is used

First, you must understand that all writer’s have a purpose. In other words, a writer always writes for a reason. Perhaps there is a profound insight that they want to share with the world, or a interesting story that they want others to be entertained by. Writers always have some sort of message, idea or story that they want to convey through their words. This assumption makes a lot of sense. Just sit down in front of an A4 piece of paper and tell yourself to “Write”. Without motivation or an end goal, you can’t write half a page, let alone a poem, a story or a novel.

Now, since a writer is motivated by a purpose that they desperately want to see happen, the writer’s writing process is obviously influenced by this intention. In fact, every part of the writing process is influenced by this purpose; every word, every technique, every punctuation that a writer chooses must pass the one test that is applied again and again by the writer himself/herself: “Is this the best word or technique that I can use to get me closer to reaching my purpose?”

Example of Writer’s Purpose: Harry Potter

How to analyse IB English Literature

 

For example, a certain JK Rowling is tossing up between using “horrendous” and “disturbing” to describe a Dementor in her upcoming Harry Potter book. Which word would she choose?

Let’s think it through in a logical way. Rowling’s purpose would be to make the Dementor seem as horrifying as possible and to inspire as much fear from the reader as it is physically possible to do so. The word choice of “horrendous” holds much graver, darker connotations than the word “disturbing.”

A dead rat is disturbing; wearing socks with sandals is disturbing; but a Dementor is not disturbing, despite the irresistible alliteration that just rolls of the tongue: “disturbing Dementor”. No, a Dementor is decidedly “horrendous”, and that is why JK Rowling would have chosen “horrendous” over “disturbing” to describe her beloved Dementor. This specific language choice aligns with her purpose more so than the other potential language choice(s).

Hence, the job of the IB English student, or the AP English student, or any student of literature for that matter, is to probe into the mind of the writer and justify why this specific word or that specific technique helps to achieve the writer’s own purpose / message. Usually, a specific word is chosen to create a meaning and an effect that in turn achieve the writer’s purpose.

Concretely, steps 4 and 5 of the five-step formula are these:

  • Step 4. Explain how the meaning from Step 2 helps to achieve the writer’s purpose.
  • Step 5. Explain how the effect from Step 3 helps to achieve the writer’s purpose.

Here is the final diagram that summarises the five-step formula of literary analysis for IB English.

How to analyse IB English Literature

A final tip

Steps 4 and 5 are often very similar. To avoid repeating yourself, just combine steps 4 and 5 in the same sentence.

For example, here’s some smooth analysis that touches on all 5 steps a little bit, without the analysis sounding mechanical and dumb:

In line 5 of the poem, the poet personifies the ‘dancing hand sliding over the piano’ (LANGUAGE CHOICE). The personification of the musician’s fingers as a dancer animates the scene with energy and life, suggesting not only the pianist’s dexterity but also his musical excellence (MEANING). Furthermore, the jovial connotations of “dancing” establishes a celebratory, mirthful mood (EFFECT), a feeling that captures the pianist’s passion as well as the profound beauty of music–a beauty that is grounded in motion as much as in sound (PURPOSE).

Summary

In this in-depth guide, you’ve gained an understanding of exactly how IB English Literature analysis works. You’ve also learned the five-step approach to analysis which has helped numerous IB English students score extremely high marks in their IB English exams and IAs.

Here’s are three things that you can try immediately to improve your IB English analysis skills:

  1. Analyse the ‘wind’ quote using the five-step approach. Post it in the comments below if you want to.
  2. Go over a past exam or essay and identify all the steps that you missed.
  3. Practise the five-step approach on 10 other quotes–by then, your analysis skills will be very impressive.

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.

9 Replies to “Complete Guide on How to Analyze for IB English HL & SL

  1. To the people (or person) behind LitLearn,

    Thank you for this. I can refer some students who are having such a hard time with this.

  2. Thank you very much. I have been flopping in Literature all my life but this has really helped. Thank you so so so much. “Asante sana” in Kiswahili.

  3. The author personifies the wind in combination with the autumn birds, which serves as a symbol. The personification of the dancing wind and autumn birds conveys the movement of death throughout the forest. The personification of the win and symbol of the autumn bird invokes a morbid sense of reality in the reader, which the author expresses the inevitability of death in every life.
    How is my analysis on the wind quote?

  4. Thank you so much. Im taking literature, so this might not completely relate to me, but this method singlehandedly is raising my usual scores 1-2 points above what they were before.

  5. The “wind” personified to “danced to the music” constructs an jovial tone and reflects the high spirited nature of the wind. Moreover the writer’s choice to use the word ” autumn” creates a warm ambiance. The language choice of ” it wound its way ” may create an unpleasant feeling in the reader’s mind if it had not been preceded by the word “autumn”. The wind cover ‘every branch’, ‘every tree’ and ‘every leaf’ here the repetition of the word every emphasizes the playful nature of the wind to the reader.

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