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IB English Paper 1 Explained

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IB English Paper 1 is one of those nerve-wracking experiences that everyone has to endure. It’s especially scary because you have no idea what you’ll end up writing about for your final exam–and your grades depend on it!

The best preparation you can do is to be acutely aware of the exam structure and be familiar with strategies for tackling a Paper 1 in general.

If you want to fully wrap your head around the IB English Paper 1 guided analysis, then this blog post is definitely for you.

In 2014, IB 45 graduate Jackson Huang received a perfect 20/20 for his final Paper 1. In this guide, he will share his secrets on the IB English Paper 1 so that you can conquer it too! 💪

Topics included

  1. What is a Paper 1?
  2. What to write about in a guided analysis
  3. The correct approach to analysis
  4. The importance of the thesis
  5. Getting the right commentary structure
  6. Structuring body paragraphs
  7. Planning ahead

What is a Paper 1 exam?

In a Paper 1 exam, you are given two mysterious, unseen texts, both of which are between 1 and 2 pages in length.

Text Types

For IB English Literature SL and HL:

You’ll get two different literary texts types, including poems, short extracts from fiction and non-fiction prose (aka “normal writing” from novels and short stories), and extracts from plays (which includes stage directions and dialogue).

For IB English Language and Literature SL & HL:

The texts come from a plethora (new vocab for you! this blog is so meta!) of categories including magazines, editorials, speeches, interview scripts, instruction manuals, cartoon strips, you name it. Be prepared to be surprised. 😂 

Okay.

So you’re given two unseen texts. What do you have to do now?

SL students, you’re in luck: Your task for 1 hour and 15 minute exam is to write a commentary guided analysis (IB renamed it) on just one of the two texts. The total marks for the exam is 20.

HL students, you’re in less luck: Your task in 2 hours and 15 minutes is to write a guided analysis on each of the texts. good luck have fun.


Wait, what’s a “guided analysis”?

At the bottom of the text, the IB English Gods and Goddesses pose a short, open-ended question about the text. Something to the effect of:

How does the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus impact the narrative?

I’d recommend most students to use the default guiding question as the “entry point” for their essay. At the end of the day, though, you are still allowed to talk about anything, because the IB also says on the cover page of the Paper 1 exam:

Use the guiding question or propose an alternative technical or formal aspect of the text to focus your analysis.

But why make your life harder? Just go with the guiding question, UNLESS you are really confused by the guiding question…and the other text confuses you even more…and you are confident in an alternative focus of this current text.


What do I have to write about in a guided analysis?

Imagine that you’ve been asked to simply “talk about” a novel that you’ve recently read on your commute to school (this is joke obviously, who reads novels on the bus?). What would you “talk” about?

Immediately, a couple important aspects should seem worthy of a comment.

  1. Characters are usually the core of the story. They should definitely be commented on.
  2. Also, stories revolve around central ideas, also called themes. e.g., if you comment on Harry Potter and you don’t mention anything about wizardry, then you’re leaving out a central part of the book!
  3. And finally, we need to talk about the events that happen in the text. These events can be referred to as the plot.

You now know that characterisation, thematics and plot are essential ingredients in any top-scoring Paper 1 guided analysis. By talking about these aspects, you are providing a holistic ‘comment’ on the text–which is exactly what we want.

But this is only half of the whole story.

The above list of three things would be very sufficient if you were just having a casual chat with your friends. But this isn’t a casual chat.

THIS IS IB ENGLISH.

(While you read that 👆, picture this: You’re standing beside a pit so deep it goes to the centre of the Earth, and a Spartan–out of no where–kicks you over the edge and into the metaphorical pit of IB English.)


Digging Deeper

In IB English, your guided analysis needs to go deeper than just describing the characters, themes and plot, which constitute the ‘surface meaning’ of a text.

By the way, we’re using a literary text as an example to keep things simple. Of course, characters and plot aren’t important in non-literary texts like ads, infographics and articles. The same principles should apply!

Shallow and deep meaning in IB English Paper 1 analysis

Your analysis must go deeper than the surface meaning. Explain how exactly these characters, themes and plot events are established through the author’s intentional use of certain literary techniques. If you do that, you’ll be on your way to bigger and better analysis.

The IB wants you to dig deeper into the text and answer these two key questions:

  1. HOW did the writer create these characters, themes and plot?
  2. WHY did the writer choose to create these characters, themes and plot in this particular way? e.g. “JK Rowling could have made Draco a kinder person, but she didn’t. Why?”

These questions get to the heart and soul of analysis. In this blog post, I want us to focus on Paper 1 overall.


Your ONE mission in Paper 1

Let’s quickly recap what you need to do in a Paper 1.

  1. You need to discuss the characters, themes and plot of a chosen  literary text, OR the visual and stylistic elements (diagrams, headings, titles, images) for a non-literary text.
  2. You then need to explain how and why these aspects were achieved by the writer or artist.

These two points are helpful as a basis for understanding, but they won’t help you get concrete words onto the exam page. What we need now is a practical guide to writing an actual commentary:

  1. Deciding on a good thesis
  2. Choosing the right points
  3. Choosing the right structure

A Practical Guide to Writing a Paper 1 Commentary

An IB English Paper 1 commentary boils down to 3 separate parts:

  1. An introduction paragraph: contains a thesis and an outline of your points
  2. A body (usually 3 paragraphs): contains your points
  3. A conclusion: wraps up the essay

Choosing a thesis

The thesis or subject statement is a single sentence in the introduction of the guided analysis that states how the writer achieves their overall purpose.

This is also the main argument that you are trying to prove in your essay, and it’s typically related to the guiding question. The examiner can usually judge the strength of your analytical skills JUST from your subject statement alone, so it needs to be well-written!

Good thesis, bad thesis

Here’s a little quiz:

In the poem, the poet depicts a crying man in the city centre, which highlights the society’s aversion towards emotion, and demonstrates the overly masculine nature of society.

In the poem, the poet hyperbolises society’s aversion towards emotion in order to criticise masculinity as a restrictive social norm that inhibits the natural expression of emotion.

Can you tell which subject statement is better and worse? If so, do you know why one is better, or do you just feel it intuitively but cannot articulate your reasons?

Answer: the second one is better! 🎉

If you want to prepare properly for IB English Paper 1, create a Free account to get the full Free lesson on how to craft a top-quality thesis quickly during your exam. It’s a Free Preview of LitLearn’s ultimate IB English resource, so you’ll need to sign up for a Free LitLearn account to get immediate access to the lesson.

Get the Free “How to Write an Epic 7-Level Thesis” lesson inside LitLearn.


Choosing the right commentary structure for IB English Paper 1

Every text works best with a specific paragraph structure. Finding this match isn’t always easy, but it’s also one of the most important things to get right in your Paper 1 guided analysis.

You can organise your essay by:

  • ideas or themes
  • techniques
  • sections (sequential, e.g. stanza by stanza for poems)
  • the ‘Big 5’
  • SPECSLIMS
  • and probably a whole host of other acronyms that English teachers love to invent.

Criterion C for IB English Paper 1 is Organisation. It’s worth a whole 5/20 marks, so it’s definitely in your best interest to choose the most appropriate structure for your commentary.

Pro Tip: I recommend students to stay away from the Big 5. Sure, it’s useful as a memory device to tell you what elements to look for in a text, but it’s not a good essay structure for analysis.

Why? Because analysis is about examining the causal interplay between techniques, stylistic choices, audience, tone, and themes. The Big 5 and SPECSLIMS artificially silo these components in your discussion. Heed my advice or pay the price! (notice that rhyme?)

So in my opinion, there are only two types of structure that are most conducive (yep, another new vocab, omnomnom) to getting a 7. Ideas/themes and Sections. Take this as a hot tip and run with it. If your teacher is forcing you to use other structures, then you’ll need to know why this is recommended.

I go into much more depth and explain it all inside Analysis Simplified, and the guess what? Yep, the full lesson on choosing the optimal structure for your Paper 1 exam is completely Free! (Sign up for the Free Preview, just click the button below.)


Writing body paragraphs: Why and How

Once you’ve chosen the best structure for your commentary and decided on a strong thesis as your central argument, the rest of the essay needs to revolve around proving this argument.

How do you prove this subject statement? You do it by looking at individual points. These smaller points support smaller, more specific aspects of the overall thesis.

The idea is that each body paragraph, or point, aims to prove a separate, smaller aspect of the bigger thesis. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle: You must piece together smaller, more manageable pieces to build the bigger argument (i.e. the thesis).

In reality, this translates into writing 2, 3 or 4 points, each of which fits snuggly it its own paragraph or multiple paragraphs (depending on the complexity of the point).

In each point, you must include:

  1. Quotes, references to images, titles, headings, or visual elements. This is the evidence.
  2. Analysis of language and literary techniques. Use specific quotes from the text and explain how and why they are used by the writer to shape his/her message.

Obviously, this is a quick summary of how to write a high-quality body paragraph. If you want to really, really wow your teachers and examiners… then you’ll need to check out the Free Full lesson inside LitLearn. You’ll need to create a Free account to access the lesson.


Planning ahead

Ironically, the most important part of IB English Paper 1 is not the analysis itself (well it is, but not really). The part you have to get right the first time is the plan. Most students do not know how to plan effectively, or get flustered in the exam and don’t plan, or don’t even try to plan because they think they’re above it. BIIIIG MISTAKE!

Before you even begin writing, you should plan out your commentary in sufficient detail. You will lose track of time, thought and sanity if you do not have a clear road map of every part of your commentary before you begin writing.

You can learn how to annotate and plan quickly & efficiently using the flowchart method inside Analysis Simplified, so that you can go walk out of your Paper 1 practice, mock and final exams feeling like that powerful and overly aggressive Spartan, kicking IB English in the butt (and into the deep, cavernous abyss)!

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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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Level 1 Techniques

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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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IB English Past Paper Solutions

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IB English Lang & Lit

IB English Literature

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IB4 to IB7 in 1 Week

"[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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