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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, 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 learn how to craft theses like the second one, join LitLearn’s flagship course Analysis Simplified for IB English!


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 explain it all inside Analysis Simplified.


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.

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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