IB English Paper 1 Explained

Ace your IB English Paper 1 exam with the #1 IB English Resource for 2022 as Voted by IB Students & Teachers

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Lang Lit

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 for your final exam‚Äďand your grades depend on it!

The best preparation you can do is be acutely aware of the exam structure and proven strategies that have worked for past IB7 graduates.

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

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20/20 Paper 1

Meet your instructor Jackson Huang, Founder of LitLearn. His mission is to make IB English as pain-free as possible with fun, practical lessons. Jackson scored an IB45 and was accepted to Harvard, Amherst, Williams Colleges, and full scholarships to University of Melbourne & Queensland.

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What is a Paper 1 exam?

In a Paper 1 exam, you are given two mysterious, unseen texts. Each text is between 1-2 pages in length.


For SL students, you're in luck! Your task is to write a guided analysis on just one of the two texts. Total marks: 20. You have 1 hour and 15 minutes.

For HL students, you're in less luck‚Ķ Your task is to write two guided analysis essays‚Äďone on each of the texts. Total marks: 40. You have 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Text types

The mystery text types you'll get for Paper 1 depend on whether you're in IB English Language & Literature or IB English Literature.

For IB English Literature, Paper 1 text types belong to four neat categories (hooray!):

  • Fictional prose (e.g. short stories, extracts from novels)
  • Non-fiction prose (e.g. scientific articles, extracts)
  • Dramatic plays
  • Poems

For IB English Language and Literature, your text types could be… really… anything. Be prepared to be surprised. Typically, at least one of the text types will include some visual element like an image, photo, or cartoon. Here's the (non-exhaustive) list of Lang Lit text types:

  • Magazines, blogs, articles and editorials
  • Speeches, interview scripts, radio transcripts
  • Instruction manuals, brochures
  • Comic strips, political cartoons
  • Web pages
  • ‚Ķ and the list goes on‚Ķ

What do I write in a guided analysis?

For each Paper 1 text, the IB English Gods pose a short, open-ended question.

This question is called the guiding question, and your essay must focus on answering this guiding question using analysis (we'll explain ‚Äúanalysis‚ÄĚ in a second).

Examples of guiding questions:

  • How does the writer characterize the protagonist's state of mind?
  • How and to what effect do textual and visual elements shape meaning?
  • How is narrative perspective used to create meaning and effect?

Even though you're technically allowed to choose your own focus and ignore the default guiding question, it's highly recommended that you go along with what's given… unless you really don't know how to answer it, or you're super confident in your Paper 1 skills.

Now, what are we supposed to do with the guiding question?

Guiding questions always ask you to explain how and why certain language or visual choices are used to build one or more central ideas.

And so the vague instruction "Answer the guiding question" actually translates to something very specific:

Explain how and why the writer uses specific language to build their central idea(s).

This sentence pretty much sums up not just IB English Paper 1, but the gist of analysis and IB English overall.

Writing Deep, Insightful Analysis

If you want to get a high score on Paper 1 (and every IB English assessment in general), you must know how to write deep, insightful analysis.

After helping numerous IB English students at LitLearn, we've found that weak analysis is the #1 reason students struggle in IB English.

Biggest Mistake

The main mistake you're likely making is that your analysis doesn't dig deep enough.

Students make the mistake of only touching the surface-level meaning of the texts. For example, common mistakes include:

  • only recounting the plot
  • mentioning techniques and ideas without digging into the how and why
  • not identifying the most relevant techniques for analysis.

The diagram below shows the difference between surface-level meaning, deep analysis, and deeper analysis.

Shallow and deep meaning in IB English Paper 1 analysis
Using a literary text as an example, you want to explain exactly how (and why) the characters, themes and plot events are established through the author's intentional use of certain literary techniques. The same idea applies to non-literary texts--just the surface-level elements are different.

If you're unsure about how to write strong analysis for IB English, or you're not confident in what to look for in your texts, then you should watch this free 7-minute video lesson from Learn Analysis: Analysis Foundations.

Learn Analysis

The 3 Laws of Analysis (7 min)

No sign up or credit card required.

Essential Techniques you need to know

So how do we write strong analysis that scores highly on Criterion B?

First things first, we need to know how to analyze the major literary and visual techniques (visual for Lang Lit), so that we can quickly find and analyze them under exam stress.

If you're cramming for Paper 1, here are the 7 most important techniques and concepts that you should know for IB English Paper 1. They apply to all text types in Lang Lit as well as Literature:

  • Tone, atmosphere and mood
  • Diction and voice
  • Metaphor, simile, and personification
  • The 4 main types of imagery
  • The 3 types of irony
  • Juxtaposition and contrast
  • Grammatical and structural techniques

There's a bunch more, but these 7 categories make a great starting point. The first step is to learn their names and definitions, and flashcards are an excellent way to do this.

Learn Analysis

45 Technique Flashcards

No sign up or credit card required.

Of course, memorizing isn't enough. We also need to know the common effects and purposes behind each of these core techniques, so that we can build a mental library of the most common ways to deeply analyze each technique. If you don't study each technique in detail, it's much harder to invent deep analysis on-the-spot during an exam.

We go deep into each of the techniques in Learn Analysis. Here are just a couple of them to get you started.

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 essay:

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

A Practical Guide to Writing a Paper 1 essay

An IB English Paper 1 essay 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 typicallyrelated 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!

Paper 1

How to Write a Bullet-proof Paper 1 Thesis

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Choosing the right essay 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 ‚ÄėBig 5'
  • 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 essay.

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.

We go into much more depth and explain it all inside Learn Analysis.

Paper 1

Choosing an optimal essay structure

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Writing body paragraphs: Why and How

Once you've chosen the best structure for your essay 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. We dive deeper into the specific details of how to structure a body paragraph in the guided analysis.

Paper 1

How to Structure a Point

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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. Big mistake!

Before you even begin writing, you should plan out your essay 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 essay before you begin writing.

You can learn how to annotate and plan quickly & efficiently using the flowchart method, which we demonstrate inside Learn Analysis and Paper 1.

In the Pro lesson below, we go into detail on exactly how to plan a Paper 1 essay effectively and efficiently under exam conditions.

Paper 1

Exam Time Management: Never Run Out of Time

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How do I practice for Paper 1?

Most students think that doing a lot of practice papers is the best way to improve in Paper 1. However, there's a much more efficient, targeted method to study for Paper 1.

We work our way up from the smallest, most manageable chunks of analysis to the full Paper 1 exam. It's a good idea to reserve real IB English past papers for 2 months before your final exam so that you don't run out of past papers--they are the best preparation for the final exam. Also, if your analysis skills aren't already strong, doing real past papers is a waste of an excellent exam prep resource.

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