How to answer Paper 1 guiding questions for IB English Literature SL and Lang Lit SL

Answering IB English guiding questions

If you’re short on time, here are the two most important questions answered for you.

Q: Do I have to answer every guiding question?

Answer: Yes, all guiding questions must be answered. You only receive two guiding questions, so it’s not difficult.

Q: If I do have to answer them, how should I best answer the guiding questions?

Answer: Contrary to what many IB English students think, guiding questions should be answered implicitly within the points of your commentary and not explicitly (i.e., not in the form of direct answers).

If you’ve got a couple minutes, keep reading.

SL guiding questions are useful and need to be answered. This guide will explain how to take advantage of guiding questions while answering them properly.

How to use guiding questions to your advantage

Use the set of guiding questions as a compass.

By reading through the guiding questions before the text itself, you can orientate your interpretive lens before you’ve even read the text itself. So spend 10 seconds thinking about each guiding question before reading the text. The benefit of this approach is that you will be able to better avoid incorrect interpretations of the text.

How to satisfy the requirements of guiding questions

Before we jump into an example of how to answer guiding questions, let’s first debunk two myths.

Myth 1.  I should rely entirely on the guiding questions to inform my interpretation.

This is not true. The guiding questions only give you a general idea of what’s going on in the text. The guiding questions do not provide you with the most insightful ideas that will get you a 7; you have to find these on your own.

The purpose of guiding questions is to “guide” you. That doesn’t mean “holding your hand and telling you the answer”. There is usually much more in the text than the guiding questions let on. To achieve a 6 or a 7, you will have to go beyond the basic interpretations provided by the guiding questions and instead rely on your own independent analysis.

Use the guiding questions to ‘show you the way’, but do not rely on them as the sole oracles of Truth.

Myth 2. I should devote each point in my commentary to answering each guiding question.

Wrong again. I know that some teachers advocate this method, but I honestly don’t understand why. First up, there are only two guiding questions for any SL text, so that automatically means your commentary is restrained to 2 body paragraphs, which is stupid.

Do not blindly use the guiding questions as the points of your body paragraphs. This is lazy, and you will not receive high marks for Organisation (Criterion C).

Here’s how you should answer guiding questions instead. When you plan your commentary, you will have 3 to 4 ideas (ideally). In each of these planned points, you will write down the quotes you intend to use, as I explained in my guide on how to plan a commentary. Now, the only extra thing you have to do is to make sure that you address each guiding question once, and only where the flow of the argument relates to the guiding question. In other words, pick the appropriate place to answer the guiding questions.

Let’s look at an example to show you how it’s done in practice.

Worked example

First, we have a guiding question that we need to answer:

Guiding Question: “How is personification used to portray the character’s state of mind?”

We also have a clear plan of ideas that we want to analyse in our commentary:

  1. Characterisation of the Andrew’s anxiety.
  2. Andrew’s anxiety as a source of tension in his marriage.
  3. The foreshadowed failure of Andrew’s marriage.

Out of these three ideas, the first point on the characterisation of Andrew’s anxiety is clearly the best place to answer the guiding question because the shared overarching idea of characterisation. It would make sense to answer the guiding question in point 2 or point 3 because the ideas don’t mesh well.

To elegantly answer a guiding question, you need to answer the guiding question where it is most relevant.

Here is a toy example of how I would incorporate an implicit answer of the guiding question into my first point:

[…] The writer further conveys the anxiety that Andrew experiences through the use of personification in line 5, in which the frenzied movement of the protagonist’s fingers is compared to the shaking movement of a “dying, freezing man” […]

More analysis required, but the link to the guiding question has already been made in the first sentence of the analysis.

A note on style

When you’re answering a guiding question, the trick is to not think of it as a guiding question. Just analyse a piece of evidence as you normally would, and try to link the idea, effect, meaning or purpose to the guiding question.

Most importantly, do not ever mention something along the lines of: “In the guiding question…”. Pretend that guiding questions don’t exist when you answer them. The key is to make the answer as smooth and integrated in your commentary as possible.

A note on how much to write

As seen in the example above, you don’t need to spend a whole paragraph of your commentary answering the guiding questions. Pick a quote, analyse it as usual while linking it to the guiding question, finish it and move on. That’s all there is to it.

Now, some IB English teachers suggest that the guiding questions should be the actual points of your essay. I strongly advise against this approach. As I explained before, this approach leads to bad organisation and the deduction of marks in Criterion C, because it’s lazy to just rip off the guiding questions as your commentary structure. Also, guiding questions don’t flow from one to the next–they aren’t designed to.

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.

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