IB English Paper 1

IB English Paper 1 can be an anxiety-inducing experience that everyone must face. It can be especially intimidating because you have no idea what topic you’ll be writing about for your final exam, and your grades depend on it!

To prepare yourself, it’s crucial to have a solid understanding of the exam structure and strategies for approaching a Paper 1 in general. If you want to fully grasp the IB English Paper 1 guided analysis, then this blog post is perfect for you.

In 2014, Jackson Huang, an IB 45 graduate, achieved a perfect 20/20 score on his final Paper 1. In this guide, he will share his secrets on how to conquer the IB English Paper 1, so you can achieve the same success! 💪

Topics included

  1. What is a Paper 1?
  2. Choosing an analytical topic
  3. The correct approach to analysis
  4. The importance of the thesis
  5. Developing an effective commentary structure
  6. Structuring your body paragraphs
  7. The benefits of planning ahead

What is a Paper 1 exam?

In a Paper 1 exam, you are given two unidentified texts, both ranging from 1 to 2 pages in length.

Text Types

For IB English Literature SL and HL:

  • You’ll be presented with two different literary text types, which may include poems, short extracts from fiction and non-fiction prose (regular writing from novels and short stories), and extracts from plays (including stage directions and dialogue).

For IB English Language and Literature SL & HL:

  • The texts can come from a variety of categories, including magazines, editorials, speeches, interview scripts, instruction manuals, cartoon strips, and much more. Be prepared to be surprised! 😂

So, you’re given two unseen texts. What’s your next step?

For SL students, you’re in luck: You have to write a commentary guided analysis on just one of the two texts within 1 hour and 15 minutes. The exam is out of 20 marks.

For HL students, your task is a bit more challenging: You have to write a guided analysis on each of the texts within 2 hours and 15 minutes. Good luck and have fun!

Wait, what’s a “guided analysis”?

At the end of each text, the IB English exam includes a short, open-ended question about the text. Here’s an example:

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

I suggest most students use this guiding question as the “entry point” for their essay. However, you are also allowed to discuss anything else because the IB states 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’re truly confused by it and feel confident in an alternative focus for the current text.

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

Imagine someone asked you to talk about a novel you recently read during your commute to school (obviously a joke, who reads novels on the bus?). What would you discuss?

Immediately, a few crucial aspects should come to mind:

  1. Characters are usually the core of any story. They should definitely be analyzed.
  2. Stories often revolve around central ideas, or themes. For example, if you’re discussing Harry Potter and don’t mention anything about wizardry, you’re neglecting a vital part of the book!
  3. Lastly, you need to consider the events that take place in the text, also known as the plot.

By addressing characterisation, themes, and plot, you provide a holistic commentary on the text, which is exactly what we want.

But that’s only half of the story.

In IB English, your guided analysis must dive deeper than just describing characters, themes, and plot, which represent 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 crucial in non-literary texts like advertisements, infographics, and articles. However, the same principles still apply!

The IB wants you to delve into the text and answer two key questions:

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

These questions are at the heart and soul of analysis. In this blog post, we’ll focus on the broader aspects of Paper 1 as a whole.

Your ONE mission in Paper 1

Let’s quickly review what you need to accomplish in a Paper 1.

  1. 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. Explain how and why these aspects were achieved by the writer or artist.

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

A Practical Guide to Writing a Paper 1 Commentary

An IB English Paper 1 commentary consists of three main parts:

  1. An introduction paragraph: It includes a thesis and an outline of your points.
  2. A body (usually 3 paragraphs): Each paragraph focuses on one of your points.
  3. A conclusion: It wraps up the essay.

Choosing a thesis

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

This thesis is also the main argument you need to prove in your essay, and it’s typically related to the guiding question. The examiner can gauge the strength of your analytical skills based on your subject statement alone, so it must be well-written!

Here’s an example to distinguish between a good and bad thesis:

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

Good thesis:
“In the poem, the poet uses hyperbole to criticize masculinity as a restrictive social norm that inhibits the natural expression of emotion.”

Can you identify which subject statement is better? If so, do you understand why? It’s important to be able to articulate your reasoning.

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 essential to select the most appropriate structure for your commentary in your Paper 1 guided analysis.

You can organize your essay by:

  • Ideas or themes
  • Techniques
  • Sections (e.g., stanza by stanza for poems)
  • The ‘Big 5’
  • And other acronyms that English teachers love to invent.

Criterion C for IB English Paper 1 is Organization, which accounts for 5 out of 20 marks. So, it’s in your best interest to choose a suitable structure for your commentary.

I suggest staying away from the Big 5 because analysis involves examining the causal interplay between techniques, stylistic choices, audience, tone, and themes. The Big 5 and SPECSLIMS artificially compartmentalize these components. Trust my advice or face the consequences! (Notice that rhyme?)

In my opinion, there are only two types of structures that are most conducive to achieving a 7: Ideas/themes and Sections. Embrace this advice. If your teacher insists on other structures, make sure you understand why it’s recommended.

Writing body paragraphs: Why and How

Once you’ve chosen the best structure for your commentary and determined your thesis as the central argument, the rest of your essay should focus on proving this argument.

How do you accomplish this? By examining individual points. These smaller points support specific aspects of the overall thesis.

Each body paragraph aims to prove a separate, smaller aspect of the bigger thesis. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You need to piece together smaller, manageable pieces to build the larger argument (i.e., the thesis).

In essence, this means writing 2, 3, or 4 points, each of which fits into 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 serves as evidence.
  2. Analysis of language and literary techniques. Use specific quotes from the text to explain how and why the writer employed them to convey their message.

Of course, this is just a brief overview of how to write a high-quality body paragraph. For a more comprehensive understanding, 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 vital part of IB English Paper 1 is not the analysis itself (well, it is, but not entirely). The part you need to get right from the start is the plan. Many students struggle with effective planning, get flustered during the exam and skip planning altogether, or don’t even bother because they think they’re above it. HUGE MISTAKE!

Before you begin writing, you should meticulously plan out your commentary. Without a clear roadmap for every part of your analysis, you’ll lose track of time, thought, and sanity.

Learn how to efficiently annotate and plan using the flowchart method inside Analysis Simplified. It will empower you to walk out of your Paper 1 practice, mock, and final exams feeling like a powerful Spartan, triumphing over IB English (and its daunting challenges)!

For the complete article, including images, please visit Quill And Fox.