Preparing for the ib exams Paper One: Unseen Commentary

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Preparing for the IB Exams

Paper One: Unseen Commentary

Your task is to write a commentary on a passage of prose or a complete poem that you have never seen before. You will choose to explicate either the prose passage or the poem. You have two hours to write a commentary which reveals how the ideas and the literary conventions (techniques) found in the text work together to create the Dominant Effect (both intellectual and emotional) of the passage on the reader.
To prepare for the commentary, review class notes and handouts provided to you over the year (all are still on my website: IB docs Files section), review your practice commentaries and ask classmates to see theirs. You should also review your notes and handouts about literary conventions, especially those commonly used in poetry and fiction to re-familiarize yourself with the language of commentary. Make an appointment with me if you feel you need it for personal help.
At the exam, plan to use between 15 – 30 minutes (12% – 25% of your time) to read over both passages, choose a passage, reread for understanding, do a close reading, and plan your work. Don’t rush through the close reading. This is when you will find the important patterns that make the work effective.

  1. Read the two passages through to choose the best text for you: which one of these affects me the most? Which one has lots of stuff in it that I can talk about? Which has techniques you can name (or describe) and explain? Which includes ideas you can clearly understand? Which do you like better?
  2. Read your chosen passage closely, noting major techniques, patterns of techniques, ideas, images, forms, etc. Mark up the passage thoroughly. Interacting with the text in this way will make you pay close attention and notice how the piece works. If you choose the poem, pay attention to the sentences when reading for understanding. For both types of passages, don’t forget to pay attention to structure and structural elements. You are allowed to use colors and any kind of pen or pencil on the close reading (but you must write the commentary in blue or black ink)

  3. Plan your commentary by writing an outline. I suggest determining the dominant effect, selecting Key Ideas (at least 3, perhaps more), and determining which techniques help create that key idea, thus contributing to the dominant effect. Reminder: in your introduction, briefly summarize the extract or poem in no more than 3 sentences, assert your dominant effect, and move into your commentary. Be thorough; use quoted text to support your claims. Detail, detail, detail!

  4. Write the commentary you’ve planned in the remaining time. You know how. Go for it. Good luck!

Paper Two: Comparative Essay

Your task is to answer a literary question in a complete essay that compares two of the four novels you’ve studied in the last 4 months (Pride and Prejudice, To the Lighthouse, The Guide, and Never Let Me Go). You will choose one of the three questions from “Prose: the Novel or Short Story” (DO NOT choose from any of the other 3 genres, as you will immediately be marked down!). You will have two hours to write an essay that answers the question by comparing/contrasting and evaluating two of the four novels.

To prepare for the exam, review the 4 novels closely, and focus your study on 3 main areas of questioning:

1. What are the quotations that capture the essence of the characters, setting, themes, and the novel as a whole?

2. What are the major techniques the author uses to create the novel?

3. What fruitful comparisons can I make between these novels? What patterns or groupings will help me compare these novels? Remember that in Paper 2 you must evaluate the effectiveness of the two authors’ use of the convention. I suggest you do this in a fully developed paragraph before the conclusion. Remember to use point by point structure on this essay.


  1. Condense your notes: reduce your writing on key conventions, characters, themes, and so on into single sheets with relevant quotations and particular moments or events in the work/s to illustrate. If you are a visual learner, use color or space to organize your ideas

  2. Revisit the online collaborative study guides you created together for the 4 novels

  3. Use Venn Diagrams to highlight points of difference and overlap between works

  4. Make tables with a list of conventions down the side and titles at the top. Identify places in each work that make use of the convention. Compare ways they are used in a column on the right.

  5. Get a study group together and practice with some of the Paper 2 questions below. Have your novels with you. Find good, specific, detailed examples for your support.

At the exam:

  1. Read all three questions and answer whichever question you want.

  2. Plan your essay for 15 – 30 minutes, which includes:

    1. creating a Thesis which will answer the question by directly comparing and contrasting (similarities AND differences) two of the novels listed above.

    2. pre-writing/outlining. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP…IT WILL KEEP YOU ON TRACK!

3. Write that essay in the time remaining. Don’t forget to leave time to proofread.

Remember the specifics of the nature of the task: ask yourself, “What does IB want from me?”

IB WANTS an answer that is relevant, focused, and answers all part of the question.
IB WANTS a complete essay with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

IB WANTS you to answer the question, take a position, prove your thesis, and develop your answer…just as I do!

IB WANTS you to show that you know how different writers make different choices regarding ideas and techniques, regarding means and effects, they DON’T just want a record of what you’ve read.
IB WANTS rhetorical savvy…that is, good writing.
IB WANTS you to engage in an act of persuasion: I understand this question, I know what it is asking, and I can answer it, confidently, as asked, in a comparative essay.
IB WANTS specific, precise details and evidence, demonstrating your knowledge and understanding of the works
IB WANTS evaluation in more than a sentence…a fully developed idea. The paragraph before the conclusion (fully developed with examples) is a good place for this.
IB WANTS you to use the names of the authors as often as possible: Austen, Woolf, Narayan, and Ishiguro. PUT THEIR NAMES IN YOUR ARGUMENT.

Past Paper 2 Questions

  1. Though plot may be said, at its simplest level, to be a sequence of events, what truly distinguishes prose fiction is the use of narrative disruption: impediment, detour, diversion or digression. In at least two works in your study, how have writers created narrative disruption and to what effect?

  2. "Successful characterization involves taking the reader to the heart, to the inner core of an  imagined person." In at least two works in your study, discuss by what means and with what degree of success authors have tried to "take you to the heart" of their characters.

  3. A moral or a lesson is a common convention in stories. In what ways and for what purposes have at least two of your chosen authors either adhered to or subverted this convention?
  4. Writers must select events and choose a sequence for their presentation. Compare how at least two writers you have studied choose and arrange events, and consider in what ways this affects our understanding of the texts as a whole.

  5. Referring to works by at least two writers you have studied, compare the means by which writers establish mood and atmosphere.

  6. What techniques of characterization do writers use to make what the reader might think of as unpleasant people acceptable, or at least understandable? Compare these techniques and their effects in the works of at least two writers you have studied.

  7. In what ways and for what reasons do at least two of the works studied seek to represent thought or interior consciousness?

  8. "My own preference is for a story that is kaleidoscopic, with a number of different voices rather than one character speaking for the entire novel or short story." Focusing on single and/or multiple voices, discuss the effects of viewpoint in the two or three novels or short stories you have studied.

  9. Analyze the extent to which the reliability of the narrator can affect the reader’s understanding of events inat least two of the works studied.

  10.  “The art of the storyteller is to hold the attention of the reader.” With reference to at least two of the works studied, discuss ways in which the writers have employed conventions that hold the reader’s attention.

  11. Often in a fictional work the author increases interest by accelerating the pace and intensity of events. How effectively has this or other aspects of the pace of a work been used by at least two writers you have studied.

  12. Discuss the ways in which at least two writers you have studied have sought to undermine or interfere with the "voices" of their characters in order to persuade, manipulate or instruct the reader.
  13. How important is the setting of a particular time and/or place to the development of the characters? Refer in detail to at least two novels or short stories.

  14. Writers of fiction do not always relate events in the order in which they seem to occur in the worlds of their novels... Choosing 2 works by writers you have studied (TTL and P&P), show how variations of chronological order can be seen to serve the purposes of the stories.

  15. A writer once said that the reader should be able to return to the first page of a novel…and find resonances of the entire work. With reference to at least two works you have studied (TTL and P&P), consider the importance of the beginning of the work to the work as a whole.

  16. Who tells the story is often an essential feature in how far a reader finds a novel or short story credible, but sometimes it seems not to matter at all. Using two works you have studied (TTL and P&P), say how far the impact of the voice which tells the story is important to the success of the work.

  17. Using at least two works you have studied, show how and to what extent authors have created interesting characters whose thoughts remain hidden.

  18. Discuss the importance of the journey as an organizing structure in at least two works you have studied.

  19. Discuss the means by which authors endeavour to control our sympathy in at least two works you have studied.

  20. Writers often use key events to contribute to the development of central characters. Compare how, and how successfully, this has been done in at least two works you have studied.

  21. Weather is often an important element in the setting of a work. Compare the ways in which writers use weather in at least two works you have studied.

  22. Some works have a single line of action; others involve one or more subplots. Compare the effectiveness of the choices made by at least two writers you have studied in regard to this statement.

Good luck!

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