Sunday, December 8, 2013

How to Kick IB Language A Paper One's Butt by Analyzing a Poem - Part Three: Criterion C

So the hard part is behind him (see the previous posts here and here, and Mitchell's actual poem, ripped to shreds with the coloured pens of the Nerdvark, here), and Nerdvark is ready to move on to kicking butt in Criterion C: Organization, or in other words, planning.
Criterion C: Organization requires the writer to plan.

Many students read a question, write a bunch of stuff, and then look at their watches and figure out that they have nearly twenty minutes left to nap.
Level-7 students do NOT waste
valuable exam time snoozing! 


Good writers follow the writing process, and in order to get five out of five on "Organization," you def. need to go from step one (pre-writing, or reading the text lots of times and trying to figure out what the heck it means) to step two, planning, before moving on to step three, which is actually writing.

A good organizational structure to use for discussing one piece of text is the five-paragraph essay format.  Here we will have:
1.  an introduction with a thesis statement of some kind which gives an overview of your understanding of the poem.
2. at least three PEE paragraphs (if you forgot how to PEE already, re-read this post here), and finally 
3. a conclusion where you summarize your main ideas and leave the reader saying, "Wow."  

As for coherence, you need to make sure your reader can follow your ideas, by using linking words, like in addition and for example, and good topic sentences.  Use step four of the writing process, REVISING, to make sure you have linking words, topic sentences, and enough details to fully develop each of your ideas.

Now find out how to get top marks in Criterion D, and after that, Nardvark will share a top-secret LEVEL-7 ESSAY on Adrian Mitchell's "I Am Tourist!"  Woo!

Thanks for reading.  Feel free to drop me an email or leave a comment below. Unless you are a robot or some sleasebag trying to dredge up business for a shady unrelated site, in which case bugger off.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

How to Kick IB Language A Paper One's Butt by Analyzing a Poem - Part Two: Criterion B

Now Nardvark (via his alter-ego Nerdvark) has ripped a poem to shreds ("I am Tourist" by Adrian Mitchell) and is ready to apply "Criterion B: Appreciation of the writer's choices."

Here "the writer's choices" refers to such features as form, words, literary techniques the author/poet used, and so on.  So in Criterion A you needed to show your understanding, which you arrived at by analyzing the stylistic features.  Now you need to explain HOW your discoveries shaped your understanding, and you need to do this with PEE.

Let's look at an example.

Nardvark taunts Nerdvark with a delicious mayo and pb sammich in an effort to get some quality homework out of him.

Nerdvark realizes that the poem mocks tourists.  To prove it, he makes a point:

In this poem, tourists are conveyed as being stupid.

He gives an example:

For example, the poet makes very little use of punctuation in the poem.

And he explains how his example proves his point, and ultimately answers the question or refers back to his thesis.

Omitting such a basic feature of the language as punctuation makes the poem sound very childish and therefore makes the narrator, the tourist, appear idiotic.  The poet uses this feature to mock the tourist-narrator.

Nerdvark can now go through the rest of the features he found in the same manner.  Enough PEEing, and your "analysis and appreciation of the ways in which language, structure, and technique shape meaning" will be considered very good.  Ta-daa: five out of five on Criterion B!

Now go to "How to Kick IB Language A Paper One's Butt - Part 3: Criterion C" and "How to Kick IB Language A Paper One's Butt - Part 4: Criterion D."

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

How to Kick IB Language A Paper One's Butt by Analyzing a Poem

As promised in the previous post on kicking IB Language A Paper One's butt, Nerdvark has gone at a poem -- in this case "I Am Tourist" by Adrian Mitchell, as seen on last year's May exam -- and peeled its layers.  Here is the poem (in fact, the actual page off the exam) after Nerdvark got through with it (Nard contributed by stamping a purple pig-head at the bottom):
Nerdvark's colour-coded annotations of "I Am Tourist" by Adrian Mitchell, for IB English Paper 1
Are you trying to get level 7 in IB English? I can help you. Click here for more info.

Nerdvark likes to colour-code his analysis.  He reads the poem several times (on Paper One you can dedicate more time to reading/analyzing if you pick the poem, because poems are shorter) and he uses a few colours to underline and write his thoughts/impressions.  For "I Am Tourist" Nerdvark picked green to analyze form, red to analyze literary tools, and blue to analyze words.  He then wrote a few notes to himself under each question.

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Form - Look at whether the poem follows a standard form, which might be a clue to analysis, such as the use of a ballad to tell a story, or free form.  Look at punctuation, which helps you understand meaning.  Look at lines and stanzas - sometimes longer lines or shorter lines emphasize the idea in those lines.  Sometimes different stanzas have different tones or different topics.  Look also at rhyme and rhythm - a rhythmic poem might be mimicking a childen's rhyme, the sound of hoofbeats, music, or heartbeat - the rhythm might be faster for an exciting poem, or slower for a romantic poem.  Also note who the narrator is, the POV, and whether the narrator is talking to someone. (Hint: the narrator is rarely the poet, and sometimes the narrator is talking to him/herself, or someone else other than the reader, such as his/her lover.)

Literary tools - if the poem has a wide range of literary tools, you might want to colour code them, too - pink for imagery including metaphor, purple for sound tools such as onomatopeoia, etc. 

Words - all the words (connotation of words, meaning of words, symbolism, and sounds of words) add up to the poem's atmosphere, mood, tone, and hidden layers of meaning.  You can say the poem has a "lexis" of ... as "I Am Tourist" has a lexis of self-centredness through repetition of the words "I" and "my".  It has a simplistic lexis through words like "cold glass", "blue", "full" and "beautiful."

Thank you, IB Organization, for providing a fun poem by The Dogfather, Adrian Mitchell.  Find out everything about this poet on his website:, which is decorated with blue dogs of peace.

Check back for "How to Kick IB Language A Paper One's Butt - Part 2: Criterion B" coming up soon on this blog!  Meanwhile, if you like my blog, please check out my website,

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoy my blog and/or find it helpful, please take a well-deserved break! Written by K.I. Borrowman

Monday, November 11, 2013

How to Kick IB Language A Paper One's Butt - Part 1: Criterion A

Language A: Literature – Paper One

Guided literary analysis

Nardvark is at it again – cramming for IB exams.  He is determined to get level 7 on his literary paper, but since he snoozed through most of his classes, he has no idea how.  Luckily, Nerdvark is here to help (mostly because Nard refuses to bring him a peanut-butter-and-mayonnaise sandwich until he does)

with ...

How to kick Paper One’s butt (in four parts)

Are you looking for help with your IB English? I can help you. Click here for more info.

Part 1

In Paper One you are given a choice of two passages (texts) to respond to.  One is a poem, and the other is prose.  It might be fiction or non-fiction.  Your response is graded on four criteria.  Criterion A is called “Understanding and Interpretation.”

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How do I interpret a text, you ask?  How do I understand it?  This is why your teacher has been ramming LITERARY TOOLS down your throat for the past two years.  Analysing the tools the writer/poet used will help you get at the deeper meaning of the text.  Nerdvark likes to think of a literary text as an onion.  You can peel away the skin, and underneath there is another layer of onion.  You can peel that away, too, and underneath you will find another layer.  Peel that onion, peel it layer by layer... of course you’ll start to cry but you’ll eventually get to the core of the onion.
A poem is like an onion...

A lot of students shy away from the poem, because they think poetry is “harder” to understand.  Actually, poetry is easier to respond to, because it is rich with literary tools.  In each line of poetry you can find two or three literary tools being used, from sound tools such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme and rhythm, to imagery tools including simile, personification, and metaphor, to the very basic of tools, the word.  Each word the poet chooses is chosen for a reason.  Together, these words give clues to understanding the poem  via the writer’s tone, the poem’s atmosphere, and the many facets or meaning or connotations of the words.

Take a look now at the level descriptors for Criterion A:

The trick is to read the poem several times.  Each time, underline bits and jot down what literary tools are being used and what layers of meaning they reveal.  After several reads, you’ll have a “very good understanding” and be able to write a “sustained” (it’s long and it sticks to the same points) and “convincing” (the reader, aka examiner, is convinced that your interpretation is accurate because of the explanations you use) and you’ll support it with “well-chosen references,” i.e. the best parts of what you underlined. 

If you're not sure of how to structure your response, go with the old standby, the FIVE PARAGRAPH ESSAY.  Make sure you follow the writing process and do lots of PEEing to get full marks in this criterion.

Come back next time for an example of a poem that Nerdvark peeled like an onion (and cried!), and stay tuned for Criteria B, C, and D!  Eventually I’ll show you an example of alevel-7 paper.

Thanks for reading.  Exhausted? Take a study break! Written by K.I. Borrowman

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Writing A* Composition for IGCSE or AS - Descriptive Writing

Nardvark likes to think of himself as a pretty bad-ass writer. He wrote a thrilling adventure story for the IGCSE composition exam, which you can read here and see how it's graded here.

Are you trying to get A* in IGCSE or AS English? I can help you. Click here for more info.

However, Nerdvark thinks he can do better... so it's on!

Nerdvark thinks he can write better....

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Nerdvark chooses "Descriptive writing" question (a) for his challenge piece:
Descriptive writing questions from 2012 IGCSE English Language May/June writing paper

Nerdvark knows that to get top marks, he must follow the mark scheme for CONTENT AND STRUCTURE:


More on marking next time. For now let's see what Nerdvark writes:

After six days shipwrecked and living at the mercy of the tumultuous sea alone in a tiny raft, the hard weedy sand under my feet was as welcome as a Starbucks café. I never thought I would do it, but as soon as I had crawled out of the water, I dropped to my knees and kissed the white salty beach below me.

Tiny black crabs scuttled for shelter under the sun-bleached rocks that encircled the small cove I had landed in. From the position of my shadow and the glaring sun overhead, I judged it to be mid day, though the days on the raft had started to stretch into an unimaginable epoch. Exhausted and relieved, with the sound of the gentle sea behind me and the breezes gusting through the palm trees in front lulling me, I merely sat on my knees and took it all in.

Up above the small beach I sat upon was a dark rocky horseshoe-shaped outcropping; it would provide a good shelter. Beyond that, a dense forest of palms and other fruit trees swayed lackadaisically in the island breezes. The bright yellow dates hanging in great bunches beckoned me, making my mouth water with the thought of their flavour - heavy, robust, sweet dates, hanging there like beacons.

Just then the tranquility was shattered by a whizzing that shot past my ear. Was it an insect? Another whiz and a stinging sharp pain in my thigh - instinctually I smacked at it, but it was no wasp. My hand knocked a home-made dart out of my leg, which was followed by a rivulet of blood.

Shooting my eyes around among the trees and rocks, I could not see my assailants, but no more darts came. I did, however, hear voices speaking in a strange language made up of sounds I did not recognise. The gurgles and booms they spoke sounded like many wounded soldiers crying out in a WWII hospital dorm.

My vision was becoming blurred and my ears muffled, but at last they approached me, the people of this island. A small gang of perhaps ten men, dark skinned like myself, but less hairy; tall, lanky, with long legs and arms that swung down like tree branches, their bodies bare except for animal-skin loin cloths and painted red ochre and white ash geometric designs on their chests and faces, and vicious pointed bones jabbed through their ear lobes and noses.

As the apparent leader, with a mass of black feathers woven into his shock of ruddy hair, poked at me with a pointed stick, I passed out.

Nerdvark wrote 435 words in 1 hour (for AS students, it would have to be 600 - 900 words), including taking time to follow the five-step writing process:
  •  pre-write - read the question carefully, 
  • do a quick plan (Nerdvark did a spider diagram to make sure he was mentioning all five senses in his descriptive piece, and using a very short time span. You'll notice that he also paid attention to atmosphere, and has a switch part way through, from a pleasant atmosphere of a welcoming island where he feels relieved to be safe, to a dangerous island where he is under attack, but there is a bit of foreshadowing in the diction at the beginning of the passage. All this comes from planning.), 
  • draft (Nerdvark wrote like crazy for about 45 minutes without stopping - he knew what he was aiming for because he read the question carefully and did a good plan, and he knew he'd have time to revise and edit before handing in his paper.)
  • revise (Nerdvark ended up with too many words at first, in other words he was wordy, and had to revise it to be more succinct and more clear. He also tends to be a bit repetitive. You'll notice that the marking guide specifically mentions not to be repetitive. Don't be repetitive. Nerdvark crossed out the repeated bits when he revised the piece.), 
  • and a final edit for errors (in the marking guide it says "linguistically strong and accurate"; i.e. no errors.)
For more on the writing process, click here: THE WRITING PROCESS

For more on descriptive writing, click here: FIVE KINDS OF IMAGERY

Nardvark has forgotten that they are having a competition and after reading Nerdvark's entry, asked if he could have his iPad and all his leftovers from the fridge if he doesn't survive the assault.

THANKS FOR READING! You've studied hard... time for a study break! Written by K.I. Borrowman

Sunday, June 9, 2013

How to Get Top Marks for Composition - Narrative in IGCSE English

Nardvark is quaking with fear. He has been practising his writing and thinks he can write a pretty good narrative (that's a story, if you weren't sure), but will the examiner agree?
An exciting illustration
 from Nar's story

Let's take a look at the marking guide and find out! If you want to read Nardvark's story, Attack of the Giant Anteater from Mars first, click here: Nardvark's story.

IGCSE compositions are marked out of 25. You can get 13 for "Content and Structure." Remember you have six choices on the Composition (writing) paper, from three different types of task: Argumentative/Discursive, Descriptive, or Narrative. To get top marks in "Content and Structure" for Narrative writing, you need to produce writing that fulfills this:
"Band 1" or 11 to 13 out of 13 for Narrative Writing
Let's look at this in some detail:

COMPLEX - It has many parts; it is complicated. They go on to suggest that you may include "devices" such as sub-texts (subplots, or a minor plot running alongside the main plot -- in Nardvark's story, his main plot was that he fought the Giant Anteater from Mars. The subplot was that he was struggling with feelings of social inadequacy, due to people always running away from him, screaming), flashbacks (in the middle of the story, you take the reader back in time to tell part of the back-story) and time lapses (Your story doesn't have to be exactly linear or chronological. You can jump ahead or backwards. That makes it more complex.)

COGENT - It is persuasive; it is reasonable. Ok, maybe a giant anteater from Mars isn't reasonable, but Nardvark gave details to persuade the reader's mind that it was possible: a hovering space-craft with red dust on it, people screaming in terror, a description of the creature to allow the reader to build up a persuasive image in his/her mind...

BALANCED - Give equal attention to developing character, setting, and plot. Voice, style, dialogue, etc are important but without the above, you don't have a story. Balance your beginning, middle, and end -- too abrupt of an ending can be a let down. 

CLIMAX - The events of the story lead up to this moment. In a romance, it is the moment when Hugh Grant's character confesses his love for Julia Roberts.  In an action/adventure, it is when the hero blasts the elusive enemy to smithereens and saves the universe.  In a sports story, it is when the unlikely underdogs make the final play in the last second of the match and carry their club to a one-point victory over the league champions.  You get the picture.  You need to build it up and make it unpredictable and exciting. Nothing worse than an excellent build-up with Then my mom was shaking me... "Wake up, Harold; it's time for school!" It was all a dream. as the final paragraph. Puh-lease! It's a fictional story; we know. Let us indulge in your fantastical musings for the moment without ruining it, will ya? 

You also get up to 12 marks for "Style and Accuracy." This is the same for all kinds of composition in IGCSE English.
Style and Accuracy marking grid - Band 1 out of 12
CONSISTENT - You keep the same style, vocabulary, point of view, etc throughout the whole story.

FLUENT/ACCURATE - You don't make errors in tenses, spelling, punctuation, etc.  (spend a few minutes re-reading your work, correcting errors, before you hand your paper in. Everyone makes mistakes. That's why newspapers have editors.)

AUDIENCE - A story is written to be entertaining. Therefore your audience wants to be entertained, and you should write in an entertaining way.  That might mean you are writing it in an amusing/comical way, a thrilling/intense way, an eerie/horrific way, etc; as long as it is consistent and suitable for the content of the story, you need to show that you are aware of your audience.

AMBITIOUS - Don't describe something as 'big' or 'nice' when there are so many more effective words you can use! Better yet, throw in a few literary tools.

Thanks for reading! Phew! Nardvark says it's time for a study break!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Writing Narrative Compositions for IGCSE and AS Exams

Nardvark's English Language exams are coming up, which include the daunting task of writing a composition. 

Are you looking for help with your IGCSE or AS English? I can help you. Click here for more info.

Nardvark's first obstacle is understanding the difference between what they mean by "descriptive" and "narrative" writing.

Always a pal, the Nerdvark explains: 

Descriptive: They don't want you to tell a story, just describe something using lots of imagery, and appealing to all five senses.  

  • If it helps, imagine you're sitting or standing in one place, and describe everything that you see/hear/smell/feel/taste.  
  • You can pretend it is part of a longer story or a novel, guide book, etc if you think it is bizarre to just be describing something for no reason.  
  • More on DESCRIPTIVE WRITING coming up in a future blog post.  For now, if you like, look here for tips on using imagery.
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Narrative: They want you to tell a story.  A story needs certain elements:

  • Plot - think of it as conflict, which is usually labeled "Man vs. [something]" ... "Man vs. Man", for example, The Dark Knight is Batman vs. The Joker. "Man vs. Nature", for example Twister is Bill and Jo Harding vs. a big tornado.  "Man vs. Self", for example The Lion King is Simba vs himself as he struggles to come to terms with his place as the king of pride rock.  "Man vs. Society", for example Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen vs. the dystopian society she lives in.  "Man vs. Machine", for example I, Robot, short stories with various protagonists vs. various robots.  Learn more about conflict at Wikipedia. Alternately, you could think of the plot as a problem and a solution.
  • Characters - A short story usually has only one or two.  Develop them with visual detail and thought or action to show personality.
  • Setting - A short story takes place somewhere. Develop the setting using imagery.
  • Dialogue - Bring your story to life with some characters talking to each other, or by having your main character thinking to him/herself (internal monologue.)  
  • Show, don't tell.  Reading a story should be like experiencing a moment.  Here's a tip - imagine that you have a magical camera on your shoulder, as you live through the events of the story.  The magical camera can pick up everything, not just video and audio, but even smells, tastes, tactile images and feelings, too.  Write down everything that the magical camera records.  Oh, but delete the boring bits. 
Let's have a look at an example.

On Nardvark's composition test, he chose the narrative.  First he read the question carefully so he would not screw up, and then did a quick plan:
Nardvark's prewriting and plan.

Now, here's Nardvark's story.  

Giant Anteaters from Mars
It was a typical Saturday.  I rolled out of bed at the crack of noon and got to gaming.  My tummy started rumbling so hard that I thought the tremors would shake my laptop right off it.  I realised I’d have to go to Megamart and get some doughnuts and Hi-C.  
As I passed, children dropped their tricycles and ran into their houses crying.  “Mommy, it has a long nose and a pointy horn!  What is it?”
I arrived at the shop and held the door open for a woman with handfuls of carrier bags.  She took several steps back, a horrified look on her face.
“Ma’am,” I said.
She gulped.
Shrugging, I entered the Megamart, heading straight to the bakery aisle.  The other shoppers scattered, leaving a mess of aromatic baked goods in their wake.  I selected a dozen assorted doughnuts.  That would keep me going for the day.
Next I would need some beverages.  As I reached the fizzy-drinks cooler, I heard a scream of terror.  I didn’t think much of it, since there was usually a lot of screaming going on around me.  A short, fat guy with a pointed horn usually has that effect on people.  I started filling my basket with bubbly drinks in various fruity flavours.
When I turned toward the checkout counters, contemplating whether to use the self-checkouts or try my luck with an actual person, I was horrified by what I saw.
Something was eating the customers.
Shoppers were running about like marbles in a bucket, with panicked faces.  One skater boy, his baggy sweatshirt torn down the middle, ran right past me shouting, “Yo, dude, a giant anteater thing with a long tongue! It’s eating everyone, OMG!”
Not wanting to be eaten, I dropped my basket and ran for the door.  Just outside, however, hovered a bus-sized beat-up craft covered in red dust – Mars! 
Just then I saw it: a fat, green bald thing with no ears, eyes, or nose; just two tall antennae and a long tube protruding from its head.  With its slick yellow tongue, it was grabbing the screaming shoppers like they were ants.
There are many things about the Nardvark that nobody knows.  One is that I, too, have a long tongue.  I realised that only  I could stop the Giant Anteater from Mars from eating any more of my neighbours.
The next time his tongue came out, I stuck mine out.  Our tongues got hopelessly tangled, and he turned towards me wailing.  I rammed my horn right between his feelers.
The people of Megamart cheered, “Oh, Nardvark, you’re my hero!” 
I instantly became the subject of many tweets and instagrams.  I was great.

Nard vs GAFM

Not including the title, Nardvark wrote 447 words; perfect for IGCSEs but you'd need to add a few hundred more words for AS.  You will notice that there are no errors in this story. That is because Nardvark made sure he had time in his hour to revise and edit his work.

For more on the five steps of the writing process, which you should always follow, click here.

Finally, Nardvark's composition is ready to hand in.  It will be sealed in an envelope and sent overseas for marking.  Click here to find out more about how this paper will be marked.

Thanks for reading.  If you're tired from all that studying, why not take a study break? Written by K.I. Borrowman

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hooking and Wowing your Reader - Take your IB, AS, or IGCSE Exam Essay from Good to Awesome

Nardvark is following the five-paragraph essay structure for his argumentative and literary essays, but still getting mediocre grades. Part of the problem is that his essays start like this:

This essay will talk about blah blah blah yadda yadda

BORING!  Come on.  Your average examiner reads and grades about 200 essays.  Each time he or she reads an essay that begins with those words, a puppy chasing a butterfly falls off a cliff.

Then, after reading the same three PEE paragraphs about the same three points that the last fifty-seven essays made, what if the the examiner then has to read the words...

In my opinion, this is a very good poem and it really made me think.

That's how Nardvark finished his last literary essay. A litter of kittens following a rainbow got blown to bits by a Cambodian land mine when the examiner read that. 

"I know I'm supposed to HOOK my reader and leave my reader with a WOW," you're saying.  "But how?"

The first sentence of any piece of writing should hook your reader like a fish hook catches a fish, with a tasty little worm, then draw it into the boat (or in this case, essay) where it lies flopping and gasping for water until it dies (or in this case, finishes reading the essay.)

The last sentence should leave your reader, as he or she finishes reading and begins considering what grade to give you, thinking, "WOW! That was certainly a great essay!"  If the beginning of the essay is good, the middle is ok, and the end sucks, the reader is going to be disenchanted by the time he or she is ready to start grading. So the last sentence should be awesome. 

The following methods can be used in HOOKS and WOWS, both:

1 Quotation: Can you think of any famous person who pertains to the topic? Can you remember anything he or she said related to the topic? If you are writing a literary essay, a quotation right out of the piece of literature can be used, but a quotation from another piece of literature by the same writer or even another writer could hook your reader equally well, or even an non-literary quotation that draws the reader into the topic you're exploring. For example, try starting an essay about Miranda, the only female character in Shakespeare's "The Tempest," with the following:
Marilyn Monroe once said, “I don't mind living in a man's world, as long as I can be a woman in it.”

2 Rhetorical Question: That would be a question that's not there to be answered; it's merely meant to make the reader think.  If you're writing an essay about the ideal community, you might use the following:
A sky gray with pollution, cars and SUVs whizzing around like torpedoes, glass towers instead of green parks; is this the ideal community you want to raise your children in?

3 Dramatic or Controversial Statement: Grab your reader's attention by saying something they may not like the sounds of, or may not agree with.  For example, you might start or end an essay in which you are asked to analyze Death in Emily Dickenson's "Because I Could not Stop for Death" like this:
Be wary if someone appears polite and civil -- he might be about to offer a ride you don't want to take.

4 Anecdote: A very short story about someone, even yourself, that pertains to the topic, is a personal way to draw your reader in. This is where it becomes valuable to listen to your classmates during class discussions, and read their tweets. Maybe you don't have a story for the topic at hand, but chances are, someone you know does. For a discursive essay entitled, "Good leaders are born, not made," you might start with this story:
The coach was late to the last practice before the season's final match. The younger players were running around like wild animals and the older boys were lurking by the fence, laughing. Bobby (not his real name) strode out onto the pitch and started shouting like a PE teacher. Within five minutes, he had the whole team motivated and inspired to spend their last hour of practice time working on skills instead of wasting time, and the next day they won the match.

So, we can see that hooking the reader, like hooking a big shiny fish, is important, and not too difficult.  Your WOW can tie into your hook, or it can be a separate entity. Both HOOK and WOW should relate to the topic of your essay.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Top Three AS English Language and Literature Exam Tips

Nardvark is starting to lose his kitty-litter. Exams are coming up, and right about now he is willing to try anything to cram that last bit of knowledge into his head so he will pass: sleeping with the AS poetry anthology under his pillow, downloading the free first pages of essays, staying awake during English class...

Tired of listening to him wail all night, Nerdvark has compiled a list of three handy tips for him:

1.       For each of the four exam papers, you only have an hour to do your best work. Don’t panic! Dedicate the first few minutes to reading the question and planning carefully, so that you will come out with an appropriate answer. Remember:

  • A narrative is a story – it has characters, setting, plot, and dialogue. A descriptive piece doesn’t need any of the elements of narrative, just really vivid description that uses imagery and appeals to the five senses. For more on using imagery, click here.
  • An argumentative piece should very persuasively convince the reader of your side of an argument, presenting the other side only to counter-argue. A discursive piece will explore both sides of an issue, but you will still be in agreement with one side and against the other.
  • Literature question (a) usually requires you to discuss a general aspect of the literature you have studied: themes, characters, symbols and motifs, literary techniques, plot, setting, etc. Figure out what specific aspect of the work or works you are being asked to discuss and decide what points you want to make before beginning to write.
  • Literature question  (b) usually asks you a specific question about a passage, such as how the writer presents the setting or what literary tools the poet uses to create a certain atmosphere. You must form a detailed answer to this question, not write a general commentary on the passage, and you must mention other parts of the work (for drama and novel) or other poems you have studied (for poetry) to get good marks on question (b).

2.       Save some time at the end of each paper to go back and re-check your work. Write on alternate lines (double-space your writing) so you will have space to add stuff if you think of something at that point, or re-write awkward sentences, misspelled words, etc.

3.       Practice makes perfect! Whatever works of literature you are studying, you can find exam questions for them on online study sites like Sparknotes and Shmoop.  Don’t just read the sample answers; actually time yourself for an hour: plan, write your best response, revise and edit it. Then compare the sample answer to yours – did you think of all kinds of good stuff?  Did you come up with some stuff that Sparknotes didn’t? Then you’re awesome! Remember, you need to have original ideas and personal responses to get a high grade in AS. Your AS textbook has lots of practice questions for the narrative/descriptive and argumentative/discursive tasks. 

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