Paper 1

This paper consists of three questions. You are required to answer the first question and then either the second or third question.

In each question, there are two parts. In part (a), you are required to write a commentary based on the passage given. In part (b), you have to produce a piece of directed writing based on the passage.

So, without further ado, let’s go through how to answer a Paper 1 question, step by step.

Part (a)

1. Carefully read the description of the text and the question that follows. This is extremely important because sometimes the question only states ‘Comment on the style and language of the passage’ while other times, it states ‘Comment on the ways in which language and style are used to convey the writer’s feelings/portray a place, person or thing/engage the attention of its audience’ etc.

In the second case, you need to be slightly more focused and only choose literary techniques that will help you explain how ‘language and style are used to convey the writer’s feelings/portray a place’ etc.

2. Read the whole passage once or twice to understand the content and then a couple more times to pick up relevant literary techniques. (Click here for a list of literary techniques!) You may underline them with a pencil if you want but remember to erase all of it in the end.

Also remember to pay as much attention to the ending of the passage as the beginning. There have been many Examiner Reports which have mentioned that candidates spend too much time commenting on the beginning of the text and ignore many effective techniques in the ending. In addition, titles and subtitles should also be taken into account.

Be reminded that you don’t need to talk about EVERY literary technique used; examiners don’t expect you to do so, and you certainly won’t have the time to. So, choose the juiciest, most powerful, most relevant ones.

3. The next step is to choose how you want to approach the commentary. You could either write one paragraph about one language device and the next paragraph about another, and so on, or you could comment about the passage as it progresses – talk about the devices used in the beginning, then the middle and then the end. The second approach is better if the provided text has some sort of ‘development’, e.g., contrasting weather conditions or settings.

4. Now that you have chosen what you want to comment on and how you want to comment on it, make a rough plan. This will help you to structure your commentary and you will be less likely to get ‘stuck’ in the middle, wondering what to write about.

Your plan could go something like this:

1. Intro: a few sentences to describe the overall text

2. Para 1: imagery

3. Para 2: tone

and so on.

(Steps 1-4 can take upto 15 minutes, but don’t worry – if you perform these little tasks well, you can still write an excellent commentary in the remaining time.)

5. It’s time to begin writing your commentary!

First of all, you need an introduction. This should be brief and give only an overview of the text you’re reviewing. You shouldn’t start analysing just yet.

Also, don’t waste time talking about the genre and audience (unless this is absolutely crucial to explaining the effects of language or if the question asks for the effect on the audience, for example).

In addition, make sure to use modal verbs (could, might, should, would) and phrases like ‘appears’ or ‘seems to be’. For instance, you could say ‘The writer appears to be describing the difficulties he faced during his childhood which might have helped shape him into the person he is today.’ This is because we are only trying to interpret what the writer is saying; we do not know EXACTLY what he or she has in mind and, therefore, we do not want to sound conclusive.

(Other phrases you could use are: ‘paints a picture’, ‘implies’, ‘conjures up a sense of’, ‘reflects’, ‘portrays’, ‘conveys’, ‘indicates’, ‘suggests’ etc.)

6. Next, you need to begin explaining the effects of your chosen literary techniques. For this, you need to first make a statement, support it with a quote and then comment on why the author may have used a particular technique. (If you find this hard to remember, The Cambridge AS and A Level English Language Coursebook calls this the ‘PQC structure’, or the Point, Quote, Comment structure). For example, “The author seems to paint a rather frightening picture of Ms. Johnson: ‘Her wild, orange hair framed her face like a lion’s mane.’ Use of the phrases ‘wild’ and ‘lion’s mane’ may create a sense of fear and danger in the reader’s mind.”

Now, all you need to do is follow the same PQC stucture for the rest of your chosen techniques. However, there is the possibility that this will make your writing seem very mechanical and, frankly, boring. Therefore, to change it up a little bit, you could switch around the ‘P’, ‘Q’ and ‘C’, i.e. mention the quote first, then make a point and finally produce an explanatory comment.

A second solution would be to use a variety of conjunctive devices. A useful mnemonic for this is ‘FANBOYS’ – ‘For’, ‘And’, ‘Nor’, ‘But’, ‘Or’, ‘Yet’, and ‘So’. You can also include words such as, but not limited to, ‘moreover’, ‘furthermore’, ‘however’, ‘despite’, ‘in addition’ etc. These will help provide a ‘flow’ to your writing.

Finally, here are some rules to remember while explaining the effects of language devices:

  • Embed quotations in your analysis but don’t use them in place of your own words. Take this sentence as an example: “The young girl is ‘beautifully petite’ and ‘is dressed impeccably’ which shows that…” Here, I’m using the writer’s words (the ones between inverted commas) in place of my own which gives the impression that I’m summarising or paraphrasing rather than analysing. Instead, you could write this: ‘The writer seems to be attracted to the young girl which is suggested in his description of her appearance – ‘beautifully petite’.’
  • Only comment on a language technique if it has a significant effect. Do not identify a simile simply to show that you know it is a simile.
  • Once you have talked about a certain technique, you don’t have to mention it again when it comes up in another area of the text (unless it produces a different effect in which case you definitely must talk about it!)
  • Don’t use vague, generalised comments such as ‘This makes the reader want to read more of the text.’ This is because it can be applied to almost any passage!

7. And, that’s it! You don’t necessarily need a conclusion in your commentary if your final paragraph sounds, well, final.

8. Make sure to read and review your commentary when you’re done!

Part (b)

In this part, you are required to either continue the original passage or write another piece that is similiar to it. Your work should be about 120-150 words.

1. Look at some of the literary techniques used in the passage and choose a few that you want to include in your writing.

2. Make a plan. You know why.

3. Get writing!

Make sure that you:

  • use the language (not the exact words but ones with a similar ‘feel’) and style of the passage.
  • do NOT lift directly from the text.
  • use proper and consistent tense (another area where  candidates need improvement, according to many Examiner Reports).
  • read it to yourself (especially if you’re asked to continue a passage, reading your work as a continuation of the original text will help you  determine whether your writing style and language mimic those of the author).

4. You’re done!