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The IB English Language A: Literature (IB Literature) course is like a University literature course. Teachers may ask students to read works (works of literature can be books, collections of poems, collections of stories, or plays) over the holidays, or set deadlines to read each work twice. It is important to meet every deadline and treat the teacher’s deadlines as a minimum requirement. Here are four top tips for students who want to get their best score.

TIP 1: Choose easy and fun books

Choosing the thickest works will not help. Because students must read and reread a work, they should choose works that are easy and fun. Read the first page of the work before choosing it. Make sure the topic and style are enjoyable and don’t judge a book by its cover! Primary school teachers teach readers to follow the “five-finger rule” and this rule is still a good guideline to tell if a book is too hard: if one page (usually 200 words) has more than 5 impossible-to-understand words, then the book is too hard. Students should tell their teacher when a work is too hard, and pick 3 easy and fun works to prepare for the exam.

TIP 2: Read works by the same author and from the same time and place

The IBO tells teachers to choose works that represent “as wide a variety of literary forms, places, times and voices as possible.” Like the reading deadlines, the teacher will set a minimum requirement for reading. In order to understand the author, it is helpful to read works by the same author or from the same time and place. This is especially true because the IB emphasizes understanding an author’s choices. For example, a teacher might assign The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, but no other works by Mishima. An ambitious student can ask for permission to read The Temple of the Golden Pavilion as a free-choice work (it is thematically similar). On their own time, the student can also read Sun and Steel, Mishima’s autobiographical essay.

TIP 3: Make annotating a habit!

A person’s fluent reading level is determined by how much they have read in the past. With practice, one’s reading level increases very slowly. There is another way a student can raise their fluent reading level: annotating. It is a good idea for IB literature students to learn this skill early. As Adler and Van Doren say in their classic book on the subject (How To Read A Book), “Intelligent note taking is probably as hard as intelligent reading.” Students should start annotating their reading books ASAP, and habitually annotate every literary work they read. How can a person tell if their annotations are good? Adler and Van Doren write that annotations should help your understanding on three levels:

  1. Structural or analytic: What happens in the work? What issues is the work concerned with? What is the organizational scheme? What specific problems do the author or characters face?
  2. Interpretive or synthetic: What is the author saying about the issues? What should the characters or society be doing to solve the problems? How might different audiences (men vs women, conservatives vs progressives, and/or citizens vs leaders) interpret the work?
  3. Critical or evaluative: How do you (the student) feel about the issues? Do you find the facts and problems in the work plausible? Does the work change your mind? Is this work good or bad?

TIP 4: Practice analytical writing and get detailed feedback

While IB teachers will schedule practice for the exam papers, this is usually a minimal amount. Students who want a high score should be doing extra. Students shouldn’t wait for the teacher to assign their first practice paper. For example, If a student writes their first Paper 2 a few weeks before the teacher actually assigns the paper, they will be better prepared to understand what is taught in class. It is not always necessary to write a whole paper in order to practice analytical writing. Students may keep a reading diary or make a blog and share this with classmates. Usually, other students and parents are capable of providing detailed feedback, as long as they are willing to challenge the student’s conclusions. Be wary of writing that is hard to understand or seems “made up.” While critiquing grammar or punctuation can be helpful, a much bigger part of the marking criteria emphasize good ideas and clear writing.

IB Literature is a challenging course even for students who love reading and writing. Good preparation and time management are the keys to success.

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Travis C.

Travis C.

Travis graduated from the University of Texas in 2004 with a degree in English literature. He worked at a cable news channel in Singapore before attending the University of Canterbury to retrain as a secondary school teacher. He has 9 years of experience teaching English literature and other subjects at private schools in Myanmar, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. He has taught advanced literature and language classes for high school, and classes for students whose first language is not English.

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