The comparative analysis paper is required for Language A: Language and Literature and Language A: Literature

Recently the IBO revised its exams and guidelines for English A courses. One of the major changes is simplifying the variety of assessments offered between the four Language A courses. Exam paper 2 is now identical for even standard and higher level courses, although the weighting differs slightly between courses. This article will focus on how to prepare when the exam is 3 months away.

Lan & Lit SLLan & Lit HLLiterature SLLiterature HL
A comparative analysis of two works studied in the course from a choice of four general questions.
1 hour 45 minutes
30 marks
35% of grade
A comparative analysis of two works studied in the course from a choice of four general questions.
1 hour 45 minutes
30 marks
25% of grade
A comparative analysis of two works studied in the course from a choice of four general questions.
1 hour 45 minutes
30 marks
35% of grade
A comparative analysis of two works studied in the course from a choice of four general questions.
1 hour 45 minutes
30 marks
25% of grade

Students must read several “works.” These are literary works (each work is a book or a collection of short texts by the same author) and how many students must read in class depends on the course and level. On the exam there will be four questions about literature and students choose one to answer. Here are some examples from 2018:

  • In what ways do the two works you have studied (in form and/or content) question or subvert norms, conventions or traditions?
  • Explore how women are represented as stronger than men in the two works you have studied.
  • How do the two works you have studied show that good can come out of destruction or violence?
  • How and to what effect are strangers or strangeness represented in the two works you have studied?
  • Discuss how one or more of the formal characteristics of a genre influence meaning in the two works you have studied.
  • Show how aspects of the two works you have studied can be better understood with a knowledge of the time and context in which they were written.

The finished essay should be around 1,000 words. At least 3 months before the exam, students should revise several works to be ready for Paper 2. The IB suggests preparing three works. Some works will be more flexible than others, and some students have aced paper 2 after preparing just 2 works (risky!), but the secret is knowing those works inside and out.

The best preparation is annotating. Often students are overzealous and their annotations become cluttered and unhelpful. Realizing their notes are probably not helpful, these students may make their situation worse by memorizing quotes. To these students, it seems necessary to reduce the entire work to a page of quotes.

Memorizing quotes is unnecessary because summarizing and paraphrasing are encouraged by the markers. How many quotes can anyone memorize? Eighteen? Twenty-four? Limiting oneself to eight quotes from three works, instead of any paraphrasing from anywhere, may actually suggest the work was too complex for the student to understand. Using only a few quotes per book will restrict the paper and limit the student’s ability to answer specific questions. Memorizing 24 quotes will take time away from other things you could be doing. A student with an HL math exam on the same day is not going to have time to memorize quotes.

Students who are poor at annotating generally don’t know what they’re looking for. They will not have questions ready when they annotate. Instead, a struggling student might create a “key” that looks like this:

File 000

This will result in colorful pages more cluttered than grandma’s closet. When a student looks back at these cluttered pages, it will be impossible to tell what is really important. They may not even remember why they highlighted a sentence. Instead, students should choose a few open-ended questions which actually interest them.

Using simple questions like “Who is my favorite character?” or “Who feels guilty?” may seem like poor preparation for complicated, specific IB questions. But there is an infinite number of themes the IB can choose from, and students are unlikely to guess what the IBO is thinking. In a proper annotation of a work, the same few scenes and quotes will always stand out. More importantly, students will understand how these scenes and quotes are related to the whole.

Students should be able to reread and annotate a book in 6-12 hours, depending on the length of the book. Ideally students will finish annotating their works two months before the exam. In the last two months, students should practice several examples of paper 2 at home. Every practice paper should be timed for 1 hour and 45 minutes. Usually students will do a few practice papers in class, but this may not be enough. When a student doesn’t have time to write a full practice paper, they can practice for the topic by writing a short outline which includes all the evidence from the two works they might use.

After a few practice papers, students usually find that they need to go back into their works to investigate some additional questions. This is normal, and also the reason why students should start preparing for paper 2 early.

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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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