Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Glance at Paper Two

English Paper Two is 3 hours 20 minutes long, the longest single exam paper you will sit in June. It’s 200 marks in 200 minutes which makes timing answers spectacularly easy: you have 60 minutes for your Single Text, 70 minutes for the Comparative and 70 minutes for your poetry section (20 for Unseen and 50 for the Studied poet). Give yourself these time limits when you practice exam questions as poor time management is the number one reason good students get bad grades.

The most important thing to remember for this paper is answering the question. Not learning off a million Macbeth quotations, not memorising what the textbook said about a particular poet; answering the question. I’d almost write it one last time in italics if I felt it would help…oh to hell with it: ANSWER THE QUESTION!! Please, please, please focus your energies entirely on the question on the paper. Read it ever so carefully and do your best to show the examiner that you are answering it clearly.

Give yourself a few minutes before you start writing each essay to plan a coherent structure for your answer: a clear introduction where you address the question from the very first line, a main body divided into well-defined paragraphs that each deal with a particular point and a conclusion that wraps up all your arguments into a nice neat bow (or at least a solid knot).

Use quotations to back up your points.  Try to integrate them naturally into your points so they don’t interrupt the flow of your writing. For example:
Macbeth, on the other hand, is driven by his ‘o’er vaulting ambition’ to take Duncan’s life and is, therefore, ultimately responsible for his own tragic end. 

If you want to use a slightly longer ‘block’ quotation start on the next line and indent it. It should follow clearly from the previous sentence and on to the one that follows. For example:
The dashes contribute to the rhythm of the poems echoing the natural cadences of human speech.  An example from ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’:
‘Inebriate of Air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew -
When I read these lines aloud I hear a colloquial effect and a hint of Dickinson’s wry, dry humour.

The Single Text

The Single Text will be the one that you’ve spent most time on, so you will naturally feel the urge to write every last thing you’ve memorised about it onto your exam script. Don’t.  Only use material that is relevant to the question.

Single Text questions for the most part focus on the following areas of study: characters, themes, plot stages, language and imagery.  Most questions ask for your opinion on one or more of these topics so it’s advisable to start formulating your opinions NOW.

For those studying Macbeth for their single text, be able to answer questions like the following: Do you have any sympathy for either Macbeth or Lady Macbeth despite their evil deeds? What do you think the significance of the Witches/Banquo/Macduff is in the play? What makes a good King? Is the play Macbeth still relevant today?

The Comparative Study

The Comparative Study is probably the most challenging part of Leaving Cert English and you need to be well organised to cope with it well.  Know your three texts well but don’t obsess over every little detail like you would for the Single Text – it will actually just slow you down as you attempt to write an essay comparing three different texts. Know your modes of comparison well and practice exam questions for all of them.  For 2014 they are: Theme or Issue, Cultural Context and General Vision & Viewpoint.

Avoid summarising your texts; you should instead be constantly analysing and comparing them ie identifying similarities and differences between them.  Focus on key moments that exemplify the theme/viewpoint/aspect of cultural context. It’s a good idea to prepare some ‘multi-moments’ that serve all the modes of comparison and not just one.

There is no evidence to suggest that students do better on either the single essay type question or the two-part question.  Practice both types to give yourself more question options in the exam.


The Unseen Poem can be an easy 20 marks in your pocket if you’re properly prepared for it. Approach it like a detective hunting for poetic techniques as well as possible meanings.  My students are well used to me barking questions at them as they read a poem for the first time: Does it rhyme? Does it appeal to the senses? What’s your favourite/the most striking image? Is there any figurative language (metaphors/similes) in it? Any alliteration/assonance/sibilance/personification etc.  If you think the meaning of the poem is going over your head focus on the poetic techniques you can spot and the impact they had on you in your answer.

Studied Poetry

In brief, I will advise preparing a minimum of 5 poets well, formulating your own personal reactions and opinions to each poet and memorising as much of the poetry as you can (within reason).

For me recording myself reading the poems onto a cassette tape (I sat my Leaving Cert a long, long time ago) and then listening to them over and over again made memorisation easy. Knowing the lines ‘off by heart’ gave me a sense of ownership over them and meant I didn’t have to waste valuable minutes in the exam trying to remember them.  ‘Rote learning’ gets a bad press in some quarters these days but, in my opinion, we don’t do half enough of it!  Know the poetry for yourself and have faith in your own opinions and instincts on it.

Check out Poetry In Ten Easy Steps for a more detailed look at Studied Poetry.  

Ms E. Dobbyn.

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