Paper 2

The Paper 2 exam consists of six essay questions, only one of which must be answered during the timed period. The essay is to be written about the Part 3 literary texts. Therefore, it is a test of understanding literature in context. Although the questions will change from exam to exam, they will always focus on the connection between, style, form, author, purpose and audience. Selecting good Part 3 texts is therefore essential. 

These pages offer an overview of the requirements, the criteria, sample student work and tips on Paper 2 essay writing. Besides familiarizing yourself with these pages, you will want to study previous exam questions, practice writing under exam conditions and research your literary texts carefully. You can find several activities that help you develop the skills you need for the Paper 2 exam on the 'skills' page. 

Although it seems as if a quarter of your IB grade is determined in one brief sitting, in fact you can do a lot to prepare for this exam so that it is not so nerve-racking. Careful planning and a clear strategy are half the battle. What one writes is only the tip of a very large iceberg. 

The basics

  •   Answer 1 of 6 essay questions. SL and HL students receive exactly the same 6 questions.
  •  Essay must answer one question in relation to both literary texts that were studied for Part 3.
  •  Essay must answer one question in relation to 2 or 3 of the literary texts studied for Part 3.
  • has 1.5 hours to answer this essay question. 
  • has 2 hours to answer this essay question.
  •   Paper 2 grade counts for 25% of the final grade.

Sample questions

Are you curious to see what Paper 2 questions look like? Here is a sample of questions that represent the kinds of questions that could appear on the exam. They are inspired by the sample questions that appear in the Language A: Language and Literature guide. 

  1. Explain how the authors of at least two literary works have portrayed a social group in a particular way. How might the contexts of the authors have influenced their portrayal of these social groups?

  2. It is often said that literature is a voice for social commentary. How is this true of at least two works that you have read.

  3. To what extent can the meaning of a literary work change over time? How does this question apply to at least two works that you have read?

  4. To what degree are readers influenced by their culture and context. Explain how at least two works could be read differently depending on the culture of their audience. 

  5. 'Coming of age' is a common theme in literary works. With regards to at least two literary works, explain how the author's own youth influenced their portrayal of this theme. 

  6. With regards to at least two literary works, explain how the setting both influences the characters and reflects the author's own context.

  7. How are the characters from at least two literary works representational of people from the time and place in which they were written?

  8. Why might two of your Part 3 works be considered 'timeless'?

  9. With regards to two literary texts, explain why authors may have chosen to depict events in a particular sequence or order. 

  10. How do two literary works both reflect and challenge the spirit of the times in which they were written?

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Comments 10

Jason Beavan 13 April 2017 - 03:48

Hi David & Tim,

I hope this question finds you both in high spirits and good health. And, while I'm at it, I'll take this opportunity to offer you both a very well deserved thank you for assisting me throughout the duration of my (almost completed) first two years--and first cohort--of DP.

Thank you both very much. This site, its comments, and your responses have continually provided me with accessible, practical guidance and insightful, effective help. Marvelous. Truly :)

And now for another couple of questions: as I prepare the aforementioned cohort for their year 2 final exams, and P2 in particular, I have noted that for HL students doing P2, the essay questions point to students referring to two of the works they have studied more than they point to them referring to three. For example, the recent English A language and literature HL Paper 2--Tuesday 3 May 2016 (morning) exam instructs students to base their answers on at least two part 3 works. And the exam questions--1-6--all state "at least two" works should be used. Further, one student of mine recently returned from England where last week he sat a barrage of mock IB exams from the Oxford Study Course (OSC) including P2, in preparation for his upcoming finals. Upon his return, he informed me his experienced instructor, Dr Sara Brown, also suggested writing on two--not three--of the works studied. She indicated using two permitted more options for students to show greater depth and detail. So, should we advise HL students to refer to two or three of the part 3 works studied? And doesn't doing so, in some ways, negate the need of students feeling the necessity to fully applying themselves to all three of the part three texts?

Thanks, as always, for your help.



David McIntyre 14 April 2017 - 00:08

Thanks for your very kind words, Jason.

Broadly speaking, I would agree that responding to two works is almost always better than responding to three works. And, I would agree that this approach provides the opportunity to write with greater depth and nuance. Should a student choose a comparative approach - by no means a requirement - this will probably be better done with two works rather than three.

This said, we do have samples on the site of effective three-work responses. So, I am offering a suggestion, not a prescription.

HL students have the opportunity to select from their works studied (and being able to select effectively is an important academic skill). The choice afforded to HL students may advantage them in the exam. Some works provide more apposite 'evidence' than others.

The works you choose for Part 3 do not need to have commonalities, although you may think, as many teachers do, that this is a reasonable approach to your selection of literary works. I think that sometimes what we know develops, if you like, relationally. So, we understand things in part through comparison and contrast.

Remember, too, Jason, that there are other assessment components that can build on Part 3 study.

Finally, reading is of course an end in itself. We needn't only think instrumentally; if the works you introduce inspire young minds to think critically and read widely, that is a significant end in itself. A third work studied is a further contribution to this end.

Best regards,


Jason Beavan 14 April 2017 - 13:50

Thanks muchly, David--as helpful as always.

With much appreciation and admiration,



John Skrzypczak 15 September 2017 - 12:59

I am trying to get a better feel for Criterion A, knowledge and understanding. Is this criterion looking mainly for textual understanding or social and historical contexts when the work was produced? For example, should students discuss the Victorian era when dealing with a text like A Doll's House?

Tim Pruzinsky 16 September 2017 - 01:43

Hi John,

It will always be question dependent. Both parts - textual understanding and contextual knowledge - are important. Answering the question, though, is more important in a Paper 2. Some questions are very literary in nature. In that case, with your example of "A Doll's House," an examiner would be looking for students to write more about the literary aspect while including some context.

However, if the question was a contextual one, the flip would be true. An examiner would expect the student to be well versed in the Victorian Era in relation to the question and include some literary aspects.

In other words, they need both, but the question will let them know which one to write about in more detail.


Glenda Ray 20 September 2017 - 03:32

I don't see this question but maybe missed it. I wanted to know how we should define context in criterion A. I read it's the widest possible interpretation but what does that mean to an examiner? For example, if they pick a literary question, such as one on spectacle and sound as they impact the audience, how would they link to cultural, social, or historical context without veering away from answering the question? I am just curious how broad the interpretation could be for context. We use "Death and the Maiden" and "A Doll's House", for reference, if that helps. This is my first year in Lang/Lit hence the question. Thanks!

Tim Pruzinsky 20 September 2017 - 07:10

Hi Glenda,

Great question. Let's take the sound question you presented. I would expect students to be discussing gun shots or car noises in "Death in the Maiden" among others. But in order to unpack those sounds, and the effect of them on Paulina and the audience, it seems important to discuss how the play is set in a country moving from a dictatorship to a democracy. In that respect, the sounds shape the actions of the character.

In other words, the student should answer the question explicitly and do that first. But, when appropriate, and where the space allows, they should also bring in context to fully frame or flush out their answer.

Please let me know if you need further clarification or support with this.


Susan Zimmermann 23 October 2017 - 05:05

I would like more clarification on how each of the criterion needs to be addressed. For example, I am wondering why the instructions for Paper 2 mention language, context and structure. Why is structure mentioned in particular as it is included as a part of criterion C? Any clarification would be extremely helpful. Thank you.

Janice Carey 8 November 2017 - 18:38

I read somewhere that there is ten minutes of non-writing as part of the Paper 2 exam. Can you explain this and is it in addition to or included within the 1.5 hours for SL?

Tim Pruzinsky 9 November 2017 - 00:14

Hi Janice,

No, this isn't true. All students, on all exams, in all written examinations get 5 minutes of "reading time" in addition to the standard time allotment. They are only allowed to read and think during these 5 minutes.

I hope that clarifies things!


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