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 27

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!


Heide Turner 30 November 2017 - 01:41

Hi Tim; Hi David!

Thank you for all your valuable advice. My dilemma:

I recently gave my students a Paper 2 practice assignment that included the following prompt:

Show how belief or faith is represented in at least two of the literary works you have studied and discuss how this aspect might be interpreted or understood in different historical, cultural or
social contexts.

Several students discussed faith in government and religion in "Persepolis," which is fine. But when discussing faith as it relates to "Othello," they wrote about either Othello's faith in Iago, or the female characters' faith in their male counterparts.

My question: I cautioned students that faith is most commonly defined as having a belief of or confidence in something bigger than a person (e.g., religion, government, an overarching system or hierarchy . . .). I told them that I think their responses would earn them reduced marks for Criteria B: Response to the Question. Am I correct?

Tim Pruzinsky 30 November 2017 - 07:33

Hi Heide,

You will have to look at the examiner's notes or comments in the subject report for that exam year - you should be able to find it on the OCC, although that is shutting down and MY IB (which I don't know as well) might not have it yet.

From there, you will be able to see if it was an issue and how the examining team dealt with it. I would tend to agree with you, but I don't know how exactly it was dealt with in that exact exam year.

Do know, because this is practice, to trust your professional judgement. If you want to teach a lesson and penalize students so they learn from the mistake, do so. If you told them and cautioned them, then I would absolutely raise it with your students as an issue to address.


Nusrien Khan 12 December 2017 - 09:11

Hi David/Tim,

I just need some clarity please. It is related to a dicussion on another thread (which for some reason I cant post my question onto). For Part 3, can I use A Streetcar Named Desire, Metamorphasis and A Thousand Splendid Suns as the three class novels?

And for Part 4 can I use The Importance of Being Earnest, in addition to a collection of short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Wilfred Owen poems?
Thanks for your advice.
Kind regards,

David McIntyre 12 December 2017 - 09:38

Hi Nusrien,

This looks about right, assuming Kafka's work is in the PLT and all part 4 works are from PLA writers. The Kafka work is conventionally regarded as a novella (but who is to decide that?). Generally, a work (for IB purposes) is tantamount to two novellas. I think you will 'get away with it' - many schools make this kind of choice - but I leave it to your professional discretion.

Kind regards,


Nusrien Khan 13 December 2017 - 05:24

Perfect! Thanks for your response David.


Syeda Maimoona Hamed 3 January 2018 - 09:30

Dear David

Could you please mention If the nature of the May and Nov 2017 Paper 2 questions can be seen here and where on this website?

Thank you.

David McIntyre 3 January 2018 - 09:47

Hi Syeda,

For copyright reasons, we may not reproduce examination materials on the website.

Thank you for your understanding.


Mohammed Bhuiya 17 January 2018 - 10:25

Hello David/Tim,

Just wanted clarification about HL & SL requirements for Paper 2. My HL students studied 1984 from PLA, Farenheit 451 as a free choice and A Doll's House as the PLT. We did the PLT last, as 1984 and F451 compare nicely.
1. I assume HL can choose any of the 3 texts to compare without restriction?
2. I am a little worried that for SL, the Guide says that they must study two works - one of which is a PLT. Does that mean they are restricted in their choice in the exam - they must choose the PLT text? So in my scenario my SL students would not be able to compare F451 and 1984 - they'd be forced to use 'A Doll's House'? (FYI, my class has 12 HL and 3 SL students together; the SL effectively study the same texts as HL)
3. Last question. Am I write in thinking that the paper is not really asking for a comparison? Neither the task or the mark scheme make comparative analysis a criterion. Rather, the question should be explored using two or three texts studied. If, for example, a student analysed challenge to authority in 1984, and also F451, but did not directly compare the treatment of this theme in both texts, could he/she be penalised?

Many thanks,

Tim Pruzinsky 18 January 2018 - 07:20

Hi Mohammed,

1. Yes.

2. Yes. They must use the PLT text and they cannot compare two works originally written in English. SL is stuck with two.

3. There is nothing in the criteria that asks for comparison. She should not be penalized if she explores the question in both texts to an excellent degree. However, most teachers do - for the sake of developing an argument - teach students how to write comparatively, even if it isn't asked for explicitly. Why? It's just better than two mini-essays.


Matthew Stovall 15 February 2018 - 01:50

Hello David and Tim,

The students are not allowed to use their texts when writing Paper #2, correct? This might be obvious, but I do not see it specifically stated anywhere.

Thank you for your help,


Tim Pruzinsky 15 February 2018 - 22:31

Hi Matthew,

You're right - it isn't stated anywhere. No, they can't bring their texts with them.


Ryan Meczkowski 28 February 2018 - 18:02

Tim and David,

I was going over the Paper 2 questions on this page with my students in preparation for the Paper 2. One of my students had an interesting question in regard to the following question: "Why might two of your Part 3 works be considered 'timeless'?"

She asked if she could talk about how one work would be considered timeless and how the other would not be considered timeless. I thought this was an interesting question that has implications for how the students approach other Paper 2 questions. What are you thoughts on her question?


Tim Pruzinsky 28 February 2018 - 23:34

Hi Ryan,

Excellent question! And it is tough to provide exact clarity in this instance. Technically, the student doesn't answer the question if she argues why a work isn't timeless. The question asks for why it is. They are asking for a student, even in a work that might not seem timeless, to make an argument for why it is. A strict examiner who is exact and by the book might mark her down, although I haven't seen the marking notes.

However, a well-argued response that shows the student understands what makes a work timeless - and what doesn't - seems to me like an excellent response to this question. It's nuanced and subtle. And, if the question asked "to what extent" as IB questions often do, then yes, she would be rewarded for being insightful in this way.

I realize this doesn't provide exact clarity here. A bold student might take the risk, but it is a risk here as an examiner is right to say she doesn't answer the question.


Shaimaa Abdelhafez 1 March 2018 - 08:34

Dear Tim and David,
Can you help me unpack question 6? With regards to at least two literary works, explain how the setting both influences the characters and reflects the author's own context.
I guess students need to address the following:
1. The setting of the work of art and how it influences characters
2. The context of the author and how it helped him/her shape his characters or deliver a certain message by the work of art.

My students mainly focused on the context of the author and how it is reflected in the novel. However, my discussion with them is that they needed t o have talked about the novel's setting: social, historical, etc.
What do you think the right approach is?

David McIntyre 1 March 2018 - 10:01

Hi Shaimaa,

This strikes me as a rather complex question, and potentially ambiguous. I think, however, that both parts of the question - that is characterisation, and the author's context - refer back to setting. In other words, the second part of the question could be 'explain how the setting ... reflect's the author's own context'. I would take issue with the idea that a literary work has a 'message'; I think this is to potentially diminish the complexity of literature.

I hope this helps.

Kind regards,


Catherine Santarelli 6 March 2018 - 11:21

Hi Tim and David,
Does the IB mandate that one of the texts the students refer to in their Paper 2 essay must be the work in translation?

Tim Pruzinsky 6 March 2018 - 23:27

Hi Katt,

As SL, yes. SL students only study two texts in Part 3 and one must be a work in translation, so it's impossible not to use it.

For HL, it depends on your syllabus. Because HL students must study one text in translation, one text originally written in English, and one "free choice" (translation or not, it's up to you), they can use any combination on their Paper 2 - using two texts of course.


Catherine Santarelli 7 March 2018 - 04:32

Thanks so much. That's going to be a relief to a lot of young people here :)

Jannine Gammond 7 March 2018 - 06:50

Hi Tim,

to what extent do candidates need to use direct quotations?

David McIntyre 7 March 2018 - 08:58

Hi Jannine,

Using direct quotations is not a requirement. However, it is likely that using direct quotations as part of wider evidence supporting an argument in response to the question is likely to elevate the quality of the essay.

Kind regards,


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