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May 2021 exam report

Friday 8 October 2021

May 2021 examination report

You may well have already seen the exam report from the IB, published a few days ago on MyIB. It contains a lot of useful information and casts light on some of the questions you may have had either before or after the May examination session. In the notes below I have tried to distil the main points  - in case you cannot find it, or don't have time to read it!  Some of it might be fairly obvious, some of it not. If you have any thoughts or comments, do post below - there may be lots to talk about.

Examination Report May 2021
Grade boundaries
  • Although published, these should not be used as benchmarks for future examination sessions due to the extraordinary circumstances for this year’s cohort.

Higher Level essay
  • It is important that students select works of sufficient ‘complexity’. If songs are chosen, the focus must remain literary (rather than biographical, for example)
  • Some works e.g. ‘The Outsider’ and ‘Chronicle of a Death foretold’ seem liable to philosophical or vague, generalised topics, which are not suitable.
  • Many schools had been imaginative in their choice of texts although some had obviously chosen the same text for all their candidates, which is against the spirit of the course.
  • Many students did not write well on graphic novels – lacking understanding of their stylistic properties and failing to illustrate with supporting panels.
  • Remember that the focus of the essay should be literary, not historical or biographical.
  • Remember that candidates should write on only one work.
  • It makes sense to use as much of the 1500-word allocation as possible.
  • Remember that all essays should have a word count printed at the end
HL criteria:


  • Some essays are hampered by tendency to describe in place of analysis
  • There should be a line of inquiry – a sense of argument, which is focused on a literary idea.
  • Textual evidence should exist in support of claims made, and quotations ought to have some kind of context.


  • Often the lowest scoring criterion, not least because inappropriate choices of topic limit how much sense students can make of literary features
  • Essays need to address both the broader choices made by a writer, e.g. ones that relate to the impact of the whole work, as well as analyse details of the extract/s
  • It remains essential to explore the impact of literary features
  • Some students talk about characters as if they were real people. They must show understanding of the fat that they are literary constructs.


  • Few students score poorly in this criterion, although better essays are marked by a ‘clearly developed line of inquiry’, which is typically identified in the introduction and developed through the essay.
  • The focus of this essay is, or should be, literary. Student should avoid moving into ‘real world’ territory of the type associated with the IA Global Issue.
  • Students sometimes struggle with the logical development of points and some do not integrate quotations effectively.
  • Conclusions are expected, and they should not simply restate what has already been said.


  • Students should proofread their work carefully to avoid unnecessary errors
  • Some students struggle to maintain an appropriately formal, academic register; others adopt one that is ‘too complex for them to wield’.
  • Simplicity and cogency would seem important.

Internal Assessment

The Global Issue:
  • This proved challenging for many.
  • The Global issue is a key starting point and a way of focusing the oral.
  • It is not typically a theme, or at least certainly not one that is vague or generalised e.g. ‘love’ or ‘power’
  • Other problems occurred when Global Issues were too ‘long and unwieldy’.
  • It is inappropriate for students to present personal viewpoints in the form of pronouncements on society. They must remember that these are works of literary fiction and portray issues that may or may not reflect ‘real life’.
  • Many Global Issues were well phrased and provided candidates with opportunity to demonstrate independent critical thinking and thoughtful exploration of the relationship between the text and the world.
  • It is important that students connect the issue with the wider work. Focus on poems or short stories often led to investigation of only the chosen extract.
The extract
  • Important to guide students with the number of lines. Some do not choose an extract of sufficient length. Others had too many lines for them to properly interrogate.
  • Perhaps especially relevant to teachers familiar with the old course, students must not treat the exercise as a commentary; the extract/s serve to focus the Global Issue and serve as a springboard into the wider work. This is a very different assessment task to the old IOC.
  • It is vital that students present a sense of balance – between the texts and between the extract and the wider work.Many of them focused attention almost entirely on the extract and failed to explore its contextual significance.
Teacher questions:
  • These work best when they provide students with further room to demonstrate ability in relation to the criteria. For example, they should focus attention on the wider work when a student has failed to do so, or they should focus attention on literary details - again, when a student has neglected elements associated with Criterion B.
  • Better questions probe thoughtfully into areas associated with time and space, intertextuality or readers and writers.
  • Teachers must not ask questions that invite students to consider characters as real. Often this results in students pronouncing judgments on their behaviour or speculating about what might have happened had a character made a different choice.

The Criteria:


  • Aspects relating to knowledge and understanding of the work/s need to be related to the Global Issue. ‘Synthesis’ of the issue with the work is crucial.
  • Higher grades here depend on students that communicate a sense of independent engagement with the text. ‘Persuasive’ commentary happens when students take confident control of their material.
  • Knowledge of the Global Issue is frequently speculative or vague.


  • It is important that students present a ‘nuanced’ approach here. This means making choices about what to explore, in terms of how elements of craft reflect aspects of the GI.
  • Keeping in mind the three Areas of exploration is a helpful way to bring about depth of analysis in this criterion.


  • Announcing the organising principle at the beginning of the oral is a good idea.
  • Careful selection of material to ensure focused development of the GI is important, as is careful thinking about how to present balance – between the texts and between the extract and complete work.
  • It is important to develop the oral. It should demonstrate a sense of purpose. Without elements of development and/or synthesis of ideas, higher grades are hard to achieve.


  • Orals are of course practised and some are ‘learned’- but it is important they remain engaging to listen to, not delivered verbatim. Sounding stilted or flat is likely to affect grades awarded.
  • A practice to consider is to imagine yourself as the listener to this oral. Does it sound engaging? Convincing? Interesting?

Paper 1

  • An important feature of this paper relates to the Guiding Question ‘or an alternative point of entry’. Addressing the question or an equivalent point of focus is MANDATORY.
  • Guiding questions will be in two parts – focusing on a specific feature such as descriptive language, and something more general – such as atmosphere.
  • It is important that students understand the need to focus attention on an aspect of literary craft and for it to be meaningful. ‘Tone’ or ‘diction’ as terms are somewhat vague.
  • HL students need to practise the allocation of time, so that they have sufficient space to deal with both texts equally.
  • Some students do not fully understand the meaning of literary features, imagery being a good example. Tone is not a feature; it is something created through language choices.
  • Equal weight needs to be given to both interpretation and analysis; the former is often neglected.
  • Students should not ignore complex elements, nor should they shy away from ambiguity.


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