Paper 1: the basics

The Unseen Commentary/Guided Literary Analysis

The first of two external examination papers is referred to as:

Guided Literary Analysis

Literary Commentary

In this first of two exams, students are expected to demonstrate skills in critical analysis of a poem or extract of prose that they will almost certainly not have come across before. The paper is therefore unusual in the sense that, unlike all other assessment tasks, it is not directly affiliated with any particular 'part' of the course. Skills demanded by the paper are going to be taught in and through each part or element of the course as a whole - with the acknowledgement that the nature of Part 2 - the Oral Commentary is perhaps the closest to Paper one in its spirit.

Because of the fact that students cannot know the texts in advance, and that they can come from a wide range of periods, genres or styles, it is important that they are given exposure to various kinds of works throughout their course duration, as well as provided with opportunities to implement critical skills in different ways.

Note that this paper is worth 20% of the final overall mark

What kind of extract?​

Students will be asked to choose to write about either a poem or an extract of prose. These works will not come from an author listed in the PLA or the PLT so it is impossible for students to have studied them as part of the course; furthermore, although the possibility can never be eradicated, preferred choices are for the more unusual kinds of works that students will ideally not have encountered in any manner beforehand. This is in order to prevent students bringing knowledge about the extract's context to bear on their analysis of it, and (as far as possible) to make sure that the chosen extracts are genuinely unseen.

The first extract is always prose, which could be either of fiction or non fiction. The second is poetry, and almost always a complete poem.

In regard to the prose extract, the Subject Guide defines possible sources as:

  • a novel or short story
  • an essay
  • a biography
  • a journalistic piece of writing of literary merit
  • a play

Non-fictional writing is a notoriously over-looked genre of the literature course - and can in effect be avoided altogether at Standard Level (where a total of three genres only needs to be covered in the course as a whole). This is a mistake for two reasons:

  • students could easily find themselves faced with a non-fiction extract in this Paper 1 examination
  • non-fiction works are rich, varied and inspiring works to teach

But regardless of whether or not (at SL) you choose a work of non-fiction as part of your programme, your students will of course need to have tackled one - either in whole or in part, in order that they are prepared for the possibility of non-fiction appearing in Paper 1.

What are the differences between HL and SL?

As can be seen from the different ways in which this paper is described, some important differences exist between Standard Level and Higher Level incarnations of it. The table below describes the nature of the differences:


Description Details

Guided Literary Analysis
  • Students have a choice of either poetry or prose.
  • 2 guiding questions are provided to support the candidate, one on an aspect of understanding or interpretation, and the other style. These questions must be answered either explicitly or implicitly in the course of the essay.
  • It is expected that students who reach higher marks will go beyond the demands of the questions.

Literary Commentary
  • Students have a choice of either poetry or prose.
  • No guiding questions are provided. Candidates must construct a commentary in a way that shows understanding, interpretation and style, as well as an ability to organise ideas in a more independent manner.

What skills are being assessed?

The criteria for Paper 1, at both HL and SL are as follows:

Criterion A Understanding and Interpretation 5 marks
Criterion B Appreciation of the writer's choices 5 marks
Criterion C Organisation and development 5 marks
Criterion D Language 5 marks
Total 20 marks

More detailed breakdown of the criteria, including the specific descriptors for each level of attainment can be found on pages 36 () and 44 () of the Subject Guide. Note that some important distinctions exist between both levels in terms of the language used to describe particular strands. For instance, there are obvious differences between the way 'adequate', 'good', 'very good' and 'excellent' are used, but perhaps more notably, terms such as 'persuasive' are used to describe the top level of achievement in criterion A and C at Higher Level. This, along with other relatively subtle points of comparison testify to the fact that HL students are expected to demonstrate more independent control of the material they cover, as well as the way they shape their answer.

At both levels, however, broadly speaking the skills are the same. Students must:

  • engage with the content of the poem or passage: its ideas, events, characters, settings
  • engage with the ways in which language and style generate these elements
  • demonstrate an ability to organise points in a meaningful, purposeful manner
  • write in a formal, clear and cogent manner

In reference particularly to Criterion B, It is worth reinforcing, once again, the need for students to make sure they relate aspects of style to content - that they do not see the exercise as one of 'feature spotting'. Identifying some of the elements of craft but exploring them in significant depth, and with sensitivity, is a far better practice than covering many with scant attention to detail.

Selected Pages

10 Tips for Paper 1 12 April 2019

The following 10 tips are designed to help students adopt a systematic and effective approach to Paper 1. Many of these...

SL exemplar 5: prose 4 February 2019

This is an example of a strong SL Paper 1 response, written in response to the prose extract on the May 2017 TZ2 examination...

HL exemplar 6: poetry 26 January 2019

This is the second sample answer we have posted for this poem. The first exemplar (exemplar 3) is a truly outstanding response,...

Annotating texts 12 September 2018

Annotating texts is something we expect students to do by and large throughout the course - but when and how are the associated...

SL exemplar 4: poetry 2 July 2018

This poem was set for the May 2015 exam. The candidate's response below is of a generally good quality, although there...

Sl exemplar 3: poetry 11 June 2018

This poem was set for the May 2016 SL exam. The student's response below is a rather average one. S/he engages with the...

All materials on this website are for the exclusive use of teachers and students at subscribing schools for the period of their subscription. Any unauthorised copying or posting of materials on other websites is an infringement of our copyright and could result in your account being blocked and legal action being taken against you.