Orals: what's expected?

The procedure for the Oral Individual Interview, introduced by the 2018 Subject Guide, was put into practice for the first time in the May 2020 session ... in, shall we say, extraordinary circumstances!

From this experience, it is possible to draw conclusions about how to carry out the Interview successfully - in terms of (i) preparing for the interviews; (ii) running the interviews effectively; and (iii) applying the marking criteria appropriately..

The following observations are my own personal interpretations, and are thus not 'official', but they are based on a close reading of the Subject Guide, and on my direct experience as a senior examiner for the English B Oral IA.

The key issues

Three areas are worth considering in some detail:- 

  • Selecting suitable stimulus material
  • Part 1 presentation: Criterion B1
  • Conducting the Parts 2 & 3 conversations (Criterion B2)

Neither Criterion A: Language nor Criterion C: Interactive skills - communication are discussed here, because it seems to me that their application is relatively straightforward. See the page  Oral IA Criteria, unpacked - and the subordinate pages which contain in-depth discussion of each of the criteria.

Selecting suitable stimulus material

The stimulus material at both levels serves the same basic purpose - to give the students something to talk about, and thus demonstrate their linguistic skills, their organisational skills in presenting their ideas, and their intellectual skills in analysing the stimulus. However, the approach will be different at each level - at SL, there is a visual stimulus, and at HL, an extract from a literary work.

So what is a 'good' stimulus at each level?

SL visual stimulus

As with the 'current' system, it is best to think that the image should work as

(i) a reminder of subject matter studied in class; and

(ii) a springboard for interpretation, speculation, and the expression of opinion (as opposed to the drab repetition of facts).

So, it is worth bearing in mind the following notes...

  • the term 'visual stimulus' covers all forms of graphics: i.e. it is not restricted to 'a colour photograph' as in the 'current' system
  • no caption is required - indeed, the complete absence of reference to captions in the Subject Guide suggests that captions are ruled out. (Also, note that the Subject Guide states "Any language that naturally appears on the image should be minimal and must be in the target language." p.43)
  • the image should be related to one of the Themes
  • the image should be sufficiently complex to enable some detailed description
  • the image should be sufficiently subtle to enable some personal interpretation
  • the image should enable the student to link it to an Anglophone culture

Note the last three bullet points in particular: these are directly related to Criterion B1. Students need to draw on "explicit and implicit details", provide "personal interpretations", and make "clear links to the target culture(s)". In order to score well, all students need to be given fertile material to analyse and develop their ideas.

HL literary extract

What is a 'suitable extract'? The following explicit instructions can be found in the Subject Guide

  • length: "300 words approximately" (p.51), showing title and author
  • sufficiently interesting to "provide opportunities to stimulate discussion" (p.51)

But there's more to it than that: the extract has to be appropriately accessible so that the student can carry out the Part 1 presentation effectively. In that respect, then, I would suggest that the extract has to be

  • essentially self-contained - i.e. it should make clear sense within the 300 words allowed, without needing to remember many details from elsewhere in the literary work (although some cross-reference to illuminate the extract would be natural)
  • related to some key point of the argument of the work i.e. theme / point of view / stance / vision. And by the way, 'key point' could involve a crux in the plot, but the main expectation seems to be that the extract should focus on some important aspect of what the work has to say (point), rather than what happens (plot).
  • sufficiently complex for the student to be able to develop "observations and opinions" (see wording of Criterion B1)

In choosing the extract, bear in mind that the purpose is to encourage 'interpretation' of "the events, characters, ideas and messages" (p.52) of the literary work - and this does not mean 'Lit.Crit.' The Subject Guide explicitly rules this out in talking about the purpose of literary works within the course: "...literary criticism is not an objective of the language B course; literary criticism lies within the remit of the DP studies in language and literature courses."  (pp.22-23)

(Having said that, it's hard to see how students can talk intelligently about a decent piece of literary text without involving literary critical ideas! After all, if you're expected to interpret "characters", you'll naturally comment on 'characterisation', and if you're expected to interpret "ideas and messages", this will almost certainly involve mentioning how something is said, not just what is said. So don't fret about this - teach the students to read the text as intelligently and in as much depth as they can, and if this involves 'Lit.Crit.' concepts, then fine. There will surely be no penalty for mentioning the word 'metaphor' !)

Part 1 presentation: Criterion B1

The headline descriptor, at both SL and HL, emphasises 'relevance' - so tell students that they should concentrate on explaining what is in front of them; and that any references to more general knowledge (about the Theme of the visual stimulus, or about the literary work as a whole) should be carefully and explicitly linked directly to what can be seen in the graphic, or read in the extract.

That said, at SL, students are expected to 'make links to the target culture' - but such references should not be general remarks about Anglophone culture, but rather directly inspired by what can be seen in the image (hence the importance of choosing graphics with 'anglophone imagery'). Reference to 'target culture' is not mentioned in the HL criterion.

Now, what ideas should students be trying to develop and include in their presentations?

Content at SL

The key terms at SL are 'description' and 'personal interpretation' - the more of both, the higher the mark. So, encourage students to do (some) methodical description, leading on to (more) imaginative interpretation.

Also, notice the reference at two points in the SL Criterion B1 to 'explicit and implicit details'. This pair should be seen as parallel terms to the description/interpretation pair - dealing with explicit details is likely to mean describing the obvious, whereas dealing with implicit details will involve subtle and imaginative interpretation.

So, I would suggest that students should be told to:-


  1. study the image, decide what it's about, and therefore which aspect of the Theme it is probably related to
  2. make a quick list of the most obvious / noticeable features of the image
  3. make a shorter list of features of the image which are not immediately obvious / mysterious  - how are these to be explained?
  4. decide "What does this image mean to me?" (especially relating to the Theme, including what relevant material we might have studied or discussed in class)
  5. think what link(s) to Anglophone culture can be made from the image - remember any related info. from class?
  6. make a brief plan, or 'MAP', showing the running order of the various comments you are going to make about the image
  7. devise a brief introduction, along the lines of "This image shows us.... The first thing you notice is.... It suggests to me the Theme of...."
  8. after the introduction, summarise your plan, or 'MAP', very quickly - "First I'm going to talk about... Then I'm going to explain.... And finally..."
  9. if you can, write a brief conclusion - and aim to get there.


    Overall, encourage the idea of lively personal response, interested in the image (as opposed to some laborious and mechanical description).

    Content at HL

    The wording of the HL criterion is based on two terms: 'make use' and 'observations and opinions'. What do these mean in practice?

    The answer lies in two verbs used for the top mark-band: "develop and support". Simply put, 'develop' means 'think through ideas in detail', and 'support' means 'draw directly and explicitly on evidence from the text to make your ideas convincing'.

    So, I would suggest that students should be told to:-


    1. read the extract carefully, and mark / annotate / highlight sections that seem important
    2. then, select / underline one or two of these 'important bits' that seem to be the Key Points - these should then be the focus of your presentation, or the 'angle' of your approach
    3. think about how the extract as a whole, and the important bits in particular, relate to the work as a whole - to what the work has to say
    4. decide what (limited) reference to the rest of the work you need to make in order to develop a clear explanation about the extract
    5. make a brief plan, or 'MAP', showing the running order of the various comments you are going to make about the extract
    6. devise a brief introduction, along the lines of "This extract is about.... It comes from the point in the book when.... It concentrates on the theme of...."
    7. after the introduction, summarise your plan, or 'MAP', very quickly - "First I'm going to talk about... Then I'm going to explain.... And finally..."
    8. if you can, write a brief conclusion - and aim to get there.


      Above all, emphasise that "effective use of the extract" (top mark-band) means explaining each step in your argument clearly AND backing each step with reference to the extract itself (and, to a limited extent, to the context of the work as a whole).

      HL presentations

      In May 2020, there was agreement among senior examiners about what worked well in the HL Part 1 presentation -

      1. The better marks were awarded to candidates who gave detailed readings of the extract i.e. referred often to specific quotes, and explained what they meant. In other words, a detailed commentary or read-through of the extract. These detailed comments might well be then linked to general comments about themes in the work as a whole, but these general comments were short, clear and well-focused.

      2. Middling marks were given to those who might talk mainly about the extract, but with little reference to quotes or to details in the extract - the generalised remarks were sensible enough, but were little supported and did not illuminate understanding of the extract in detail.

      3. The lower marks went to those who mainly talked about the work as a whole - such as a general summary of the story, general comments on what the author wanted to say, even background information / period, etc, even if these were quite well explained and organised. (Although many good presentations might include a brief introduction about the work along these lines.)

      In short, students should be advised to base their presentations on a detailed commentary on the wording of the text, and trained in how to deliver this.

      Conducting the Parts 2 & 3 conversations (Criterion B2)

      I refer you to the detailed analysis in the page Criterion B2   ... and also to the section on 'overlap' in the page  Oral IA Criteria, unpacked which deals with distinguishing between different aspects of Message in Criteria B1, B2 and C .

      The key word here is probably 'developed' - that students should aim to explain their ideas as fully as possible, and to be as agile and as active as possible in their response to the stimulus at either level. So how do we help students to demonstrate how well they can develop their ideas?

      Of course, the teacher's role is vital here, in asking the right sort of questions. Good questions should be:-

      supportive ... and the best way of supporting is to start from where the student is: for instance, make notes during the presentation, and then ask the student to expand on what has already been mentioned - "Oh! I didn't know you were involved in playing the bagpipes... how did you get into that?"

      interested ... aiming to draw out the best of what the student might have to offer - "I remember you saying in class that you were involved in Greenpeace... why do you think that's important?"

      challenging ... using the classic ToK-type questions of define-your-terms "You mentioned 'penalties' - I see what you mean, but exactly what sort of penalties did you have in mind?"

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