Paper 2 technique

Writing calmly under pressure

It still surprises me, after many years as Principal Examiner for HL Paper 2, that so many students write so relatively well under Final Exam Pressure. I come across many lively, interesting, well-expressed scripts which convey a sense that the student is actually enjoying the process of writing.

On the other hand, there are scripts full of nervous crossings-out, rambling and confused - and with that tell-tale worsening of the handwriting as page follows page. You can see that such students are in a state of serious panic. And then there's the middle ground of students who do a quite competent job, and communicate quite effectively - but who really don't seem to have approached the task in a clear-thinking, well organised way. This may not be to do with nerves, but they don't appear to be in control of what they are doing - the writing wanders, vaguely connected with the task, but lacking a clear focus (and littered with highly avoidable language errors, perhaps).

The best that we can do as teachers is to send the students into Paper 2 with a clear idea of what their aims are, and a methodical approach to how to do their best. The basics of writing well will have been taught through practice during the course - but the specific techniques that are useful in the exam need to be emphasised.

Note: this page was originally written for the 'old' Paper 2, last examined in November 2012. On revising it, I have found that actually very little needed to be changed to accommodate the 'new' Paper 2 (first examined in May 2013). The basic skills for handling writing under exam conditions remain virtually the same, apart from a little re-ordering of the section on the Criteria.

You may wish to use the following presentation as the basis for reviewing the tactics necessary to do well.

Paper 2 advice to students

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The key tactics

Here are some comments to amplify what the presentation says:-

Choosing the question

- 'your 3 best text types' ... Before the exams, have a session with the students in which you ask each student to look at the list of text types, and pick out the three that they think they handle best. Not the ones that they most enjoy, necessarily, but the ones where they think they really know what they're doing.

Then check their choices, and if necessary consult their files for marked examples which show that they can indeed do well with those tasks.

Stress to them that, in the exam, they should aim to select a question which requires one of those text types - because that way they have the best chance of impressing the examiner.

- text type more important than topic ... This follows from the previous point: their purpose should be that they show that they can write well - not that they are interested in the subject matter. They should not be seduced by some intriguing topic, if it will require them to write a text type that they can't handle. They're not there to have fun - they're there to get the best possible marks!

Looking at the task

- text type ... what are the (basic) rules? ... Students should be able to identify rapidly what text type is required, and then run through the few basic ground rules appropriate.

- approach specified ... Students should ask themselves 'What does the question require ? What do I have to do - exactly?' This will usually come down to a simple verb, such as 'Argue (for / against) ... Explain ... Be sympathetic ...' etc.

- audience ... to whom is it supposed to be addressed? so - 'What do they need to know, and what tone / register should I adopt ?'

- topic area ... 'Do I know anything about it? Or at least, do I have sufficient basic grasp to be able to write something?' If you know too little, best to avoid the task.


- NET SIEVE SPINE ... Go through this essential process - and then stick to your plan!

Scoring highly

Criterion A Language

- accuracy ... 'When you've finished writing - CHECK.' You could try the '10 favourite errors' idea - ask the students to go through all the work that you have marked and returned, and make a list of the ten most common language errors that they make. Check this with each student, explaining where necessary - and then suggest to them 'Whatever you do, make sure that you dont make these mistakes in the exam!'

- sentence structure ... Students should ask you if you have advice about how they handle sentence structure. If you think they are weak in this area, recommend 'full stops every two lines, max.!'

Criterion B Message

- avoid repeating (see planning) ... Examiners notice repetition very quickly, and get irritated by it - apart from being boring, it clearly indicates that the student has no proper plan.

- does the argument GO somewhere ? (see planning) ... Having a clear, coherent 'angle' or point of view is vital for convincing the examiner that you know what you're doing - and it's pretty evident when ideas just ramble from one thing to another by free association... Again, such rambling clearly indicates lack of planning.

- support ... details, examples, illustrations, evidence ? ... What back-up information supports the main argument? Worth discussing the differences between the various types listed above.

- organisation - is there a clear shape ? (see planning) ... You should be able to summarise the shape of a well thought out plan very simply - 'I start with A, contrast with B, then show how C is the result' If you can't think of the clear simple shape, you haven't done enough planning!

Criterion C Format

- right format + register ... Students should look at the question they have chosen, and check that they know what text type + audience they are aiming at - as already suggested under 'Looking at the task', above

The new Guide's Criterion C restricts itself, really, to a reference to 'conventions', and that is what is covered in the bullet point above. However, the following points, while not expressly mentioned in the Criterion, can surely not harm the student's performance, and may well contribute to giving an impression of a sophisticated control of those 'conventions' !

- right 'address' / rhetoric ... Basically, how are they talking to the audience? - particularly important in 'speeches' and 'talks' . And (with the smarter ones) can they think of any imaginative phrases, or clever ways of expressing their ideas?

- cohesives ... Students should make sure that they show their paragraphing clearly - and try consciously to include the kind of linking devices you have taught them (cue quick revision!)

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