Learning to write a good commentary is one of the most valuable things about IB English Literature because the ability to understand the message of a text and the skill to perceive the uses and constructions of language will prove useful to students throughout their lives.
Paper 1 tests these skills by giving students 90 minutes to write a commentary on a choice of a poem or a piece of prose. The IB examines on the basis of four criteria, all of which it is essential to appreciate.
Criterion A – Understanding and Interpretation
The IB are looking for an excellent overall appreciation of the text: its main message, the central purpose of the author, as well as an understanding of its basic features. You should demonstrate this from the very first sentence of the commentary.
Criterion B – Appreciation of the Writer’s Choices
Throughout your commentary, you should bear this criterion in mind. Try not to stray too far into the broad themes of the passage; the examiners are always looking for a focus on the linguistic features of the text, and the exact techniques by which the author is conveying their overall meaning.
Criterion C – Organization and Development
You should avoid a line-by-line approach to your commentary: instead,
organise your paragraphs around specific themes and features of the text.
Criterion D – Language
Write in a formal fashion, using as much precise vocabulary as possible. Avoid slang and make sure you quote frequently from the passage – around three times each paragraph.
How to write the commentary in 14 steps
1) Decide on the poem or the prose. You should aim to practice both so you are comfortable doing either, but it is natural for students to have a preference. Pick the text with the most substance you feel you can comment on in an intelligent manner. I often chose poems since they are complete expressions and not an extract from a larger work. Spend a maximum of 5 minutes making this decision.
2) Give an initial reading of your chosen passage and try to identify its overall message. Helpful questions you can ask yourself at this stage are: What is the essence of the text? What meaning is the author trying to convey? What is the central emotional resonance?
3) Spend some time thinking about this, and then formulate a thesis statement: a single sentence that states very clearly your exact impression of the text.
4) Go over the text, this time asking yourself the question: how is the author accomplishing this aim? This should not be an attempt to spot features randomly but considering how language has been used to fulfil the essential meaning of the text. Annotate thoroughly, scouring the text for as many different linguistic devices that serve your thesis statement.
5) After about five minutes of close reading, you should hopefully have found three or four major linguistic areas. Select three quotations from each of these areas and organise them under headings: e.g. natural imagery, fatalistic symbolism and irony.
6) Now you are ready to begin your plan. Write your full thesis statement. For example: ‘throughout the poem, Shakespeare seeks to do eternal justice to the person he loves through the medium of verse, and achieves this through the extended metaphor of ‘a summer’s day’, rich natural imagery and masterful use of the sonnet form’. The thesis statement should combine your overall impression of the passage with a precise indication of the three main linguistic areas you are going to focus on.
7) Now plan each of your three paragraphs. Ideally, you will select three quotations, one from the beginning, middle and end of your text, demonstrating an appreciation for the device across the passage and noting any differences or developments. For each quotation, write a few words in your plan that will prompt you to analyse the language of the quotation directly. Overall this will mean around nine quotations, each of which you will analyse in turn throughout your commentary.
8) Try and find good linking sentences between these paragraphs as you plan them, rather than beginning each paragraph with ‘Another aspect of the text is…;’ Using good conjoining sentences will make your commentary seem more than the sum of its parts and help you fulfil Criterion C.
9) Once you have completed this for all your paragraphs, you are ready to start writing! You should spend around 30 minutes on your plan: this may seem like a lot but it will mean that when you come to writing the commentary you will be able to do so much more fluently and will save yourself time.
10) Begin the commentary with some brief context about the passage, no more than a sentence. The introduction should not be very long, consisting of a first sentence outlining the basic action and context of the passage. The next sentence should be your thesis statement, which should be stated in a precise and clear manner. Then outline the three main areas you will be focusing on, indicating the approach you will take. Try and avoid vague descriptions like ‘structure, form, tone’ but instead add more descriptive adjectives that show you have a more subtle appreciation of these devices: e.g. ‘chiasmatic structure, iambic tetrameters, existential tone.’