As part of the IB Diploma Programme, students take at least one subject from studies in language and literature.
This means that for all students, some form of “IB English” is mandatory. Depending on the student, this can either be an exciting prospect or a daunting one.
For those students who find English to be a chore or a necessary evil, may I begin by offering a piece of general advice: see if you can reframe your way of thinking about the subject so that English isn’t just a box to tick. Reading widely and writing for different audiences can, among other things, equip you with excellent communication skills and exposure to different ideas and cultures, which are invaluable tools for success in any given career, or indeed, life in general. More often than not, all that’s required - to uncover a passion for reading and the study of English - is the right book at the right time. Explore texts from your reading list and beyond to give yourself the best chance of success.
It is vital that, before making decisions about a particular course of study within the IB English curriculum, students first evaluate their own skills, interests and capabilities.
With regard to IB English, here are the possible courses on offer:
- Literature (SL/HL) – literary texts only
- Language and literature (SL/HL) – literary and non-literary texts
- Literature and performance (SL only)
Teaching requirements for IB English
- Standard Level (SL): 150 hours of teaching
- Higher Level (HL): 240 hours of teaching
Through each course, students are able to develop:
- a personal appreciation of language and literature
- critical-thinking skills in their interaction with a range of texts from different periods, styles, text-types and literacy forms
- an understanding of the formal, stylistic and aesthetic qualities of texts
- strong powers of expression, both written and oral
- an appreciation of cultural differences in perspective
- an understanding of how language challenges and sustains ways of thinking.
How difficult is HL English?
A common question that students have is about the difficulty of IB English HL. The true answer is based on your individual skills, and your desire to learn and improve in the subject. Think about your strengths and interests and whether they match up to the demands of the course.
If you are genuinely unsure, consider how much you enjoy reading and writing. If you love reading and writing, HL will feel challenging, but enjoyable. If you don’t enjoy reading and writing, HL will likely be very tough for you. The HL syllabus requires you to grapple with more texts and greater variety, and the assessment demands are more rigorous. Consider your choice carefully.
Also consider whether you would be more suited to the literature course (literary texts only) or language and literature (literary and non-literary i.e. non-fiction texts). Again, think about where your natural reading interests take you.
At HL, there are four assessment components:
- Individual Oral presentation (IO)
- Exam - Paper 1 (written commentary, unseen)
- Exam - Paper 2 (comparison of at least two studied texts)
- Coursework essay (1200-1500 words)
The key differences between HL and SL IB English
- Paper 1 – 2hr 15 exam as opposed to 1hr 15, and additional texts to compare
- HL Essay (coursework) – 1200-1500 words
- More teaching hours (240 hours for HL as opposed to 150 hours for SL)
- More reading and writing in general
Marking criteria for IB English
Each mark scheme is specific to each type of assessment. However, broadly speaking, they are based on the following criteria:
1. Knowledge, understanding and interpretation (Criterion A)
- Demonstrate perceptive knowledge and understanding. Be precise, insightful, thoughtful, and sensitive to the nuances of the text.
- Be consistently relevant to the topic. Avoid digressing from the question. Use P-E-A-L - the “L”, for linking back, will help you stay on track.
- Make convincing references – make appropriate quote selections, that are rich with meaning and connect to the stated task. If you go for an “obvious” quote, ensure you have something interesting and unique to say about it.
2. Analysis and evaluation (Criterion B)
- Be insightful – demonstrate original thinking.
- Be accurate and precise with your analysis.
- Explain how the author uses linguistic, stylistic and structural features to create meaning, and how those authorial choices link to the question asked.
3. Coherence, focus and organisation (Criterion C)
- Be coherent – is your piece of work clear and easy to comprehend?
- Have a clear thesis and make links back to it throughout.
- Have an effective structure – Intro (including thesis statement), Body Paragraphs, Conclusion.
- Be logical, and plan your ideas thoroughly.
- Give your work balance: bear in mind other perspectives, alternate viewpoints and ambiguities.
4. Language (Criterion D)
- Use appropriate style and tone (academic, but not verbose).
- Use adventurous and varied vocabulary, while maintaining clarity. Beware of excessive use of the thesaurus.
- Make reference to literary terms and devices. These must be relevant to the question and insightful, not just chosen for the sake of it. Be adventurous here as well. Go beyond the bog-standard devices like simile, metaphor and alliteration.
- Grammar and syntax must be flawless. Do not overcomplicate because you think it will sound more impressive.
How to write an effective IB English essay?
While this depends on whether you are sitting an exam or writing a piece of coursework or presenting your IO, the principles are largely the same. I’ll offer some general advice here and also some task-specific pointers.
- Plan, plan, plan (usually more than you think you need to). In an exam situation you are of course more limited for time, but you will always write a much more effective essay if you plan thoroughly. Criterion C of the mark scheme is based on “coherence, focus and organisation”, so if you don’t plan sufficiently, you will struggle to pick up marks in that area.
- Read and re-read your texts. Know them inside out and back to front. Your physical copy of the text should be covered with underlining, annotations, comments, reflections. Pro tip: use a pencil for annotations so the ink doesn’t bleed through the pages!
- Know the marking criteria and what’s expected (see above)
- When you first encounter a text, don’t be afraid to use Sparknotes, YouTube, Google Books, even Wikipedia (dare I say it) as a springboard to understanding. Teachers are often critical of these resources because they are limited in scope, and in the case of Wikipedia, not 100% trustworthy or accurate. However, used judiciously, these resources are a fantastic starting point to help you get to grips with the text. They help you to quickly understand key elements such as plot, character, and major themes. Later on, you’ll need to develop your own perspectives through original thinking, reading and writing, but this is often easier once a solid foundation is already in place.
Specific tips for each assessment and revision strategies:
Individual Oral (IO)
- For your IO, keep it simple, and practice reading aloud before you try to level it up with adventurous vocabulary. Read aloud to somebody, or at the very least, to yourself in the mirror. It will feel uncomfortable but it’s worth it.
- Focus on an effective delivery that will be well understood by an audience. It’s not ideal to simply memorise and read aloud an essay. You will need to adapt your written work slightly so that it can be absorbed by others. For example, shorten complex sentences so that they are easier on the ear, and make sure to add in pauses to allow information to sink in.
- Paper 1 – practice reading and commenting on a wide variety of unseen texts in the months before your exam. The greater the variety of text you expose yourself to, the more writing styles you are familiar with, and therefore the lower the risk of a big surprise on the day.
- The chosen texts are often specifically selected by examiners because they are ripe for analysis. They will contain distinct devices and structural features that reveal deeper meanings. Look out for these within the text. Use what they’ve given you on a plate!
- Get familiar with literary devices and techniques which are appropriate to the type of text (prose, poetry, drama, non-fiction etc.).
- Keep linking back to the overall topic, as you would in a regular essay. Use P-E-A-L to help.
- Create a quote bank with quotes that are rich in meaning and can apply to multiple themes and/or characters. Work with your classmates to build up a large pool of quotes to select from. Then boil these down to create your own list that is memorisable and applicable to any possible question type. Make sure to use quotes from across the whole text to demonstrate how characters/the plot/themes etc. evolve throughout the narrative.
- Paper 2 requires depth of knowledge and understanding, so you must know your texts inside out.
- Humans are, in general, better at remembering images and scenes than they are at rote memorisation. Therefore, use cue cards, acronyms and silly drawings to help you remember concepts and quotes.
- In your first draft, focus on coherence. You can always level up the language and complexity later.
- Have a clear through-line for your argument. This means having a clear thesis statement that you continually refer back to.
How to get a level 7 in IB English?
As is the case with any IB subject, you will need to go the extra mile for a level 7. This means that, in addition to following the guidelines above and those provided by your teacher, you will need to engage in additional independent study.
Here are some tips, in addition to those provided above:
- Read beyond the reading list, including literary criticism on your key texts. Literary criticism will give you a feel for the academic landscape. The introduction to different editions of your text is a great starting point. Use Google Books to help you find relevant passages, and think about where you stand in relation to other academics on various topics. If you come across any particularly striking and insightful comments, add them to your quote bank. If relevant, use them in your essays.
- Write additional practice essays, preparing for all eventualities (try to address all the major themes, characters and possible question types).
- Aim for excellence in all four assessment criteria, and pay close attention to teacher/tutor feedback. If one area is continually letting you down, put in the work to improve it.
IB English Resources and Past Papers
There are many great online resources that also produce unofficial past papers as well. Take care to check that the question type is appropriate for your exam; use the official past papers as a guide to check that the style is the same.
Finally, best of luck with your IB English journey!
IB English Tutors
Keystone has a range of specialist tutors who can assist students approaching IB English. The tutors we work with can ensure students think broadly about the subject they are focusing on, considering all angles and approaches carefully. Tutors will follow guidelines set out by the exam boards and therefore will be unable to directly review, edit or provide written feed.
Read more about our IB English tutors.