english literature

How to get high grades in English Literature

English Literature students often ask how to get high grades in GCSE, A Level or IB.  Usually they are doing ok, but they desperately want to write a top-grade essay. They just don’t know how.  In this article, we will explore a relatively simple way to raise your grade.  

Use the correct terminology to get high grades

Whilst there is no short cut to suddenly producing top-grade essays (it takes practice and hard work) there are certainly techniques that can really help you to raise your grade.  In this article we will look at the first of the techniques; use the correct terminology.  English Literature has a range of specialist terms to describe, explain and analyse literary texts.

If you are in the second year of your course you will probably already know most of the terminology.  It will be written in your text books and your teacher will also have been using it.  You should be using it too.  There is a very good reason for this – critical analysis of literature is extremely difficult and the specialist terms allow you to talk about it intelligently and more easily.  The big question is, are you actually using the terminology in your essays?  

What do I mean by this?

In order to get high grades, you need to consider how you are talking about words in your essays.  Essentially literature is words on a page, so you will undoubtedly be referring to specific words and phrases in your analysis.  But are you just calling them words?  Or are you referring to lexis, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, conjunctions etc.?  Are you grouping them into semantic fields and discussing the connotations of and connections between the words? What is the writer trying to tell you by using this particular lexis in this particular way?

Framing your analysis 

You should start to get high grades when you frame your analysis with the correct terminology.  Let’s look at an example from Thomas Hardy’s poem, The Ruined Maid 

e.g. Hardy’s choice of lexis to describe the young woman serves to highlight the extreme changes that have occurred in her appearance. She wears ‘gay bracelets’, ‘bright feathers’ and ‘little gloves’ which have connotations of prosperity, attractiveness and femininity.  However, we learn that she was once ‘in tatters’ and the animalistic simile ‘hands were like paws’ contrasts sharply with ‘little gloves’ to emphasize just how much her appearance has changed.

Explore the adjectives   

If you wanted to, you could now go on to explore the adjectives ‘gay’, ‘bright’ and ‘little’ in more detail, whilst the ‘hands were like paws’ simile could lead you into a discussion on imagery.  Because this example is from a poem, you could also think about discussing poetic voice. 

Use literary language to get high grades

Do you know some of the literary terms in the glossary?  To get good grades you must know enough of them to be able to discuss your literary texts analytically.  You probably know many of them, although you certainly won’t need them all.   I’m not suggesting you have to learn the glossary!  However, you need enough terminology to enable you to write about a text clearly, precisely and intelligently.  Without it, you will struggle to analyse literature effectively.  

If you check online you should be able to find a good glossary of literary terms.  AQA has one to support both English Language and Literature & here is another online glossary of purely literary terms.

Find an essay where you got a lower mark than you expected to and check it for literary terminology.  Highlight each term you have used.  Are there many of them? Could you have used more of them to frame your answer?  The terminology of literature should be there throughout your essay, multiple times and in every paragraph of analysis.  If it is not, then you are probably dropping marks.  Try working on this one aspect initially and see if your grade starts to rise.   

Related: 7 Ways to help your teenager with English essays

Need an experienced tutor to help you get high grades?  Find an expert English tutor 

About Dr Rose

Dr Janet Rose is an international tutor who teaches English and History for The Tutor Team. See her profile here

Janet also manages The Tutor Team Facebook page, where you can get study tips, educational videos and posts every week.

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