Tag Archives: advice

Comparative 30/40 split

I’ve just received this email:

First of all I’d like to say that this site is a great resource and is of great benefit this close to exams.
However I have a question regarding the comparative section that I can’t find the answer to on the site.
In 2011 one comparative question was as follows:
2. “The study of a theme or issue can offer a reader valuable lessons and insights.”
(a) Identify and discuss at least one valuable lesson or insight that you gained through the study of a theme or issue in one text on your comparative course. (30)

(b) Compare at least one valuable lesson or insight that you gained, from studying the same theme or issue (as discussed in (a) above), in two other texts on your comparative course.
The valuable lesson or insight may be the same, or different, to the one discussed in (a) above.

Does this mean that for part (a) you discuss solely one text, for example Dancing at Lughnasa, without making a comparison to the other two texts, or mentioning them at all?
And in part (b) do you discuss only the other two texts (Inside I’m Dancing and How Many Miles to Babylon) without referencing Dancing at Lughnasa at all?

Thank you for reading and I hope you can help. This issue is not one we have discussed in class and I’m not sure of what to do.



Dear M,

This sounds more complicated than it is but in an exam the uncertainty it creates could be very off-putting. In my opinion the comparative is already complex enough and this kind of long-winded unwieldy question can throw students – so New Examinations Manager in English (they appointed someone new this year), if you’re out there and listening, you need to work on your “clarity of purpose” and “coherence of delivery” in setting these questions next year!!! Sometimes less is more!

Anyway, to answer your question, YES you just discuss ONE TEXT in part (a). You look at ONE theme and at least ONE valuable lesson or insight. You don’t mention the other two texts at all. I’ve checked this in the marking scheme to be doubly sure.

For part (b) you discuss TWO OTHER TEXTS. You must discuss the SAME THEME. Again, you must discuss at least ONE valuable lesson or insight – doesn’t matter if it’s the same insight as part (a) or a different one.

Finally, you wondered if you need to refer back to TEXT 1 (in your case Dancing At Lughnasa). This is entirely up to you. The marking scheme says that you are free to completely ignore TEXT 1. So if you want to focus on TEXT 2 and TEXT 3 ONLY in part (b) you can choose to do so and won’t be penalized.

However, if you choose to refer back to the points you made in part (a) that’s fine too. You might feel this adds to the overall coherence of your answer. If it does then do it. But if you feel it just confuses you and makes your answer stray all over the place then don’t do it.


Sometimes for the 30/40 mark split answer, part (b) includes the phrase “in the light of your discussion in part (a) above”. In this case you may refer back briefly to some of the points you made in part (a) but if you didn’t you wouldn’t lose any marks. As long as you discuss the same theme you’re fine. In 2004 the Literary Genre question contained this phrase but the marking scheme said students were free to choose the same aspect of storytelling OR a different one. So reading the question carefully and underlining the specific directions is important.

To summarise, when the question is split into 30marks/40marks:

  • You discuss one text on its own.
  • Then you discuss the other two texts.
  • As to whether or not you link parts (a) and (b), all of the marking schemes basically say you can if you want to but you don’t have to.

Read the specific question to decide whether you need to discuss the same theme/ same aspect of literary genre / same aspect of cultural context. In general the rule seems to be that you must stick with one theme for (a) and (b) but you can choose any aspect of storytelling or cultural context and it doesn’t have to be the same one in (a) and (b).

Hope this helps clarify this issue!





Last minute advice

Here’s some advice for actually doing the exam papers.

Firstly and most importantly




Right now that I’ve got that off my chest, some other things to consider:

If you want to do badly, ignore your timing and leave out a section.

If you want to do well, stick to your timing and complete every section.

Pay attention to how many marks each section is worth in Paper One.

If one comprehension Q is worth 10marks and another is worth 20marks, then the 20mark answer needs to be twice as long as the 10mark answer. D’oh!

Question B is worth 50, the essay is worth 100, so the essay should be twice as long as your Question B. Not 3 pages for each. 2 for QB, 4 – 5 for your essay/story. OK?

If you want to do badly, tell the story of Macbeth. In case the examiner’s never heard it before!

If you want to do well, plan your answer. Structure into paragraphs. Focus on answering the question throughout. Include quotes.

If you want to do badly, keep writing that comparative no matter how much time it’s taking you, because you’ve prepared it God damn it and you’re going to get it written no matter what!

If you want to do well, make sure you answer the question. Comparisons are vital – it’s called comparative studies for a reason. If you’re running out of time for comparative, STOP where you are. Write a conclusion. Move on to the next section.

If you want to do badly, keep writing that poetry answer no matter how much time it’s taking you, because you’ve prepared it God damn it and you’re going to get it written no matter what!

If you want to do well, make sure you answer the question. If you’re running out of time for studied poetry, STOP where you are. Write a conclusion. Move on to the next section.

If you want to do badly, leave out unseen poetry.

If you want to do well, give it the time it deserves. Easiest 20 marks you’ll ever get.

Your timing is as follows:

Paper 1

Comprehension: 45 minutes

Question B: 45 minutes

Composing / Essay: 1hr 20minutes

Paper 2

Single Text / Macbeth: 1hr

Comparative: 1hr 10 minutes

Studied poetry: 50 minutes

Unseen poetry: 20 minutes

All that’s left for me to say is good luck, keep the head. May the force be with you 😉

Advice on answering comprehensions

Comprehensions – General Guidelines


Your ability to read & understand texts is being tested.

Above all else remember this:  answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question! Well actually, not quite – you do need some depth in your answer. This involves choosing relevant info, supporting with quotes, interpreting what is implied/suggested and evaluating it (Questions such as ‘has the writer succeeded in convincing you?’…. ‘what impact do these images make on you?’…’would you like to have shared this journey with character X?’…).

You must prove to the examiner that you can:

Write well – your answer needs to showcase an impressive vocabulary, to flow naturally from point to point and to offer an in-depth analysis of the text.

Pick out relevant information

Rephrase it in your own words (this shows you understand the info)

Use quotes (keep them relatively short) to support the points you make. Never begin with a quote – this is the writing equivalent of putting the cart before the horse and it will lose you marks. Make your point/statement FIRST, then support it with a quote.

Interpret texts – understand not just the specific points they make but also the view of the world being offered. This means you can see the pieces of the puzzle AND how they join together into a bigger picture or view of the world. Ask yourself if the writer is biased in any way.

Depending on the question you may be asked to:

Figure out the message of the text & the point(s) the writer wishes to make.

Offer your own opinion – if asked – but stick closely to discussing what’s in the text.

Comment on the style of writing – informative, persuasive, argumentative, descriptive. You must be able to identify techniques but MORE IMPORTANTLY you must comment on their effectiveness. Ask yourself ‘why did the writer use this style? what effect does she want this technique to have on me, the reader?’

Discuss the visual element of the text – photo(s), book cover(s), an ad or painting.

ADVICE: Time is tight – you have only 45 minutes so you must focus.

  1. Read the questions first, slowly and carefully. Underline important words.
  2. Rewrite the Q in simpler language if you’re not sure what you’re being asked.
  3. Read the passage. Underline/highlight anything you think you might use in your answers and number it (Q1 / Q2 / Q3).
  4. Pay attention to how many marks each Q is worth – 10 marks = ½ to ¾ pg / 15 marks = ¾ to 1pg / 20 marks = 1 to 1¼pgs
  5. Don’t get stuck making 1 point over and over – make 1 point for every 5 marks available, then add one! So 10 marks = 3 points 15 marks = 4-5points and 20 marks = 5-6 points
  6. Stick closely to answering the question asked. Some questions have two parts – don’t leave out half of the Q in your answer through carelessness. Avoid including material which is irrelevant to this question.
  7. Don’t simply summarise the text (unless specifically asked to) – try to figure out the overall message. You may be asked if you agree/disagree with the views expressed.
  8. When quoting directly from the text USE QUOTATION MARKS. Keep quotes relatively short and only use relevant ones.
  9. Be organised in your approach – make a point (in your own words), back it up with evidence from the text, then move on. Make a new point, back it up, then move on etc… However, make sure your answer flows by using phrases such as ‘also’ ‘furthermore’ ‘nonetheless’ ‘on the other hand’ ‘clearly’. Don’t use the same phrase twice.
  10. Don’t wander off on a tangent, waffling on about something that happened to you in your life. This is generally completely irrelevant to proving that you can read, interpret and offer an opinion on a piece of writing.
  11. Don’t spend too long on this section – you can leave space and come back to it at the end if you have time.

One very common error made my students is that they move on to Q2 but keep answering Q1. This happens a lot because students are so focused on getting the comprehension done on time. The info from Q1 is still fresh in their minds so they end up repeating themselves in the next Q. One way to avoid this is to write out the Q at the top of the page to force your brain to move on. Remember the questions are completely different so your answers should be too.

If you find yourself repeating info from a previous question

  • STOP.
  • Read the Q again.
  • Refocus.

It’s unlikely that you are answering the Q properly if you find yourself repeating the same points in different answers.