IB English A: Language and Literature Paper 1 Commentary Advice

Many students, both HL and SL, come to Elite IB for assistance with Paper 1, the unseen aspect of the IB Language and Literature course. This blog aims to address some of the most common concerns and to provide students with a highly useful method to write the ideal commentary.

Standard Level

The biggest difference between SL and HL is that you only have to write a commentary on a single piece at Standard Level. The IB selects a diverse range of sources for Paper 1 extracts so the key here is flexibility. This adaptability is something you can acquire by doing lots of practice on different types of text, going above and beyond the mocks you do with your teacher.

It is very important to appreciate the IB’s assessment criteria when thinking about how to structure your commentary. These are broken down below.

Criterion A – Understanding and Interpretation

The IB is 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 aim to show this at the very beginning of your commentary, and this should be the first thing you are trying to understand about the text when you read it for the first time.

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 because 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 a commentary in 14 steps
  1. When you open the paper, look at each of the extracts and decide which text you will focus on. You should aim to practice various different types (articles, adverts, travel writing etc.) so you are comfortable with them, 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. 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? What can you infer about the context?
  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. Think of this as the what section of your commentary.
  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 as you can.
  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, trying to add adjectives before them to make your points more specific: e.g. sensationalist language, use of juxtaposing quotations and erratic structure.
  6. Now you are ready to begin your plan. Write your full thesis statement. For example: ‘throughout the article, the author performs a subtle piece of satire that ridicules the current US President comprehensively, and this is achieved through the use of dark humour, effective linguistic motifs and a simple structure.’ 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 few sentences. After that 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, remembering to include precise adjectives.
  11. Next, go into your first paragraph. Think of each paragraph as being a mini-essay. Just as the introduction serves as the basis from which the rest of your essay is expanded, each paragraph should unfold neatly from its opening sentence. Therefore each of your quotations should merely be illustrations of the point you make in your opening sentence. Make sure you analyse the specific language of each quotation, remembering each time to connect those thoughts to the message of your thesis statement.
  12. In between each paragraph, try to use as many connecting sentences as possible. If, for example, the sarcastic tone of an article is conveyed through its structure, use this as the bridge between those two paragraphs.
  13. As you progress through the commentary, remember to quote frequently from the text. Keep the quotations short so you can go into lots of details about the techniques being used.
  14. Your conclusion, much like your introduction, should not be very long. Hopefully, the process of writing the commentary has prompted you to think of something in addition to your original thesis statement. Perhaps there is greater subtlety you wish to add at this stage. Make one additional comment on the text overall and then recap the main areas you have written about. End with a direct reference to your original thesis statement.

The more you practice, the more you will feel able to write four or five paragraphs in your commentary. This is absolutely fine, and the same method suggested here can also be used.

Higher Level

This is a great chance to display your skills in comparison and contrast, something you will be familiar with from other parts of the IB.

Assessment Criteria

The main difference with the HL criteria is Criterion A: Understanding and comparison of the texts

Level 5 – ‘There is an excellent understanding of the texts, their context and purpose, and the similarities and differences between them; comments are fully supported by well-chosen references to the texts.’

A lot of the method for planning and structuring the commentary at HL is similar to the SL method, so what follows is some useful advice on how to Compare and Contrast.

  1. Always organise your paragraphs around particular themes and features of the text.
  2. Focus on the points of similarity in these themes within each paragraph, and then move on to discussing the differences. You should avoid writing a commentary that deals entirely with one passage and then another since the IB is looking for a coherent structure that can synthesise both passages into a single effective commentary.
  3. In your paragraphs, remember always to directly analyse any language that you quote. This should involve some comment on the way in which the author’s language is shaping their meaning, and also the effects on the reader.
  4. You should always use the guiding questions that the IB gives as part of the Paper 1 question, but be sure to be more precise than this when you are structuring your essay. In your introduction, it can be tempting to follow the guiding questions broadly and write something like, ‘and this is achieved through the use of tone’ but this is actually rather imprecise and not what the examiners are looking for. It is absolutely fine to use these prompts in your commentary, but always be sure to specify the way in which this feature has been used rather than just a generic reference. Therefore, rephrase it in your introduction by saying, for example, that you will discuss the use of ‘sardonic tone’.
  5. Try to infer as much about the context as possible: the date of the publication, the information in the passage, your own knowledge about what is being discussed. Use this to inform your ideas about who the readership of the text might be, and therefore the effects that certain techniques might have on these readers.
  6. Finally, remember to keep quoting directly from both texts. Avoid going off into broad comparisons between ideas in both texts, and remember to keep your commentary grounded in the language that is being used, and the relationship that has to the overall meaning of the text.

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