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How should I tackle an unseen poem in my exam?

There are several methods you can consider when learning to write an analysis of an unseen poem. My first piece of advice is to practice analysing poems quickly and succinctly, in exam conditions, in the run-up to your exam. During these practice sessions you should try to use different methods of approaching the poem in order to ascertain which one works best for you.

One method is the TAILS system; this acrostic can be used to remind you of key elements on which to focus. T is for 'theme', L for 'language', and so on. This can help you to structure your answer and ensure you cover a wide range of poetic devices, meaning you will meet the marking criteria for a really successful answer. Other methods could involve picking out recurring themes and patterns from poems you already know, so you can look out for similar techniques in poems you have never seen before. Familiarising yourself with specific and technical terminology will impress the marker and hopefully demonstrate a developed understanding of the text. So, try to learn buzz words that will wow the examiner, but be careful to use them only where relevant!

It can be extremely useful to spend five to ten minutes at the beginning of your exam reading and re-reading the poem and question. I would advise reading them through at least twice - and carefully - before proceeding to annotate. Once you have annotated the poem, pick out three of your best and most relevant points. If you do this before you start writing, you will be able to construct a well-structured and developed essay, through explaining in the introduction what your thesis is, as well as how you can support your statement. This way, the hard work is out of the way nice and early, allowing you to focus on your writing.

It is crucial to remain calm; whilst an unseen poem can seem daunting and impenetrable at first, by following this advice and preparing extensively beforehand, you can avoid nerves and develop the confidence and ability to excel in this task.

Emma S. A Level English Literature tutor, Mentoring English tutor, GC...

2 years ago

Answered by Emma, an A Level English Literature tutor with MyTutor


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