How do you revise for an English Literature exam?

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Ah yes, the question which haunted my years of study, particularly during GCSE and A Levels.

At this stage, many exams are ‘open book’ - that is, you can take either a blank or highlighted copy of the text into the exam hall. Whilst this can be a great reassurance, the limited time you have in an exam means you won’t be able to flick through at leisure to find the bit you were looking for, so it’s best to be prepared. Here are my top 3 tips, tailored by personal experience, which I hope will be of some help in your revision:

Tip no. 1 – Know your text

Inside out, back to front, upside down etc. Make sure you have a thorough knowledge of the text, because the more you know, the more you will understand and the easier it will be.

Tip no. 2 – Quotation, Quotation, Quotation…

Quotes are one of the most important parts of an English Literature exam. They show that you have a good knowledge of the text, they back up the argument you form in your essay, and they provide the basis for critical and analytical evidence.

Learning quotes, however, can be rather tricky. Some people write them out repeatedly, others say them out loud, some opt for mind maps or cue cards.

One thing I would recommend it choosing quotes which can be applied to multiple aspects of the text. That way, you can walk into the exam knowing that you have a quote which can be used for the theme of love as well as the theme of social class, for example.

A good way to start this ‘narrowing down’ process is to make separate mind maps of main characters and themes – even draw a little picture for each if you’re feeling creative – and from these choose quotes which can not only be applied to, say, the character of Othello, but also the theme of trust. You could also keep a few up your sleeve which will help to support any historical or critical points (not literally up your sleeve, that could land you in trouble).

It’s also important to keep calm about quote learning. The people who mark your exam understand the pressure you’re under in the exam hall, and they often don’t mind a few wrong words, or even paraphrasing the quote. They won’t expect you to know Othello to RSC standard.

Tip no.3 – Exam technique should be part of your revision…

Planning past papers, practising questions, paragraphing and essay technique – these are all things that you need to prepare before the exam. A few things you could do are:

- Read over mark schemes to see where you can bag points
- Practise writing up quick essay plans (5-10 mins max.)
- Plan your time distribution in the exam (how long for section A? How long for section B?)

Another key part of exam technique is, of course, quote analysis. The most effective way of doing this is the PEE method:

- Point: aka, this is what I’m saying
- Evidence: aka, here’s the bit from the text/critic/context which backs me up
- Explanation: aka, this is my analysis to prove my point further

For example:

POINT: “Gatsby’s world is one of delusion, façade and hopelessness.”

EVIDENCE: “Fitzgerald realises this in the man’s fixation with ‘the green light’, described even in the beginning of the novel as ‘minute and far away’.

EXPLANATION: "This spectral symbol comes to represent all that Gatsby has lost, and his ceaseless, unwavering belief that he could ‘repeat the past’. Fitzgerald’s specification of the colour green alludes to associations with new life and hope, yet the distance between Gatsby and the green light comes to be, ultimately, more significant...”

I hope you’ve found this mini-guide useful! English Literature is a challenging revision process, but these are some of the things you can do to feel prepared and confident before taking on the exams. Good luck!


 


 

Sarah P. GCSE English Literature tutor, A Level English Literature tu...

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is an online GCSE English Literature tutor with MyTutor studying at Durham University

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