Class Action: there's no shortcut to success in literature exams

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 10:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 10:01am

My son is taking literature exams soon and doesn't seem to be familiar with the texts. He has never been a big reader and is in a real panic

To excel in literature-based exams, you need to be familiar with the set texts and the themes they explore. Some students cling to the belief that reading the literary works is unnecessary and potted summaries contain all the information they will ever need. There is a place for these summaries in the bigger study plan, but a sole reliance on them is unlikely to lead to top grades. The first step is to read the texts and make sure that your son has a good grasp of plot, themes and characters. Typical public examination set texts will include poetry, a novel and a play.

It is extremely challenging to study a work without annotating, so hard copies are fundamental. He will have studied passages from the texts during class and you can normally see which extracts have been covered from margin notes and highlights. Typically, these will be key passages which illustrate a relationship or theme. Also, collect any handouts, class notes and past exam papers he might have and buy a copy of York Notes (or similar) for each text.

Your secret weapon in this battle is audio books. Get hold of an unabridged copy of the book and play. If possible, get hold of recordings of the poetry - YouTube can be useful, as can the Poetry Foundation

It will be daunting for your son to jump into an unknown text at this late stage so, beginning with the novel as this is normally the largest text and therefore the most worrying, he should read through a plot summary in the summary guide first. Using the York Notes and class handouts, he should create a spider diagram which has themes and key characters as subheadings. Once he has an idea of what he is looking for, he can listen to the audio book while following the text with a highlighter. As he comes across a passage which illustrates either a theme or development of a character he should highlight the text, making a note of a few key words and a page reference on his diagram.

At the end of the novel, he should have a sheet covered with notes and a much better idea of what is going on. The themes and supporting quotations can be transferred to index cards for quick revision. Repeat this process for the poetry and the play.

For poetry, make sure that your son is able to explain the meanings of the poems back to you. Refer to class handouts and your summary guide and check that unknown vocabulary is not creating a barrier to understanding. Some exams will have questions about a group of poems on a similar theme, so your son needs to be familiar with poems both individually and in relation to each other.

For the play, it is tempting to use films rather than audio books, but directors impose their own interpretations on texts. It is immediately obvious to an examiner if a student has never read Romeo & Juliet, but is fond of the Baz Luhrmann interpretation. Your son needs to form his own ideas.

As he should now be more familiar with the texts, he will be able to back up the points he makes with supporting evidence.

The fun doesn't stop there, though. The audio book should be part of his life until the exams and he should listen to it as much as possible, even on his commute to school. At the end of this process, he should be able to walk into the exam room and answer questions on his texts with confidence.

Jessica Ogilvy-Stuart is director of the Brandon Learning Centre