This guide will explain IB English Paper 2 and what you need to ace the exam come May or November, when the IB Gods throw you this (seemingly) insurmountable task.
If you don’t know all about Paper 1 already, do check out LitLearn’s amazing guide for IB English Paper 1. Paper 1 is all about on-the-spot thinking and adrenaline-pumping analysis. What about Paper 2?
Well, IB English Paper 2 is all of those things, plus extensive preparation. But don’t fret! I survived Paper 2, and so have many others before you. All you need is a couple sprinkles of guidance from a seasoned Paper 2 veteran (ahem).
This guide covers all the essential topics for acing IB English Paper 2.
Topics included in this guide
1. What is Paper 2?
2. How to answer a Paper 2 prompt
3. Understanding the “key” of a prompt
4. Morphing: the most important skill in IB English Paper 2 5. How many texts to use in a Paper 2 comparative essay? 6. How to choose the best points across your texts
7. The brainstorm process for Paper 2
8. Essential steps to prepare for IB English Paper 2
Let’s get started!
What is IB English Paper 2?
You’re in the exam room. With a silent but solemn hand gesture, the chief exam invigilator signals your cohort to open the test paper. A flurry of pages turning and sliding. You stare at the page. What do you see? You see several prompts… one, two, three, maybe four. You wipe the sweat from your forehead and try to focus on the words on the page:
“We are all prisoners of ourselves.” Discuss how the sense of imprisonment shapes the meaning and the effect on the audience of at least two texts you have studied.
Okay, let’s drop the dramatic tone.
A Paper 2 exam consists of three or four of these prompts. From these options, you choose one prompt and write a 1000 to 1500-word essay on it.
How long do you get? 1.5 hours for Standard Level (SL) students, and 2 hours for Higher Level (HL) students.
In these 1000 to 1500 words, your task is to write a comparative essay, which — you guessed it — means comparing similarities and contrasting differences between the texts you’ve studied in class for Paper 2 (i.e., poems, novels, plays or short stories) .
Now that you understand what a Paper 2 essay involves, let’s jump into how to properly answer one of these IB English Paper 2 prompts.
How to answer a Paper 2 Question Let’s stick with the above example about the theme of “imprisonment”.
First, see that philosophical quote at the start of the prompt? It’s there to spark ideas, to get the juices flowing in your brain. You don’t have to refer to it directly unless the questions explicitly asks you to do so. So the take-away message here is to not be ‘imprisoned’ by the philosophical quotes at the start of the prompts.
Second, notice the command term “discuss”. This is usually replaced by words like “evaluate”, “analyse”, “examine”. Don’t worry about it too much: it doesn’t mean anything too important, because at the end of the day you still have to analyse, you still have to compare, and you still have to contrast.
The key of the prompt
The part after the command term is the most important part of the prompt:
“[…] how the sense of imprisonmentshapes the meaning and the effect on the audience […]”
Here the “sense of imprisonment” — the key of the prompt — tells us exactly what we need to write about in the essay.
Can you find the key in this next prompt?
Compare and contrast the effectiveness of the use of irony in two or more texts you have studied.
Notice the command term “compare and contrast” and the important part after it. The key of this prompt is “the use of irony“.
Get comfy with morphing stuff
More often than not, our texts do not contain anything explicitly related to the prompt’s key, say, the theme of “imprisonment”.
Pay attention to this next paragraph…
The secret to scoring a 7 in Paper 2 is to get very comfortable with bending, morphing and twisting your texts and/or the prompt so that they are as compatible with each other as possible. There are two ways that this can be achieved:
1. Morphing existing ideas in your own texts to fit the prompt. While Jane Sherwood’s (some random character) nostalgia in your Incredible Text 1 may not directly relate to “imprisonment”, you could twist the character’s nostalgia into the idea that emotions can trap or “imprison” an individual in a treasured memory or a past experience. Nostalgia and imprisonment seem like unlikely brothers at first, but with a bit of justification they look almost like identical twins.
2. Redefining the prompt (reasonably). The key of the prompt can often be vague. For example, there was a real IB exam prompt that asked whether “male characters were more interesting than female characters.” What does “interesting” even mean? The IB Gods are inviting you to constrain the topic in a way that works for your texts specifically. You could write in the first sentence of your introduction: “Interest, an important part of dramatic works, is often generated by emotional conflict and the subsequent creation of tension.” Here I have restricted the broad topic of “interesting” to the more clearly-defined topic of “emotional conflict” because this redefinition works well for the texts I’ve studied for IB English Paper 2. You should do the same.
In reality, you have to morph both your texts and the prompt in order to reach a snug fit between the two. Getting to this point, which all happens during the planning stage, is the most difficult part of the Paper 2 process because it requires you to know your texts so well that you can apply the ideas in your texts to different situations.
How many texts to compare and contrast?
Before we continue with this guide, we need to address the age-old question of how many texts should we compare and contrast in an IB English Paper 2 comparative essay?
I strongly recommend that you use only two texts for your Paper 2 exam because it is extremely difficult to deal with three texts at the same time.
Now that we agree on how many texts to compare and contrast, let’s see how we can make the texts work together.
Choosing the best points across your two
There’s an easy way, and there’s a hard way.
If you want a score of 5 or below, you can simply think of two points to answer the prompt for Text 1 and two other points to answer the prompt for Text 2. Then, slap them together into different paragraphs, regurgitate some shallow comparison and contrast, and call it a comparative essay. That doesn’t sound very sophisticated, does it?
On the other hand, if you want a score of 6 or 7, you’ll need to use a lot more brainpower and insight. The points that you choose for your two texts are very important, in terms of how the points relate to each other and to the prompt. The points need to have enough overlaps that similarities can be analysed, but not too much similarity because you also want to contrast differences.