Exam Prep Toolkit: Literature part 1

Our regular blog author, Jill Carter, has prepared some revision tips and advice for your students – pass it on!


You have two English Literature exams so get clear about what each of these requires.  Look for patterns so you can prepare more effectively for both. For both exams, you will need to be able to show that you know your texts well and that you can read critically. I will be looking at these skills more closely now. You will also need to show that you can respond to unseen texts and compare texts, and I will look at this in Exam Prep Toolkit: Literature part 2.

Make sure that you have familiarized yourself with the layout of the exams and the timings suggested for each task.


Think about the time your text was set:

  • What was happening at the time?
  • What would people have been talking about?
  • Identify three things people would not have known so much about as they do now.
  • Place the three contextual issues you think are most relevant to your studied text in rank order. Justify your decision.
  • How is the context in which you have received the text different from the one in which it was set? How is it similar?


Choose a quotation from your studied text and decide which is the most important word or phrase in this quotation and why.

Learn key words or very short phrases from the text – e.g., we do not live alone / horrible / bees in a hive (An Inspector Calls) – these can be embedded into your response in the exam and are quicker and easier to learn if you find learning longer quotations difficult.

Remember that you can paraphrase quotations (use your own words) and these are then known as close references to the text – you are showing that you know the text well but you may not be able to remember the exact words the writer used.

Developing interpretations

Avoid retelling the plot or describing the characters / setting with little or no analysis – instead learn to develop interpretation:

  • Use the grid below to help you explore what is meant by a key moment/point in a text.
  • Make a scattergram of obvious key moments from one of your studied texts and develop your own interpretation of one of these moments, using the questions in the grid to help you.
  • Open the text at any page and see if you can identify and interpret a key moment from this in the same way.
What reaction does it evoke in you?
How is it significant to the development of theme, character, plot or setting?
Why is it memorable?
How does it link to the context of the text?
Which key words or phrases could be memorised from this moment?
How does it reflect the author’s intentions?

Explore a quotation or short extract by interpreting as many of the following aspects of it as possible:






Plot Development:


Author’s intention:


For example, take the quotation: Things bad begun, make strong themselves by ill from Macbeth:

Character: Macbeth knows that his evil deeds are only going to lead to further wrongdoing

Setting: the setting and atmosphere can reflect ‘bad’ events such as the storm on the night of the murder

Language: Macbeth’s personification of events gives them more power and implies that he has little control over them

Message: Shakespeare is suggesting that once we begin to behave badly, it is very difficult to reverse that course of action

Theme: one of the key themes of the play is evil and this quotation suggests that it is a downward spiral

Plot: at this point in the play, these words are ominous and suggest further evil is to come

Context: at the time people believed very strongly in the force of evil and in fate and this quotation suggests that Macbeth has very little control over events now he has committed such wrongs.

Intention: Shakespeare seems to want us to see that there is a part of Macbeth which is good and feels trapped in a cycle of crimes he regrets.

Ask yourself the following questions when you respond to an extract or even a quotation:

  • How does this make me feel?
  • What strikes me as powerful here in terms of:
    • plot development
    • character development
    • language
    • structure
    • style
  • Is this theme relevant to me now?
  • How do I react to this in a received context (now)?
  • How might I have reacted to this if I had been receiving it at the time it was written?

Exploring characters

One way to develop interpretation is to make interpretations based on character names or places in the text. Jot down the first words you think of and see what happens. For example, if you are studying the character of Romeo or of Macbeth:

Rash Optimistic Misguided Erratic Obsessive

Meglomaniac Aspiring Clever Brutal Easily led Troubled Hesitant

How far could you develop some of these into points about your chosen text? How could you change them into theme-led responses (Murder, Aspiration, Conspiracy, Brutality, Evil, Turbulence, Hatred)?

Good luck!