The secrets of my success: how to crack Leaving Cert English


CILLIAN FAHY, who got straight As in his Leaving Cert, made headlines when he sold his exam notes on eBay for €3,000. In this continuing series he shares his study experience with readers (for free), today offering advice to fifth- and sixth-year students on Leaving Cert English


Essay and comprehension

Comprehension: can’t understand it?

Little or no preparation required, just sit back and watch the marks accumulate. Wrong! Don’t forget this question counts for a quarter of your entire English mark! Of all questions, don’t let this attitude take hold here. Do plenty of practice comprehensions over the course of the year, starting now.

Here’s how:

1) Remember you need to do questionA and question B from different comprehensions. Which one you choose will depend on your choices on the day and which question you are best at. The best way to find this out, like everything else, is practice!

2) Read the questionsbefore you read the comprehensions. This will give you direction when reading.

3) Highlightthe areas you think are worth attention and are relevant to the questions you are asked. If you read the comprehension and find nothing to highlight then maybe you need to look again at the questions or at a different comprehension.

4) Keep an eye on your watch.If you keep within the time it should ensure that you focus rather than daydream.

5) Unlike other questions, when you are practising comprehensions keep strictly to the time allocated for this question.

Composition: a matter of choice!

The composition is a question that seems straightforward. It appears as if the examiner is simply allowing you to express yourself for a quarter of your grade. But the key to this question is choice. You need to ensure you make the right choice for your composition.

Here’s how:

1) Read first.In the exam it’s important that you read the composition questions before you do anything else on the paper. In this way ideas can be fermenting in the back of your mind while you’re tackling comprehensions. It’s also a good idea to spend a few minutes when you read the titles writing down a brief idea of those that you think may work. You can return to them later and develop them.

2) Decide on your genreas many of the compositions will require a specific style of writing. One of the key factors in making your choice is identifying which style will suit you best. The main options are a debating piece, a personal essay, a short story or a magazine article. The differences are subtle but important. One of the questions you need to ask yourself is: who is my audience? For example, if you are writing an article, you should probably not refer to yourself as your audience is the magazine’s readership, who are looking for objectivity. However, if you go for the personal essay you are invited to give your own perspective, so the tone is different. You should be able to write effectively in two of the different types of composition, thus allowing yourself more choice.

3) Plan ahead. You need to be able to plan the composition before you begin, so your creation has a definite direction and sticks to the point. If you cannot plan an answer properly then you shouldn’t attempt it.

4) Think back. Every essay you write this year (and in fifth year) is practice for the big day. You can make that practice more profitable by approaching compositions in a systematic way. I do not mean learning essays off by heart, which is difficult, time-consuming and stifling of creativity. Here’s what I suggest: after each essay write out a brief summary of that particular composition. These summaries can be categorised in your notes under different headings, such as “personal essays on politics” or “magazine articles on modern living”. One of the compositions on the day might be similar to one that you have written previously. You can then use that summary as a basis for your new composition.

Comparative and drama

Comparative: magic moments

The comparative is an important question on paper two. It’s the one with the most marks on offer and one in which you can really do well.

Here’s how:

1) Key momentsunlock your full potential here. As you study your comparative texts you should mark everywhere and anywhere that could be a key moment in the text. You should compare the effect of a key moment on the cultural context/general vision and viewpoint/themes and issues of the text with that of other key moments in other texts.

Examples of key moments are: when Fr Jack returns to Donegal in Brian Friel’s play, Dancing at Lughnasa; when Michael is murdered in London in Lies of Silence by Brian Moore; and Rory’s death in Inside I’m Dancing, directed by Damien O’Donnell.

2) Quotes can also be used effectively. They are not always necessary but at the same time it’s good to have a few to demonstrate your knowledge of the text.

3) Don’t summarise.You should never summarise the plot or story in any way. The examiner is interested in more than that. It can often be difficult to resist this, particularly with key moments. But just keep asking yourself, “am I summarising?” and you’ll avoid the biggest pitfall in the English exam.

4) Comparisons need to be clear. Use definite contrasting words that spell it out to the examiner that this is a comparison. This is what they are looking for and you need to make it obvious for them. If in doubt about whether you are being clear enough, then try to make it clearer. Leave nothing to doubt here.

Single text: so it’s Shakespeare, so what?The single-text question or, for most people, “the Shakespeare question” is one that candidates lose sleep over. But when you break it down it’s not as tough as you think.

Here’s how:

1) Rewrite the question. English is all about purpose, so you need to answer the question asked – and only that question. This requires you to understand fully what you are being asked. The best way to do this is to rewrite the question in your own English. This is particularly useful for a Shakespeare question.

Examples of rewriting a question:

(i) In your opinion, what is the appeal of the play Hamlet for a 21st-century audience? Support the points you make by reference to the text. (Leaving Certificate 2005)

Rewrite: Do I think that Hamlet is attractive to people today? What subjects are attractive to today’s audience? What parts of the play talk about those subjects?

(ii) “We admire Hamlet as much for his weaknesses as for his strengths.” Write a response to this view of the character of Hamlet, supporting your points by reference to the text. (Leaving Certificate 2005)

Rewrite: Do I like Hamlet because of his weak points as well as his strong points? Do I like him as much because of both? Where in the play is he weak? Where is he strong?

2) Be clear about the plot.A test to see how well you understand your Shakespeare is to write out the sequence of the text. This will ensure that events are clear in your mind and you can start looking at Hamlet like any other play. If you can’t do this, you need to revisit it.

3) Learn “multi-quotes”.It’s all in the quotes in the Shakespeare question. You will need to learn a large chunk of them. However, rather than learning the entire play word for word, focus on learning quotes which could work in many answers. These “multi-quotes” should be all you need to construct a quality answer.

Examples of Hamlet multi-quotes:

(i) “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” This can be used to describe: Hamlet’s mindset; Hamlet’s relationship with Claudius; Claudius himself; and family as a theme.

(ii) “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”

This quote can be used to describe: whether or not the play is positive/negative overall; Hamlet’s outlook on life; any negative characters/events in the play; and whether or not the play is entertaining.

4) Develop your style.Right now you shouldn’t be able to write a great Shakespeare answer. Why? Because you are still perfecting a style. This is something you will develop over time, and by June you should feel comfortable with it. One of the key elements of your style is presenting an answer. Ask yourself now if you are presenting your answer in the best way and using quotes to their best effect. The only way to know which is best is to practise exam questions!

5) Use no added extras.Here, more than in any other question, you need to write only what is relevant to the answer. Purpose is a key part of the marking scheme. Your answers needs to have answered the questions you were asked. Although you might think throwing in extra information, relevant or otherwise, will get you extra marks, it won’t. You’re more likely to lose marks because you are not answering the question exactly. Don’t write a different answer to a different question, no matter how good your answer.

6) Use originality wisely. In English you are allowed to write what you like as long as you are willing to back it up with quotes and logic. Your own interpretation of a text is just as relevant as any other interpretation. You should be brave enough to offer your own viewpoint, but you shouldn’t always look for an original outlook when the agreed view is best. If you are looking for resources that may offer a different interpretation the internet is a good start. Also, Trinity College Dublin runs a weekly evening lecture series on selected Leaving Certificate texts. See if your local university has something similar on offer. But don’t take your textbooks for granted as sometimes the best answer is there.



The personal touch

For a lot of people the poetry question can be tough. Students believe that poetry is some form of mishmash of complicated words and poetic terms. But it shouldn’t be. With the right strategy the poetry question can be manageable.

Here’s how:

1) Be personal.Show the examiner how you have interacted with the work of a poet. Mention personal things about your life and how it has made you think about these. For example, a parent-child theme might make you reflect on the relationship between your own parents and how that is changing as you grow older. There’s no need to go into too much detail but personal examples will show that you have engaged with the poetry on a meaningful level and not just learned it off. Despite all the talk about the Leaving Cert and rote learning, examiners do look for a personal response, in the right context, on the English paper. It will set you apart if you take on the challenge.

2) Know whether to write your paragraphs poem by poem or theme by theme. Focusing on themes generally leads to better-rounded answers because they demonstrate your ability to think about the work as a whole, but sometimes you may be required to answer poem by poem. Look closely at the question you’re asked in the exam to ensure that the question doesn’t imply that you should write in a certain way.

3) Resist “Eavan Boland syndrome”. The strategy of large numbers of students who put their eggs in one basket and only learn one poet has failed over and over again. There are no patterns and no surefire predictions. You need to know the work of five poets to ensure that one of them is on the paper. Learning about fewer than that is not a good plan. Even if the predicted poet comes up on the paper, the question you are asked might be extremely difficult.

4) Don’t forget the unseen poetry. Although it is worth a small amount of marks in relative terms, this section of the paper can still make that difference. At first you will find answering these questions difficult. Practice is the key. You should regularly practise writing about poetry you haven’t seen before. That way, even if you feel stuck on the day you will know how to look at the poem and break it down.