This post contains 2 YouTube videos with top tips for English Literature revision. So check them out if you’re a lit student!
One of the best and rarest things in life is passion. Genuine passion. You could have a passion for food, a passion for fashion, a passion for cars, a passion for people, or a passion for, ahem, the study and teaching of English literature.
I know which one’s mine, and it’s definitely not cars. (Although food may come a close second?)
It’s even better when you come across someone who’s just as passionate as you about the same things. As luck would have it, I found this person in Dominic Salles, who is one of the biggest English YouTubers (or ‘edutubers’) for GCSE and A-Level English Language and Literature study resources. He has decades of experience teaching English to high school students, and his ‘call a spade a spade’-titled channel – Mr Salles Teacher English – has amassed over 8 years a loyal, 68K+-strong subscriber following on YouTube.
A Mr Salles Teaches English x Jen Chan collaboration
Recently, Dominic and I decided to get together for a video collaboration on how to revise for English Literature effectively.
We figured that this would benefit most students as a topic that’s both geographically and thematically agnostic (i.e. you could essentially be doing any English Literature curriculum anywhere in the world, and our tips would apply).
While I’d obviously encourage you to watch our video discussion below for all the details, this post summarises our dialogue on the 8 top tips to ace your English Literature revision.
Part 1 – How to revise for English literature exams from Mr Salles and Jen Chan
Part 2 – How to revise for English literature exams from Mr Salles and Jen Chan
Tip 1: Find alternative / competing interpretations
MR SALLES: In general, students get most credit from looking at different ways we can interpret characters or themes.
If you present competing or opposite interpretations, it becomes much easier for you to write well because you’re constantly aware of what you’re trying to prove or disprove. Whenever you do that, examiners are more likely to think that you’ve given a conceptualised response, and in turn, they’d want to give you a good mark.
On a subconscious level, whenever you meet a new quotation or idea, you’re linking it back to these competing interpretations. This also means you end up knowing the text better, which is definitely a positive.
JEN: I agree. Presenting multiple points of view really is the best way to show depth in one’s answer. I’ve seen lots of students latching onto just one interpretation and getting too attached to it, which means they end up parroting or regurgitating that specific view, or worse, become dyed-in-the-wool about a particular perspective.
Tip 2: Start by asking ‘why’
JEN: I’ve found that many students get flustered about having to come up with ‘analysis’ in the first place. It’s a confusing term, and oftentimes they tend to get sidetracked by the ‘how’, which is usually a question about technique. But ‘how’ is only ever the means to thinking about a bigger question – ‘why’. Why this technique? Why does the author have the character do or say something at a specific point in the text? If you engage with these ‘why’ questions, you can also come up with specific literary techniques, because one’s awareness of techniques in the text often comes about from us reflecting on the ‘whys’. It also helps us connect the techniques to the quotes and themes, which is the foundation of any good analysis.
MR SALLES: That’s really interesting. So, when you consider the ‘why’, how much does the historical and authorial context matter?
JEN: I think that context should always inform – but never usurp – the meat of the analysis. If we’re talking about the ‘why’ in terms of context, then it should come at the start of an essay, when we’re framing our argument. But the ‘why’ in terms of the granular (e.g. why does the author use a specific technique at a given point in the text?) wouldn’t necessarily have to draw on the ‘macro why’ a la historical and autobiographical details. .
SALLES: For me, context is key. It’s so important because everything ultimately links to the context. Over the years, I started thinking about whether I could find some unifying principles that would make studying language and literature easier for students, and I’ve come to conclude that all texts circle back to similar ideas, which I’ve consolidated as 5 ‘general whys’:
1) Morality linked to religion
2) Gender, power, and relationships in society
3) The impact of science and technology
4) The impact of education
5) People’s different social statuses
I reckon if I studied any text, I’d be able to link my analysis to any of these 5 ‘whys’. So, if I understood those 5 contexts well, I’d be able to apply it to any poem, play, novel, or non-fiction extract (which appears in the English Language exam).
JEN: That’s great! I think this also boils down to different approaches to looking at literature. I’ve noticed that in general, we tend to read literature either from a ‘historicist’ or a ‘textualist’ angle.
Textualist reading is basically interpretation of a text based solely on what appears in the text while ignoring all contextual or paratextual elements. An example of this would be Practical Criticism, which is ‘close reading’ – looking at the text in terms of what the text shows us. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but some people would challenge the need to, say, examine an author’s background when the point could just be the author’s text itself.
There are certain techniques – like metaphor – which could work well for Practical Criticism, but it’d be harder for something like allusion, because allusion is all about looking at wider political/historical/social/cultural influences.
So I can definitely see how it’d be hard to completely ignore context for, say, a 19th century Victorian novel, but perhaps for something like a Romantic poem, context wouldn’t necessarily matter too much.
Tip 3: Revise by writing essays
MR SALLES: When I first started teaching, I would teach each text really well. I’d be super detailed and I’d focus a lot on explaining the quotations (usually too many!) Afterwards, I’d tell my students to go and write an essay. However, I realised over time that this was actually the worst way of teaching the subject, because even with a great understanding of the text, the kids still don’t actually know the skills for essay writing!
So they may know everything about a novel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d know how to write a good essay on the novel. Whereas now, I’m thinking that if I had the time again, I’d go in with Macbeth or A Christmas Carol, and say, right, here are 10 essays we’re studying, and I’ll make sure to cover different interpretations so that students can look at perspectives, synthesise and come up with their own meaning.
As a student you can actually try this exercise yourself: go to the exam board website, review all the past paper questions for every year, then revise for those, write your essays for these questions. While you’re doing this, you’ll find that similar quotations, evidence and structural significance apply across all the questions. For instance, Lady Macbeth dies off stage – why? Macbeth never approaches her body – again, why? Slowly but surely, you’d come up with a theory about why certain things happen in a text, and you’ll find that it can all be applied to your supernatural / violence / characterisation / power essays.
Basically, it is by writing essays that you find out about what’s really important in your texts. So if you think it’s challenging to write an exam essay in 45 minutes, imagine how much better it’d be to write the essay in 2 hours but with all your books and notes in front of you. That’s 10 essays x 2 hours = 20 hours – guaranteed top grade.
Tip 4: Revise by planning essays, too!
JEN: I love your tip – and my next tip is actually a slight twist on it, and that’s to revise by planning essays.
Here’s the thing: students need to stop passively absorbing material, because that’s not the way to revise effectively. Revision is most effective when you actively engage with the text.
So instead of just sitting there with your books and notes in front of you, Imagine each topic/theme as an exam question. Look at past paper questions. Pay attention to how they ask them, what command words they use, how the questions are phrased etc. Then, slot your own topic/theme into these questions. So when it comes to planning, you’d want to be organised by creating tables, complete with bullet points, rows and columns.
Also, I’d advise doing your mock essay planning in simulated exam / timed conditions. This is added pressure, I know, but if you do this enough, you’ll have honed your exam-taking skills by the time the real assessment rolls around.
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to follow everything in your plan to the T, but making an essay plan will help you visualise everything before you set pen to paper. You just can’t rely on everything ‘being in your head’, because it’ll most probably be in a jumble.
Tip 5: Focus on the ending
MR SALLES: The most important ‘whys’ in a text are nearly always revealed by the way authors end. An author will never end a text in a way that doesn’t fit the whole. So, in the author’s mind, everything at the end wraps up everything that they’d been writing about. This is why you will be able to interpret most about the ending. If you think about any text, by the time the ending arrives, there’s been a shift in perspective, which automatically allows you to write about higher-order ideas. Working through what you think the author wants us to think will always give you real insight that you can use in your essay.
The other thing it’ll do is tell you which quotations to learn, because you’ll know 2-3 quotations from the ending that will be enough for every essay you’ll ever come across. That’s kind of money in the bank in two ways: 1) I know which quotations to use; 2) I know how to link them to the author’s POV. So I’ve already hit the top grades before I walk into the exam, because I know whatever the examiner asks me, these ideas will be relevant. This is why I recommend going into the ending of the texts obsessively in your revision.
JEN: That’s super interesting, and so insightful. When it comes to plays, catharsis is important and it comes at the end; when you think about a Shakespearean sonnet, the rhyming couplet is important and it also comes at the end. I’ve come across students who’d just prepare for what they consider to be “the most important parts/acts/scenes” and think that’s enough, but this obviously doesn’t engage with the text as a whole.
Not saying that all students do that, but if anyone out there thinks revising for part of any text is going to give you enough material, think again because you’ll need to engage with the text’s structure as a whole, and you can’t do that without knowing the ending as well. Endings are also important in the way they echo certain things that show up at the start of a text. Textual echoes are important.
MR SALLES: Love that you brought up the catharsis point. When you consider the ending of Macbeth, most of us tend to remember it ending at the point where Macduff kills Macbeth, but no, there’s this – what seems to a modern audience – pointless bit about Malcolm coming on again saying that order’s restored. But why does Shakespeare end with that? Well, you can’t understand this ending unless you know about catharsis.
Even with the modern poems that you’ll study in ‘Power and Conflict’ or ‘Love and Relationships’, the ending is again absolutely critical to how you’ll interpret the poems. I love the way you went in at the macro level of structure – catharsis, rhyming couplet etc. – and of course that’s another way students can get top grades. Understanding how structure connects to meaning is the way to go, and students who do this will get the top grades quickly.
Tip 6: Know your texts inside out
JEN: Often, students think that it’s okay to just prepare for a handful of key quotes, which I find questionable. Websites like Sparknotes and CliffNotes don’t help either (especially with a section called ‘Important Quotations Explained’). There’s no shortcut to revising for literary texts though – you just have to familiarise yourself with the text and read and reread it. And the surprising thing is, the more you read a text, the more you’re going to read it slightly differently every time you approach it. And you’re going to find new insights every time you approach the text even though you’re reading the same thing.
Tactically, I’d recommend reading each text at least once a month, cover-to-cover, six months before your exams. Maybe that sounds ambitious, but it’s genuinely the best way to prepare. It’s almost like you’re not preparing, in a way (obviously if you hate your text then it’d be difficult), because it’s just like reading a book or poem. It would be great if you read as a conscious, annotative process, but in the earlier stages it’s okay even to just read without paying too much attention to the detail. The point is to establish a decent level of familiarity with the characters, language and structure.
This can also be helpful when it comes to picking up things about minor characters. The more you read a text, the more you’ll realise that they have a specific function. Commenting intelligently on minor characters could give you an edge in exams, especially when everyone else is talking about Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Romeo, Juliet etc. This isn’t a ‘quick tip’, I suppose, more like an immersive process.
MR SALLES: 100% agree, but I’m going to give you an alternative perspective here. Honestly, people who are passionate about English are those I make videos for. However, there are loads of viewers for whom English is a chore. When I used to teach A-Level, there’d be students who would ask, ‘Sir, is there a video I can watch?’ Not the ones we make (analytical ones), but as in ‘Can I watch the whole story as a video?’ So there are definitely people who hate literature…
The other thing that’s good about knowing a handful of key quotations is that it forces you to be incredibly creative in how you link ideas together, and it stunned me that you could write brilliant answers on hardly any quotations. You still need to know the text reasonably well, obviously. So if I were to take the GCSEs/A-Levels again now, I’m not going to obsess about quotations; instead, I’ll learn just 20, and force myself to use these come what may.
JEN: Ideally, it’d be a combination of what you said and what I said: know your texts, read them often, and have 20 quotations prepared. But if you don’t like English, then yes, go with Mr Salles’ solution.
MR SALLES:… well, if they don’t like English, they’d probably be watching somebody else haha!
Tip 7: Look for gaps in a text
MR SALLES: When you know a text well, you suddenly start thinking about why things are there or why they are missing. For instance, Macbeth writes to his wife about all the things that the witches had told him, but then he turns up like, 20 minutes later. There’s no explanation for that. What motivates him to get Lady Macbeth to start thinking about the prophecy before he arrives, then? Perhaps he wants his wife to come up with the plot so he can fall into it, and just jump on board, say what a great idea, let’s kill the king? Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense for Macbeth to write the letter if he’s going to arrive straight after.
Another really interesting gap is when Duncan arrives with everyone to have a great celebration at Macbeth’s palace – but Macbeth’s not there. Well, why not?
This goes back to context: when Shakespeare was writing this with stagecraft in mind, actors were trying to get from one scene to the next, and Macbeth’s got to change his outfit. The idea is he’s arrived to speak to Lady Macbeth in the same battle gear when he’s defeated the Norwegians, so at the beginning of the play the only reasonable explanation for me is that Shakespeare has compressed time – as you would in a tragedy, which shows that Macbeth has done everything in the same day. This bears important implications for things that happen later on in the play: for instance, when Banquo later says that he dreams of witches, it must mean that he’s dreamt of them before he meets them with Macbeth on the heath in Act 1 Scene 1.
Once you get into these sorts of things, you develop a much more sophisticated understanding of the play, as you consider what meaning you take from a specific moment etc. It’s an advanced technique, I guess, because you have to know your text well to spot the gaps in the first place. But I find this to be the most interesting way of exploring the writer’s mind.
JEN: Actually, what even constitutes a ‘gap’ in a text is a fascinating question. How do you tell if something is a ‘gap’? You need to have thought about the text quite a lot before anything would even strike you as being bizarre. By the way, what would you consider to be a gap in a poem?
MR SALLES: Let’s take Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ as an example. Never once does the speaker say that he’s killed his wife! Instead, he just says to the other counts that he’s considering other spousal options, but of course the uxoricide is implied in the text. If he’s kind of hinted to all these people that he had his wife killed, then, why are these counts still willing to marry their daughters to him?
Another point: he says that his wife must have been flirting with Fra Pandolf, then later on he says he was witness to this all the time. So, how is it that he’s got it in his head they were flirting when he has no evidence that they were flirting – especially since he was there?! Another gap to us but not to Victorian readers is that “fra” is short for friar, i.e. the painter is a monk! If so, what’s the likelihood that he’s going to be making sexual advances towards the duke’s wife? Pretty much close to zero. So these sorts of gaps are ‘bizarre’, as in they prompt us to think ‘oh, that’s really weird – why?’ And this, in turn, leads us to think about the author’s purpose.
JEN: Yes, and these questions naturally bring us to the place where we think about the text’s form, like, ‘What is the function of a dramatic monologue?’ It helps to think about the sort of potential that a specific form like the dramatic monologue allows for deceit, when it comes to presenting what the speaker is saying is truth – but of course isn’t the objective truth, how the form facilitates this sort of possibility etc. And it’s only by looking at these gaps that we understand what the form enables the author to do on a higher level, and this naturally helps us arrive at a much more sophisticated interpretation.
In terms of gaps in poetry, I was thinking more of metrical or visual gaps. For instance, when you see certain indented lines that leave a blank space between lines, or if there’s inconsistencies in metre, we’re drawn to consider why there’s a missing rhythmic unit / foot. These would also be important gaps for poetry analysis. One of my big principles for poetry interpretation is to look for both similarities and contrast, specifically – places that stick out.
MR SALLES: Yes, when you look at those breaks in metre, or when you notice that there’s a stress in the wrong place, they are really disruptive. Or perhaps you’ll get a poem that’s not supposed to rhyme, but then all of a sudden the poet introduces some internal rhyme, and it’s like the poet has slapped you in the face. So these sorts of things really do reward you if you can analyse them. That’s why viewers should go to your videos because you’re great at that kind of advanced technical analysis of rhythm and metre.
JEN: Thanks! I mean, scansion is hard, I get it. I find it challenging as well, but ultimately, I think that if students want top grades they should really make an effort to show they’re engaging with the advanced stuff. It’s difficult for sure, but I don’t think it’s unmanageable. Lots of people think that with English Literature it’s not a subject you have to ‘study’ for. Obviously you need to memorize quotes and know technical devices etc., but it’s hardly like a biology or history exam, where a lot of the knowledge is based on memorisation. With scansion and metre though, it’s technical stuff you just have to rote learn.
I think the biggest problem is often with time – especially in the context of unseen poetry analysis on an exam. If you’re not already familiar with the different types of foot and metre, then you’ll likely get flustered struggling to scan the poem while the clock is ticking, thinking that you could make your life much easier by explaining the use of metaphor or personification and just score. That’s why when it comes to scansion, students should really make an effort to do the pre-work, because it’ll end up rewarding you exponentially.
Tip 8: Look at structure and form (don’t just focus on language and style!)
JEN: This applies across all literary mediums – verse, prose, drama. The reason why you want to look at structure and form is that it helps you look at the text as a whole, because we’re thinking about why a certain scene comes at a certain point in the play; why a novel begins linearly, retrospectively, in medias res etc. This prevents us from adopting a tunnel vision when analysing text and helps us show a more comprehensive understanding.
Also, despite us giving this advice, most students will inevitably still go for the easy wins, i.e. writing about language and style only. So if you’re in the minority of writing about structure and form, then that automatically puts you in the top grade category.
MR SALLES: This is why I came up with the ‘FOSSE’ method (Form, Opening, SOAPAIMS – Simile, Onomatopoeia, Alliteration, Personification, Adjectives, Imagery, Metaphor, Senses (Language Techniques), Structure, Ending) and my point here is that they should talk about ‘Form’ first, which makes a great impression on the examiner. As soon as you do that, you switch on the reward centre of the examiner’s brain.
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