Annotating Your Set Texts for the ‘A’ Level Exam

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On the cover page of every Singapore-Cambridge Literature in English examination paper, whether H1 or H2, are these instructions:

Set texts may be taken into the examination room. They may bear underlining or highlighting. Any kind of folding or flagging of pages in text (e.g. use of post-its, tape flags or paper clips) is not permitted.

The chief invigilator is issued a more detailed brief on what is not allowed in the set texts (e.g. no squares or brackets). We have adopted these instructions and included some of our own in the following guidelines on the use of set texts in all Literature examinations at Eunoia Junior College:

  •  Set texts may be taken into the examination room.
    No photocopied texts are allowed.
    – There are no restrictions on particular editions; you are encouraged to use the same edition for both your ‘study text’ and ‘examination text’. Approach your tutor for advice on which edition(s) to procure.
    Extra copies of set texts are technically allowed; you are not encouraged to do so, for ease of reference (i.e. to avoid table clutter).
  • Set texts may bear underlining.
    – Underlining in pencil or pen is allowed. You are encouraged to underline key words in the text for the purpose of close analysis.
    – Drawn lines should be kept strictly horizontal or vertical.
    No boxes, squares, brackets, circles, diagonal or jagged lines are allowed.
    No unauthorised writing (other than your name on the first few pages) is allowed. Ensure that no stray markings or faint pencil markings are visible.
  • Set texts may bear highlighting.
    Highlighting in multiple colours is allowed. There are no restrictions on the number of colours; you may highlight one line in yellow and blue, for instance. You are encouraged to colour code your text by concerns or characters, depending on the nature of the text and your own preference.
  • Any type of folding or flagging of pages in text is not permitted.
    No post-its, tape flags, paper clips or bookmarks are permitted. Ensure that your text is free of these before entering the examination venue.
    No underlining or highlighting of page numbers or headers is allowed, to avoid the appearance of flagging.
    – No writing on or highlighting of page edges / borders is allowed, to avoid the appearance of flagging.
    Vertical lines should be kept close to the body text and away from the margins, to avoid the appearance of flagging.

Also see our visual Annotation Guide.


Here are some frequently asked questions by students… and several attempts to answer them. Disclaimer: we are not going to give you very specific instructions!

  • What happens if my text is confiscated by the invigilator?
    If available, an unmarked copy of the text will be provided by your school for your use. Your school may not provide this at internal examinations (i.e. Mid Year, Promo, Prelim) as a deterrent measure. Under SEAB guidelines, no further action will be taken by the examiners. An irregularity report will only be filed against you at the ‘A’ Level Examination if you choose to retain your ‘unauthorised’ text.
  • I have a text that may not pass inspection (e.g. faint pencil markings, applied correction tape or fluid over writing, highlighted page numbers on a few pages). I am worried that the invigilator will confiscate my text. What should I do?
    In all cases, you should buy a new or used copy, or borrow one from a senior. Underlining and highlighting your text again is a useful revision process. If time does not allow you to re-annotate your text, you may want to bring in more than one copy. If the invigilator confiscates your text, you will at least have ready access to the text, whether annotated or not.
  • How should I annotate my text? What colours should I use? When should I start?
    For Paper 1 texts, we recommend you prepare for the passage-based question by identifying key passages, highlighting them for selected concerns and underlining key words for the purpose of close analysis. The objective of this is to “remind” yourself about key ideas and methods.For the essay question (both Paper 1 and Elective paper texts), you should highlight your text by concerns and/or characters. The objective here is to retrieve key parts of the text quickly:- Dominant themes / concerns obviously deserve their own colours. As mentioned, you can highlight certain lines in more than one colour if it helps you. Lectures and revision material should already raise relevant material.
    Minor characters can be given specific colours, so that you can identify relevant lines or chapters easily.
    – You may want to highlight outstanding methods (e.g. the use of setting in a novel, particular words / images) in the text for ease of reference.
    – You choose the colour that gels with your understanding of the concern, character or method. For instance, the American Dream as a theme can appear in blue (or red!), a deceptive character can be given purple, while setting can be assigned green. Whatever works for you works best! Some students find it more useful to commit to highlighting and underlining the text at the end of the course (i.e. before JC2 Prelim). Indeed, annotation is a means of revising your text as you decide what is useful, or start ‘indexing’ your text. You can use a faint yellow highlighter to highlight your texts if you do not feel wholly confident in JC1. We nevertheless recommend starting once you have an overall sense of the concerns, characters and methods in your text (e.g. June holidays in JC1). Your tutor may provide you a suggested framework for highlighting your text; again, it is down to your own preference. You will know how you remember the text than any generic model given to you.
  • Uhhh your post is coming to an end and you haven’t answered my question.
    Well, just drop a comment and we’ll respond to your question! 😉


The Strange Power of a Medieval Poem

Josephine Livingstone
The New Yorker

The medieval poem “Pearl” was written by someone whose identity we do not know, and is set mostly within a dream. Neither of these facts is unusual in medieval poetry. Authorship is often unclear for works from that period, and dreams were popular as literary devices: then, as now, dreams allow poets to illustrate ideas that might otherwise be inexpressible. The “Pearl” poet used the technique to account for an experience that still seems impossible to describe—the loss of a child.

In the poem, the narrator visits the spot where a pearl once slipped from his grasp and got lost among “Gilofre, gyngure, & gromylyoune, / & pyonys powdered ay bytwene” (“ginger, gromwell, and gillyflower / with peonies scattered in between”). Swooning into unconsciousness, he comes to in a dream, in a place he has never been before, where cliffs split the sky (“ther klyfez cleven”). Across a river, he sees his pearl again, but now the “perle” is no mere thing—she is a young girl, richly arrayed in an elaborate outfit covered in pearls. Pearl also seems to be her name, or at least it is how the man addresses her: “ ‘O perle,’ quod I . . . ‘Art thou my perle?’ ” In reply, she calls him a jeweller, and he refers to her as a gem (“ ‘Jueler,’ sayde that gemme clene”).

Overcome with joy at finding his lost pearl, and unable fully to understand the complicated things she says to him, the dreamer plunges into the river to swim toward her. He is desperate to “swymme the remnaunt, thagh I ther swalte”—to swim across, or die trying. This angers the ruler of the celestial land, called the Prince: the dreamer does not belong there. He is flung out of his dream as punishment. He wakes up, and the poem ends with a short meditation on the glory of God, and then the words “Amen. Amen.” Continue reading “The Strange Power of a Medieval Poem”

Gatsby Adaptation an American Dream Gone Wrong

Luhrmanns GatsbyStuart Burrows
The New Statesman

The last thing that the narrator Nick Carraway tells us about Jay Gatsby in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is that he believed in “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”. Well, that orgastic future appears to be here, at least for the novel. When Justin Bieber describes a party he has thrown as “some Great Gatsby shit”, there is no doubting that the novel has arrived in the 21st century.

Clearly Bieber was referring to the Baz Luhrmann film, which, with its Prada wardrobe and Jay-Z soundtrack, launched its own mini fashion industry when it was released at the beginning of 2013. In the past few years the novel has been adapted into a six-hour stage production, a musical and a ballet – and Sarah Churchwell has pored over the real-life New York scandals that may have inspired Fitzgerald in her book Careless People.

It says something about the imaginative power of the novel that it can withstand being translated into so many different media. Ironically, however, the disappointing thing about the most visible of these adaptations – Luhrmann’s version for the big screen – is how dependent it is on its source. Luhrmann relies heavily on Nick’s highly distinctive voice, in the form not just of a voice-over but by inventing an ill-conceived frame narrative (the film begins with a traumatised Nick visiting a psychoanalyst, who gives him the entirely predictable advice to write his story down as a way to cure himself) and, worst of all, by having some of Nick’s best-known lines appear on the screen as he writes them down.

That’s not to say that the film should have left out the novel’s most memorable passages. But the challenge of adapting a work of art is to find a form commensurate to it. Continue reading “Gatsby Adaptation an American Dream Gone Wrong”

Reading ‘Portrait’ as a Young Man

Karl Ove Knausgaard
The New York Times

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Its genesis was long and tortuous — Joyce began writing his novel in 1904 — and the road to its canonisation as one of the seminal works of Western literature was not short either: The reviews spoke of the author’s “cloacal obsession” and “the slime of foul sewers,” comments that seem strange today, insofar as it is the subjective aspect of the book, the struggle that goes on inside the mind of its young protagonist, that perhaps stands out to us now as its most striking feature. What appeared at the time to be unprecedented about the novel seems more mundane to us today, whereas what then came across as mundane now seems unprecedented. Joyce’s novel remains vital, in contrast to almost all other novels published in 1916, because he forcefully strived toward an idiosyncratic form of expression, a language intrinsic to the story he wanted to tell, about the young protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and his formative years in Dublin, in which uniqueness was the very point and the question of what constitutes the individual was the issue posed. Continue reading “Reading ‘Portrait’ as a Young Man”

Consciousness of the Young Artist

PortraitPericles Lewis
‘The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’
Cambridge Introduction to Modernism

Like T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), though a work of youth, seems prematurely aged. Joyce treats his fictional version of his younger self with a mixture of irony and sympathy. The novel tells the story of Stephen Dedalus, a young Irishman, from earliest childhood until his decision to leave Ireland for Paris and become a writer. Before achieving his destiny as an artist, however, the young man experiences various epiphanies, mostly misleading ones.

The early chapters of the novel chronicle Stephen’s confusions as a small boy at a strict Jesuit school; in his adolescence, he visits prostitutes and wallows in sin; later, he becomes deeply religious and considers entering the priesthood; finally, he recognizes that his destiny is to become not a Catholic priest but a writer, “a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.” Joyce signals Stephen’s premature agedness when, after hearing the catalogue of his sins, “a squalid stream of vice,” at confession, a priest asks him his age and Stephen responds: “Sixteen, father.” Continue reading “Consciousness of the Young Artist”

Hamlet, A Love Story

HamletJoshua Rothman
The New Yorker

Around 1905 or 1906, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay, unpublished in his lifetime, called “Psychopathic Characters on the Stage.” The essay addressed the question of what we, as spectators, get out of watching people go crazy. Freud’s theory was that we’re fascinated by crazy characters because they help us express our own repressed impulses. Drama, of course, can’t express our fantasies too literally; when that happens, we call it pornography and walk out of the theatre. Instead, a good playwright maneuvers our desires into the light using a mixture of titillation and censure, fantasy and irony, obscenity and euphemism, daring and reproach. A good play, Freud wrote, provokes “not merely an enjoyment of the liberation but a resistance to it as well.” That resistance is key. It lets us enjoy our desires without quite admitting that they’re ours. Continue reading “Hamlet, A Love Story”

Plath, in Order of Writing

Dan Chiasson on Sylvia Plath’s Joy, The New Yorker, February 12, 2013, with commentary on ‘Ariel’, ‘Melt’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ and ‘Words’.

There is nothing else like this in English; it is, I think, a perfect poem, perfect in its excesses and stray blasphemies (that “nigger-eye”), which make Plath Plath—that is to say, dangerous, heedless, a menace, and irresistible. The greatest thing in it, though, is a detail whose uncanniness will strike any new parent: “The child’s cry / Melts in the wall.”


James Parker on Why Sylvia Plath Still Haunts American Culture, The Atlantic, June 2013.

Her name, at this point, is almost onomatopoeic: the elegantly coiled, haute-American Sylvia, poised and serpentine, and then the Germanic exhalation of Plath, its fatal flatness like some ruptured surface resealing itself. Her whole history is in there somehow: the shining prizewinner with a death obsession, the supercharged, comical/terrible talent whose memory is the lid of a sarcophagus.


Meghan O’Rourke writes in Ariel Redux on the publication of The Restored Edition: Ariel and Hughes’ ordering of poems in ArielSlate, December 4, 2004.

Plath was still, as Hughes himself later said, a little afraid of her own poems, still learning how to wean herself from exposition in favor of dramatic immersion. (For evidence, read the drafts of the “Ariel” poem itself, included in the restored edition.) Hughes then moved up “Poppies in October” and “Berck-Plage” and used them as a springboard into “Ariel,” the book’s title poem, a luminous vision of self-transformation. The resulting sequence is more psychologically charged (and dramatic) than Plath’s ordering had been. Hughes also added a few older poems, including “Hanging Man,” inspired by Plath’s electroshock therapy, to help clarify what he took to be her story line—the story of a woman triumphing over great peril only to later succumb to a version of her own “self-conquering self.”


Ashley Fetters interviews Peter K. Steinberg, author of the biography Sylvia Plath in There are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia PlathThe Atlantic, February 11, 2013.

I think it very well could have been, but there’s a reason for that. The Ariel that Ted Hughes published wasn’t the Ariel that Plath envisioned: It was very different in tone, especially the last dozen poems. Those are very dark and bleak, whereas the collection she had intended ended with her Bee Poems, which are all about new life and spring. It would have ended on a more vibrant note.