Lessons from the 2019 A-Levels


We’ve been on quite the hiatus, haven’t we! It’s been two intense years with my first cohort of Lit students and with both papers over, there’s now time to gather our thoughts, sleep a little and think about next steps. Without Google Classroom, I’ll settle for the equivalent of ranting at a white wall. You, future JC2 Lit student or future me might find this and the next Paper 3-focused post useful in the lead-up to the 2020 or even 2021 A-Levels, so here’s hoping this is useful.

Unseen But Not Unpredictable?

“Thank you sir tan”, reads one of our students’ comments! Billy Colllins’ ‘Introduction to Poetry’ is a personal favourite of mine and Mr Ian Tan’s. In his words, “I knew it would come out one day due to their penchant for setting ars poetica poems”. This seems a fair assertion: the 2018 A-Level paper, as well as the Specimen Paper released way back in 2011 (for the 2013-2017 syllabus), were based on the creative process of writing a poem.

The question prompt ‘education‘ and selection of poems demands that we pay attention to the role of readers in navigating the poem (quite literally in Collins’ poem) to both understand and appreciate it on their own terms. No government censorship or sanitised readings by ‘experts’, or insistence on a unidimensional ‘confession’ from the poem.

The other question on ‘time‘ presented, for me, a rather obscure poem ‘By Air to Germany’ paired with ‘Time Difference’, the mandatory ‘Singapore poem’. The closing lines of both seem to link the concept of time to distance and separation between people: defined in these terms, we might find similarities with previous questions on loss (2018), different generations’ perceptions of each other (Specimen), care (2017), separation (2016), passing of time (2015), married love (2014) and childhood separation (2013). In particular, there are echoes of the specimen and 2015 with their consideration of familial relationships and time.

While really abstract topics like ‘time’ may appear, it is useful to note that the poems themselves still revolve around universal human experiences of love, emotions, growing old, connecting with others et al.

The topics ‘education’ and ‘time’ however, were not immediately obvious or prominent in the poems themselves. I’m inclined towards dismissing this as bad question setting, but there is merit to setting ‘awkward topics‘ and preparing students to deal with them.

Unexpected PBQ Topics, Non-Key Extracts 

We could say the same for PBQ selection and setting. The episodes/scenes for Pride and Prejudice and Measure for Measure, along with several other texts (e.g. The Great Gatsby), were not particularly crucial or prominent in the respective texts. Here are what some of our students had to say:

I think sieving out the evidence was not as intuitive as it was with other practices. Also i wish we had more practice with non-key scenes like these because it was harder to pick out points relating to the key themes / see its immediate relevance in the plot.

The idea prompt was pretty standard, but the passage was not as prominent as other scenes in Measure to discuss about morality.

There was some difficulty in linking the passage to the theme they specified and come up with points from there.

The 2018 A-Level PBQ for Pride and Prejudice was relatively ‘kind’ to the hardworking student who would have studied and close-analysed Chapter 36 to death. I have always believed that ‘the most important scene’ in any text would never be set as a PBQ, and the hypothesis is true as far as I know. If the 2019 paper were a teacher, then practising more ‘unexpected PBQs’ or ‘non-key scenes’ is the lesson learnt. I shall wait patiently for you, Lydia Bennet (P&P) and Lucio (MM)!

A tricky key word of social tensions but pretty manageable upon breaking down and linking to familiar concerns of manners, expectations and gender roles 🙂

I felt relatively prepared for this question since morality was a familiar topic that has been addressed substantially in Paper 1 lectures and tutorials!

Had a little bit of trouble linking Claudio’s speech/metaphors to ideas on morality. Maybe it could help if in lectures we did lectures around specific characters and the ideas/themes that we can best associate them with

Student sentiment on the topic or question prompt was, as for the unseen, mixed. ‘Social tensions’ was clearly awkward – the reader would easily grasp the tensions between the seemingly proud Darcy and the sycophantically intrusive Miss Bingley, but ‘social tensions’ invites a range of other interpretations that students might associate with General Paper or History. The lesson for students would be, as the above comment highlights, to always link the topic to what you have studied – one can indeed assess Darcy and Miss Bingley’s dialogue in relation to social manners and conventions.

The topic of ‘ideas about morality‘ for Measure for Measure was familiar given the essay questions and lectures devoted to the topic. Despite his role in the plot, Claudio is ultimately a minor or supporting character. The passage can be understood to present two distinct ideas on morality – human nature and its propensity to act with ‘too much liberty’ (in relation to his sexual relations with Julietta), and the morally dubious reasons for Angelo’s application of the law. In this light, the question is fair as it raises concerns of Claudio and Angelo’s moral actions – with the note that Angelo himself is not present and we hear Claudio’s interpretation of Angelo – which are debated for much of the play. So while the concern or idea is ‘obvious’, the actual passage may not be the most obvious. Angelo’s morality is called into question by Lucio, the Duke, Isabella and of course, by Angelo’s misdeeds from Act 2 onwards.

The Curious Recurrence of Questions

‘Spotting’ questions is something I try to do each year, in a safe maybe even beneficial imitation of a compulsive gambler. I was rather confident in mid-Term 3 that the focus of the Pride and Prejudice essay question would be concern or idea-based (e.g. social manners) given that the previous year had given us a character-based question centred on minor characters. The specimen paper question was based on money and marriage, so something like social manners or appearances seemed to be in order. Lo and behold:

  • Discuss the significance in the novel as a whole of Austen’s presentation of the relationship between Charlotte and Mr Collins. (2018 A-Level P1 Q5a)
  • Discuss Austen’s portrayal of the relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet in the novel. (2019 A-Level P1 Q5a)

The same ‘trigger’ or ‘base’ recurred, disproving the assumption that topics would vary (e.g. main character > concern > minor character > method). Looking further back, this recurrence held true for the essay questions set for Austen’s Mansfield Park: Fanny’s centrality to the novel, Edmund being ‘admirable’, Mrs Norris’s role are character-based questions appeared between 2017 and 2015 while the significance of ‘Lover’s Vow’ and Fanny’s point of view are method-based questions surfacing in 2014 and 2013 respectively. The essay questions set for The Age of Innocence, a text I previously taught, were all idea-based (2013-17).

Casting our eyes to Measure for Measure, we saw how the topic itself can recur with some changes. The Duke’s disguise as Friar Lodowick, under scutiny in the 2018 PBQ, would be an important point of discussion for the 2019 essay question (on top of his moral and judicial responsibilities).

  • Write a critical commentary on the following passage (from Act 3 Scene 2), relating it to the effects of disguise, here and elsewhere in the play. (2018 A-Level P1 Q7b)
  • “The Duke is hiding from himself.” In the light of this comment, discuss Shakespeare’s dramatic portrayal of the Duke. (2019 A-Level P1 Q7a)

Recalling The Age of Innocence once more, the topic of the 2015 essay question borrowed much from the specimen paper question as well.

  • ‘This is a novel in which nothing is private.’ How far do you find this a helpful comment on social life in The Age of Innocence? (2012 Specimen P1)
  • ‘The novel is about being watched.’ How far do you agree with this comment on The Age of Innocence? (2015 A-Level P1)


Practice Has Its Merits

What is the lesson then, you ask? Well, there is no harm in doing more of the same question trigger or topic.

The same holds especially true for Paper 3 Section C, which features only essay questions. Just as intriguingly, the concept of ‘facing the truth’ in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (linked to George’s violent treatment of Martha and equally violent ‘murder’ of the son-myth) could be re-applied to the 2019 question on ‘attacks on the mind and self’.

  • ‘Albee presents facing the truth as an assault on the mind and the self.’ How far do you agree with this view of the play? (2018 A-Level P3)
  • In relation to ideas about the mind and self, discuss the dramatic presentation of aggression and violence in the play. (2019 EJC JC2 Prelim P3)
  • Consider some of the ways in which attacks on the mind and self are dramatically presented in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2019 A-Level P3)

Correspondingly, the specimen paper question on role-playing and performances and the 2018 question on the use of past narratives bears similarities to the 2019 question on illusions about themselves. The content for ‘past questions’ can be adapted to answer these ‘new questions’; diversity or range of topics does not appear to be a major factor in question-setting at the A-Levels.

  • ‘George and Martha are shown to play roles to avoid confronting their real selves.’ How far do you agree? (2016 Specimen P3)
  • Consider Albee’s dramatic presentation of characters’ illusions about themselves in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2019 A-Level P3)

In my next post, I will be commenting more specifically about 2019 Paper 3 and possible approaches to answering the typically ‘broad and general’ questions in the topic paper. Till then!

Bring on the Promos



3 hours, 3 questions. Each section in the paper carries equal marks. We generally recommend you scan through all three sections once you are permitted to do so and start with the unseen. If you are flummoxed by the unseen, move onto the set texts and you can return to the unseen in a calmer state of mind. 😉

  • Section A – Paper 3 Unseen, choose either (a) drama excerpt or (b) poem.
  • Section B – Paper 3 Woman in Mind, choose one essay question from two.
  • Section C – Paper 1 Measure for Measure, choose either (a) essay or (b) passage-based question.

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Bleeding Lit

Or how to study for Literature (2018 edition)

In this pre-June break, long overdue post, we outline some of the study strategies beyond the standard mantras of ‘I will read my text over the holidays’ and ‘I will commit the notes to memory’ that you can and should commit to in the weeks to come. Some of these suggestions will apply directly to questions from the 2018 JC1 H2 Mid-Year Examination, with the reference to the compulsory passage-based question on Measure for Measure and the single-text essay question options on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, while most are generic enough for all revision from this point forward. If you would like to clarify the suggestions, or want tailored feedback on your notes, drop me an email at my school-based address!

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Questions on the Unseen

Post-Mid Year Section A Review

You were invited to ask me questions about either poem, analysis / response skills or how to go about dealing with specific evidence on Mentimeter. As Prince Charming observes, better to be a toad than a t*rd! Find my responses below. Also remember to head over to the Essays section to read a selection of ‘good’ responses from the Mid Year Exam – the same password applies.

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Revising for the Mid-Year Exam

Exam Meme

Hola all! It’s the fourth day of Pre-U Sem and Student Leaders Training, so more than a few of us should be beginning our revision for the Mid-Year Examination soon. You’ve probably heard your teachers repeat this ad nauseum already but it’s worth reiterating: the A-levels are not the same as the O-levels or your IP exams. Some of your old habits, whether in Literature or your other subjects, may already have haunted you in your various CAs. Whatever the case, let’s all start on a clean slate as we gear up for your first internal JC exam, and the A-level exam you will eventually take in November 2018!

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The JC1 Mid-Year Exam



3 hours

  • We strongly recommend you spend 1 hr per section, using about 15 min for reading / planning and the remaining 45 to write the essay.
  • Going overboard (e.g. using 1 hr 30 min) will not be worth the extra marks you earn
  • Brief answers tend to be awarded very low marks (e.g. less than 6 marks); incomplete answers tend not to be in the top two bands (18 – 25 marks).

Continue reading “The JC1 Mid-Year Exam”

The Critical Move – A History

What is a Critical Move? 

The critical move is a specific step you can take to make headway in your written assignment, be it in analysis or response. The critical move is scripted by your teacher, based on one of the “cool spots” in your work, and may take the form of the following:

  • Write or rewrite your introduction / conclusion
  • Analyse a new method or new evidence you didn’t previously consider
  • Analyse with a focus on the effects (you probably tried to describe or explain the text)
  • Add on or review the purpose or your discussion of concerns (you may have ended abruptly, or not linked your analysis to your ideas)

You should generally complete your critical move within 7 days of receiving your work back. Remember to write down the instruction given to you so that your tutor can understand the “destination” you are supposed to get to (see the next section).


What’s the background of this nifty idea?

Unfortunately, it isn’t mine. I adapted it from a book called Switch which is essentially a management book that is, despite the raised eyebrows that management books incur, useful and practical. The concept of the critical move could not do without the premise that we all want to become better at what we do, and we sometimes don’t know how.

The critical move is decidedly NOT a big picture statement like “Become a better writer!”, “Lose weight”!”, “Get smart!” or any other vague call to action. It is an attempt to shrink the change to something you can manage in less time. For some, it’s about changing what you eat for lunch every Monday, or adding 10 min of reading time to your schedule tomorrow. For us, it’s about reviewing a specific line or paragraph, or adding a few lines of analysis. It is also an attempt to point you to the destination. You may not have really covered the concerns, so your critical move guarantees that you’ll move one band up in the ‘Response’ column.


Wait, hang on a second, are you sure it’s that easy?

Well, of course not. The Heath brothers, the writers of Switch, tell us that it is important to motivate the “elephant”, that residual big beast of instinct in all of us. We all need to find the emotion to get started, to get better, to stare at our own work; that’s why we are dangling the carrot of additional marks to each of your CAs.

The critical move per se seeks to direct the rider – to tell the rational side of you where to go (i.e. you are definitely going to score 25/25 for all six of your answers), and to get us started on these “critical moves” so that you have a habit of relooking your work. 🙂 Enjoy the process!

Continual Assessment for Term 1

Hey Eunoians!

Please find the briefing on Continual Assessment by clicking on the link (wait, you just missed it).

Most classes will be given time in class this week to complete CA1 – an essay outline task for one Paper 3 poem related to ‘The Mind and Self in Literature’ – ‘Mr Bleaney’ by Philip Larkin, on p70 of Multiverse. You are expected to complete the essay outline by the end of your 3rd tutorial in Term 1 Week 10. Nonetheless, we will preserve an even deadline for CA1 – Fri, 10 Mar 2017.

You will be tasked to complete CA2 – a full essay on one Paper 1 poem from two options, both of which will cover familiar themes and concerns. You can download the assignment here: 2017 JC1 CA2 P1 Unseen Poetry (Revised).

Mr. Lim’s students may choose to submit their work via email. Read these guidelines first, and send them over to marc[dot]kenji[dot]lim [at] ejc[dot]edu[dot]sg. Mr. Lim’s students may also sign up for consultations over the holidays at tinyurl.com/consultmkl.

Writing a WHY Paragraph

Hey Eunoians!

We have assigned you, our first ever Literature cohort, a short paragraph-writing exercise on ‘Strange Fruit’ (Multiverse p31). You can use one of the guiding questions on the page, or just select (What) an idea from the poem, (How) analyse a method and an accompanying set of images / metaphors, and their effects, and (Why) comment on the purpose of these images – what the poem essentially ‘says’ or ‘does’ in the light of lynching, racial terror, social injustice and concerns you can decide for yourself 😉

The slides for our first tutorial can be accessed here if you want them – U-T01 Imagery (Slides).

You can download and print the Multiverse Essay Planners (see p132 and onwards) if you need help, or if you need to refer to the W-H-Y structure for paragraphs. The “WHY Framework” on Multiverse p12 and the various writing samples in the pack provide you further help.

This is, alas, a handwritten assignment. You can label your points “What”, “How” and “Why” in whichever fashion you prefer. Labelling is optional and is meant to guide your writing, if you need that guidance.

For those of you who prefer electronic submissions, hang on! Mr. Lim (c’est moi) will be setting for his students (third-person is awkward) a set of guidelines (yes) for that in time to come, which you can use for subsequent full essays / assignments.