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How to Write an A* GCSE English Literary Poetry Response

GCSE English Lit Help - from someone who got an A* (in 2013)

By Rebecca SmithPublished about a month ago 6 min read
How to Write an A* GCSE English Literary Poetry Response
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The poetry task is the second question on the GCSE English Literature exam paper. It is perhaps the more demanding of the tasks, because unlike the question on the prose, in this section you are being asked to compare four poems simultaneously throughout your answer. In the exam you should spend one hour on this section of the paper. Given the greater demand of the task, your response to the poetry is worth more marks than the response to the prose. In order to perform at the highest level on the paper, it is important that you develop a nuanced and sophisticated comparative written style. However, this is achievable if you adopt a systematic approach to ordering and writing your responses. It does, however, demand considerable practice prior to the final examination.

I highly recommend spending time doing several past papers, as it will really help you to understand what is required from the examiner.

So what is the examiner looking for?

The exam is designed to test the following:

• Can you respond to the poems critically, in detail, and sensitively using textual evidence?

• Can you explore language, structure and form contribute to the meaning of texts?

• Can you compare the ways that ideas, themes and relationships are presented in the poems by selecting pertinent details from the texts?

All this basically means that you need to write a detailed comparison of the poems, considering how language and form contribute to the overall meaning/message of the poem; including the relationships, themes and the ideas that the poet is trying to convey.

Porphyria's Lover - Robert Browning

Achieving an A*

An A* response is characterised by a conceptualised, insightful and imaginative approach to the texts that combines an analytical and exploratory use of detail in each poem individually with evaluative comparison across all of the four poems discussed in the answer.

Essentially, an A* piece of work will set itself apart from the hundreds of other responses, because it has an individual and unique approach that shows the writer has developed their own individual ideas about the texts. This approach is characterised by a confident engagement with the themes, ideas, relationships and technical construction of the poems. Equally, the writer of an A* response will show comparative skill; making links and cross referencing the poems using telling detail to form the basis of insightful comparisons between the poems.

The following are the specific requirements of an A* response:

• A conceptualised and imaginative response to the themes, ideas, relationships of the poems

• Insightful exploration of the themes, ideas and relationships of the poems

• Sensitive and evaluative use of detail, integrated into the response to support the argument

• Evaluative comparison of language, structure and form and their effects on the reader

• Evaluative comparison of ideas, meanings and poet’s techniques

The paper can seem really daunting at first, but approaching it systematically and really understanding what the question is asking you, will help you to achieve the grade you want. Make sure that you include your own ideas, and don’t just repeat back what is very obviously written in the text. If someone is expressing love, find the ways in which they are expressing it, don’t just simply say ‘the poem is about love’. Make sure you are constantly comparing and contrasting the texts, to achieve full marks. It’s tempting to say so much about a poem you like, and ignore the others, but this will lose you a lot of marks in the end – even if your analysis of that poem is perfect.

Carol Ann Duffy

A typical question may be:

‘Compare the ways that poets present death in Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney, The Affliction of Margaret by William Wordsworth and two other poems.’

To reach an A* grade on a question like this, you mainly need to focus on conceptualising and exploring key themes, relationships and ideas, evaluative use of details in regards to a response to support the argument (the question) and comparisons of language, structure and form. Ending with an evaluative comparison of all the poems and meanings behind the poet’s techniques.

So, let’s have a look at what this all means.

With this question, we need to look at death as an idea, not just as an event that happens in the poems. For example, we need to discuss specific elements or characterisations of death, whereby how death is a theme running throughout the story and the characters and relationships, etc. Also, mentioning a comparison early on, shows the examiner that there will be comparisons happening throughout your essay and that you have understood the question.

You also need to show that you can identify different ways in which the poet is trying to convey a particular relationship, theme, feeling, etc. Everything you write, should relate in some way back to the question, where it is asking about how death is presented. Mention different layers of meaning, draw conclusions from the texts and make you you’re referencing particular bits of the poems to really holm in on your argument. Also, major bonus points if you can compare different poets’ techniques of using language and the way they have chosen to write their pieces – think enjambement, hyperbole, etc.

How to Structure Your Essay

I also like to approach any essay in a triadic structure: Introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion. The introduction should address the terms in the question, give some short examples of what is going to be spoken about and show an initial comparison of how the concept is shown in each poem. I personally try to keep my introductions to around half a page, depending on your handwriting size.

The body paragraphs are where you will get most of your marks from, so these need to be structured correctly and full of your comparisons, quotes, ideas and comments. And remember, every point you make should always relate back to the initial question. This is vital for an A* grade. So many people lose marks here, because they go off on a tangent and then never relate it to the question asked.

Explore themes, comment on how each poet has chosen to signify a particular emotion or tone. Explore meaningful language and conclude each paragraph with a comparative remark about the poems you are comparing. And do not forget to properly punctuate when you are using a quote from the poem!

The conclusion should directly answer the question, and mention some comparatives that you have already fully discussed. End the conclusion with your idea about the key concepts of the poems.

Also, please make sure you are conscious of time. There is only an hour to complete this section. It is very easy to get caught up in what you are writing, but you need to ensure that you’re able to complete this part. This is where most of your grade for the paper comes from. Aim to spend around 5-10 minutes each on your introduction and conclusion, then use the rest of the time for the main body of the essay.

By Jessica Pamp on Unsplash

Cohesive prose will always see a higher grade. This means a piece of writing that holds together logically. You want your piece to be fluid, and not have random ideas all over the place. One way to help your essay writing flow, is with the use of discourse markers. Here are a few examples:

Transitions that indicate you have more information to add –

  • Furthermore
  • Firstly… secondly…
  • In addition
  • Moreover

Transitions that indicate a cause or reason -

  • Consequently
  • As a result
  • Since
  • Therefore

Transitions that indicate a purpose/reason why –

  • For fear that
  • In the hope that
  • In order to
  • With this in mind

Transitions that indicate you are giving an example –

  • For example
  • In particular
  • To illustrate
  • Specifically

Transitions that indicate a result or an effect –

  • Finally
  • Hence
  • Thus
  • Therefore

Transitions that indicate comparing/contrasting –

  • Although
  • However
  • In comparison
  • In contrast
By jules a. on Unsplash


I know punctuation seems basic, but it is essential that you are using it correctly in the exam. Used properly, it will enhance your essay, and aid with the flow, so don’t punctuate something randomly, just because you know how to use it.

Make sure you have the basics down – Capital letter, full stops, commas, brackets. Then, trying using dashes, colons and semi-colons to show you are able to use a wide range.

Don’t forget:

A colon is used to indicate what follows is an explanation of what has been said before (or even an elaboration).

A semi-colon is used to join two complete sentences into one sentence.

A dash is used to mark a significant disruption in the text.

Final Thoughts

And there we have it. An in-depth look at how to get an A* in your poetry exam. I was luckily, I actually really love and enjoy poetry, so I loved this exam in school. But I know that poetry isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. No matter how you feel about it, give it your best shot! And try to remember all of the points in this. Be concise and ALWAYS relate back to the question. You’ve got this! You’re going to be great.

high school

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Rebecca Smith


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