English Literature Revision (with examples from ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘DNA’)

I am only going to discuss prose and play in this post, because revision for poetry can be quite different. There will be examples from the novel ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck and ‘DNA’ by Dennis Kelly because these were the two texts I studied at GCSE.

 

The steps below outline the process of revising for English literature exams. (GO TO STEP 4  TO SEE EXAMPLES FROM ‘OF MICE AND MEN’ AND ‘DNA’)

 

Step 1: Reading the book

  • It is always best to read the book first before reading it in class. It will mean that you have a head start. This is more important (for me) for novels more than plays.
  • The first time you read a book, just read it and get the flow of the story. Don’t worry about analysis until the second time you read it.
  • When reading, try to get background information on the setting of the book – the time period, the culture etc. This will help put the book into perspective and the language will feel much more natural.

 

Step 2: Making notes in class

  • This step will depend on the class and the teacher – how they want you to make notes. I have always found it quite difficult to divide my notebook into characters or sections, so prefer going through the book chronologically. However this is not always the case.
  • Make clear headings when taking notes in class. This will ensure when you go back you can find out your notes. Always include page numbers as well and if possible write down the quote or the beginning of the quote. Use highlighters to make headings standout.
  • If possible, buy your own copy of the book. This means you can highlight the book and you can take notes on specific sections. It is so beneficial because you can make notes in short hand when reading as a class.
  • Write down EVERYTHING. Any opinions you have, any contributions from your classmates and especially anything from your teacher should be written down. Even if you don’t believe in a certain analysis, it may turn out you don’t have another perspective for that quote, so it is vital you note down anything about it. Later on, you can decide whether it is worth learning.
  • Don’t worry about the neatness of class notes. Just put everything on paper and make it standout as much as possible.

 

Step 3: Researching for additional analysis online or in revision guides

  • For most GCSE novels and plays, there are revision guides. They are so useful because they contain viewpoints you might not have considered and they have summaries, meaning when you can’t be bothered to read everything back again, you have an accurate summary.
  • Look for other resources about the novel. Sparknotes is a great start, but there are also loads of students and teachers who upload their notes. Getrevising and TES are good for this, but you can often find access to other school’s websites or teacher’s blogs if you search for long enough. Examples of what I search are “of mice and men George notes pdf” and “character analysis DNA ppt”. I put the file type because I find that downloadable files are more comprehensive, but that is only my preference.

 

Step 4: Transfer class notes and additional research to character profiles

  • This is the bulk of the revision because it involves uniting all the research and making more of your own opinions.
  1. Make a list of all of the characters in the book and any other sections your teacher has highlighted or focused upon (structure of the text, key themes, socio-historic context).
  2. Aim to do one or two profiles a day, because you will run out of steam otherwise. Get all the research and notes you have about the character in front of you and begin typing.
  3. There is no set order. However, I would recommend starting with traits of the character. This will lead to finding quotes supporting their traits, and from there you will find more of their significant moments/quotes. How you will structure your notes depends on the character, because some will have strong traits and development, whereas others will just have a few key moments.
  4. Include quotes and try and use a different colour for quotes, because they will stand out and make the structure of your notes clearer.
  5. Collect as many perspectives of a quote and a character as possible. You don’t know what the questions are going to be, so you need to cover as much of the character as possible. Even if the analysis seems a bit out there, write it down, because often examiners like seeing students think out of the box. It could be the weird and wonderful annotations which get you the A*, instead of the basic, general analysis which every student has.
  6. Make the notes in short hand or write them in paragraph form. Do whatever you feel will make you remember it best. I often mix it up depending on the quote or the character.

 

Here are some examples of my notes from GCSE:

George and Lennie Of Mice and Men Notes

Candy and his dog Of Mice and Men Notes

The Exposition of ‘Of Mice and Men’ Notes

Phil DNA Notes

John Tate DNA Notes

Structure of DNA (Kelly) Notes

  • Apologies if there are spelling errors in the notes or if some of the comments are not clear. They are my personal revision notes, so while they make sense to me, they may not to others. They are also only my opinions and my analysis, thus there will be many more individual perspectives.

 

 

Step 5: Memorize quotes

  • When you have done all of your character profiles, it is important to go through and think about which points are the strongest for each character. Odds are, you are not going to have time to write about every aspect of the character in the exam, so you need to prioritize! You will also not be able to remember 20 quotes per character.
  • Choose the most important quotes and learn those ones perfectly. Then try and learn some extra ones.
  • Often you are allowed the blank text in the exam with you. However, don’t rely on this, because you want to use your time writing instead of searching for the exact quote. You can do it for a few quotes, but not every one.
  • Make sure you still look at the rest of your notes, instead of only the ones you have quotes for. These ideas might be necessary in the exam, and fortunately even if you need the quote as well, you’ll probably have the text to check it.

 

Step 6: Essay practice

  • This step should be done throughout the revision process. However, at the end it is vital you do as much essay practice as possible.
  • I recommend practising ALL the past paper questions and any more you can find online. Give them to your teacher and get them to mark them. It might seem like you are bombarding them with extra essays, but ultimately it is YOUR exam and YOUR future so you need to be as prepared as possible, so do as many as you can.
  • Do the essays under exam conditions as much as possible: blank text, time limits, no notes. It is important your hand gets used to scribbling furiously and that you know how you are going to react under the time pressure.

 

Obviously there are more steps you can add: flashcards, mindmaps with a bubble for each character etc. However, above are the main steps I used.

 

 

Let me know in the comments if the steps and examples were helpful, and whether you want to see more examples of my revision and notes.

 

If you have any questions about these exams or anything I have mentioned, leave me a comment and I’ll reply as soon as possible!

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Handwriting VS Typing Notes

One of the most important decisions when revising is whether you will handwrite or type your notes.

Personally, I go for handwriting with a few exceptions. Below are some of the reasons for choosing each technique:

 

HANDWRITING

Best for: long notes (including specification-led notes), mind maps, flash cards, posters, quotes, memorizing anything

  • Focus: I can type quite fast and often the words I type don’t sink in, but when I’m handwriting I take more time and so think about what I am actually writing.
  • In the exam, you will be handwriting. This means you might as well get used to putting pen to paper for hours on end. Prepare yourself for those hand cramps!
  • Coloured pens: This really needs no explanation but if you’re typing, there’s no excuse for buying a new set of beautiful fineliners.
  • Drawing is much easier done by hand: I also think if you copy and paste an image from the internet, you probably won’t remember it, but if you have to draw it and have to connect all the arrows, the irritation will probably lead you to remember it much better.
  • It removes additional distraction: I often do have my computer open because of extra research or explanations, but there’s something about just having to focus on my topic, rather than the fact that a new email has just come in, which makes handwriting easier to focus with.

 

TYPING

Best for: speaking exams, last-minute revision, summaries, using quotes in revision

  • You can correct things neatly: For speaking exams, I am always changing how I want to say things or teachers are correcting my grammar, so it is really important to be able to correct my mistakes in a way which is clear, rather than crossing everything out and rewriting.
  • Clarity: This extends from above, but when you are giving a presentation with note-cards (e.g in English orals), you don’t want to be trying to figure out what you scribbled in the margin; you want everything to be clear.
  • Showing emphasis: I often bold or increase the font size of aspects of a speech I want to emphasise, so that when I’m practising or during the actual presentation, it is obvious where my emphasis will be.
  • Quotes in your notes: For my English Literature exams, I have always typed up character profiles and theme notes, because when using quotes in my notes I prefer typing. I also think in literature, new ideas are coming all the time, so it is good to type because you can go back and edit your annotations and comments if inspiration hits later.
  • Speed: Typing is much quicker so if you want to summarise a lot of information, make a last-minute timeline in history or just revise everything within the course of a few hours, I would go with whatever option is quicker. For me, this is typing. It also gives your hand a break if you are revising the night before an exam.

 

Which option do you prefer? Let me know in the comments below.

How Do I Revise For Speaking Exams?

Speaking or oral exams can come in many shapes and sizes. They all have different mark schemes and criteria and a range of possible topics and styles. Below are my main tips for revising for a speaking exam.

  1. Actually Speak

This is something my language teachers would always say: make sure you are speaking aloud instead of practicing in your head. I think this is one of the most important things about revising for a speaking exam. It is vital that you hear yourself saying the words, so that you know which words to emphasise and how the speech with flow – there may be things which are great written down but when spoken seem stiff and unnatural.

I stress this point particularly with foreign languages. I believe that hearing yourself saying the words helps you to remember them, and even if you don’t memorise the entire speech, a lot of key vocabulary will stay with you. It’s also helpful for improving your pronunciation.

  1. Trigger Happy

By “triggers” I mean starter sentences or phrases, which lead to something else. These are particularly important for foreign language exams, because having triggers ready for every tense will mean that in the exam if you forget what you rehearsed, or the examiner guides the exam in an unexpected direction, you can still bring in the higher level language.

Even at A-level, I had key phrases for higher-level grammar points, so that I would ensure that I would get them into my exam and I could get the higher marks.

Trigger Examples (for any language):

When I was younger…

Last weekend I went to…

When I am older, I plan to…

In my free time, I enjoy…

Spanish higher-level trigger examples:

Es importante que

Si fuera profesor, haría

Me entristece que

  1. Record Yourself

Nobody likes listening to themselves back, but I honestly believe this is one of the best ways to practice for speaking exams. This mostly applies to foreign languages, when you have a set of questions which might come up. To practice these questions I suggest:

  1. Record each of the questions on a separate voice memo on your phone.
  2. Transfer the voice memos to your computer and create a playlist of questions.
  3. In a new voice memo, or even without recording yourself, play the playlist of questions and answer each one as it comes.

I normally record myself answering the questions, and then will listen to the answers to the questions which I found most difficult. I can answer the questions for about half an hour or so before getting bored, and I won’t listen to the entire thing back, but it provides reassurance about my answers.

  1. Time Yourself

Yes, I’m that person in the class that does their practice speaking exam and runs over by 20 minutes. But that’s because I’m a linguist. This has not always worked in my favour, because it means I try to give as much detail as possible, when actually I just need to show good vocabulary and grammar in the time given.

So, while revising it is vital to time yourself. If you can record yourself as well and see what you said during the allocated time, that is even better. But otherwise, just time yourself so that in the exam you don’t (a) have too much to say and keep being cut off by the examiner; or (b) have anything to say in the last 5 minutes of the exam because you had no idea the exam would be so long.

  1. Drama Students Rejoice

Unfortunately for the introverts of the world, no matter how word-perfect you are, or how excellent your knowledge of the topic is, you probably won’t be able to score full marks in a speaking exam if you aren’t dramatic and enthusiastic in your answers.

This is not one of my strong points – my teachers always told me that I needed to sound “more spontaneous” and “more enthusiastic” when I talk about as my hobbies or the environment. Even though I had prepared and rehearsed for weeks, they wanted “feeling” in the language. I would say that even for foreign language exams and even if it feels a bit stupid, try to inject surprise, shock and intrigue into your exam so that the examiner doesn’t mark you down for making him listen to another monotonous recital of “my dream holiday”.

  1. Practice Makes Perfect

A lot of people say “you can’t revise for a speaking exam”. This is completely ridiculous. Speaking exams are one of the easiest exams to prepare for because, ok, you aren’t given a textbook to learn from, but more often than not, you are given a topic and probably a set of questions to practice with. Knowing your topic and having your triggers prepared are the key points for a speaking exam, once you have them, it’s all about just continuously reading aloud from your preparation or just constantly talking to yourself.

Colour Me Crazy!

Colour has always been central in my revision. In any method of revision I use, there is colour. In fact, the amount of colour I use surprises people, because in class I am quite conservative with my stationary: black ink, lined paper and plain notebooks. However, for me, colour makes revision a bit more interesting. The simple changing colour between paragraphs/sections gives you a mini-break. Here are my 7 main tips for revising IN COLOUR:

Treat Yourself

Investing in a set of nice pens can make a difference in revision. I love ordering new pens from Amazon and it gives me the motivation to begin revising, because I want to try out the new pens. It seems weird, but having nice stationary really can make revising just the tiniest bit better.

Big, Bright and Beautiful

I have found that using a lot of colour is best. Use a variety of colours and write in paragraphs of colour. This may go against everything you were told to do in school, but it will mean you associate the colour with the information. At least, this worked for me, because I could almost always remember the colour I had written the information in. This meant the information didn’t all blur into one.

Keep the Colour and Carry On

While it is important to change colours, you should not write every word or even every sentence in a new colour. Otherwise you will never focus on what you are revising but instead on writing one thing and then stopping to switch pens, meaning there will be no flow. Sometimes I will write for pages in the same colour, if it is about the same specification point. Just use one colour until you have ended that aspect.

Order!

Create an order for your pens. This stops you from um-ing and ah-ing over which colour to use next and also means that when you go through your work everything is neat and organized. The order could be the one the pens come in, or you could rearrange it. Just stick to the order you decide on.

(Side note: This tip is mainly for notes. If you are doing a mind-map or flashcards, the order is not as important because you may want a certain colour to go with a certain topic.)

Highlight Happily

I love highlighters. Highlighters allow you to read blocks of mundane information and pick out key parts and keep you going a little bit longer. However, don’t highlight coloured handwritten notes or it may make it difficult to read (if you want to go through it use a pencil to underline). Highlight books or articles you’ve printed before you copy the information to notes – it will then make it easier to search through everything when you’re copying down the information.

Fade Away Pale

Pale colours are not great for revision. The yellows, baby blues and powder pinks may look pretty, but when you go back to review everything, it is going to make the revision even harder. Also, if someone is quizzing you, they may find it difficult to read the paler colours. Unless you are only writing a quick note or heading, I would  put the pale colours aside.

Back to Black

While colour is great, a standard black pen will still be your best friend. For making a key word stand out, writing the title/specification for the area of notes, for chart headings, underlining, numbering, outlining etc. etc. black saves the day. It stands out against the others and makes it clear that you are beginning a new section.

What are your thoughts on revising in colour? What is your favourite brand of pens? Let me know in the comments.