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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Include quotes and try and use a different colour for quotes, because they will stand out and make the structure of your notes clearer.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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!