Reaction to Leaving Certificate English Paper 2 (Higher Level) by Paul McCormack, English teacher at The Institute of Education
This was an exam that did exactly what it should do – it tested the key skills that should be developed by the study of this subject over the course of 6 years of secondary education.
This was not a paper that rewarded rote learning. Instead, it was designed to reward the prepared, thoughtful candidate, who has an independent mind, and can present a point of view in a logical, substantive and coherent fashion.
After a challenging and difficult year for students, this paper offered unprecedented choice and welcome shelter from the storm. Changes to the exam meant that students did not have to answer all 3 sections but could select the most appealing questions from any 2 of the 3 areas of study.
The questions were thoughtfully constructed and, while the wording of one or two may have been problematic for some, there was always another option for well-prepared students. Hopefully, there was something here for everybody.
As usual, 5 texts were prescribed for study in the single text option. For most candidates, this is the ‘Shakespeare’ section, and this year, for most students, that meant ‘King Lear’.
There were 2 beautiful and subtle ‘King Lear’ questions, that will have challenged the candidates to think carefully and use their argumentative writing skills effectively.
The first, which asked students to comment on ‘chaos and confusion’ in the play, was broad and designed to reward original thinking. This question allowed students to bring in the role of the Fool, the breakdown of the natural order, the storm in both its literal and figurative sense, Edmund’s use of deception, the twists and turns of the final scene and myriad other aspects of the play. A brilliant question that required real thought and inventive thinking.
The second ‘King Lear’ question asked students to comment on the role and importance of the Fool and Kent. This question was reminiscent of a Hamlet question from the 2017 exam and was framed in a clever way.
There was a significant change in the format of the comparative section this year, as all 3 modes were examined, and candidates were permitted to deal with just 2 texts in the stand-alone 70 mark questions – a great idea and one I am sure was welcomed by many in the weeks leading up to today.
All 3 modes contained questions which were once again designed to award original thinking and mitigated against rote learning.
I particularly loved the General Vision and Viewpoint questions, which were both fair and complex while remaining accessible to the well-prepared student.
The Theme or Issue section was equally interesting, with a lovely question that asked candidates to comment on whether they found the theme they studied emotionally engaging. This question was again designed to reward original thinking, as well as the fundamental skills of effective essay writing.
Finally, in this section, the cultural context section again contained two thoughtful and broad questions that should have presented no significant obstacle to the majority of candidates.
The Unseen poem, by Louise Greig, was a great choice, filled with figurative language and numerous obvious poetic techniques. Both questions were fair and accessible, although I imagine most students would have opted for question 1, which was more straightforward than the 2nd option.
The covid accommodations led to a significant change in the studied poetry section – 5 studied poets were examined, as opposed to 4 in a normal year.
All 3 Irish poets featured, and as expected, Seamus Heaney made a long overdue appearance here, along with Paul Durcan and Eavan Boland.
The Boland question was a great option, as it asked about how the narrative elements employed in her poetry help her communicate her themes.
The Heaney question was also lovely and asked students to comment on how he uses language to transform the mundane, enabling the reader to draw profound lessons from his poetry.
The Durcan question, which asked about the poet’s use of tone or mood, was probably a little more challenging, and the questions on Sylvia Plath and John Keats should have presented no significant difficulties to candidates who wanted to answer on these poets.
I am delighted for the Class of 2021. You have had a rough couple of years and have worked hard despite the vagaries of fate that you have had to face since March 2020. The English exam is over now… be proud of what you have done, and put this exam behind you, while trying to keep the love and the value of reading with you for the rest of your life. It is a great friend and will offer you shelter from the storm.