English Exam Tips
Unseen Poetry

How to Approach the English Exam: Unseen Poetry
Here is some advice on how to approach the unseen poetry section of English Paper 1,  from Paul McCormack, English Teacher at The Institute of Education…


  • Read the questions first. Targeted reading is important in any comprehension task. Know what the question is looking for, and have that in the front of your mind when reading the poem.
  • If there is a basic Personal Response question, try to establish the main theme, story or gist of the poem. Put simply, try to establish generally what the poet is writing about and why the poet is writing about that theme.
  • Ignore any words or phrases you don’t understand.
  • Read through the poem a second time.
  • Be aware of the fact that often in poetry seemingly inexplicably lines are metaphors and the words have a meaning that is not immediately apparent.
  • If on the second reading, you still do not understand a particular section from the poem, move on.

Failure to understand a particular line or image should not preclude you from answering the questions effectively.

The second reading is also the time when a slow and careful, line by line analysis of the poem, should allow you to highlight any examples of the tools of the poet in the poem:

  1. Alliteration
  2. Assonance
  3. Sibilance
  4. Onomatopeia
  5. Simile
  6. Metaphor
  7. Rhyming
  8. Juxtaposition
  9. Personification
  10. Meter

Whatever poem comes up on the exam you sit should contain examples of a number of the above poetic literary techniques. Combined, it is these tools that allow a poet to create RHYTHM AND IMAGERY. Don’t forget, if you struggle to identify specific techniques such as those listed above, you can still comment on the attention the poet pays to detail:

  • Precision of verb selection
  • Adding inventive / exact adjectives to nouns
  • Adding Inventive / exact adverbs to verbs

Questions often require students to comment on the poet’s use of language. If this Q comes up, write about how the poet uses language to

  • Create imagery – Visual / Aural / Tactile / Olfactory, etc
  • Create rhythm – give the poem a musical / lyrical quality
  • Communicate / Convey thoughts / feelings / observations in an inventive / original way

Answers in this section should be fully developed and to the point. Always use quotation to support anything you say about the poem. Even if your interpretation of the poem is inaccurate, you will still be awarded marks for structured answers that use the poem for supporting evidence. My advice is to try to write a 4-5 paragraph answer, with an OP+4BPs+CS structure for a 20 mark Q.

Best of Luck!

Paul McCormack