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How to Do Well (and Get Good Grades) in English Literature

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Cardia is a Barbadian university student with a love for writing and helping others.

Read on for 11 helpful tips on how to excel in your English Literature courses. Stick around till the end for special help understanding Shakespeare's language.

Read on for 11 helpful tips on how to excel in your English Literature courses. Stick around till the end for special help understanding Shakespeare's language.

Most students hate English Literature classes – it’s a fact. So many essays to write, books, plays and poems to be read and interpreted, boring lectures and classes – the list could go on and on.

However, you don’t have to dread English Lit classes. With a positive attitude, determination and a little hard work, you can do well in this subject. This article offers some tips on not only how to survive English Lit classes, but how to get a good grade as well! Here's what we'll discuss:

11 Tips for Excelling in English Lit Class

  1. Know what you need to read
  2. Read
  3. Take some notes along the way
  4. Online study guides
  5. Utilize study groups
  6. Ask questions
  7. Do some extra research
  8. Watch movies and plays
  9. Know your jargon
  10. Prove (and validate) your point
  11. Study for exams

*Stay tuned till the end for extra information on understanding Shakespeare's language!

Big ol' stack of books.

Big ol' stack of books.

1. Know What You Need to Read

At the beginning of the school year, find out what you will be studying during the semester. Ask your teachers or professors, or look through the class syllabus if one is available. Make a list of the materials you’ll be reading this year, and keep it in your English Lit class notebook (dedicate a page to it if you think it would be more effective). Separate it into different sections, such as a list of poems, a list of prose pieces, and a list of dramas.

This will help you keep track of your progress, so you don’t get confused about whether you read something or not. You can even tick them off as you go along. Keeping a list of reading materials is also very handy for when you need to revise for exams.

2. Read

This seems pretty obvious, but to actually know what’s happening in Literature class, you need to read the books! It may seem like the hardest task in the world, but it will pay off later – trust me.

As soon as you find out what you need to read, either buy or borrow the textbooks (you can find great deals on used textbooks on the Internet) and start reading. Don’t read just in class – read in your spare time too. If possible, dedicate 30 minutes daily to reading your class books or poems. You can also reward yourself when you finish reading a class selection.

The quicker that you finish reading all of your books, the better. This will give you more time to reread those pieces you didn’t fully understand the first time.

Do not leave your reading until the night before the exam. You will only lose sleep and stress yourself out. Also, don’t skip out on reading and just use study guides instead. This is not effective either, no matter how tempting it may seem.

Reading the actual book is beneficial because as you read along, you begin to formulate ideas and materials about the material and collect important quotes that can be used as textual evidence in future essays.

3. Take Some Notes Along the Way

Notes are some of the most important things in a student’s life, especially those who study English Lit. The importance of good notes cannot be overstated! Don’t hesitate to buy notebooks, highlighters and pens for this class – you’ll definitely need them. As a Lit student, prepare for a lot of writing, especially essays, tests, class notes and study notes.

Keep at least two separate notebooks: one for taking notes in class and the other for making notes while studying. You can put the following in the ‘study’ notebook:

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  • Anything interesting you might have noticed while reading the material (such as important motifs and themes)
  • Any words that you think would be good to include in future essays or exams
  • Quotes from critics’ analyses of the materials (trust me, teachers and exam markers love when students can directly quote critics – it will score you some extra points and help validate the point you’re trying to make)
  • Important quotes from characters
  • Lists of themes, motifs, characters, and literary devices used
  • Important background information on the writer (such as events in their life, where they lived, what was happening in the world at the time) and how that would’ve impacted their work

It may seem tedious to keep two separate notebooks, but this can prevent your class notes from getting mixed up with your personal notes. However, you can still carry your study notebook to school and use it in class discussions.

Regarding revision time, you would have much more information to help you than if you just depended on your class notes. Who knows, maybe you can make a little extra money after the school year is done by selling the notes to new students!

4. Online Study Guides

An English Lit student’s best friends (besides the textbooks, of course) are online study guides. Websites like Sparknotes, CliffsNotes and Jiffynotes (just to name a few) were specifically made to help students understand school subjects better.

These study guides are chock-full of literary goodness and have information on almost any book, poem and play that you can think of. Besides summaries, they also have helpful hints, essay tips, Early Modern-to-Contemporary English translations and video summaries, just to name a few features.

These websites also often sell textbooks of their own. For example, Sparknotes sells the popular ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ series – on the left page of the book is the original Shakespearean English text and on the right page is a translation into the modern English language.

The information you find in online study guides can help you better understand your textbooks, which will then reflect in your essays and class participation. Nothing feels as good as being able to participate in class and actually know and understand what the teacher is talking about!

5. Utilize Study Groups

Study groups can be very handy for school subjects, and English Lit is certainly no exception. Try to assemble a group of around five to seven classmates (too large a group can cause complications and distractions).

The main idea of a study group is to help each other understand and revise together, as well as share any information or knowledge you may have. In an ideal study group, each member gives and receives information, therefore benefiting everyone. However, if a member has difficulty understanding, have an extra session that is smaller or ‘one on one’. Encourage each other, and if you find a helpful website or video online, share it. Everyone should be able to reap the benefits.

Study groups can work in many ways – you can choose a day to meet at the library or after school once a week (depending on everyone’s schedules), or you can arrange online meetings using programs like Skype or Google Hangouts. You can even create a special private group on Facebook or Whatsapp just for your classmates to ask questions, give answers and share information.

Remember, don’t hold out on helping another person or sharing information – all the members in the group are working towards a common goal.

How to Make Group Study Sessions Actually Work

6. Ask Questions

Ask questions in class. If you’re unsure about something, ask a classmate or the teacher. Don’t let it pass – how else will you learn if you keep your questions to yourself? Even if the question seems dumb, never hesitate to ask someone for help. It’s better to ask the ‘dumb’ question and get the answer there and then than to never know the answer and end up writing incorrect information in an essay.

If you didn’t get the grade you expected on an essay, you could ask the teacher about it and how you can improve next time. Ask the teacher for writing essay writing tips or how to improve your writing style. The teacher would be thrilled that you’re genuinely interested in performing better and would be happy to give you some pointers.

7. Do Some Extra Research

As an English Lit student, you cannot depend solely on the textbook or your class notes for information. Sometimes you might need to do a little extra research to fully understand the context of the book.

Thanks to technology, you no longer have to take a trip to the library to do research. Read articles and summaries from experts, historians and sociologists, watch documentaries, and ask questions online. You can also attend special lectures related to your current studies.

Look up the period of history in which the book, play or poem is based or written. What were the social conditions like? Who was the ruler at the time? What was happening in the writer’s life at this time? Factors like these could’ve had a major impact on the writer’s choice of subject matter.

Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando,Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr in the 1953 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando,Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr in the 1953 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

8. Watch Movies and Plays

Sometimes, reading is not enough to fully understand the material, especially if it’s a play – Shakespeare, anyone? A great way to help yourself understand it better is to watch the theatre or film version!

Most classic books have had movie remakes, and Shakespearean plays have had countless versions acted out both in film and on stage. There are even some modern takes on classics; for example, the popular movie She’s the Man, starring Amanda Bynes, is a modern version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. These can be found on Netflix or other streaming services, and some high school versions of the play (which are actually quite accurate) can be found on YouTube.

Treat it as if you were watching a normal movie – invite some friends from your English class over, pop up some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy! While watching, point out anything that jumps out at you or may seem important.

Watching the visual re-enactment of the book or play can help you remember important scenes. Plus, it reminds you that plays are not meant to stay as words on paper – they were written to be performed by actors on a stage in front of an audience.

9. Know Your Jargon

Language (obviously) plays a prominent role in English Lit – in writing, reading and discussing the texts. There are certain words and devices that are specifically associated with this subject. These can be collectively known as literary jargon. The word ‘jargon’ means the language and vocabulary associated with a certain group, profession or subject.

Literary jargon would include words such as ‘narrator’, ‘antagonist’, ‘protagonist’, ‘denouement’ and so on. Knowing and using these will definitely help you understand the reading material. Also, when asked (especially by the teacher or during an exam or essay), you will also be able to describe different aspects of the material better.

Here’s a tip – whenever you discover a new term, try to apply it to something in the book you’re studying. Which character does it describe best? Which scene or event fits the word’s definition?

When writing essays, always include the literary terms and devices you know. Instead of writing ‘the main character’, use ‘the protagonist’ instead. This will make your essay sound much more professional and will probably score you a few extra marks too.

10. Prove (and Validate) Your Point

Look at some English Lit essay questions – most, if not all, are asking for your opinion on a certain topic related to the reading material. What do you think? Why do you think that?

Always back up what you write with textual evidence – that is, give examples from the book or play that support your views. Don’t just write that you believe something – give proof!

If you’re told to list important ideas and themes in the text, write examples of events or circumstances that drive you to your conclusion. If you’re being asked for your opinion on a certain character, give at least four thorough examples from the text.

Did you see Richard from the play King Richard III as manipulative? Give examples of how he tricked and influenced other characters in the play. Was Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby shallow and selfish? Provide samples from throughout the book that make you think that way.

Doing this can definitely score you some extra points in your essays. It shows that you know your stuff, and you know how to apply it when needed.

11. Study for Exams

Last but certainly not least, study for your exams. This is one of the most important ways to ensure getting a good grade in English Literature.

Don’t leave studying until the last minute; English Literature is a very complex subject, with a lot of information to remember. Instead, start at least four weeks in advance. Dedicate some time every day to revising and studying English Lit, and increase these as the day of the exam draws nearer.

By the night before the exam, you should just briefly scan your notes before getting a good night’s sleep. ‘Cramming’ for an English Literature exam the night beforehand will only stress you out.

It may seem like a lot of hard work to get and maintain good grades in English Literature. But it does have many benefits. English Lit opens your eyes to a new world and can enhance your love of reading and seeking knowledge. Plus, it’s always good to develop and keep good study and organizational habits, which will help during your studies and when you enter the workplace.

Understanding Shakespeare's Language

20 Words Shakespeare Invented and Their Meanings

This table includes 20 words Shakespeare invented, their original and modern meanings, and what work they first appeared in.

WordOriginal MeaningModern MeaningFirst Appearance

Admirable

To be attractive

Something that deserves respect or admiration

Hamlet

Auspicious

A good omen to indicate future success

Favorable; promising success; a good omen

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Baseless

Without any grounding in reality

Without a foundation; not based on fact

The Tempest

Barefaced

Obvious and in the open

Shameless; without concealment or disguise

Macbeth

Belongings

Properties or possessions

A person’s moveable possessions

Measure for Measure

Catigate

To chasten

To punish harshly

Timon of Athens

Clangor

A loud resonant ringing sound

A (loud) clanging sound

Henry IV, Part II

Dawn

Sunrise

The beginning appearance of light when the sun rises

Henry V

Dexterously

Skillfully done or created accurately

Skillful, especially in the use of one's hands (or also one's mind

Twelfth Night

Dwindle

To deteriorate or go slower

To get smaller; diminish; often used to describe money

Henry IV, Part I

Hostile

Enemy

An unfriendly person or demeanor

Coriolanus

Ill-used

Used harshly or wrongly

To treat someone badly

Sonnet 95

Long-legged

To have long legs

To have long legs

A Midsummer Night‘s Dream

Lonely

Sad from having no company

To be alone

Coriolanus

Multitudinous

Means too many or a lot

A lot; a great number

Macbeth

Ode

A lyrical poem

A lyrical poem

As You Like It

Overblown

Used to described an inflated or exaggerated complaint or injury

Pretentious or outrageous

Taming of the Shrew

Sanctimonious

Hypocritically pious or devout

Pretending to be very religious or righteous

Measure for Measure

Skim Milk

Used to describe someone of weak character

Milk where the fat is removed

Henry IV, Part I

Watchdog

A dog that acts as a sentinel

A person or group that keeps a close watch to discover wrong or illegal activity

The Tempest

20 Phrases Shakespeare Invented and Their Meanings

This table includes 20 phrases Shakespeare created, as well as their meanings and what work they first appeared in.

PhraseMeaningFirst Appearance

"All that glisters is not gold."

This phrase is often used after we discover that something that looks good turns out not to be that great, and substitute "glitters" for "glisters."

Merchant of Venice

"As good luck would have it."

This means something happened that was pure chance or luck.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

"Break the ice."

Often when you first meet someone, you "break the ice" by asking them polite questions about themselves.

The Taming of the Shrew

"Clothes make the man."

Although not always true, this phrase implies that how a person dresses tells you something about their character/personality.

Hamlet

"Cold comfort."`

A form of consolidation, but a bad form that is only slight or is really no consolation at all. For example, a decent drop in the inflation rate for millions of unemployed would be a “cold comfort.”

King John

"Devil incarnate."

This describes someone that is evil and scheming, so much so that they are almost a reincarnation of the devil.

Titus Andronicus

"Eaten me out of house and home."

When someone, usually children or adolescents, eat so much that the homeowner is left with little to no food.

Henry IV, Part II

"Fair play."

Follow the rules, especially in competitions or sports.

The Tempest

"A laughing stock."

To be a laughing stock is to be considered a joke by many people.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

"In a pickle."

To be "in a pickle" is to be in trouble or in a situation that you cannot easily get out of.

The Tempest

"It's Greek to me."

When you say, "it's Greek to me," you are admitting that you do not know or understand something.

Julius Caesar

"Pound of flesh."

When this phrase is used it is talking about a cruel or unusual punishment.

Merchant of Venice

"Such stuff as dreams are made on."

Describes when something is so good that it is just like a dream.

The Tempest

"The lady doth protest too much."

If someone denies something more than once, you can say "the lady doth protest too much," meaning you think that they feel the opposite of what they are saying.

Hamlet

"Too much of a good thing."

It is said that "too much of a good thing" (i.e., money, love, food) is not necessarily good for you.

As You Like It

"Wear one's heart on one's sleeve."

To be a hopeless romantic (or be open and honest about how you feel) is to wear one's heart on one's sleeve.

Othello

"Wild-goose chase."

When someone leads you on a wild chase to find them, it is commonly known as a wild-goose chase.

Romeo and Juliet

"What's done is done."

It is done, and there is no going back. You must simply deal with the consequences.

Macbeth

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Cheezkid on March 13, 2020:

Thank to u Author. Hoping for the best

Minu on February 02, 2020:

Thank u soo much sir..

Basit shittu on December 29, 2019:

Thank you brother

For the great service you have given me

Basit Ade Shittu on December 29, 2019:

Thanks Mr author

Sandra on September 11, 2019:

Thanks for the information, i will definitely put them into practice.and be hoping for a better result this semester

Earnest on August 28, 2019:

Vry optmstic keep up e spirit henk u vry much

callum on June 21, 2019:

i didn't even read it but thanks for your time my friend :D

lola on March 15, 2019:

thanks for the information am hoping for a better result this term

Bhargavi on March 07, 2019:

Thanks a lot..

Doll on January 31, 2019:

How i can prepare lit slybs in one mnth ..its too short tim for me nd i hv also not alot tim for searching etc..nd my exams will b strt at the end of the feb or may b at the strting days or march..olzz suggest me how i can prepare himself for exams

vinee ARMY on December 31, 2018:

Thank you so much! I'm really motivated now! I'll nail it!

jeffrey zheng on December 18, 2018:

yoo i just got a 50 on my medieval time essay and my teacher said that we all have room for improvement and i wanted to say so badly that i didnt have anymore

Rror on November 13, 2018:

Bro thank u

Mike on November 07, 2018:

Thank you so much!

Kuga on November 06, 2018:

Thanks

Youssef mohamed salah on October 28, 2018:

Thanks

omaewamoeshinderu on October 10, 2018:

thanks for the info

roman on September 28, 2018:

thank you for the simple english you used to explain your subject and l did understood and sooner or later am going to pass my exams

james on September 28, 2018:

thanks l will try it and see if this will work

Anonymous on September 16, 2018:

Is anyone else using proper English and punctuation after reading this?

saul on September 14, 2018:

nice information and it helped me to pass my literature

Precious on August 26, 2018:

Thanks that was very useful

sammy on August 24, 2018:

continue doing the good job by assisting us to do good in our literature classes

jimmy on August 22, 2018:

thanks dude gotta do my homework.....

precious on August 17, 2018:

that was very helpful to my studies because l got hold to the teachings on your blog and l passed my literature with A grades .thank you

tatenda on August 10, 2018:

thank you for the information oping to get better grades in my english exams

sehenaj on August 07, 2018:

Very good

taophic on July 27, 2018:

thank you very much u guys av helped my life

Mah on July 11, 2018:

To be honest, before reading these information, I was really upset and I felt like I could never pass my exams; but now, by reading your helpful information, I've planned what I need to do and hopefully I am going to do well. Thank you ever so much!

Emmanuel Moses on June 17, 2018:

Awesome job, i now have hope that I'll go far and better my English exam, thanks .

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on May 26, 2018:

Cardia -- nice job. Very helpful hub. Keep up the fine work.

Firomsa umer on May 14, 2018:

this is very helpful thanks

Shermaine on May 04, 2018:

To score well for literature exams, you have to understand the story. The story behind it, why it happened. From then, you will probably score well and even better.

Susan on March 23, 2018:

Wow thank you for such, i also believe in asking questions as it helps to have a clear understanding and it applies to all subjects not just literature.

Yousry on March 19, 2018:

No you layer

Are you crazy

Zah on February 27, 2018:

Good points. I do understand the need to study for exams early, but in our morden times with work, children and spouses, I find that movies and plays help me to remember better than studying. If the acting and scripts are good.

sammatha on February 27, 2018:

How do I memorize Literary jargon so that I can use it in my essays in exams?

Ayanda on February 27, 2018:

It's true that you need to keep important quotes from characters when marking and grading the exams we look at that. I teach Literature

Fujie on February 27, 2018:

Great Tips.!!!To add on you must have a positive attitude towards Literature and love the teacher tutoring the subject because your attitude towards the subject and Teacher contributes alot in getting a good grades. Had an A in Literature was studying Romeo &Juliet and MacBeth .

MYON on February 26, 2018:

Good Tips

saad on February 01, 2018:

good tips

Jonas on December 29, 2017:

These are valuable tips that one needs to adapt anx very much

Erwin Messi Chisango on December 14, 2017:

Thank you very much for sharing your productive ideas with me, l will try my best to follow the because l'm very weak in my english studies.... YOUNG MESSI

Samruddhi on November 18, 2017:

Awesome!! English need not be boring from now on....

Sam de silva on August 26, 2017:

Exactly meaning full and motivational

Aliyaa on June 10, 2017:

It's good but I want to know how can I get an A.Because still I am scoring 66 like the that...???

Tasnuva on December 21, 2016:

Thank you so much for your fantastic suggestions. Now I hope it'll be easy for me to prepare for the next semester.

Sam on November 28, 2016:

I know the context. I can re-tell the story. But I don´t know how to link it to AO1, AO2 and AO3. Please what can I do then to better my grades in English Literature? Thanks.

Best School in Tricity on November 22, 2016:

Nice post

Deepthi on October 29, 2016:

Very useful.

Amy on August 16, 2016:

I'd urge against tip #4 as I have read quite a few sparknotes analysis' that have completely misinterpreted works (legitimately. I'm not arguing that it simply differs from my interpretation - it can be flat out wrong). Plus reading those notes makes it harder for you to form your own ideas outside of what they say.

HENOK BERHE on June 29, 2016:

I found it very helpful, informative and precise . thank you

zujaja on May 16, 2015:

It's a really old post to comment on, but did so to acknowledge your help. The writer has quite comprehensively described the way one can perform better in English Literature exams. It's by far one of the best resources a literature student can find on the internet. It helped me a lot. Thank you and Kudos!

Keep working this way, a lot of student await such vital guidance.

Tamana on September 05, 2014:

I am very satisfied that you posted this article it has helped me so far in english I used to be in the mid 70%s but now I am in the mid 80%s.

Richard Gilbert on September 01, 2014:

Try affiliating some stationary. Hood hub! Keep it up.

Sherani Vanburen on April 25, 2014:

Thank you for presenting these beautiful and productive ideas, I'll put my efforts to follow these guidelines, Thank you once again for sharing your ideas.......

Robin on February 16, 2014:

Excellent article. I'm a secondary Lit teacher looking for something simple for my pupils to digest and this is the best article out there. There is so much bad advice about studying lit -- thank you for producing something thoughtful and relevant.

Drisha on February 08, 2014:

Wow thanks :) but can you help more please?

Cardia (author) from Barbados. on August 27, 2013:

Muhammad Rohail Hassan,

Thank you so much for your lovely comment! I am so glad that my article was able to help you with your English Literature studies. Best of luck for the future!

Muhammad Rohail Hassan on August 21, 2013:

it is very useful, i have gone through it. thanks to Cardia, the person who had make it easy for the readers to understand literature, and i want to appreciate Hub Pages for providing the platform for those people who eant others to understand any subject easily. i am myself a student of English Literature and was having too much difficulties in getting good grades, but now IN SHA ALLAH i'll make my efforts do like this.

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