How to Do Well (and Get Good Grades!) in English Literature Class
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. Here are some tips on not only how to survive English Lit classes, but how to get a good grade!
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 that you’ll be reading this year, and keep it in your English Lit class notebook (dedicate a page to it if you think that 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 end up being 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.
This seems pretty obvious, but in order 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 on - 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 every day 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 revise, especially those pieces that you didn’t fully understand the first time.
DON’T 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, as well as collect important quotes that can be used as textual evidence in future essays.
3) Make some notes along the way.
Notes are some of the most important things in a student’s life; especially those who study English Lit. Don’t hesitate to buy some notebooks, highlighters and pens for this class – you’re definitely going to need them. As a Lit student, prepare for a lot of writing, especially in the form of essays, tests, class notes and study notes.
Keep at least two separate notebooks: one for taking notes in class, and the other to make notes while you’re studying. You can put the following in the 'study' notebook:
- Any interesting things 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 keeping two separate notebooks, but this can prevent your class notes getting mixed up with your personal notes. However, you can still carry your study notebook to school, and use it in the class discussion. When it comes to 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, Jiffynotes (just to name a few) were specifically made to help students understand school subjects better.
These only 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, Old-to-Modern-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 that you find on online study guides can help you understand your textbooks better, 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) Study Groups are the way to go.
Study groups can be very handy for school subjects, and English Lit is certainly no exception. As soon as possible, try to assemble a group of around 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 that you may have. In an ideal study group, each member gives and receives information, therefore benefiting everyone. However, if a member is having 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 in 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.
6) Ask Questions.
Ask questions in class. If you’re not sure about something, ask a classmate or the teacher. Don’t let it pass – how else are you going to 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 on an essay.
If you didn’t get a grade you expected on an essay, you can ask the teacher about it, and how you can improve for 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 in order to fully understand the context of the book.
Thanks to technology, you no longer have to make 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 that relate to what you're currently studying.
Look up the period of history in which the book, play or poem is based or was written in. 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.
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 day 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 large 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’, and ‘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 of 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 your 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 you can ensure getting a good grade in English Literature.
Don’t leave studying until 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 through 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 whole 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 not only help during your studies, but when you enter the workplace.
Best of luck!