Central to the syllabus for Leaving Certificate English is a focus on developing students’ interest in literature and building on what you learned throughout your Junior Cycle studies. Throughout this course, you will be encouraged to develop your skills and concepts of English so that you can become a more adept and thoughtful user of the language, aware of its significance in everyday life.
This guide focuses on the final exam for Leaving Cert English. We’ll be discussing what the exam involves and what you can expect from your papers, as well as how to revise for this subject so you can get as many marks as possible.
The Leaving Cert English exam
Leaving Certificate English is studied at the Ordinary and Higher levels. The main focuses of the two-year programme are comprehension and composition.
The syllabus advocates studying language in and through a range of contexts, genres, functions and styles, using a wide variety of poems and poets, one prescribed literary text and a group of texts for comparative study. You can find the prescribed material for 2022 here, the 2023 material here and the 2024 material here.
The final written examination for this subject is split into two papers (Paper One and Paper Two) at both Ordinary and Higher levels. In the 2022 adjustments, Paper One and Paper Two will be both worth 140 marks instead of the usual 200 marks.
What to expect in Leaving Cert English exam papers
Paper One is divided into two sections: Section One concerns comprehending whereas Section Two focuses on composing. Each section is worth 100 marks. The paper will contain three texts on a particular theme, which changes every year and is different for the two levels of study. The theme for the Higher level paper in 2019, for example, was ‘feeding our imaginations’, whereas the theme for the Ordinary level paper was ‘social media’.
Because the themes are different for the two levels, the texts and excerpts included in the papers will also be different. However, the structure of the paper will be the same for both levels. The texts featured in the paper could be of a number of different formats, from reports and arguments to poems and extracts from stories.
In Section One, each text will be followed by two questions (Question A and Question B). In previous years, you had to answer a Question A on one text and a Question B on another text, but not a Question A and a Question B on the same text. For the 2022 paper, you will only be required to answer one question—either one Question A or one Question B on one text in this section.
Section Two will present you with seven composition assignments related to the texts presented in Section One. You must write an extended composition on any one of these assignments. Depending on the assignment, this could involve writing a short story, descriptive or personal essay, speech or article.
These assignments are designed to encourage you to demonstrate your engagement with and understanding of the texts, respond to the texts in a coherent and evaluative manner, and put forward your view of the texts. They are intended to reflect your learning in the following areas:
The aesthetic use of language
At both levels, there are three sections on Paper Two:
Section I: In-depth study of a single text that has been chosen by your school for study throughout the Leaving Cert programme, from a list provided to them by the Department of Education
Section II: Comparative study of three further texts that have been prescribed for the comparative course of the Leaving Cert English programme
Section III: Poetry of both a prescribed poem from your studies and an unseen poem
For 2022, you will only have to answer the required number of questions in any two of these sections, rather than all three like previous years. At both levels, the questions in Section I and Section II will have several options to choose from—you will only have to answer one question.
In Section III, Higher level students will answer one question on the unseen poem (20 marks) and another question on the prescribed poetry (50 marks). This second question will be more general than the first, and use language such as ‘Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the above statement’ concerning a particular poet’s style and impact.
Ordinary level students will have to answer all questions on the unseen poem (typically two, each worth 10 marks) and the questions on one prescribed poem (total of 50 marks).
How to revise for Leaving Cert English exams
The structure of the Leaving Cert English exam rarely changes, so the easiest and most effective way to prepare for this is to practice using sample and past papers. English is a bit more predictable in this respect than other subjects at Leaving Cert level, though you can never be sure what the theme for Paper One will be or what the unseen poems will be in Paper Two. However, doing mock exams using sample and past papers will allow you to familiarise yourself with the timings of the exam and help you identify areas requiring additional development.
One of the most important things in preparing for this exam is studying the prescribed texts as closely as possible. This is especially true for the single text and comparative studies in Paper Two, but also for the poetry section. Again, you can use past papers to help with this, as many of the same poets are featured in rotation (particularly Yeats, Dickinson, Keats and Wordsworth). No matter what level you are studying English, try to familiarise yourself with at least five of the prescribed poets, at least two of which should be women.
Finally, you should try writing in a range of formats to help you understand what type of composition you are strongest in. Section Two of Paper One encourages you to demonstrate your personal writing style, so you shouldn’t opt for a personal essay when you are more comfortable writing fiction!
Resources for revising Leaving Cert English
Edco Leaving Cert English exam papers are a handy resource for practicing whole papers. They include 14 exam papers (including the 2021 papers) and an updated student guide for achieving better grades. You also get access to a free online study hub and solutions to questions.
Folens exam guides for Macbeth include detailed plot summaries and analyses, key points and quotations for major characters and themes, sample answers to common exam questions and general tips for succeeding on these questions in the exam.
Expression is a guide to Leaving Cert English Paper One, with a particular focus on the composition component. It includes guidance on composing in every genre, exercises for building confidence and marked sample answers to demonstrate where marks can be gained or lost.
Rapid Revision – Higher Level covers Paper One and Paper Two of the English exam. It demonstrates how to revise every area of the course and how to make use of your writing skills and prescribed texts. It also includes advice on the exam marking scheme and mastering your timing.