Getting good marks in literature

Tuesday January 8 2019


By Success Reporter

The new school year is here. The new study term just began in earnest this week. For the scholars going back to school the holidays are over. It is back to the classroom.

Classwork and homework are here to take away the idle time that has been spent watching TV or on social media or traipsing in the village. Although the schoolyard is everyone’s playground, it is in the classroom that the distinctions happen.

In the classroom the competition is about who will beat who in what subject at the end of the term and what will one score at the end of the year. All subjects of study tend to appear equal at the beginning of school term. But English – the language and literature – is the master of them all, if you set Kiswahili aside.

Therefore, high school students have to master the language as a means of communication as well as a subject of study. It is important to pass in the subject because it is a basic requirement for admission to college education.

Thousands of high-schoolers resort to study guides for English literature to help them out of this problem. However, it is the study guides that are the original problem with performance in English. Most of the guides simply offer ‘model answers’ to the likely exam questions. They do not actually ‘guide’ the learner to appreciate literature on her own.

Read read and read: First, read, read and read. There is no rule that supersedes this one. In order to be a good speaker of the English language, read texts on grammar as well as literature – poetry, drama, prose (short stories, novels, auto/biographies etc).


The grammar books will teach you the basic rules of how English words are formed, how they are put together in sentences, how meaning is suggested or made, the types of sentences and where and when they are used.

Literature, on the other hand, will expose one to how language is used in different contexts. Literature reflects social, cultural, political, spiritual, economic, personal, communal, national, or global realities.

In other words, literature tells us how, for instance, a teacher, priest, lawyer or storyteller speaks, thinks, behaves, eats, feels etc, in the spaces they inhabit. The language will teach you why certain words are used in some places and time. Literature will educate you on how they are used in those places and at that time.

The point, therefore, is that one cannot just read the one prescribed book and acquire the language or knowledge of how stories are told. Different writers use language differently and have their own style of telling a story.

Remember, read, read and read. Read some other books by the author of the set-book if one wishes to understand the specific author’s narrative style and language use – which might eventually be quite useful in interpreting the story. After reading and rereading, make personal notes on the text/story.

Make notes: This is a rule many readers who wish to remember the story they are reading use all the time. One can make notes in the set-book itself – as guide notes – and later make substantive notes about the plot, character, language, style, narrative voice, issue(s) raised in the book and lesson(s) offered in or learnt from the story.

Why go to all this trouble when one can simply read the guidebooks? Because the guidebook notes are someone else’s views. They may be wrong or only marginally helpful.

It is easier to remember the storyline, the characters, aspects of the language, elements of style, subject matter or themes, when one has made personal notes. Be the detective. Identify the evidence and make individual conclusions.

After all, the best trick to passing a literature exam is simply to have mastered the story – the reader knows who is doing what, where, when, with whom or to who – which allows you to figure out the motives of the characters, and therefore learn a lesson in how human beings relate to or treat each other.

But good detectives work with others. This is rule number three in studying literature, and often a language. Have someone to discuss your thoughts with – a classmate or someone from another class.