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IBDP English - Visual Text Analysis (Paper 1)

Paper 1 in English appears challenging and nerve-wracking for students. It is without a doubt one of the most difficult papers for IBDP students. You have no idea what the questions are being asked. That is, after all, the challenge of this paper. The IB evaluates your ability to analyse a visual text and to write a commentary based on your findings.

What is a commentary?

It's a thorough breakdown of the visual text. The students must make inferences, analyse the picture, and interpret it. They should present their findings in the form of an essay.

What are the types of questions?

For IB English Literature SL and HL, Text A is always a poem and Text B is always a prose excerpt from a novel or short story.

For IB English Language and Literature SL, Text A and Text B can come from a broad variety of sources, including magazines, editorials, speeches, interview scripts, instruction manuals, cartoon strips, and more.

How to write an effective Commentary?

Several teachers have various methods for analysing a visual text. By far we find COST most comprehensive. It consists of content, composition, context, style and theme.

  1. Content: In this case, write down your thoughts in a blank sheet or column. What do you think you see? Make sure it is exactly what you see, not your interpretation of the text. Example: If it is a comic strip or page of an iTunes etc.

  2. Composition: Take note of how the content is presented and organized in the visual text. You should only focus on the compositional elements at first, and then interpret their meanings later. You should also comment on the structure of the visual text.

  3. Context - Now, take notes on where the visual text should go in terms of timeline, socioeconomic setting, artist/creator, purpose etc. Be careful not to miss any aspect.

  4. Style - Is there a particular style to the image? To what extent does the text's style add to the context? Is the style sarcastic, comedic, conflictive etc.

  5. Theme - What effect does the text have on you? What is the message conveyed by the text? How does the overall presentation of the text reinforce or change your perspective on the subject? At this point, you formulate your interpretation of the text's context, which you defend as a defensible, valid statement or opinion.


Let's take a look at an example of a visual text and see how the mentioned objectives are achieved.

The cartoonist Waterson uses 4 panels in this comic strip to tell the story. This type of comic strip would usually appear in newspapers and its purpose to entertain and provide a break whilst reading through more serious matters. This particular comic strip introduces the two characters in the first panel. This establishing shot sets the scene as being in a school environment and immediately introduces the idea of hierarchy as the teacher is larger than the protagonist, Calvin, and takes up more of the space in the panel.

Waterson begins by creating a clear contrast between the two characters: Calvin and his teacher. We can immediately sense the authority and power dynamic in panel 1 as the teacher occupies more space than Calvin and is looking down at him. This initial expectation that the teacher is in charge is undermined by Calvin’s assertive response to her question, “You have a question Calvin?” Humour is created here because the reader does not expect the question Calvin subsequently asks. This is due to the fact that the question is not only irrelevant to whichever lesson he is engaged in, but also because his question could be perceived as impolite in the face of an older authority figure. In addition, the fact that Calvin is clearly very young, evidenced by his size and short spiky hair, further increases the humour as he has now unexpectedly taken charge of the conversation, in addition, his question is far too sophisticated for a child of his age and the language used is extremely formal. Furthermore, the tone created by the phrase ‘what assurance do I have’, is quite demanding and definitely not in keeping with our expectations of a student teacher interaction. By using adult diction, coming from a child. Waterson skillfully creates an imbalance in the relationship and disrupts our expectations as readers.

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IBDP English - Visual Text Analysis (Paper 1)
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