Leaving Cert English Masterplan 

by Paul McCormack

In this article, Paul McCormack takes a look at the Leaving Cert Higher Level English papers and breaks down exactly what you need to cover with tips on what to focus on and the depth required. 

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If you want to be a good writer, you need to concentrate not just on what you say, but also on how you say it.


Marking Scheme - PCLM


  • Purpose (30%)
  • Coherence of Delivery (30%)
  • Language (30%)
  • Mechanics (10%)


Paper 1 -200 marks

Timing – 2hrs 50mins = 170 mins

  • QA – 60 minutes
  • QB – 30minutes
  • Composition – 70 minutes
  • 10 minutes – ‘wriggle-room’


Comprehension – QA - 50m = 12.5%

  • 3 texts – Answer on 1
  • 3 Questions: 2x15m + 1x20 marks
  • Expectation – 5 marks = 1 paragraph
  • NO opening or closing paragraph required

Expect Q(i) to be very straightforward – often a simple character analysis task.


Based on your reading of the written element of TEXT 3, explain three insights you gain into the
character of Ariadne O’Neill. Support your response with reference to the text.

Expect Q(iii) to be a style question – vital to prepare and be able to identify the key qualities of different styles of writing:
a)    Argument -----> Discursive 
b)    Persuasion ----> Speech / talk
c)    Story / narrative
d)    Description / Aesthetic
e)    Personal writing

Expect Q(ii) to be the most challenging. In recent years, these questions have required candidates to be imaginative. These questions often do not require direct reference to the attached Reading Comprehension passage.

In TEXT 1, Jeanette Winterson claims that, “We go to Shakespeare to find out about ourselves now.” With reference to a Shakespearean play you have studied for your 2019 Leaving Certificate course, identify an image, moment or episode that revealed something to you about “yourselfnow”. Explain the insight(s) you gained from engaging with this image, moment or episode.

Comprehension – QB - 50m = 12.5%

  • 3 tasks – Answer on 1
  • Pick QB first
  • Imaginative tasks – often requires candidate to adopt a persona
  • Task usually involves a ‘framework’ instruction, i.e. A speech; a talk; an introduction to a collection of essays; a magazine article / blog post / article for school website; a formal letter; a Diary entry

Questions will also usually contain a list of tasks that must be addressed across the response. The key here is to be: 
1)    Accurate
2)    Consistent
3)    Imaginative
4)    Concise

In TEXT 1, Jeanette Winterson extols the virtues of the arts, arguing that artistic activities are beneficial both for individuals and for society in general. She also gives her views on the relationship between art and money. Write an opinion piece, suitable for publication in a broadsheet newspaper, in which you extol the varied virtues of sport, put forward a reasoned argument to persuade readers that sport benefits both individuals and society, and give your views on the appropriate relationship between sport and money.

Composition – 100m = 25%

  • The most important section of the exam
  • 7 choices – select one
  • Questions always genre-specific



  • A speech
  • A personal essay
  • A short story
  • A discursive essay


There will also likely be an option to write: 

  • A descriptive essay
  • A persuasive essay
  • A magazine / newspaper article

The style of writing is the most important criteria for assessment here. Tasks are genre-specific, so:

  • A short story should contain obvious elements of narrative / aesthetic language
  • A speech should display an understanding of persuasive and argumentative techniques
  • A discursive essay should display a balanced, informed, considered approach
  • A personal essay should be reflective and contain ‘individual observation’

The marking schemes very clearly lay out the expectations related to each style of essay and should be studied closely.

The quality of language and expression will be closely examined in this task above all others. The expectation is that the candidate will display a strong understanding of the particulars of the selected genre and will write in an articulate and clear style.

Imagination and Originality are key factors in a successful composition.


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Paper 2 – 200m – 200 minutes

Time management: take one hour to write each essay, and then spend 20 minutes on Unseen Poetry at the end.

There is an expectation that all answers on Paper 2 will be:

  1. Substantial (anywhere between 1,000 & 1,200 words is a reasonable expectation)
  2. Evidence-based. Quotation is vitally important here. There is an absolute expectation of supporting quotation for answers to Single Text and Studied Poetry answers. Quotation also adds to the quality of comparative answers.
  3. Analytical – the expectation is that answers will contain thoughtful and considered question-facing commentary. All Paper 2 tasks are exercises in CRITICAL THINKING.
  4. Properly structured. 

In responses to Single Text and Studied Poetry tasks, opening and closing paragraphs certainly should be written. However, they should be brief and only need to accomplish one task – state the candidate’s response to the statement proposal in the question. Every answer on Paper 2 must be written in the language of argument so provide your THESIS and move on. Closing paragraphs should again be brief and simply re-iterate the thesis. Candidates do not need to ‘list’ points on the OP or CP.

Single Text – 60m = 15%

Five texts are prescribed for study:

  1. Othello
  2. All the Light We Cannot See
  3. A Doll’s House
  4. Frankenstein
  5. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • There will be 2 questions on each text and candidates must answer one question.
  • The question will contain multiple elements

Discuss how Shakespeare makes effective use, for a variety of purposes, of the contradictions and inconsistencies evident in Othello’s character. Develop your discussion with reference to Shakespeare’s play, Othello.

Discuss how Shakespeare’s use of language, including imagery, plays an important part in developing our understanding of one of the following aspects of his play, Othello: themes; characterisation; setting and atmosphere. Develop your answer with reference to the text.


  1. Answers will be question-facing.
  2. Answers will not ‘narrate’ the studied text.
  3. Answers will be thoughtful, and points and evidence will be contextualised in the light of the question.
  4. Between 4-6 relevant points will be presented in a logical and structured essay.


Othello – Key Topics for Revision:

  1. The story-arc of the main characters
  2. The modern appeal 
  3. Universal themes like corruption and deception are particularly important.

Three modes are prescribed for study:

  1. The cultural context
  2. Theme and issue
  3. Literary genre



  • Each mode will offer a choice between two questions.
  • One choice will be a stand-alone 70-mark essay. 
  • In 2021, candidates could refer to 2 texts when answering this question WITHOUT FEAR OF PENALTY.
  • The other choice will be divided into Part A (30) marks and Part B (40 marks).
  • Candidates are expected to be able to refer to three texts when answering this question.


Expectations: Answers will

  1. Be written in the comparative spirit
  2. Display a detailed knowledge of the selected texts
  3. Avoid paraphrasing / narrating the selected texts.

When writing a Comparative answer, ensure you clearly identify your selected texts before you begin to write. The list technique is a very effective way to do this.

Try to develop 3-4 points in a thoughtful and analytical style. 


Studied Poetry: Poets Prescribed for Higher Level 2022



Dead Old Greats

Brendan Kennelly

Elizabeth Bishop

William Wordsworth

W.B. Yeats

Adrienne Rich

D.H. Lawrence


Emily Dickinson

John Keats


  • Expect to see at least one poet from each category on your exam. 
  • 4 poets are usually examined
  • In 2021, 5 poets were examined.
  • Candidates have to answer on one poet.
  • Questions will usually explicitly refer to 
    a)    The thematic content of a poet’s work
    b)    Aspects of the poet’s style of writing


  • Candidates should refer to between 4-6 poems in an answer.
  • Candidates will focus in on 3-4 core poems and then refer to another 1-2 other poems in context.
  • Candidates will not summarise the poems. 
  • Candidates will be selective in choice of evidence. 
  • You do not have to tell the examiner the story of the poem. 
  • The questions will vary in difficulty. Decision-making is a key skill here.
  • A good example if this comes from the 2020 Paper 2:

Emily Dickinson 
Discuss how Dickinson’s unique approach to language, and the balance between beauty and horror in her imagery, help to relieve some of the darker aspects of her poetry. Develop your response with reference to the poems by Emily Dickinson on your course. 

Adrienne Rich
Discuss how Rich makes effective use of a variety of characters, often in dramatic settings,
to probe both personal issues and wider social concerns in her poems. Develop your response with reference to the poetry by Adrienne Rich on your course.

One of these questions was much easier than the other...

Finally, some comments from the Chief Examiner that are worth considering...

The Leaving Certificate English Syllabus states that, “Developing control and power over language is the most essential educational achievement for all students if they are to become confident, thoughtful and discriminating adults and citizens”, (Leaving Certificate Syllabus, English, para. 3.5). The importance of key language skills is emphasised throughout the Marking Schemes for Leaving Certificate English and candidates who exhibit competence and control in the use of language are rewarded. It should be remembered that candidates’ language skills are continuously assessed in the marking of answers to all questions on both Papers 1 and Paper 2 of the Leaving Certificate English examination. The criteria for assessment are applied in the case of every answer at both Higher and Ordinary Levels. This means that candidates who exhibit fluency appropriate to the task are rewarded in relation to every question answered. It is worth noting that some examiners identified candidates who were able to demonstrate knowledge of a text or texts but were less able to deliver this knowledge in a lucid and coherent fashion. 

An appropriate awareness of grammatical and syntactical conventions contributed to the cohesiveness of better answers in the 2013 examination, as did the use of correct spelling and punctuation. Weaker responses tended to be characterised by an inability to organise answers in a logical and coherent fashion and a lack of clear expression. The syllabus requires that, “all students will be expected to be assiduous in their attention to paragraphing, syntax, spelling and punctuation.” 

Candidates at both Higher and Ordinary Levels benefited when they exhibited an ability to structure their writing, organise paragraphs, spell accurately and correctly employ punctuation. 

The criteria for assessment also make explicit reference to the “use of lively interesting phrasing, energy, style and fluency”. It is essential that candidates are aware of the many purposes for which language is used and the diverse forms it can take, to appropriately serve particular purposes and audiences. Creative and thoughtful users of language were rewarded.

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Paul McCormack is a senior English teacher at the Institute of Education, Leeson Street, Dublin. He is the author of Bridge The Gap TY English and Uncovering History.