The five rules to getting good marks in literature as a high school student

Wednesday March 18 2020

Students from various primary and secondary schools in the country study at Macmillan Library in Nairobi on September 22, 2015. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP


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.

Which is why the returning schoolgirls and schoolboys must invest most of their time and energy in studying English. For those returning to join Forms Three and Four the end of the secondary school time is nigh. The Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams are done in English. Often a pass or a fail in KCSE is simply due to good or mastery of English. It is as simple as that. One cannot expect to pass an exam when they are incompetent in the language in which the exam is tested.

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.

Yet evidence from the Kenya National Examination Council shows every year that the average performance in English is poor. Many learners worry about how they can make a good grade in English, especially in literature.

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.

But there are ways to study literature on one’s own successfully. The candidate may consult the guidebooks but only for revision purposes. Here are a few simple approaches that will make the study of (English) literature most productive for high-schoolers.


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.

Thus, if you read Henry ole Kulet’s Blossoms of the Savannah, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, The Pearl by John Steinbeck or David Mulwa’s Inheritance – or the different Kiswahili texts – you will realise that there are variations in the Englishes (or Swahilis) of the texts.

The different kinds of English in the books tell us something about when the stories in the plays or prose were first imagined, drafted or published; and or the culture of the time; or the moral lessons that were/are common in the context of the story.

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.


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.

Literature is about the society and in society there are as many opinions as the number of people. The evidence one has – and therefore one’s opinion on a story, poem or play – will always have to be tested against other readers’ evidence.

There is a common fallacy out there about literature: ‘there is no one correct answer.’ The fact is that there is at the least one most convincing conclusion about a story, poem or play.

In other words, if one tests her conclusions against a good number of people, she will end up with a better argument or response to a story than if she simply relied on her untested conclusions.


Rule number four is simple: the subject teachers are one’s co-readers and co-critics. They have been trained in the art of literary criticism. In most cases they also have a better understanding of the language in which the text is written.

They should be the student’s last line of defence. When in doubt always consult the teacher. The teacher may not have an immediate response to one’s questions but they have the time or resources to consult and come back with an answer.

Studying literature – and language – as a part of a larger whole is the fifth advice. Do not make the mistake of reading the novel or play or poem in isolation.

Literary texts draw their inspiration or material from the society. For instance Blossoms of the Savannah raise the subject of early marriages and circumcision of girls. Yet, even if we agree that literature is not a depiction of reality, we can guess – or even confirm later – that ole Kulet is writing about two cultural practices that are still prevalent in some communities in Kenya.

A keen scholar would possibly find these two subjects in a History class. Or they may have heard about it in an Oral Literature class or even in a conversation with fellow students.

So, for high-schoolers, hit the road running right now. Read, read and read, and read widely – beyond the set-books; make personal notes on every prescribed texts; provoke classmates to discuss any question on any of the set-books; ask the teacher as many questions as you can, as early as possible in the term; and study literature and language not just for the grade on the certificate but as interesting phenomenon in life.


The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]