GCSE English Literature: Unseen Poetry: How To Ace It

Unseen poetry is a scary part of the exam for a lot of students. This is because you don’t have the luxury of prior study like you do with the anthology poems. The first time you see the poems will be that day – in the exam. This reality means that your exam technique must be solid. You must have a clear grasp of how to effectively answer the unseen poetry questions to achieve the best possible grade.

Once you know how to answer and what you need to include, impressing the examiners will be easy!

Tips for answering ab unseen poetry question:  

1)  Reading the Poem, Question and Planning Your Response

This step is not the most exciting but it is the most important. You must take the time to read the poems at least twice. It is difficult to answer questions on a poem you don’t understand. So do not skim read or skip this step. Many students make the mistake of rushing into writing the answer without actually understanding what is being asked of them. Make sure you annotate the question. Underline the key focus points. This makes it easier to ensure you are hitting every point.

Example: Underline Focus Points in the Question


Compare the ways the writers present finding something in 1939 and On Finding a Letter to Mrs Vickers on the Pennine Way.

  AQA: There are two unseen questions for AQA this is an example question 2.

In both ‘Poem for My Sister’ and ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’ the speakers describe

feelings about watching someone they love grow up. What are the similarities and/or

differences  (this means compare) between the ways the poets present those feelings?

2) Identify Poetic Devices

Analysing the writer’s use of poetic devices is a huge part of analysing poetry. You will have to look for the poetic devices used in the poem and consider the effect they have. In order to do this you must have a sound knowledge of similes, metaphors, personification and so on. So make sure you revise these skills.

3) Look at the Form and Structure

Consider how the poem is organised. How many stanzas does it have? What do you notice about the line lengths? It is written in a particular style of poem e.g. ballad or sonnet? All these questions are important when analysing a poem. The form and structure of a poem often reflects the writer’s intentions and the message they are trying to convey to readers.

4) Writers Intentions

This is the area weaker students fail. When analysing poems you must always comment on why the poet has chosen to present their ideas in a particular way. It is not enough to just highlight the poetic devices and form and structure of the poem. It is paramount that you explain the writer’s desired effect on readers.

5) Consider Deeper Meanings

When we are first reading a poem it is important to have a clear understanding of the literal surface level meaning. In order to achieve the higher grades you must consider the subtleties in the writer’s word and phrase choices. This also applies to the form and structure. Think about the deeper message behind the writer’s choices.

Follow these tips and you’ll ace the unseen poetry section with your eyes closed!

-Taiwo Bali