Category Archives: English

Verbal Reasoning

Verbal Reasoning (VR) tests were invented to test pupils’ logic and language skills – although they do sometimes includes questions about numbers. In order to do well in a VR test, the most important thing is to be systematic, to have a plan for what to do if the question is hard. Fortunately, there are plenty of past papers available online (including on this website!), so the types of question are well known. Here is a guide to the different kinds of problems and the best ways to approach them. I’m sorry that there are so many, but it’s best to be ready for anything…!

Insert a letter

One common type of question asks you to say which letter will start and finish two pairs of words, eg PRES( )TAND and WIND( )TAIN. Sometimes the answer is obvious (‘S’ in this case), but, if it’s not, the best thing to do is to look at all four words one after the other to see which letter might fit and then try that letter in the other words. If that doesn’t work, you might just have to go through every letter of the alphabet, but there are only 26, so it shouldn’t take too long! Bear in mind that there are different ways of pronouncing letters and different places to put the emphasis, so try writing down the likely options as well as saying them in your head.

Find the odd words

In this kind of question, you’re given five words, and you have to spot the two that don’t fit with the others, eg Lorry, Helicopter, Taxi, Bus, Plane. The best way is to try and find the three words that go together – whatever is left must be the odd ones out. Don’t just try to find a pair of words that go together. If you do, you might get the answer wrong if there’s another word that goes with them. You might also get it wrong because the ‘odd ones out’ don’t have anything in common. In this case, ‘Helicopter’ and ‘Plane’ ARE related, but they don’t have to be.

Alphabet Codes/Code Words

Here, you’ll be asked either to put a word into code or to decode a word. To do that, you’ll be given a word and the coded version, and it’s up to you to work out how the code works, eg STRAW might become UVTCY. Normally, you just have move one or two spaces forwards or backwards in the alphabet (in this case, it’s +2), but look out for other combinations. They might involve changing direction or a change to the number of spaces or a combination of both, eg -1, +2, -3, +4. The good news is that you’ll usually have an alphabet printed next to the question, so you can put your pencil on a letter and ‘walk’ forwards or backwards to get the coded version, but you can also write down the code underneath the word and write down how to get each letter with a positive or negative number – just make sure you don’t get confused between coding and decoding!

Synonyms (Similar Meaning)

Synonyms are words that have similar meanings, such as cold and chilly. In synonym questions, you’re given two groups of three words, and you have to find two synonyms, one from each group, eg (FILTER MATCH BREAK) (DENY DRAIN CONTEST). The first thing to do is to have a quick look at all the words to see if the answer’s obvious (MATCH and CONTEST, in this case). If it is, write it down. If it’s not, you have to be systematic: start with the first word in the first group and compare it with the first, second and third words in the other group. If that doesn’t work, repeat for the second and third words of the first group. Just be careful to think about ALL the possible meanings of a word, eg ‘minute’ can mean 60 seconds, but it can also mean very small! If you still can’t do the question (because you don’t know one or more of the words), try to work by process of elimination. That means narrowing down the options by getting rid of any pairs of words that definitely don’t mean the same. Once you’ve done that, feel free to guess which one of the leftover pairs is the answer. Guessing is fine in Verbal Reasoning: the only thing worse than a wrong answer is no answer at all!

Hidden Words

These questions ask you to find ‘hidden’ four-letter words between two other words in a sentence, using the last few letters from one word and the first few from the next, eg ‘The bird sat on the roof’. Again, scan the sentence quickly to see if the answer’s obvious. If it is, write it down. If it’s not, check every possibility by starting with the last three letters of the first word and the first letter of the second word, moving forward one letter at a time and then checking the next pair of words. You might want to put your fingers on each pair of words with a four-letter gap in the middle so that you can see all the options as they appear just by moving your fingers along the line. In this example, the possible words are theb, hebi, ebir, irds, rdsa, dsat, sato, aton, tont, onth, nthe, ther, hero and eroo, so the answer is obviously ‘hero’, but note that ‘tont’ is spread over three words (sat, on and the), and some words are not long enough to have the usual number of possibilities.

Find the Missing Word

These questions ask you to find a missing set of three letters that make up a word, eg There is an INITE number of stars in the sky. First of all, look at the word in capitals and try to work out what it’s meant to be in the context of the rest of the sentence. If it’s not obvious, try working out where the letters might be missing – is it after the first letter or the second or the third etc? Sometimes you might not know the word (‘INFINITE’ and therefore ‘FIN’ in this case), but, again, it’s worth a guess – just make sure your made up word sounds reasonable!

Algebra (Calculating with Letters)

This is one type of question that’s easier if you’re good at Maths! Algebra uses letters to stand for numbers and is a way of creating useful general formulas for solving problems. In Verbal Reasoning tests, you’ll generally have to add, subtract, multiply and/or divide letters, eg A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, so what is A – B + C? The first step is to convert the letters to numbers, and then you can simply work out the answer as you would in Maths. Just make sure you’re aware of BIDMAS/BODMAS. This is an acronym that helps you remember the order of operations: Brackets first, then Indices/Order (in other words, powers such as x squared), then Division and Multiplication and lastly Addition and Subtraction. Note that addition doesn’t actually come before subtraction – they belong together, so those sums should be done in the order they appear in the question, eg in this case, A – B must be done first (1 – 2 = -1) and then C added on (-1 + 3 = 2).

Antonyms (Opposite Meaning)

Antonyms are words that have opposite meanings, such as hard and soft. In antonym questions, you’re given two groups of three words, and you have to find two antonyms, one from each group, eg (GROW WATER WILD) (SLICE FREE TAME). The first thing to do is to have a quick look at all the words to see if the answer’s obvious (WILD and TAME, in this case). If it is, write it down. If it’s not, you have to be systematic: start with the first word in the first group and compare it with the first, second and third words in the other group. If that doesn’t work, repeat for the second and third words of the first group. Just be careful to think about ALL the possible meanings of a word, eg ‘minute’ can mean 60 seconds, but it can also mean very small! If you still can’t do the question (because you don’t know one or more of the words), try to work by process of elimination. That means narrowing down the options by getting rid of any pairs of words that definitely don’t mean the opposite to each other. Once you’ve done that, feel free to guess which one of the leftover pairs is the answer. Guessing is fine in Verbal Reasoning: the only thing worse than a wrong answer is no answer at all!

Complete the Calculation

This is another number question, and it again means you need to know BIDMAS/BODMAS. You’ll be given an equation (or number sentence), and you just have to fill in the missing number to make sure it balances, eg 24 – 10 + 6 = 8 + 7 + ( ). First of all, work out what the complete side of the equation equals, and then add, subtract, divide or multiply by the numbers in the other side to work out the answer (in this case, 24 – 10 + 6 = 20, and 20 – 8 – 7 = 5, so 5 is the answer). Don’t forget you’re working backwards to the answer, so you have to use the opposite operators!

Rearrange to make two new words

In these questions, you’re given two words, and you have to take a letter from the first word and put it in any position in the second word to leave two new words, eg STOOP and FLAT. Again, check first to see if the answer’s obvious, but then work through systematically, picking letters from the first word one by one and trying to fit it into each position in the second word. (In this case, the answer is STOP and FLOAT.) Remember that both the new words must make sense!

Number Relationship

This is another Maths question in which you’ll be given three sets of numbers in brackets with the middle one in square brackets. The middle number in the final set is missing, though, so you have to calculate it using the two on either side, based on what happens in the first two sets, eg (3 [15] 5) (2 [8] 4) (7 [ ] 3). The calculation will only involve the four basic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division), but it gets much harder when the numbers appear more than once! In this example, all you need to do is multiply the outside numbers to get the answer (3 x 5 = 15 and 2 x 4 = 8, so 7 x 3 = 21), but you might get more complicated questions like this one: (16 [40] 8) (11 [27] 5) (4 [ ] 11). Here, you have to add the first number to itself and then add the other one (16 + 16 + 8 = 40 and 11 + 11 + 5 = 27, so 4 + 4 + 11 = 19). These kinds of questions can be very difficult, so try not to spend too long on them. If it takes more than a minute or so to answer a question, it’s time to move on. You can always come back later if you have time at the end of the test.

Alphabet Series/Sequence

These questions are a variation on number sequences in Maths – except using letters – and you answer them in the same way. You’re presented with several pairs of letters, and you have to fill in the blanks by working out what the patterns are, eg AB BD CF ??. The best way to do this is to focus on the first and second letters of each pair separately as there will always be a pattern that links the first letters of each pair and a pattern that links the second letters of each pair, but there usually won’t be a pattern that links one letter to the next. There’ll be a printed alphabet next to the question, so just do the same as you would for a number sequence question in Maths, drawing loops between the letters and labelling the ‘jump’ forwards or backwards in the alphabet, eg +1 or -2. Once you know what the pattern is, you can use it to work out the missing letters.

Analogies (Complete the Sentence)

In this type of question, you’re given a sentence that includes three possibilities for two of the words. You have to use logic and common sense to work out what the two other words should be, eg Teacher is to (bus, school, kitchen) as doctor is to (office, train, hospital). This is known as an analogy: you have to work out the relationship of the first word to one of the words in the first set of brackets in order to find the same relationship in the second half of the sentence. Again, the best way to do it is to have a quick scan to see if the answer’s obvious. If it is, write it down. If it’s not, go through the possibilities one by one, making sure to put the relationship into words. In this example, a teacher ‘works in a’ school, and a doctor ‘works in a’ hospital, so ‘school’ and ‘hospital’ are the answer.

Word codes

These are complicated! You are given four words and three codes, and you have to find the code for a particular word or the word for a particular code, eg TRIP PORT PAST TEST and 2741 1462 1851. Unfortunately, there’s no set way of doing these kinds of questions, so you just have to use a bit of logic and common sense. It’s useful to remember that each letter is always represented by the same number, so you can look for patterns in the letters that match patterns in the numbers, eg a double T in one of the words might be matched by a double 3 in one of the codes, so that means T = 3, and you can also find out the numbers for all the other letters in that word. In this example, TEST starts and finishes with the same letter, and 1851 starts and finishes with the same number, so TEST = 1851, which means T = 1, E = 8 and S = 5. You can then fill in those numbers for each of the remaining words, so TRIP = 1???, PORT = ???1 and PAST = ??51. Next, you should be able to see that the letter R is the second letter in TRIP and the third in PORT, and that’s matched by the number 4, which is the second number in 1462 and the third in 2741. That means R = 4, which means TRIP = 14??, PORT = ??41 and PAST = ??51. The only code starting with 14 is 1462, so TRIP = 1462, and the only code ending with 41 is 2741, so PORT = 2741 and the only code ending with 51 is 2351, so PAST = 2351. If PAST = 2351, that also tells us that A must equal 3, so you now know what each letter stands for, and you can answer any possible question they might throw at you. Phew!

Complete Word Pairs

These questions are similar to word codes but, fortunately, much easier! You are given three pairs of words in brackets, and you have to work out the missing word at the end by what has gone before, eg (SHOUT, SHOT) (SOLDER, SOLE) (FLUTED, ). The best way to go about it is to write down the position of the letters in the second word of the first two sets of brackets as they appear in the first. In other words, the letters from SHOT appear in positions 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the first word, and the letters from SOLE also appear in positions 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the first word, so the missing word must consist of the same letters from FLUTED, which means it must be FLUE. Now, you may not know that a flue is a kind of chimney, but don’t let that put you off. Just make sure you’ve got the right letters, and the answer must be right – even if you’ve never heard of it!

Another variation on this type of question contains a string of letters that appears in both words of each pair, just with a different letter or letters to start, eg (BLOAT, COAT) (CLING, DING) (SHOUT, ). The easy bit is to find the repeated set of letters (in this case OAT) and to see that the second letter is dropped each time, but you still need to work out why the first letter changes (from B to C and then C to D). That shouldn’t be too hard to work out, though, if you just go through the alphabet to find how many positions forwards or backwards you have to go (in this case, it’s +1, so the answer is TOUT).

Number Series/Sequences

These questions provide you with a series of numbers and ask you to fill in the blanks, which might be anywhere in the sequence, eg 1, 3, 5, 7, ?, ?. As with alphabet series, the best way to find the answer is to draw a loop between each pair of numbers and write down the change in value. In this case, it’s simple (+2 each time), so the answer is 9 and 11, but look out for more complicated sequences. It’s worth knowing the most common sequences, just so you can recognise them at once and don’t have to work them out. Here are a few of the commonest ones:

Even numbers: 2, 4, 6, 8 etc… Rule: 2n
Odd numbers: 1, 3, 5, 7 etc… Rule: 2n – 1
Powers of 2: 2, 4, 8, 16 etc… Rule: 2ⁿ
Prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7 etc… Rule: n/a (each number is only divisible by itself and one)
Square numbers: 1, 4, 9, 16 etc… Rule: n²
Triangular numbers: 1, 3, 6, 10 etc… Rule: sum of the numbers from 1 to n
Fibonacci sequence
: 1, 1, 2, 3 etc… Rule: n₋₂ + n₋₁ (ie each successive number is produced by adding the previous two numbers together, eg 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3)

Things get trickier when the sequence is actually a mixture of two separate sequences, eg 1, 3, 2, 5, 3, ?, ?. Here, the integers (1, 2, 3 etc) are mixed in with odd numbers starting with 3 (3, 5 etc), so you can’t simply find the difference between one number and the next – you have to look at every other number. In this example, the first missing number is the next integer after 1, 2 and 3, which is 4, and the second one is the next odd number after 3 and 5, which is 7.

Compound Words (Form New Word

Here, you’re given two groups of three words, and you have to make a word by adding one from the first group to one from the second, eg (sleek pain seek) (search green killer). Again, it’s important to be systematic, so you have to start with the first word in the first group and try to match it with each word in the second group. If that doesn’t work, repeat as necessary for the next two words in the first group. In this case, ‘pain’ goes with ‘killer’ to make ‘painkiller’.

Create a Word (from the Letters of Two Others)

These questions give you two groups of three words with the middle one in brackets in the first group and missing in the second, eg arise (rage) gears paste ( ) moans. What you have to do is work out what the missing word is by finding where the letters in the word in brackets in the first group come from. They are all taken from the words outside the brackets, so it’s just a case of working out which letter in the words outside the brackets matches each letter in the word inside the brackets. Your best bet is to write down the second group of words underneath the first and go through each letter one by one. Just look out for letters that either appear twice in one of the words or letters that appear in both words outside the brackets. Those will obviously give you two different possible letters for the answer word, so you should probably write both of them one above the other until you’ve worked everything out and then simply choose the one that makes a proper word. In this example, the R from ‘rage’ might come from ‘arise’ or ‘gears’, so the first letter of the answer word is going to be either the second letter of ‘paste’ (A) or the fourth letter of ‘moans’ (N). The same is true of the A and E in ‘rage’. Once you work it all out, the letters are a or n, p or a, m and e or o, and the only sensible word is ‘name’.

Similar Meaning

These questions are slightly different from the synonym questions in that you have to choose a word out of five that has some similarity to or relationship with two pairs of words in brackets, eg (alter, amend) (coins, money) repair, trial, revue, change, passage. The two pairs of words in brackets usually have different meanings, so you have to look for a word with a double meaning. Again, have a quick look at all the words to see if the answer’s obvious. If it is, write it down. If it’s not, go through the five words one by one, comparing them to the words in brackets. It’s important to be open to the possibility of different meanings, so try to think laterally. In this example, for instance, the answer is ‘change’ as it can work as a verb meaning ‘alter’ or ‘amend’ but also as a noun meaning ‘coins’ or ‘money’.

Letter Relationships

For these questions, you’re given a sentence that describes the relationship between two pairs of letters – a little bit like the sentence analogies earlier. The final pair of letters is missing, so you have to work out what they are by finding the relationship between the first two pairs, eg CG is to ED as BW is to ( ). You should see an alphabet line to help you. The first relationship to look at is between the first letter of the first two pairs. In this case, you get from C to E by moving forward two places in the alphabet. That means you need to move two places on from B to get the first letter of the missing pair, which is D. Repeat this for the second letters, and you’ll find the other half of the answer. In this case, you get from G to D by going back three places, so you have to go back the same three places from W to get T. The overall answer is therefore DT.

Comprehension

The exact format of comprehension questions differs, but you’ll usually be given a lot of information about different people, and you’ll have to find the missing data. The subject could be people’s heights or ages, or it could be a schedule of events. For example, three children – Susan, George and Ryan – all left school at 1515 and walked home. Susan arrived home first. George arrived home five minutes later at 1530. It took Ryan 10 minutes longer than Susan to walk home. What time did Ryan get home?. The way to approach any of these questions is to build a complete picture of the situation by starting with something you know and then working from there – a bit like building a jigsaw. Start with the absolute data (about heights, ages or times) and then move on to the relative data (comparing other people’s heights, ages or times). One thing that often helps is to draw a timeline or simply write down the names of the children in order (of height, age etc). In this example, a timeline is probably your best option, starting at 1515 when the children left school and including George getting home at 1530. You can then add in Susan’s arrival time of 1525 (as she arrived five minutes before George) and finally Ryan’s arrival time of 1535 (as he arrived 10 minutes after Susan.

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Creating off-the-shelf characters

Common entrance exams have a time limit. If they didn’t, they’d be a lot easier! If you want to save time and improve your story, one thing you can do is to prepare three ‘off-the-shelf’ characters that you can choose from. You can work on them beforehand, improving them and memorising them as you go. By the time the exam comes around, it’ll be easy to dash off 8-10 lines about one of your favourite characters without having to spend any time inventing or perfecting them.

Here’s what you need to do.

The first thing to say is that you need your characters to be a little out of the ordinary. Most pupils writing stories tend to write about themselves. In other words, 10-year-old boys living in London tend to write stories about 10-year-old boys living in London! Now, that’s all very well, and the story might still get a good mark, but what you want to try and do is stand out from the crowd. Why not write a story about an 18-year-old intern at a shark research institute in the Maldives?! To decide which one you’d rather write about, you just have to ask yourself which one you’d rather read about. One thing you can do to make sure your characters are special is to give them all what I call a ‘speciality’ or USP (Unique Selling Proposition). It might be a superpower such as X-ray vision or mind-reading, or it might be a special skill such as diving or surfing, or it might be a fascinating back-story such as being descended from the Russian royal family or William Shakespeare – whatever it is, it’s a great way to make your characters – and therefore your stories – just that little bit more interesting.

Secondly, ou should also make sure all your characters are different. Try to cover all the bases so that you have one you can use for just about any story. That means having heroes that are male and female, old and young with different looks, personalities and nationalities. For instance, Clara might be the 18-year-old intern at a shark research institute in the Maldives, Pedro might be the 35-year-old Mexican spy during the Texas Revolution of 1835-6 and Kurt might be the 60-year-old Swiss inventor who lives in a laboratory buried deep under the Matterhorn! Who knows? It’s entirely up to you.

Thirdly, creating an off-the-shelf character is a great way to force yourself to use ‘wow words’ and literary techniques such as metaphors and similes. You may have learned what a simile is, but it’s very easy to forget to use them in your stories, so why not describe one of your heroes as having ‘eyes as dark as a murderer’s soul’? If you use the same characters with similar descriptions over and over again, it’ll become second nature to ‘show off’ your knowledge, and you can do the same with your vocabulary. Again, why say that someone is ‘big’ when you can say he is ‘athletic’, ‘brawny’ or ‘muscular’?

Fourthly, try to stick to what you know. If you’ve never even ridden on a horse, it’s going to be quite tough to write a story about a jockey! Alternatively, if you’ve regularly been to a particular place on holiday or met someone you found especially interesting, then use what you know to create your characters and their backgrounds. It’s always easier to describe places if you’ve actually been there, and it’s easier to describe people if you know someone similar.

So what goes into creating off-the-shelf characters? The answer is that you have to try and paint a complete picture. It has to cover every major aspect of their lives – even if you can’t remember all the details when you come to write the story. I’d start by using the following categories:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Job or education
  • Looks
  • Home
  • Friends and family
  • Personality
  • USP (or speciality)

Names are sometimes hard to decide on, so you might want to leave this one to last, but you just need to make sure it’s appropriate to the sort of character you’re creating. It wouldn’t be very convincing to have a Japanese scientist called Emily!

Age is fairly easy to decide. Just make sure your three characters are different – and not too close to your own age!

Job or education goes a long way to pigeon-holing someone. You can tell a lot from what someone does for a living or what they are doing in school or at university. You can include as much or as little detail as you like, but the minimum is probably the name and location of the school or college and what your characters’ favourite subjects are. You never know when it might come in handy!

Looks includes hair, eye colour, build, skin colour and favourite clothes. The more you describe your heroes’ looks, the easier it’ll be for the reader to imagine them.

Home can again be as detailed as you like, but the more specific the better. It’s easier to imagine the captain of a nuclear submarine patrolling under the North Pole than someone simply ‘living in London’…

Friends and family are important to most people, and it’s no different for the heroes of your stories. We don’t need to know the names of all their aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, but we at least need to know who they live with and who their best friends are.

Personality covers many things, but it should show what your characters are ‘like’ and what their interests are. Again, you don’t have to go into enormous depth, but it’s good to introduce the reader to qualities that might be needed later on in the story, such as athleticism or an ability to sail a boat.

USP (or speciality) covers anything that makes a character worth reading about. One of the reasons Superman is so popular is his super powers: his ability to fly, his X-ray vision and the fact that he’s invulnerable. His greatest weakness is also important: Kryptonite. It’s the same for your characters. What can they do that most people can’t? What qualities can they show off in your stories? What will make them people we admire, respect and even love?

Once you’ve created the notes for your three characters, you can write a paragraph of 8-10 lines about each of them. This is your chance to create something that you can easily slot into any of your stories, so use the past tense and stick to what the characters are like, not what they’re doing. That will be different in each story, so you don’t want to tie yourself down.

Try using your characters for stories you’re asked to write by your English teacher (or tutor, if you have one). The more often you use them, the better they’ll get as you change things you don’t like about them, bring in new ideas and polish the wording.

Children’s reading list

Books, books, books…

I’m often asked by parents what books they should try to get their children to read, but I don’t think I’ve been much help so far, so this is my attempt to do better!

Tastes differ, obviously, so perhaps the best thing I can do is to list all the books that I loved when I was a boy. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I read them, so you’ll have to use your common sense, but they did at least provide me with happy memories.

Ronald Welch

My favourite series of books when I was a child was the one written by Ronald Welch about the Carey family. He wrote about the men in the family over the course of around 500 years, from 1500 up to the First World War. Each novel focused on one character in one particular period – rather like Blackadder, and there was a clear formula: whatever the period, he would have to fight a duel, he would do something heroic and he would win the fair lady! The duels started with a dagger and a sword and then moved on to rapiers and then finally pistols as the years rolled on. I loved the military aspect to the books – as most boys would – and I read just about every single one I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, they’re almost impossible to find in print nowadays, but it’s always worth a look…

CS Forester

CS Forester wrote the ‘Hornblower’ novels. I was interested in both sailing and military history when I was young, and this sequence of novels about a naval officer called Horatio Hornblower in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1792-1815 was a perfect blend of the two.

Alexander Kent (Douglas Reeman)

Alexander Kent was the pen name of Douglas Reeman, who wrote a series of novels about Richard Bolitho. I first came across him after finishing all the CS Forester novels, and he provided a similar mix of nautical and military history during the same period. They weren’t quite as good as the Hornblower novels, but I still enjoyed them.

Enid Blyton

I didn’t read absolutely all the Enid Blyton books when I was a boy, but the one that I do remember is The Boy Next Door. Among other things, I loved the name of the character (‘Kit’), I loved the bits about climbing trees and I also loved the word ‘grin’, which I never understood but thought was somehow magical!

Roald Dahl

Again, I don’t remember reading all the Roald Dahl novels, but James and the Giant Peach left a big impression. The characters were so interesting, and the idea of escaping from home on an enormous rolling piece of fruit was very exciting to me in those days…!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I read The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when I was a boy, and it’s probably still the longest book I’ve ever read. I remember vividly that the edition I read was 1,227 pages long! I listened to the whole thing again recently in a very good audiobook edition read by Stephen Fry, and it was just as good second time around. I loved the mystery of the stories, and I still read a lot of crime fiction even now. I’ve always had a very analytical mind, so Holmes’s brilliant deductions were always enjoyable to read about.

Charlie Higson

The Young Bond novels weren’t around when I was young, but I read the first few as an adult, and I enjoyed them. James Bond is a classic fictional creation that appeals to boys in particular, and I think I would’ve lapped it up as a teenager. The first one is called Silverfin. Once you’ve read it, you’ll be hooked!

Jane Austen

Jane Austen introduced me to irony with the immortal opening line from Pride and Prejudice, but the first of her novels that I read was actually Emma. I had to read it at school as part of my preparation for the Oxford entrance exam, and I didn’t like it at first. However, that was just because I didn’t understand what was going on. Once my English teacher Mr Finn had explained that the character of Emma is always wrong about everything, I found it very funny and enjoyable. They say that ‘analysing’ a book can sometimes ruin it, but in this case it was quite the opposite.

Ernest Hemingway

“If Henry James is the poodle of American literature, Ernest Hemingway is the bulldog. What do you think?” I was once asked that question in an interview at the University of East Anglia, and I had no idea how to reply! As it happens, Hemingway was one of my favourite authors. My interviewer called his style ‘macho’, but that wasn’t the appeal for me. I simply liked the stories and the settings. I particularly loved the bull-fighting scenes in The Sun Also Rises, and there was just a glamour to the characters and the period that I really enjoyed. If you don’t know where to start, try The Old Man and the Sea. It’s very simple and very short, but very, very moving.

Describing feelings

In many 11+ and 13+ exams, you have to talk about feelings. Yes, I know that’s hard for most boys that age, but I thought it might help if I wrote down a list of adjectives that describe our emotions. Here we go…

A bloke called Bob (actually Robert Plutchik) thought that people only ever felt eight different emotions:

His list is shown in this ‘wheel of emotions’. The basic eight feelings are:

  • Ecstasy
  • Admiration
  • Terror
  • Amazement
  • Grief
  • Loathing
  • Rage
  • Vigilance

If we had a think about all the adjectives that are associated with these categories (and sub-categories), we might come up with a list like this one:

  • Ecstasy
    crazy
    delirious
    ecstatic
    elated
    enthusiastic
    euphoric
    fervent
    glad
    happy
    joyful
    joyous
    mad
    overjoyed
    rapturous
    rhapsodic
    serene
    thrilled
    upbeat
  • Admiration
    accepting
    admiring
    adoring
    appreciative
    loving
    respectful
    trustful
    trusting
  • Terror
    afraid
    aghast
    alarmed
    apprehensive
    awed
    frightened
    frozen
    scared
    submissive
    terrified
  • Amazement
    amazed
    astonished
    astounded
    awe-struck
    bewildered
    dazed
    distracted
    dumbfounded
    flabbergasted
    impressed
    perplexed
    shocked
    staggered
    startled
    stunned
    surprised
    unprepared
  • Grief
    bitter
    grief-stricken
    grieving
    heart-broken
    melancholy
    mournful
    pensive
    pessimistic
    sad
    somber
    sorrowful
    sorry
    unhappy
    wistful
  • Loathing
    appalled
    bored
    disapproving
    disgusted
    outraged
    queasy
    tired
    weary
  • Rage
    angry
    aggressive
    annoyed
    contemptuous
    enraged
    exasperated
    furious
    heated
    impassioned
    indignant
    irate
    irritable
    irritated
    offended
    resentful
    sullen
    uptight
  • Vigilance
    anxious
    aware
    cautious
    circumspect
    expectant
    interested
    keen
    observant
    optimistic
    vigilant
    wary

How to write a letter

Writing a letter is not as easy as it might seem – especially if you have to do it during a Common Entrance exam! In this post, I’d like to explain the typical format of formal and casual letters and the decisions on wording that you’ll have to make.

First of all, here’s a quick list of the main parts of a letter that the examiner will be looking at:

  • Sender’s address
  • Date
  • Greeting
  • Text
  • Sign-off
  • Signature

Sender’s address

It’s important to put the address of the sender (not the recipient!) at the top right of the letter (see above). The postman obviously doesn’t look inside the letter, so the address of the recipient needs to go on the envelope instead! The only exception is if it’s a business letter intended to be posted in a window envelope. In that case, it needs to have the recipient’s address positioned above the sender’s address at just the right height so that it shows through the window when an A4 sheet is folded in three.

The address should really be aligned right, so you must remember to leave enough space for yourself when you start writing each line. Otherwise, it’ll look a bit of a mess…

Date

The date should be placed two or three lines below the sender’s address (again aligned right) in the traditional long format rather than just in numbers, eg 7th October 2018 rather than 7/10/18 (or 10/7/18 if you’re American!).

Greeting

Which greeting you use depends on the recipient. If you know the name of the person you’re writing to, then you should use ‘Dear’ rather than ‘To’, eg ‘Dear Mr and Mrs Dursley’. ‘To’ is fine for Christmas cards, but not for letters. You should also put a comma afterwards. If you’re writing to a company or an organisation and you don’t know the name of the person, you have two options: you can either start the letter off with ‘Dear sir/madam’ or write ‘To whom it may concern’. This works better when it’s a reference for a job or a formal letter that may be circulated among several people.

Text

The text can obviously be whatever you like, but make sure you start it underneath the comma after the greeting. You should also use paragraphs if the letter is more than a few lines.

Sign-off

The sign-off is just the phrase you put at the end of the letter before your signature. If the letter is to a friend or relative, there aren’t really any rules. You can say anything from ‘Love’ to ‘Best regards’ or ‘Yours ever’. Note that they all start with a capital letter and should be followed by a comma. If the letter is to someone else, the sign-off depends on the greeting: if you’ve used someone’s name in the greeting, you should use ‘Yours sincerely’, but it’s ‘Yours faithfully’ if you haven’t.

Signature

The signature is very important in letter-writing as it’s a simple way of ‘proving’ who you are, so you should develop one that you’re happy with. It should include your first name or your initial(s) plus your surname, eg Nick Dale or N Dale or NW Dale. Your signature should be special, so it doesn’t need to be ‘neat’ or ‘clear’ like the rest of the letter. In fact, the prettier and the more stylish, the better!

And there you have it. This is only one way of writing a letter, and there are other ways of formatting the information, but these rules will at least give you the best chance of getting full marks in your Common Entrance exam!

How to become a private tutor

Adrian-Beckett_09032013_035

I’ve talked to a few people who wanted to become private tutors, so I thought I’d write down a few tips for anyone who’s interested.

How did I start out?

I started as a private tutor quite by accident. It was 2009, and I was finding it hard to get work as a freelance management consultant when I happened to read an article in the Telegraph called 10 Ways to Beat the Recession. The author mentioned a few ways of earning some extra cash, including becoming an extra on film sets – which I was already doing – and working as a private tutor. I’d never done any proper teaching before, although I was a golf coach, and I’d coached skiing a few times in the Alps, but I thought I’d sign up with a couple of agencies and see what happened. Within a week, I had two clients, and I’ve never looked back since!

What qualifications do I need?

The first and most important thing to say is that you don’t need any teaching qualifications! Yes, that’s right. You don’t need a PGCE, and you don’t need to have done any training as a teacher. As a private tutor, you are just that – private – so you don’t have to jump through all the Government hoops that a teacher in a state school would have to do. Obviously, potential clients want the best person to teach their child, so you need to show some sort of academic record, but that can be as little as a degree in English – which is what I had when I started. Admittedly, I went to Oxford, which probably counts for a lot with Russian billionaires (!), but you don’t need to have an Oxbridge degree to become a tutor. Far from it. However, what you probably will need is a criminal records check. This is just a piece of paper that certifies you haven’t been convicted of a criminal offence and was often known as a ‘CRB check’, although it’s now officially called an Enhanced Certificate from the Disclosure and Barring Service, or ‘DBS check’. You can’t apply for an ‘enhanced certificate’ yourself, but your tuition agency can help you. In fact, they may require you to have one and even to renew it every year or two. It costs around £18 and can take up to three months to arrive, so it’s worth applying as early as possible. Some agencies may charge up to £80 to make the application on your behalf, so be careful! You can find further information here.

What subjects can I teach?

You can teach whatever you like! Agencies will just ask you which subjects you offer and at what level, so you have complete freedom to choose. I focus on English and Maths, which are the most popular subjects, but that’s mostly led by demand from clients. They are the main subjects at 11+ level, so that’s what most people are looking for help with.

What age children can I teach?

Again, the choice is yours. I’ve taught students from as young as five to as old as 75, but the peak demand is at 11+ level, when the children are around 10 years old. I make it a rule that I’ll only teach a subject to a level that I’ve reached myself, such as GCSE or A-level, but clients sometimes take you by surprise. When I turned up to teach what I thought was going to be English to two boys, the nanny suddenly asked me to do Latin instead. When I said I hadn’t done any Latin since I was 15, she just said, “Oh, you’ll be fine…!”

What preparation do I need to do?

  • Research. One of the big attractions of tutoring for me is that the work is very enjoyable. I like teaching, and I like spending time with children, so it’s the perfect combination! The reason I stopped work as a management consultant was the constant stress, the persistent worry that I wasn’t up to the job, but teaching 10-year-olds never makes me feel like that. Whether it’s English or Maths, I’m confident in my ability to teach and never worry about being asked an impossible question. However, that doesn’t mean you can walk into your first lesson without doing any preparation at all. In my case, I wanted to teach English, so I needed to find out what kind of questions cropped up in 11+ and 13+ entrance exams and come up with a good method of answering them. Once I’d done that, I was ready. Maths was a bit easier, but I still looked through a few papers to make sure there was no risk of being blind-sided by something I’d forgotten how to do or had never studied. Whatever the subject you’re offering, I suggest you do the same.
  • Past papers. The other thing I needed to do was to find past papers to give to my pupils. That was a bit tricky in the early days until a kind parent gave me a collection of photocopied exams. After that, I carried a couple around with me to take to lessons, but it wasn’t a great solution, so I decided to create a website – this one. Over time, I collected dozens of past papers and wrote various articles on how to do different kinds of question in Maths, English and French. Now, I don’t have to carry around anything with me or spend time dictating notes. I can simply ask my pupils to look it up online. Setting up a website is pretty easy using WordPress or something similar, but you should feel free to use the resources on my past papers tab if you don’t want to go to the trouble yourself, and all my articles are available for free if you need them. The main ones I use for English are about doing comprehensions and writing stories, but there are plenty more. The website proved unexpectedly popular, and I had over 28,000 visitors last year! The other advantage is that it generated enough business for me not to need agencies any more. That means I can charge what I like, I don’t have to pay any commission, and I can have a direct relationship with all my clients without anybody acting as an intermediary – and often just getting in the way!
  • Business cards. I know it sounds a bit old-fashioned, but having business cards is very useful. If you’re just starting out, nobody knows your name, so paying a few quid to market your services is one of the best investments you can make. You never know when people will tell you they’re looking for a tutor, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to give them a business card. Even if you don’t have a website, it will at least tell them how to reach you, and you should get a lot more clients out of it.

How can I find work?

Tuition agencies are the best place to start, but there are different kinds. Some are online and simply require you to fill out a form for them to check and vet, but others ask you to go through an interview, either over the phone or in person. Either way, you need to put together a tailored CV that shows off your academic achievements and highlights any teaching experience you’ve had. This may not be very much at the beginning, but you simply need to show enough potential to get you through the door. Once you’ve shown enough aptitude and commitment to get accepted by a few agencies, you’ll rapidly build up your experience on the job.

Here is a list of the tuition agencies I’ve been in touch with, together with contact details where available. I’m based in London, so there is obviously a geographical bias there, but some of the agencies such as Fleet Tutors offer national coverage, and you can always search online for others in your local area.

Name

Email

Telephone

Website

A-Star Tuition astartuition@btinternet.com 01772 814739 astartuition.com
Approved Tutors approvedtutors.co.uk
Athena Tuition athenatuition.co.uk/
Beacon Tutors info@beacontutors.co.uk 020 8983 2158 beacontutors.co.uk/
Bespoke Tuition emma@bespoketuition.com 07732 371880 bespoketuition.com
Bigfoot Tutors tutors@bigfoottutors.com 020 7729 9004 bigfoottutors.com
Bright Young Things 07702 019194 brightyoungthingstuition.co.uk
Dulwich Tutors info@dulwichtutors.com 020 8653 3502 dulwichtutors.com
Enjoy Education kate@enjoyeducation.co.uk enjoyeducation.co.uk
Exam Confidence
First Tutors firsttutors.co.uk
Fleet Tutors 0845 644 5452 fleet-tutors.co.uk
Gabbitas gabbitas.com
Greater London Tutors 020 7727 5599 greaterlondontutors.com
Harrison Allen harrisonallen.co.uk
Holland Park Tuition recruitment@hollandparktuition.com 020 7034 0800 hollandparktuition.com
IPS Tutors info@ipstutors.co.uk 01509 265623 ipstutors.co.uk
Ivy Education ivyeducation.co.uk
Kensington & Chelsea Tutors tutors@kctutors.co.uk 020 7584 7987 kctutors.co.uk
Keystone Tutors enquiries@keystonetutors.com 020 7351 5908 keystonetutors.com
Kings Tutors emily@kingstutors.co.uk kingstutors.co.uk
Knightsbridge Tutors 07890 521390 knightsbridgetutors.co.uk
Laidlaw Education laidlaweducation.co.uk
Mentor & Sons andrei@mentorandsons.com 07861 680377 mentorandsons.com
Osborne Cawkwell enquiries@oc-ec.com 020 7584 5355 oc-ec.com
Personal Tutors admin@personal-tutor.co.uk personal-tutors.co.uk
Russell Education Group joe@russelleducationgroup.com n/a
Search Tutors searchtutors.co.uk
Select My Tutor info@selectmytutor.co.uk selectmytutor.co.uk
SGA Education s@sga-education.com sga-education.com
Simply Learning Tuition simplylearningtuition.co.uk
The Tutor Pages thetutorpages.com
Top Tutors 020 8349 2148 toptutors.co.uk
Tutor House info@tutorhouse.co.uk 020 7381 6253 tutorhouse.co.uk/
Tutor Hunt tutorhunt.com
Tutorfair tutorfair.com
Tutors International tutors-international.net
UK Tutors uktutors.com
Westminster Tutors exams@westminstertutors.co.uk 020 7584 1288 westminstertutors.co.uk
William Clarence Education steve@williamclarence.com 020 7412 8988 williamclarence.com
Winterwood  winterwoodtutors.co.uk

That’s obviously a long list, but, to give you an idea, I earned the most from Adrian Beckett (teacher training), Bespoke Tuition, Bonas MacFarlane, Harrison Allen, Keystone Tutors, Mentor & Sons, Personal Tutors and Shawcross Bligh.

Once you’ve been accepted by and started working for a few agencies, you’ll soon see the differences. Some offer higher rates, some the option to set your own rates, some provide a lot of work, some offer the best prospects of jobs abroad. It all depends what you’re looking for.

Where will the lessons take place?

When I first started tutoring, I had to cycle to all my clients. I put a limit of half an hour on my travel time, but it still took a lot of time and effort to get to my pupils. Fortunately, I’m now able to teach at my home, either in person or online using Skype and an electronic whiteboard, which means my effective hourly rate has gone up enormously. Travel is still a little bit of a problem for most tutors, though, and I certainly couldn’t have reached my pupils without having a bicycle. I didn’t have a car, and public transport wasn’t really an option in most cases. You just have to decide how far you’re prepared to go: the further it is, the more business you’ll get, but the longer it’ll take to get there and therefore the lower your effective hourly rate.

The other possibility, of course, is teaching abroad. I’ve been lucky enough to go on teaching assignments in Belarus, Greece, Hong Kong, Kenya, Russia, Switzerland and Turkey, and it’s a great way to see the world. The clients can sometimes be a little bit difficult, and the children can sometimes behave like spoiled brats (!), but staying with a great client in a sunny getaway overseas can be a wonderful experience. The only reason I don’t apply for more foreign postings is that I don’t want to let down my existing clients – going away for three weeks just before the 11+ exams in January would NOT go down well!

When will the lessons take place?

If you’re teaching children, lessons will usually be in the after-school slot between 1600 and 2000 or at weekends. That does limit the amount of hours you can teach, but it’s up to you how much you want to work. I used to work seven days a week, but I eventually gave myself a day off and then another, so I now work Sundays to Thursdays with Friday and Saturday off. During the holidays, you lose a lot of regular clients when they disappear to the Maldives or somewhere for six weeks (!), but others might ask for an intensive sequence of lessons to take advantage of the extra time available, and there’s obviously a greater chance of a foreign assignment. All that means that the work is very seasonal, so you should expect your earnings to go up and down a bit and plan your finances accordingly.

What should I do during the lesson?

I generally teach from past papers, so I ask pupils to do a past paper for their homework and then mark it during the following lesson. ‘Marking’ means marking the questions, obviously, but it also means ‘filling in the gaps’ in the pupil’s knowledge. If he or she is obviously struggling with something, it’s worth spending a few minutes explaining the topic and asking a few practice questions. I’ve written a few articles on common problem areas in English and Maths, such as commas and negative numbers, so I often go through one of those and ask the pupil’s parents to print it out and put it in a binder. After a few weeks, that collection of notes gradually turns into a ready-made revision guide for the exams.

If the parents want you to work on specific topics, that’s also possible. For example, one mother wanted to help her son with ratios, so she printed out dozens of past papers and circled the ratio questions for him to do. He soon got the knack!

I approach English in a slightly different way to begin with. There are two types of question in the 11+, comprehensions and creative writing, so I generally spend the first lesson teaching pupils how to do one of those. I go through my article on the subject online and then ask them to answer a practice question by following the procedure I’ve outlined. They usually finish it off for their homework. After a few weeks of stories or comprehensions, I’ll switch to the other topic and do the same with that. I also ask pupils to write down any new words or words they get wrong in a vocabulary book because building vocabulary is very important for any type of English exam (and also for Verbal Reasoning). I ask them to fold the pages over in the middle so that they can put the words on the left and the meanings on the right (if necessary). Every few weeks, I can then give them a spelling test. If they can spell the words correctly and tell me what they mean, they can tick them off in their vocab book. Once they’ve ticked off a whole page of words, they can tick that off, too! I usually try to reinforce the learning of words by asking pupils to tell me a story using as many words as possible from their spelling test. It can be a familiar fairy story or something they make up, but it just helps to move the words from the ‘passive’ memory to the ‘active memory’, meaning that they actually know how to use them themselves rather than just understand them when they see them on the page.

What homework should I set?

Most children who have private lessons have pretty busy schedules, so I don’t want to overburden them. I generally set one exercise that takes around 30-45 minutes. That might be a Maths paper or an English comprehension or story, but it obviously depends on the subject and the level. Just make sure that the student writes down what needs to be done – a lot of them forget! You should also make a note in your diary yourself, just so that you can check at the start of the next lesson if the work has been done.

What feedback should I give the parents?

I generally have a quick chat with the mother or father (or nanny) after the lesson to report on what we did during the lesson, what problems the child had and what homework I’ve set. This is also a good time to make any changes to the schedule, for instance if the family goes on holiday. If that’s not possible, I’ll email the client with a ‘lesson report’. Some agencies such as Bonas MacFarlane make this a part of their timesheet system.

How much will I get paid?

When I first started, I had absolutely no idea how much I was worth, and I ended up charging only £10 an hour, which is not much more than I pay my cleaner! Fortunately, a horrified friend pointed out that it should be ‘at least’ £35 an hour, and I upped my rates immediately. I now charge £60 an hour for private lessons, whether online or in person. Unfortunately, some agencies such as Fleet Tutors don’t allow you to set your own rates, so that’s one thing to bear in mind when deciding which agencies to work with. However, they did provide me with quite a bit of work when I first started, so it’s swings and roundabouts. The pay scale often varies depending on the age of the student and the level taught, so you’ll probably earn more for teaching older students at GCSE level or above if the agency sets the prices. If you have any private clients, you can obviously set whatever rate you like, depending on where you live, the age of your pupils, whether lessons are online or in person and so on. Personally, I only have one rate (although I used to charge an extra £5 for teaching two pupils at the same time), and I raise it by £5 every year to allow for inflation and extra demand. Tutoring is more and more popular than ever these days, and I read somewhere that over half of pupils in London have private lessons over the course of their school careers, so don’t sell yourself short! You should be able to make around £25,000 a year, which is not bad going for a couple of hours’ work a day!

Foreign jobs are a little different, and there is a ‘standard’ rate of around £800 a week including expenses. That means your flights and accommodation are all covered, and you can even earn a bit more on the side if you decide to rent out your home on Airbnb while you’re away! When it comes to day-to-day expenses such as taxis and food and drink, it’s important to negotiate that with the agency before accepting the job. It’s no good complaining about having to live in the client’s house and buy your own lunches when you’re in Moscow or Bratislava! It can be a dream job, but just make sure you look at it from every angle:

  • What subjects will I be teaching?
  • How many hours will I have to teach?
  • How many days off will I get per week?
  • Where will the lessons take place?
  • How do I get to and from my accommodation?
  • How long is the assignment? (I refuse anything more than three months.)
  • Where will I be staying? (NEVER at the client’s house!)
  • How old are the children?
  • Will I have any other responsibilities (eg ferrying the children to and from school)?
  • Do I need a visa?
  • What is the weekly rate?
  • What expenses are included (eg flights, accommodation, taxis, food, drink)?

How do I get paid?

Most agencies ask for a timesheet and pay their tutors monthly via BACS payments directly into their bank accounts. That’s a bit annoying from a cash flow point of view, but there’s not much you can do about it – other than using a different agency. When it comes to private clients, I generally ask for cash after the lesson, but it’s even more convenient if they can pay via standing order – as long as you can trust them! I once let a client rack up over £600 in fees because he tended to pay in big lump sums every few weeks, but then his business folded, and I had to use a Government website to try and chase him up. Fortunately, his wife saw the email and paid my bill, but it took months to sort out. Normally, though, the worst that happens is that a client just doesn’t have the right change and promises to pay the following week, so you just need to keep track of who owes what.

I hope all this helps. Good luck!

 

Favourite quotations

images

Studying English for 20 years gave me a collection of useless quotations that are constantly rattling around in my head. Here are the ones I actually thought it worth writing down!

“I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.”

Emily Dickinson

“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.”

Walt Whitman

“These fragments I have shored against my ruin””

TS Eliot

“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.”

TS Eliot

“It’s a good thing to be loved, even late.”

Samuel Hamilton, East of Eden by John Steinbeck

“Up to 40, girls cost nothing. After that you have to pay money, or tell a story. Of the two it’s the story that hurts most.”

James Bond, Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

“It is an intoxicating moment in any love-affair when, for the first time, in a public place, in a restaurant or a theatre, the man puts his hand down and lays it on the thigh of the girl and when she slips her hand over his and presses the man’s hand against her. The two gestures say everything that can be said. All is agreed. All the pacts are signed. And there is a long minute of silence during which the blood sings.”

Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

[On being asked by Tiffany Case why he had never married] “I expect because I think I can handle life better on my own. Most marriages don’t add two people together. They subtract one from the other.”

James Bond, Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

“She was wearing something blue that did her no harm”

Raymond Chandler

“I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognised apprehension that, here at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Mark Twain

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair

“Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature.”

Michael Faraday

“For a smart girl, you’re good at stupid.”

Georgia, Georgia Rule

“I feel like Dorothy when everything just turned to colour.”

Don Draper, Mad Men

“Hockey puck, rattlesnake, monkey monkey, underpants.”

Lorelai, Gilmore Girls

“You can’t get old as a woman without having at least one lousy man in your life.”

Mr Brooks

[When asked if his whole body was built in proportion to his height] “No, love. If I was I’d be 8′ 10”!

Wade Dooley

“He looks at me like he’s the spoon and I’m the dish of ice-cream.”

The Jane Austen Book Club

“Get your mittens round your kittens.”

Ray Fontayne, Grease

“When they circumcised Herbert Samuel, they threw away the wrong bit.”

Lloyd George

“Ninety per cent of politicians give the other 10 per cent a bad name.”

Henry Kissinger

“I like baseball, movies, fast cars, whisky and you.”

John Dillinger, Public Enemies

“This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone.”

The Portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“Here, at the age of 39, I began to be old.”

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

“I brought a jar of anchovy paste, half a dozen potato farls and a packet of my own special blend of Formosan Oolong and Orange Pekoe, but I was set upon by a gang of footpads outside Caius and they stole it all.”

Adrian Healey, The Liar by Stephen Fry

“No woman Veronese looked upon
Was half so fair as thou whom I behold.”

Sonnet on Ellen Terry by Oscar Wilde

“His eyes are sparkling like a rippled sea at sunset.”

Jeremy Clarkson

Hud: You’re a regular idealist
Nephew: What’s wrong with that?
Hud: I don’t know. I just ain’t never tried it.

Hud, Hud

Hud: Let’s get our shoelaces untied. Whaddya say?

Hud, Hud

“I think I’d miss you even if we’d never met.”

Nick, The Wedding Date

“Let me see if I have this straight. You’re going to date a different girl every week for the rest of your life, and then you’re going grow old and die alone in a log cabin by a lake somewhere?”

His ‘n’ Hers Christmas

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Mark Twain

“We took risks, we knew that we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.”

Message to the Public, Captain Scott

“In one of the Bard’s best thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.”

Anagram of “To be or not to be…”, Hamlet by Shakespeare

“I can remember a reporter asking me for a quote, and I didn’t know what a quote was. I thought it was some kind of soft drink.”

Joe DiMaggio

The National Family

“There is only one family: The National Family.”

I read the poster as I sat on the bus on the way to work in downtown LA. I wasn’t such a big fan of Proposition 1203 and all the anti-nepotism and adoption laws, but it was so long since any mother had actually kept her own child that I’d got used to it by now. I didn’t see the problem with mothers and fathers raising their own children – what could be more natural than that? – but it was too dangerous even to think those thoughts these days.

It had all started with Andrews v Clyde, that case back in the Fifties. We’d learned about it at school. Some 18-year-old kid had objected when he’d lost an internship with a US Senator. Apparently, the senator had taken on his own son instead. It took years, and it ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court. It was discrimination, it was nepotism, it was class privilege… Anyway, it wasn’t long afterwards that more and more people started objecting, and one thing led to another until, finally, every mother and father had to give up their child at birth! It was crazy.

Nowadays, you couldn’t even admit that you thought about your ‘real’ parents. It was a crime to try and contact them, and a few people had been sent to jail, but the really crazy thing was that people seemed to accept it – no, they actually wanted it! They thought that mothers and fathers were ‘wrong’ to want the best for their children. It was like a re-run of the battles against apartheid and sex discrimination that happened way back in the 20th Century. As I say, crazy…

One thing I couldn’t help doing on my way to work was casting the odd glance at a rather pretty girl who always took the same bus as I did. She was in her twenties and had long, black hair and green eyes. She looked just like a model or an actress – although I had no idea why she’d be taking the bus to the studio! She was always fashionably dressed in a way that put me to shame, so I didn’t say anything. I sometimes smiled at her, but I didn’t get much back. Out of my league. But why did she always take the bus? She seemed to know the driver. She always whispered something to him when she got on and off, and she always sat up front. Maybe that was it. But still… He was about 30 years older than she was. Weird. It was almost like they shared some guilty secret.

“Ding!” A man rang the bell, walked over to the door and waited to get off. A few other people joined him. My stop wasn’t for another few minutes, so I stayed in my seat, looking out of the window. Strangely, though, the bus didn’t slow down. It even started to speed up a bit! We passed the sign for the bus stop. What was going on?

“Hey! That’s my stop!” somebody shouted.

“Let us out!” shouted another guy.

I looked at the driver from my seat a couple of rows back. He was looking in the mirror with a rather frantic expression on his face. What was happening? I looked out of the window and craned my neck to try and see what was behind us. There was nothing apart from a police car flashing its lights. Why didn’t it pass us by? It was obviously chasing someone. Then it started its siren, and the bus speeded up again.

The rest of the passengers were still shouting at the driver, but we must have been going faster than 70mph now, so most people decided to sit down and hang on. This guy was crazy. The bus went faster and faster, and the cop car was still behind us. Surely it wasn’t following us? Why would it do that? But still the lights flashed and the siren sounded, and the driver still looked anxiously in his mirrors.

We were coming up to a junction. Surely he had to stop. The lights changed from green…to yellow…to red just as we crossed the stop line! The driver mashed his foot on the gas and accelerated through the junction. Cars and trucks bellowed at him with their horns, but he paid no attention. Behind us, the police car kept coming.

“This is the LAPD. Stop the vehicle!” One of the cops was using his loud hailer to get the bus driver to stop, but it wasn’t working. I decided to find out what was going on myself. I carefully stepped up to the driver’s glass booth, hanging on to the straps as I went, and looked round at the driver, who was a big man in his fifties, dressed in the bus company’s blue and grey uniform and sweating under his peaked cap.

“Hey!” I said. “What’s going on? Why aren’t you stopping?”

“Sit down!” he shouted. “Sit down!”

“What are you doing? You’re going to get us all killed! Are you on the run or something?”

He looked at me suddenly.

“Just sit down,” he said and continued racing through the streets of downtown.

“This is the LAPD. Stop the vehicle!” repeated the cop behind us.

I looked across the aisle and saw the dark-haired girl looking worriedly at the driver.

“I say,” I tried, “can you do something? You seem to know the guy.”

She looked at me and then looked at the driver.

“No, I…well…” she stumbled.

“What is it? What’s going on?”

“Leave her alone!” shouted the driver. “It’s nothing to do with her.”

“Then tell me what’s going on! You can’t keep going like this. You’re going to crash!”

He ignored me and took the exit for the freeway. Oh, no… This wasn’t the normal route. The driver really must be making a break for it. The other passengers noticed, too.

“Hey! Where are you going?!”

“What are you doing? I’ve got to get to work?”

“Come off it, pal! I’m late already!”

I tried again with the girl, this time in a softer voice.

“What is it?” I said. “What’s going on?”

“It’s nothing,” she answered, but she stared at the driver with what looked like tears in her eyes.

“It’s all right,” I said. “We’ll be okay, but you have to help me. Just talk to this guy. Tell him to slow down.”

And then she said the word I’d never heard before.

“Dad!”

The driver looked round and stared at the girl, who stared right back with a pleading expression on her face. I couldn’t believe it. Was she really his daughter? I mean, his real, biological daughter. That wasn’t possible, surely? One or two of the other passengers heard her, too, and started throwing insults.

“You’re her father?! You criminal!”

“I’m calling the cops!”

“You should be ashamed of yourself!”

“Nepotist!”

“No wonder you give her a ride to work every day!”

This was turning ugly. I could see one pretty mean-looking guy making his way up from the back. If he reached the driver and kicked the glass shield hard enough, it might break, and then what would happen? Nothing good.

“Are they after you?” I asked the girl. “Is he really your father?”

“Yes,” she mumbled.

“Don’t say a word, Lara!” said the driver. “I mean it!”

“But Dad…”

“Look!” he said, pointing in the mirror. We both looked back. There must have been five police cars following us now. They weren’t trying to overtake, just keeping pace with the bus.

“Listen,” I said. “This is never going to work out. The obviously know who you are, and they’ve probably radioed ahead to set up some kind of roadblock. We’re all right for now, but what happens then?”

“I have to protect my daughter,” the driver said.

“Well, you’re not doing a very good job of it so far, are you? I’m sorry, but you need to stop this bus.”

“I can’t,” he replied. “I just can’t…”

“But Dad, please!” said Lara. “Don’t do this. I’ll be all right. We can sort something out. You can do a deal or something…”

“I’m sorry, honey. I never wanted this to happen,” he sobbed. “I don’t know how they found us. I tried to be careful. I thought we were safe.”

“Dad, Dad, I love you, but you need to stop the bus! Please!”

“I love you, too, honey. I’m sorry.”

And at that moment, I saw what was coming. Up ahead was a roadblock with four police cars and an armoured car with SWAT written on it in giant white letters. We’d never get past that.

“Hey, buddy. Let me past,” said the guy who’d been making his way along the bus.

“Just give me a minute.”

“We don’t have a minute!” he shouted. “Look at that roadblock! That crazy asshole is going to get us all killed!”

I turned back to the driver.

“Please,” I said. “If you love your daughter, stop the bus.”

He looked at Lara with tears in his eyes.

“I can’t, I just can’t.”

“Dad!” Lara screamed.

And at that moment, as we hurtled towards the roadblock, I thought of the poster we’d passed just a few minutes before.

“There is only one family: The National Family.”

What is a full sentence?

SVO

Teachers often tell pupils to use a ‘full sentence’ in their answers, but what is a full sentence?

Parts of a sentence

First of all, it’s important to know what all the words in the picture mean. (Note that the parts of a sentence are not always individual words, though they can be. For example, ‘she’ is the subject, but ‘a hot dog’ is the direct object even though it is three words.)

Subject

The subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb, in other words, “who’s doing the doing”. The girl in the picture is obviously the one doing the eating, not the hot dog!

Verb

The verb is often called the ‘doing word’, although some verbs like ‘being’ and ‘having’ don’t really involve much ‘doing’! Again, what’s being done is obviously shown by the word ‘ate’. There are two kinds of verb:

  • Transitive verbs need a direct object, like the word ‘ate’ in the picture
  • Intransitive verbs don’t need an object, like the word ‘swim’ in ‘They swim’.

Object

There are two kinds of object:

  • Direct objects are directly affected because they ‘suffer the action of the verb’. In other words, they have something done to them, like the hot dog in the picture.
  • Indirect objects are only indirectly affected, for example if they benefit from the verb like the teacher receiving an apple in the picture below.

Types of sentence

Now we know what the parts of a sentence are, we can talk about all the possible kinds of full sentence.

  1. Verb only
    Strictly speaking, all you really need to make a full sentence is a verb. For example, ‘Sit!’ is a full sentence, even though it only has one word in it. That only works when you’re telling a dog – or a person! – what to do. Most of the time, you need a subject as well.
  2. Subject-Verb
    ‘He swims’ is a full sentence because it has a subject and a verb, but this only works because the verb is intransitive, which means it doesn’t need an object.
  3. Subject-Verb-Object
    The picture above shows the main parts of a simple sentence, which are the subject (S), the verb (V) and the object (O). The initial letters give us a typical pattern for a sentence, which is SVO. In this case, the object is a direct object, which means it’s directly affected but it can also be an indirect object, which may benefit indirectly. Here, the hot dog is the one that has to suffer being eaten – not the girl! – but it’s slightly different in the next picture. _
  4. Subject-Verb-Indirect Object-Direct Object (or Subject-Verb-Direct Object-Indirect Object)
    Here, the apple is being ‘given’, so the apple is the direct object, but the teacher also benefits indirectly, so she is the indirect object.

Common mistakes

  1. Punctuation
    Every sentence should end with either a full-stop, a question mark or an exclamation mark, but one common mistake is to put a comma in between sentences instead, eg He loved pizza, he always chose pepperoni. This is called the ‘comma splice’.
  2. Fragments
    A sentence that doesn’t have a subject, verb or object when it needs one is called a ‘sentence fragment’, eg Gave his teacher an apple. It’s obvious that it doesn’t make sense without the word ‘He’, but it’s easily done.
  3. Starting with conjunctions
    Teachers often tell their pupils not to start a sentence with ‘because’. When asked a question like ‘Why is Jack sad?‘, it’s easy to write ‘Because his dog died‘. That’s all right when you’re speaking in class – when people don’t care as much about their grammar – but not when you’re doing your homework. It’s not always wrong to do it, though. If you use ‘because’ to link two sentences together, that’s fine, eg Because it was so sunny, I had to wear sun cream.

 

It’s all about the apostrophe

Apostrophes. The difference between feeling you’re nuts and feeling your nuts.Apostrophe

The apostrophe is tricky. It means different things at different times. This article is meant to clear up any confusion and help you use apostrophes, which might mean you get straight As in your exams – or should that be A’s?!

  1. The main reason for using apostrophes is to show a contraction, which is a word made up of two other words shunted together – the apostrophe just stands for the missing letter(s), eg didn’t = did not, could’ve = could have and won’t = will not.
  2. The second most common usage is in showing the possessive, in other words showing that something belongs to someone (or something). This is where it gets tricky, because where you put the apostrophe depends on how many things you’re talking about. If the noun is plural and ends with -s, you just need to put an apostrophe on the end of the word. In all other cases,  you should put ‘s, eg two horses’ hooves, BUT a horse’s hooves or the children’s books or St James’s Palace.
  3. The other occasion when you might find an apostrophe is in the plural of individual letters or numbers. Somehow, it just looks better, eg he got three A’s at O-level back in the 1980’s.

If you think you’ve mastered the rules, try taking this quiz!

Spelling rules

The problem with the English is that we’ve invaded (and been invaded by) so many countries that our language has ended up with a mish-mash of spelling rules.

Keep calm and check your spelling

 

 

 

 

 

 

English is among the easiest languages to learn but among the most difficult to master. One of the problems is spelling. We have so many loan words from so many different languages that we’ve been left with a huge number of spelling rules – and all of them have exceptions! Contrast that with Spanish, for example, where what you see is generally what you get. The problem for students of English, then, is that it’s very difficult to find shortcuts to improve your spelling, and an awful lot of words just have to be learned off-by-heart. Considering that there are over a million words in English, that’s a big ask!

There are lists of spelling rules out there (including a good one at www.dyslexia.org), but I thought I’d put down what I think are the most useful ones.

  1. I before E except after C when the sound is /ee/.
    This is the most famous rule of English spelling, but there are still exceptions! Hence, we write achieve with -ie- in the middle but also ceiling, with -ei- in the middle, as the /ee/ sound comes after the letter c. The most common exceptions are weird and seize.
  2. If you want to know whether to double the consonant, ask yourself if the word is like dinner or diner.
    One of the most common problems in spelling is knowing when to double a consonant. A simple rule that helps with a lot of words is to ask yourself whether the word is more like dinner or diner. Diner has a long vowel sound before a consonant and then another vowel (ie vowel-consonant-vowel, or VCV). Words with this long vowel sound only need one consonant before the second vowel, eg  shinerfiver and whiner. However, dinner has a short first vowel and needs two consonants to ‘protect’ it (ie vowel-consonant-consonant-vowel, or VCCV). If the word is like dinner, you need to double the consonant, eg winnerbitter or glimmer. Just bear in mind that this rule doesn’t work with words that start with a prefix (or a group of letters added to the front of a word), so it’s disappoint and not dissapoint.
  3. If the word has more than one syllable and has the stress on the first syllable, don’t double any final consonant.
    This rule sounds a bit complicated, but it’s still very useful – particularly if it helps you spot your teacher making a mistake! We generally double the final consonant when we add a suffix starting with a vowel, such as -ing, but this rule means we shouldn’t do that as long as a) the word has more than one syllable and b) the stress is on the first syllable, eg focusing and targeted, but progressing and regretting. The main exceptions to this are words ending in -l and -y, hence barrelling and disobeying.
  4. When adding a suffix starting with a consonant, you don’t need to change the root word unless it ends in -y. This is among the easiest and most useful rules. There are loads of words ending in suffixes like -less-ment or -ness, but spelling them should be easy as long as you know how to spell the root word, eg shoe becomes shoelesscontain becomes containment and green becomes greenness. However, words ending in -y need the y changing to an i, so happy becomes happiness.
  5. When adding a suffix starting with a vowel to a word ending in a silent -e, the must be dropped unless it softens a or a g.
    An at the end of a word is often called a ‘Magic E’, as it lengthens the vowel before the final consonant, eg fat becomes fate. However, that job is done by the vowel at the start of the suffix when it is added to the word, so it needs to be dropped, eg race becomes racing and code becomes coded. The main exceptions come when the word ends with a soft or g, which need to be followed by an -e, an -i or a -y to sound like /j/ and /s/ rather than /g/ and /k/. If the suffix doesn’t begin with an e- or an i-, we still need the to make sure the word sounds right, eg managing  is fine without the -e, as the in -ing keeps the soft, but manageable needs to keep the -e to avoid a hard /g/ sound that wouldn’t sound right.
  6. The only word ending in -full is full!
    There are lots of words ending in what sounds like -full, but the only one that has two ls at the end is full. All the other words – and there are thankfully no exceptions! – end in -ful, eg skilfulbeautiful and wonderful.

 

Parts of speech

When is a verb not a verb? When it’s a part of speech.

Parts of speech

English exams often ask questions about the ‘parts of speech’. This is just a fancy term for all the different kinds of words, but they’re worth knowing just in case. Just watch out for words such as ‘jump’, which can be more than one part of speech!

Noun: a word for a person, place or thing

  • abstract noun: a word to describe an idea, eg peace
  • common (or concrete) noun: a word for a thing or object, eg table
  • proper noun: the name of a person, place etc, eg Nick, London
  • collective noun: the name of a group of animals, eg herd or flock

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence with ‘the’ in front of the word. If it makes sense, it’s probably a noun, eg He looked at the ______.

Pronoun: a word that stands in for a noun

  • personal pronoun: a word that shows a person or thing, eg he, she, them
  • possessive pronoun: a word that shows the owner of an object, eg his, their
  • relative pronoun: a word that ‘relates’ to the subject just mentioned, eg who, that, which

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence with a verb after the word (but without ‘the’ or ‘a’ in front of it). If it makes sense, it’s probably a pronoun, eg ______ looked at the wall.

Verb: a doing word, eg jumped, was, pays

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence putting the word after a pronoun such as ‘he’. If it makes sense, it’s probably a verb, eg He ______ it or He ______ in the garden.

Adjective: a word that describes a noun or pronoun, eg green or young

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence putting the word between ‘the’ and a noun. If it makes sense, it’s probably an adjective, eg The ______ book lay on the table.

Article: a word that introduces a noun

  • definite article: the
  • indefinite article: a or an

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence with the word in front of a noun. If it makes sense, it’s probably an article, eg ______ book lay on the table.

Adverb: a word that describes an adjective, adverb or verb, usually ending in -ly, eg really or quickly

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence with the word after a verb. If it makes sense, it’s probably an adverb, eg He ran ______ around the garden.

Preposition: a word that shows the position in time or space, eg in, at or after

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence about placing something somewhere, putting the word before the location. If it makes sense, it’s probably a preposition, eg She put the book ______ the table.

Conjunction: a word that connects two sentences together (sometimes called a connective), eg and, but or because

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence with two clauses joined by the word. If it makes sense, it’s probably a conjunction, eg He looked at the problem ______ decided to do something about it.

Interjection: an outburst or word people say when they’re playing for time, eg hey, well, now or so

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence that someone might say, putting the word at the start, followed by a comma. If it makes sense, it’s probably an interjection, eg ______, can we go to the mall?

You can test yourself by reading any passage in English and going through it word by word, asking yourself what parts of speech they all are. Why not start with this article? See how fast you can go. If you’re not sure, ask yourself the questions in each of the tips shown above, eg if you think it’s a noun, can you put it into a sentence with ‘the’ in front of it?

Capital!

I always sign Christmas and birthday cards with a capital ‘N’. It makes me feel like Napoleon…

Letter N

The three main things to check after writing anything are spelling, punctuation and capital letters, so when do you use capitals?

  1. For the important words in titles, either of individuals or pieces of writing, eg Chief Inspector of Schools or This Blog Post is Great!
  2. For proper nouns, eg Peter, Tuesday and Chelsea.
  3. For abbreviations, eg BBC (although acronyms you can actually pronounce only need one at the start, eg Nato, not NATO).
  4. For the first word in a sentence, eg This is a sentence.
  5. For the first word in direct speech, eg he said, “Hello.”
  6. The word “I”.

Speech marks

Speech marks, inverted commas, quotation marks, quote marks, quotes, 66 and 99 – does any other punctuation mark have so many names or cause so much confusion…?!

speech marks

Writing a story means striking a balance between what I call The Three Ds: Drama, Description and Dialogue. I’ve read quite a few stories from my pupils in which nobody talks to anyone – which is a bit odd! – but you need to know the rules of punctuation before you start.

  • Start a new paragraph whenever the speaker changes or someone stops talking.
  • Put speech marks before and after the actual words spoken, eg Hello, he said, NOT “Hello, he said.”
  • Start the first spoken word with a capital letter, eg she said, “This needs a capital letter,” NOT she said, “this needs a capital letter.”
  • Put either a comma, question mark, exclamation mark or colon between the speech and the ‘he said/she said’, eg “Don’t forget the comma,” he said, NOT “Don’t forget the comma” he said.
  • Put punctuation that belongs to the speech inside the speech marks, eg “The exclamation mark belongs inside!“, NOT “The exclamation mark belongs inside”! (The only exception comes with inverted commas, which look the same but are used with quotations rather than speech.)
  • Put a full-stop after the ‘he said/she said’ if it comes in the middle of the speech and the first part is a full sentence; otherwise, just put a comma, eg “This is a full sentence,” she said. “This is, too.” BUT “This is not a full sentence,” she said, “and nor is this.”
  • Don’t start the ‘he said/she said’ with a capital letter, even if it comes after a question mark or exclamation mark, eg “Don’t use a capital letter!” he shouted, NOT “Don’t use a capital letter!” He shouted.
  • If a speech lasts more than one paragraph, put speech marks before each paragraph and after the last one but NOT after the ones before.
  • Finally, don’t put ‘he said/she said’ after every single line of dialogue in a long conversation if it’s obvious who is speaking.

Sample questions

Format and put the correct punctuation and capital letters into the following lines of speech:

  1. I say john what time is it she asked
  2. hello she said my name is tara
  3. what are you talking about he cried I never said that
  4. hello he said whats your name Sarah she said Im Alan Nice to meet you you too
  5. I hate chocolate she said I only really eat chocolate ice-cream

Commas

Commas

Comma or apostrophe?

If you had the chance to take a contract out on one punctuation mark, most people would probably choose the comma. Unfortunately, that’s not possible although modern journalists are doing their best to make it into an optional extra!

Punctuation should be there to help the writer and the reader, and the comma is no exception. If I know the rules for using commas, I expect one in certain situations and not in others. If there isn’t one when there should be, or there is one where there shouldn’t be, then I end up getting confused. I may even have to re-read the passage to make sure I understand it. There are certainly ‘grey areas’ when even experts don’t know whether a comma is required or merely optional, but those should be the exception rather than the rule. You might say that nobody has the right to decide what grammatical rules are ‘correct’ and that the plethora of rules I go by were taught to me back in the 1970s, but clarity comes first in my view, so here goes…

  • Lists are the obvious example of using a comma. In the old days, people used to use what’s called an ‘Oxford comma’ before the word ‘and’, but we don’t any more, eg ‘I went to the market and bought apples, pears and bananas’. There are some circumstances when using the Oxford comma makes the sense of the text clearer, but most people would agree that you don’t need it. The list may also be a list of adjectives before a noun, eg ‘It was a juicy, ripe, delicious peach’.
  • Conjunctions (or connectives) make two sentences into one ‘compound’ or ‘complex’ sentence with two separate clauses.
    • Coordinating conjunctions‘ are used to make a ‘compound’ sentence when the clauses are equally important, and the two ‘main clauses’ should always be separated by a comma, eg ‘The sun was warm, but it was cooler in the shade’. There is a useful way of remembering the coordinating conjunctions, which is to use ‘FANBOYS’. This consists of the first letter of ‘for’, ‘and’, ‘nor’, ‘but’, ‘or’, ‘yet’ and ‘so’.
    • Subordinating conjunctions‘ are used to make a ‘complex’ sentence when there is a main clause and a subordinate clause. (Subordinate just means less important.) If the sentence starts with a subordinating conjunction, the clauses need a comma between them, eg ‘Even though it was very hot, he wasn’t thirsty’. However, if the subordinate clause comes at the end, there is no need for a comma, eg ‘He wasn’t thirsty even though it was very hot’. There are lots of subordinating conjunctions, such as ‘after’, ‘although’ and ‘because’, but the easy way to remember it is to ask yourself if the conjunction is in FANBOYS. If it is, it’s a coordinating conjunction; if it’s not, it’s a subordinating conjunction.
  • Which (but not that) needs a comma before it when used as a relative pronoun, eg ‘The sky, which was tinged with orange, was getting darker before sunset’ or ‘He looked up at the sky, which was tinged with orange’. If you don’t know whether to use which or that, the word ‘which’ describes something, whereas the word ‘that’ defines it. The rule about commas also applies to ‘who’ when it comes to describing people, although you still use the same word whether you’re defining or describing someone. Relative pronouns such as ‘which’, ‘that’ and ‘who’ all create a relative clause, which is a type of subordinate clause, so the sentence will be a complex sentence.
  • Openers are a useful way of starting a sentence, usually in order to specify a particular time or place, eg ‘At half-past three, we go home to tea’ or ‘At the end of the road, there is a chip shop’. The subject of the sentence (ie the noun or pronoun that governs the verb in the main clause) should come first. If it doesn’t, you should put a comma after whatever comes in front of it.
  • Direct speech needs something to separate what’s actually said from the description of who said it, and this is normally a comma (although it can sometimes be a question mark or exclamation mark if it’s a question or a command), eg
    “Hello,” he said.
    …or…
    He said, “Hello.”
    The tricky bit comes when the description of the speaker comes in the middle of what’s being said. Here, the rule is that a comma should be used after the ‘he said’/’she said’ if the speaker hasn’t finished the sentence yet, eg
    “On Wednesday evening,” he said, “we’re planning to go to the cinema.”
    When the sentence is over, though, you need a full-stop afterwards, eg
    “I like chocolate biscuits,” she said. “They’re so delicious.”
  • Vocatives and interjections and are simply interruptions to a normal sentence – usually when someone is speaking – to incorporate a name or an exclamation, such as ‘well’ or ‘now’. They should therefore be separated with one or more commas – even if that leads to a long list of words followed by commas, eg
    “Well, now, Mum,” he said, “let me explain.”
  • Certain adverbs fall into the same boat, such as ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘furthermore’ and the humble ‘too’, and should be separated by commas, eg ‘She played on the swings and the roundabout, too.’
  • Extra information (or ’embedded clauses’ or ‘interrupters’) is sometimes added to a sentence to describe something or someone. If the sentence would still make sense without it, you should put commas before and after the phrase to separate it from the rest of the sentence, eg ‘He stood, cold and alone, before his fate.’
  • Eg and ie are useful shorthand to mean ‘for example’ (exempli gratia in Latin) and ‘that is’ (id est) and should be preceded by a comma, eg ‘He knew lots of poetic devices, eg metaphors and similes.’
  • Names and places sometimes need a comma to separate their different parts. If the day comes after the month and before the year, it should have one, eg ‘December 7, 1941′. If someone has a qualification or letters after his or her name, you should use a comma, eg ‘John Smith, PhD’. If a town is followed by a state or country, the state or country should be separated by commas, eg ‘He lived in Lisbon, Portugal, for five years.’
  • Numbers need commas to separate each power of a thousand. Start on the right at the decimal point and work left, simply adding a comma after every three digits, eg 123,456,789.0.
  • Repetition of a word or phrase also demands a comma, eg “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward…”

Sample questions

Put the correct punctuation in the following sentences:

  1. I like music shopping and dancing
  2. The food was good but he didn’t like the service
  3. The book arrived after she went to the shops
  4. He put on a jacket that was thick enough to keep out the cold
  5. She called her mother which is what she usually did on Sunday evenings
  6. At the end of the road he saw a fox
  7. These apples are expensive he said
  8. What are you doing she cried I need those biscuits for the charity bake sale
  9. When Im on my own she admitted I watch a lot of daytime TV
  10. Could you help me please David he asked
  11. Fortunately he was experienced enough to avoid capsizing the boat
  12. He stood nervous and bashful in front of the prettiest girl hed ever seen
  13. He loved 19th Century novels eg Emma
  14. She was persona non grata ie she wasnt welcome
  15. He lived in Paris France
  16. The Germans invaded Poland on September 1 1939
  17. He watched 1001 Dalmations
  18. All he could see was rain rain rain

Poetic devices

Poetic devices

It’s important to be able to recognise and analyse poetic devices when studying literature at any level. Dylan Thomas is my favourite poet, and he uses so many that I decided to take most of my examples from his writings.

  • A simile is just a comparison using the word ‘like’ or ‘as’, such as ‘I sang in my chains like the sea’ or ‘happy as the grass was green’.
  • A metaphor treats an object or person as if it is something else to make the comparison more vivid, as in ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. If you prefer Churchill to Thomas, Russia is ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’.
  • Personification goes one step further and treats an inanimate object as if it were a person with human habits, as in ‘It is night, moving in the streets’.
  • Tone just means ‘tone of voice’, or the way in which you would read a passage. It could be anything from matter-of-fact to lyrical, but one of the most common moods is irony. Irony takes many forms, but a typical example comes from the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ The joy of this quotation (and of irony in general) is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean! To Mrs Bennett (and any other mother who values marrying off her daughters more than anything else in the world), this is a simple statement of fact. To Mr Bennett (and anyone else who believes there are far more important things in life), it is funny because it is such a ridiculous exaggeration. Dramatic irony is a kind of foreshadowing, when the audience or reader knows more than the characters, usually when we are told something in advance. The classic example of this is in a horror film, when we see the axe murderer in the loft, but the blonde cheerleader still climbs the rickety staircase to see what’s wrong. Shouting at the TV won’t do any good – she’s just a victim of dramatic irony. We also use irony to describe a situation that’s the last thing we would expect, such as ‘Water, water, everywhere, | Nor any drop to drink’. Alanis Morissette even wrote a song about it, although her examples are incongruous rather than ironic. Now that’s irony!
  • Rhyme is fairly easy to spot when the ending of one word matches that of another, eg ‘night’ and ‘light’, but it is useful to be able to map out the rhyme scheme of a poem by giving each different sound at the end of a line a different letter, eg the rhyme scheme of a limerick is aabba. There are also a couple of variations that often introduce a discordant note into a lot of 20th century poetry: an eye-rhyme is a pair of words whose endings look the same but sound different, eg ‘wove’ and ‘love’, and a ‘half-rhyme’ involves two words that don’t quite match, eg ‘frowned’ and ‘friend’.
  • The rhythm of a poem is often not obvious, but it’s worth becoming familiar with the two main types of meter, or rhythmical pattern. The first is based on the number of beats to a line. A beat is simply a syllable that is given extra stress, and the obvious example is again the limerick. It doesn’t matter how many syllables the lines have as long as the number of beats is 3, 3, 2, 2 and 3. The second is more common and is based on the number of syllables. Each line is divided into a number of metrical ‘feet’, each of which has one stressed syllable and one or more unstressed syllables in a particular order. Shakespeare wrote almost all his plays and poetry in iambic pentameter, as he thought that best matched the natural rhythm of English. All it means is that there are five feet in each line, each containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, eg ‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’. You can also have dactylic, trochaic or anapaestic feet if you so desire! A pause in the middle of a line of poetry is called a caesura. Anglo-Saxon poetry was full of them, and even Shakespeare used one in his most famous line: “To be, or not to be, that is the question”. The second syllable of ‘question’ is also an example of what’s called a feminine ending, which just means it’s unnecessary. (No jokes, please!)
  • An allegory is a story that works on two levels. In the days of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, religion was a far greater part of people’s lives, and priests and their congregations would be more familiar with interpreting texts on many different levels: the literal, the metaphorical, the spiritual, the tropological, the anagogical and the allegorical! Just be thankful times have changed…
  • Alliteration is often the simplest technique to identify but the most difficult to talk about. It is simply the repetition of the first letter in two or more words, usually but not always right next to one another, eg ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ Yes, we know it’s there, but what can we say about it? I’ll leave that for you to decide…
  • Assonance is similar to alliteration, but it’s the vowel sounds that are repeated. The classic examples are from 19th century elocution lessons, such as ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’.
  • Onomatopoeia is the choice of words that sound like the actual sounds they represent, such as ‘crash, bang, wallop’.
  • Enjambment describes a line of poetry that doesn’t end with any punctuation, such as a comma or full-stop, eg ‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs | About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green’. It encourages the smooth flow of the words and is the opposite of the usual end-stopped line, which adds an extra beat to the natural pause at the end of the line (and/or stanza). This emphasises whatever happens to be the last word, particularly if that word is part of a rhyming couplet.
  • Rhetoric used to be taught in school way back in ancient Greece, but most people would only recognise a few examples these days. An oxymoron is a paradox, or something that appears to be a contradiction, such as ‘military intelligence’! It is usually meant as a joke or a surprising truth, but one or two have now become clichés, such as ‘deafening silence’. The tricolon or rule of three appeals to a uniquely human habit of listing things in threes. If you want someone to blame for starting it all off, look no further than Julius Caesar, when he arrived in Britain and said ‘veni, vidi, vici’. Rhetorical questions are questions that don’t have to be answered – even in class! In one of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes, Romeo answers his own question: “But, soft! what light from yonder window breaks? | It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” Juliet tragically receives no reply to hers: ” O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” Finally, metonymy or synecdoche is when a part stands for the whole. There are many variations, but an obvious example is ‘the crown’. It is only something the king or queen wears, but it has come to stand for the monarchy or government in general.
  • Repetition is again something that’s easy to spot but difficult to talk about. It is simply the repeated use of a word or phrase to add emphasis, eg
    ‘Half a league, half a league,
    Half a league onward,
    All in the valley of Death,
    Rode the six hundred.’
  • Diction is the choice of words that a writer makes. Are they long or short? Where do they come from – Latin, French, Anglo-Saxon or elsewhere? What connotations or associations do they have – pleasant or unpleasant, dreamy and romantic or painful and humiliating? In Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, the words are remarkably straightforward and monosyllabic. ‘Gentle’, ‘against’ and ‘dying’ are the only polysyllabic words in the opening stanza, and the simplicity and spare, conversational style of the language is appropriate to the subject of loss and bereavement. Thomas Hardy adopts a similar approach in The Voice, which at one point has 41 monosyllables in a row!
  • Imagery is the use of pictures or other visual comparisons to make a piece of writing more vivid and appeal to our imagination. Thomas’s Fern Hill seems to have more pictures in it than the National Gallery! In the first stanza alone, we are invited to imagine the poet ‘young and easy under the apple boughs | About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green, | The night above the dingle starry’, and later he recalls having ‘the trees and leaves | Trail with daisies and barley | Down the rivers of the windfall light’. The frequent references to things that are ‘green’ and vibrant and the flood of images conjured up by powerful childhood memories make us long for the innocence of youth and the joy of being at one with Nature.
  • Sentence structure is the pattern or frequency of long and short sentences and the use of different types of sentence, either simple, compound or complex. Whereas something like a simile or alliteration is easy enough to spot, this is the kind of device that’s not generally obvious on a first or even a second reading, so it’s worth counting the words in each sentence to see what you find. It might just give you a clue to understanding the rhythmic effects that the writer is aiming for. There are only seven sentences in the 54 lines of Fern Hill, and the first has 76 words in it!

These are just a sample of the most important poetic devices. If you still want more, try reading a little Dylan Thomas. If ‘the dogs in the wet-nosed yards’ catch your eye, you can congratulate yourself on spotting a rare example of the transposed epithet!

Enjoy…

Sample questions

Can you spot the poetic devices used in the following examples?

  1. bothersome badgers
  2. as flat as a pancake
  3. faster than a speeding bullet
  4. death stalked the land
  5. it’s an oven in here
  6. the trees danced in the wind
  7. how now, brown cow?
  8. the cat in the hat
  9. hiss
  10. “Why, why, why must you do that?”
  11. “What is the most important question facing our country today?”
  12. He had 12 pens in his pencil case, but not one pencil.
  13. the long arm of the law

Story mountains

Story mountains

Are we nearly there yet…?

Everyone needs a route map, whether it’s Hillary and Tenzing climbing Mount Everest or an English candidate writing a story. One of the ways of planning a story is to create a story mountain, with each stage of the tale labelled on the diagram. The drawing doesn’t have to be any more than a big triangle, but the five stages help to provide a good structure. The story mountain is only part of the process, however. Even before the exam, you could invent two or three interesting characters to use or practise telling a particular story – perhaps an old fairy tale in a modern setting. It’s always good to be prepared, and it’s too late by the time you sit down in the exam hall. If you’re taking an 11+ or 13+ English paper, you should have around half an hour left for the composition after doing the reading comprehension. The routine to follow includes choosing the right question, brainstorming ideas, creating the story mountain, writing the story and checking your work afterwards. Depending on the total length of the exam, you should plan to leave yourself a set amount of time for each stage (shown in brackets, assuming you have a total of 30 minutes).

  1. Choose the right question (less than 1 minute).
    Sometimes you won’t be given a choice, but you will always have different options in a proper 11+ English exam. One might be a description (often based on a drawing or photograph), and another might be an essay on a factual subject, but there will always be the chance to write a story, either based on a suggested title or in the form of a continuation of the passage from the reading comprehension. The important thing here is to try to find a topic you know a bit about and – in an ideal world – something you’d enjoy writing about. If you you’ve never ridden a horse, it would be pointless trying to write a story all about horse racing!
  2. Brainstorm ideas (5 minutes).
    Some pupils go straight into writing the story at this point. The story might occasionally be quite good, but the danger is that you don’t give yourself the chance to come up with the best possible ideas, and you certainly won’t make it easy for yourself to structure it when you don’t have a plan to help you. Whether in business or at school, the best way of coming up with ideas is to spend some time brainstorming. That means coming up with as many ideas as possible in a limited time. There’s no such thing as a bad idea, so try to think positively rather than crossing out anything you don’t like. It takes time to come up with well thought-through ideas for a story, so you might not think of more than a couple, but that at least gives you the chance to pick the better one. If you’re having trouble, think about the different elements you can change: the plot, the characters, the setting, the period and the genre. Those are the basics, and imagining a particularly good character or setting might just provide the clue you’re looking for, and you can always change what kind of story it is – a thriller will look a lot different from a romance or a comedy!
  3. Create a story mountain (5 minutes).
    Once you’ve decided on an idea, you can create your story mountain. You don’t actually have to draw a mountain or a triangle, but you do need to map out the five main stages of the story. You don’t need to write full sentences, just notes that are long enough to remind you of your ideas.

    Opening (or introduction)
    The best way to open a story is probably to start ‘in the middle’. Most fairy stories start with something like ‘Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess locked up in a tower…’ The trouble with this kind of ‘exposition’ is that it’s a bit boring! Nothing actually happens. Far better to think of the most exciting moment in your story and start from there. Why not begin with the handsome prince trying to climb up the tower but screaming “Aaaaaaagggghhh!!!” as he falls to his death?! Once you’ve written a paragraph or so grabbing the reader’s attention, you can then introduce the main characters, where they live, when the story is set and so on.

    Build-up (or rising action)
    The build-up should describe what the main character is trying to do. For instance, is he or she robbing a bank, escaping from prison or fighting off an alien invasion

    Problem (or climax)
    Every story needs drama, which is really just conflict. If you show what the hero’s trying to do in the Build-up, the Problem is just what gets in the way. It might be guilt at leaving a friend behind, say, or a prison warder spotting the escaping convicts or a searchlight lighting up the yard. Whatever it is, it’s a problem that needs to be solved.

    Solution (or falling action)
    The solution to the problem is what the hero tries to do to fix it. It may not work, but it’s usually the best option available.

    Outcome (or ending)
    Not many 10-year-old boys like happy endings, so the plan doesn’t always have to come off! If you want your hero to die in a hail of bullets like Butch and Sundance, that’s up to you. Another way to end a story is to use a ‘cliffhanger’. In the old days, that meant the hero was literally hanging on to the edge of a cliff, and the reader would obviously want to know if he held on or not. These days, it just means adding another mystery or problem that needs to be fixed. For example, the hero could escape from prison…only to find a police car chasing him!

  4. Write the story (15 minutes or more, depending on the length of the exam).
    Now for the important bit!

    Stick to the plan
    The most important thing to remember is to stick to the plan! It’s very tempting to get carried away when you’re writing and follow wherever your imagination leads you, but the downside is that your story probably won’t have a proper beginning, middle and end, and you might run out of time trying to get the plot back on track.

    Balance the Three Ds
    You should also strike a balance between the Three Ds: Drama, Description and Dialogue. Every story has a plot, so drama will always be there, but a lot of pupils focus so much on what’s happening that there is very little if any description or dialogue. Readers want to imagine what people look like and how they feel, so you have to give them something to go on. People also generally have a lot to say when they get emotional or find themselves in tough situations, so you won’t be able to capture that unless they talk to one another in your story.

    Show off your vocabulary
    This is also a chance to show off your vocabulary. Including a few ‘wow words’ (or ‘golden words’) such as ‘annihilate’ instead of ‘destroy’ will impress the examiner no end – as long as you know how to spell them!

    Use poetic devices
    What’s the difference between ‘in the evening’ and ‘on a night as dark as a murderer’s soul’? If you think one of these is a little bit more descriptive and atmospheric than the other, then why not use poetic devices such as similes, metaphors and personification in your own writing? Just make sure the comparison is appropriate. If you’re describing a picnic, things might be ‘as black as Bovril’ instead!

  5. Check your work (4-5 minutes)
    If there’s one tip that beats all the rest, it’s ‘Check your work’. However old you are and whatever you’re doing, you should never finish a task before checking what you’ve done. However boring or annoying it is, you’ll always find at least one mistake and therefore at least one way in which you can make things better. In the case of 11+ or 13+ exams, the most important thing is to test candidates’ imagination and ability to write an interesting story, but spelling and grammar is still important. Schools have different marking policies. Some don’t explicitly mark you down (although a rash of mistakes won’t leave a very good impression!); some create a separate pot of 10 marks for spelling and grammar to add to the overall total; and some take marks off the total directly – even if you wrote a good story. Either way, it pays to make sure you’ve done your best to avoid silly mistakes. If you think you won’t have time to check, that’s entirely up to you. You’ll almost certainly gain more marks in the last five minutes by correcting your work than trying to answer one more question, so it makes sense to reserve that time for checking. If you do that, there are a few simple things to look out for. You may want to make a quick checklist and tick each item off one by one.

    Spelling
    This is the main problem that most Common Entrance candidates face, but there are ways in which you can improve your spelling. Firstly, you can look out for any obvious mistakes and correct them. It can help to go through each answer backwards a word at a time so that you don’t just see what you expect to see. Secondly, you can check if a word appears anywhere in the text or in the question. If it does, you can simply copy it across. Finally, you can choose another, simpler word. If you’re not quite sure how to spell something, it’s often better not to take the risk.

    Capital letters
    This should be easy, but candidates often forget about checking capitals in the rush to finish. Proper nouns, sentences and abbreviations should all start with capital letters. If you know you often miss out capital letters or put them where you don’t belong, you can at least check the beginning of every sentence to make sure it starts with a capital.

    Punctuation
    This simply means any marks on the page other than letters and numbers, eg full-stops, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes and question marks. Commas give almost everybody problems, but you can at least check there is a full-stop at the end of every sentence.

    Other grammar
    It’s always useful to read through your story to make sure everything makes sense. It’s very easy to get distracted first time round, but it’s usually possible to spot silly mistakes like missing letters or missing words on a second reading.

Sample questions

Try going through the whole five-step process to write a story based on the following choice of titles:

Left behind

A summer’s day

The ghost from the future

Saying sorry

The lie

The race

Lost boy

A fresh start

The voice in the darkness

The Noah’s Ark

Smoke

Silence

The hot afternoon

My father was furious

The swimming lesson

Caravanning

The choice

The garden

Sleeping

Twins

Junk food

The picnic by the lake

A gift

Great things come from small beginnings

Saying goodbye

The person in the queue

Through the window

The photograph

The long hot summer

The joke

The loner

The dare

The first day of term

Crossing the line

Weird habits

Mirror

Show and tell

Going underground

Echo

A visit from uncle

‘The room was so quiet that I noticed the clock ticking’

(Write a story that opens with this sentence.)

Every day, she sat alone by the upstairs window
(Write a story that opens with this sentence.)

Nobody’s perfect
(Write a story that uses this as its final line.)

Remember the iceberg!

Remember the iceberg!

What, that tiny thing…?

To pass Common Entrance, you have to be a scuba diver. Only a small part of any iceberg is visible above the waves, and only a small part of any answer to a question is visible in the text. To discover the rest, you have to ‘dive in’ deeper and deeper…

When I tutor Common Entrance candidates at either 11+ or 13+, I explain how to approach the two main types of question in the entrance exam: the reading comprehension and the composition.

Most 11+ papers last an hour or an hour and a quarter, and the marks are equally divided between the comprehension and the composition. That means half an hour or so for the comprehension. The 13+ exam is a little different and may involve two papers, one covering a prose comprehension and the other a poetry comprehension and a story. Whatever the format, it’s very important to read the instructions on the front cover. They will tell you exactly what you have to do and – crucially – how much time to spend on each section.

When it comes to doing a comprehension, I recommend a five-step process that involves reading the passage, reading the questions, reading the passage again, answering the questions and then checking your work. Reading the text may take five minutes or so, reading the questions a minute or two, re-reading the text another five minutes and checking your work another five minutes after that, which leaves only 15-20 minutes to answer the questions. If there are 25 marks available, that means around 30-45 seconds per mark. The number of marks available for each individual question will tell you how much time you have in total, eg two minutes for a four-mark question.

  1. Read the passage (5 mins).
    The text is usually taken from a short story, a novel or a poem. Whatever it is, the most important thing to do is to make sure you understand it and remember the main points. Rather than reading it as fast as you can – just to get it over and done with – you should go as slowly as you would if you were reading it out loud and make sure you understand everything. Re-read any bits where you get stuck and ask yourself the W questions as you go along: who, what, where, when, why and how? It may help to repeat  the story or the message to yourself – just to make sure everything makes sense.

  2. Read the questions (1 min).
    Once you’ve read the passage, it’s time to read the questions. Again, understanding and memorising them are more important than sheer speed. When you re-read the text, you’ll need to look out for answers to all the questions, and you won’t be able to do that if you can’t remember what they were! If it helps to jog your memory or draw your eye to the most important bits, you can underline key words and phrases in the questions or in the text itself, eg if you have to give the meaning of the word ‘annihilate’ in line 25.

  3. Read the passage again (5 mins).
    Some people suggest only reading the passage once, but the danger of doing that is that you’re not so familiar with it, which means you can’t answer so many questions off the top of your head and often have to hunt through the text for the answer. What that means is that you effectively end up reading most of the passage three or four times just looking for the bit you need! Reading the text twice is probably a good compromise between speed and memorability, and it also gives you the chance to underline or mark the answers to any of the questions that you happen to spot as you go through.

  4. Answer the questions (15-30 mins, depending on the length of the exam).
    This is obviously the main task, but there are a few things to remember:

    Read the question carefully
    . You don’t get any marks for answering the wrong question, so make sure you know exactly what you have to do. If that means reading the question twice, then that’s a price worth paying.

    Use the mark scheme as a guide. Most exam papers will let you know how many marks are awarded for each question, so it’s worthwhile bearing that in mind when you’re writing your answers. There’s no point spending ten minutes on a question that’s only worth one mark, and it would be daft to write only one sentence for a question worth ten marks. If it helps, you can always work out how much time you have for each question. For example, if you have 15 minutes to answer questions worth 30 marks, you’ll have 30 seconds for each mark, which means two minutes for a four-mark question.

    Follow any instructions to the letter
    . All these hints and tips are useful, but they are only general rules. Occasionally, examiners will let you off the hook and tell you that you don’t need to use full sentences, eg for the meanings of words. Just be sure to abide by what they say. If you’re told to answer a question ‘in your own words’, that means you can’t use any of the words in the text (except ‘filler’ words such as ‘the’ and ‘of’ or words that don’t have any obvious alternative, eg ‘lightship’ or the names of the characters). You need to show that you understand what’s written in the text, and you’ll actually be marked down for using quotations, even though that’s what’s usually needed.

    Refer to the text.
    I know the point of reading the text twice is to try and remember it, but you can’t possibly expect to remember the answers to all the questions and all the quotations to back them up! The answer is always in the text, so don’t be afraid to spend a few seconds going back over it to make sure you get the answer right and are able to support it with the right evidence.

    Use full sentences. Even if a question is as simple as ‘What is Jack’s dog’s name?’, the answer should be ‘His name is Rover’ rather than just ‘Rover’. The only time you don’t need to use a full sentence is when the question gives you special permission.

    Make sure any definitions you’re asked for fit exactly in the context. Words have different meanings, so you must check to see whether you have the right meaning and the right part of speech, eg ‘catch’ can be a verb meaning to fall ill or a noun meaning a fish! Nouns also vary in number, and verbs vary in tense and person, so it’s easy to lose marks by putting down ‘destroy’ rather than ‘destroys’, for example.

    Use PEE (Point, Evidence, Explanation) for longer answers. This is a good way of structuring your answers. The ‘point’ should be a short sentence answering the question as briefly as possible. The ‘evidence’ should be a quotation or another reference to the text. Finally, the ‘explanation’ should make it clear how the evidence backs up your argument.

    Answer ‘how’ questions be talking about the language. Comprehensions often start with a simple one-mark question such as ‘In what country is this passage set?’ This is a ‘what?’ question, a question about content, about facts. However, there is another kind of question, the ‘how?’ question, which is all about language. Suppose you’re asked, ‘How does the writer explain how Jack feels after losing his dog?’ What do you have to do? What you definitely shouldn’t do is say how Jack feels. The question is not ‘What are Jack’s feelings?’ You’re not being asked for facts but for an analysis of the techniques the author uses. That might include using poetic devices such as metaphor, simile or personification, or it might refer to sentence structure or the use of different parts of speech such as adjectives or verbs. The important thing to remember is that a ‘how?’ question is generally going to be about language, not content.

    Use the right tense. Most of the time, you should use the ‘eternal present’ to talk about the text, but the most important thing is to use the same tense as the question. Sometimes, passages are about historical events, so the past is more appropriate. For example, if the text comes from The Diary of Anne Frank, it wouldn’t make sense to talk about the Second World War as if it were still going on!

    Don’t repeat the whole question in your answer. 
    In primary school, teachers often tell their pupils to do this to make sure they’ve understood the question, but it takes too long when you’re older. I’ve seen children spend a whole minute carefully copying down most of the question before they’ve even thought about the answer! The best approach is probably to imagine what the whole answer would look like and then simply start writing from the word after ‘because’, eg Jack was crying when he made the long walk home from school on Friday because…’His dog had just died, and he missed him very much.’

    Answer all parts of the question. Examiners will sometimes try to catch you out by ‘hiding’ two questions in one. You should pay particular attention to these questions, eg ‘How do you think Jack feels about losing his dog, and how do you think you would feel if you lost your favourite pet?’ It would be easy to answer the first part of the question and then forget about the rest, so be careful!

    Don’t waste time with words you don’t need. You never have enough time in exams, so it’s pointless trying to pad out your answers by including waffle such as ‘it says in the text that…’ or ‘the author writes that in his opinion…’ Far better to spend the time thinking a bit more about the question and coming up with another quotation or point to make.

    Use quotations. Whether or not you’re using PEE and whether or not the question asks you to ‘make reference to the text’, you should generally try to back up your arguments with a short quotation or example. Just make sure you use quotation marks or inverted commas, copy the quotation out accurately and drop the key words into a sentence of your own, eg Jack feels ‘devastated’ by the loss of his dog. If the quotation is too long, you can miss words out by replacing them with an ellipsis (…). If it needs a slight change to make sense, you can put the change in square brackets. That’s quite useful if the question is in the present tense and the story is written in the past, eg Jim ‘love[s] strawberries’ rather than Jim ‘loved strawberries’.

    Remember the iceberg! As you can see from the picture, the vast majority of an iceberg remains hidden from view, and it’s the same with the answers to questions in a reading comprehension. Don’t be satisfied by what you can see on the surface. That won’t get you full marks. Like a scuba diver, you have to dive in deeper to find the rest…!

  5. Check your work (5 mins).
    If there’s one tip that beats all the rest, it’s ‘Check your work’. However old you are and whatever the subject, you should never finish a piece of work before checking what you’ve done. However boring or annoying it is, you’ll always find at least one mistake and therefore at least one way in which you can make things better. In the case of 11+ or 13+ comprehensions, the most important thing is to test candidates’ understanding of the passage, but spelling and grammar is still important. Schools have different marking policies. Some don’t explicitly mark you down (although a rash of mistakes won’t leave a very good impression!), some create a separate pot of 10 marks for spelling and grammar to add to the overall total and some take marks off each answer directly – even if you got the content ‘right’ . Either way, it pays to make sure you’ve done your best to avoid silly mistakes. If you think you won’t have time to check, make sure you manage your time. You’ll almost certainly gain more marks in the last five minutes by correcting your work than trying to answer one more question, so it makes sense to reserve that time for checking. If you do that, there are a few simple things to look out for. You may want to make a quick checklist and tick each item off one by one.

    Correct and complete answers. 
    This is the most important thing to check, and it takes the longest. Make sure that each answer is correct (by referring back to the text if necessary) and that each part of the question has been covered. Quite a few of my students have needlessly lost marks in practice tests by forgetting to look at all the pages, so you should always check you haven’t missed out any questions.

    Spelling. 
    This is the main problem that most Common Entrance candidates face, but there are ways in which you can improve your spelling. Firstly, you can look out for any obvious mistakes and correct them. It can help to go through each answer backwards a word at a time so that you don’t just see what you expect to see. Secondly, you can check if a word appears anywhere in the text or in the question. If it does, you can simply copy it down from there. Finally, you can choose another simpler word – if you’re not quite sure how to spell a word, it’s sometimes better not to take the risk.

    Capital letters. This should be easy, but candidates often forget about checking capitals in the rush to finish. Proper nouns, sentences and abbreviations should all start with capital letters. If you know you often miss out capital letters or put them where they don’t belong, you can at least check the beginning of each answer to make sure it starts with a capital.

    Punctuation. This simply means any marks on the page other than letters and numbers, eg full-stops, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes and question marks. Commas give almost everybody problems, but you can at least check there is a full-stop at the end of every sentence.

    Other grammar. It’s always useful to read through your answers to make sure everything makes sense. It’s very easy to get distracted first time round, but it’s usually possible to spot silly mistakes like missing words when you read everything again.