Tag Archives: descriptive writing

Hints and Tips

Here are a few articles to show how to tackle common problems in English, Maths, French, Verbal and Non-verbal Reasoning and photography.

General

Hints and tips

 

 

 

 

 

How do I know if my child will get a place?
This is the question I get asked the most as a tutor. And even if parents don’t ask it directly, I know that it’s always lurking in the background somewhere…! more

English

 

 

 

 

 

Why I hate the Press!
I know why they do it (most of the time), but it’s still incredibly annoying and confusing. I’m talking about grammatical mistakes in the papers. more

 

 

 

 

 

Americanisms
In the words of Winston Churchill (or George Bernard Shaw or James Whistler or Oscar Wilde), Britain and America are “two nations divided by a single language”. Quite a few of my pupils live outside the United Kingdom and/or go to foreign schools but are applying to English schools at 11+ or 13+ level. One of the problems they face is the use of Americanisms. more

 

 

 

 

 

Colons and semicolons
Using colons and semicolons is often an easy way to get a tick in your homework, but it still involves taking a bit of a risk. If you get it right, you get the tick, but if you get it wrong, you’ll get a cross. This article will explain how to use both colons and semicolons so that you can be confident of getting far more ticks than crosses! more

 

 

 

 

 

 

Explaining humour
The ‘W’ words are useful if you’re trying to understand or summarise a story, but who, whom, who’s and whose tend to cause problems. Here’s a quick guide to what they all mean and how they can be used. more

Who-or-whom

Who or whom, who’s or whose?
The ‘W’ words are useful if you’re trying to understand or summarise a story, but whowhomwho’s and whose tend to cause problems. Here’s a quick guide to what they all mean and how they can be used. more

Could vs might

Could or might?
Could and might mean different things, but a lot of people use them both to mean the same thing. Here’s a quick guide to avoid any confusion. more

Homophones

Homophones
Homophones are words that sound the same even though they’re spelt differently and mean different things. Getting them right can be tricky, but it’s worth it in the end. more

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. more

Books
Children’s reading list
I’m often asked by parents what books their children should be reading. Here’s a list of my favourite books when I was a boy. Maybe a few of them might be worth ordering online…! more

John McEnroe
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… more

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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… more

Grand Central
Descriptive writing
Exams at 11+ and 13+ level always let you tell a story in the writing section, but they sometimes provide a picture and simply ask you to describe it or to ‘write about it in any way you like’. Writing a description is obviously different from writing a story, so it’s worthwhile pointing out the differences and the similarities… more

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

Apostrophe
It’s all about the 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?! more

Keep calm and check your spelling
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… more

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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! more

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

speech marks
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…?! more

Essay writing
Essay writing
There comes a point in everyone’s life when you have to undergo the ritual that marks the first, fateful step on the road to becoming an adult. It’s called ‘writing an essay’… more

Commas
Commas
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… more

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… more

Story mountains
Story mountains
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… more

Remember the iceberg!
Remember the iceberg!
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… more

Maths

Working out values from a pie chart

Working out values from a pie chart
This is a typical question from a Dulwich College 11+ Maths paper that asks you to work out various quantities from a pie chart. To answer questions like this, you have to be comfortable working with fractions and know that there are 360 degrees in a circle. more

Reflecting shapes in a mirror line

Reflecting shapes in a mirror line
This is a typical question from a Dulwich College 11+ Maths paper, and it asks you to draw a reflection of the triangle in the mirror line shown on the chart. more

SOHCAHTOA
SOHCAHTOA
SOHCAHTOA (pronounced ‘soccer-toe-uh’) is a useful ‘mnemonic’ to remember the definitions of sines, cosines and tangents. Amazingly, I was never taught this at school, so I just had to look up all the funny numbers in a big book of tables without understanding what they meant! more

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Long multiplication
You can use short multiplication if you’re multiplying one number by another that’s in your times tables (up to 12). However, if you want to multiply by a higher number, you need to use long multiplication. more

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How to add, subtract, multiply and divide
The most important things you need to do in Maths are to add, subtract, divide and multiply. If you’re doing an entrance exam, and there’s more than one mark for a question, it generally means that you have to show your working. more

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Long division
Long division is on the syllabus for both 11+ and 13+ exams, so it’s important to know when and how to do it… more

maths trick
Maths trick
Here’s a Maths trick a friend of mine saw on QI. Who knows? It might make addition and subtraction just a little bit more fun! more

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Simultaneous equations
Why do we have simultaneous equations? Well, there are two ways of looking at it… more

Prime factors
Prime factors
Prime factors have nothing to do with Optimus Prime – sadly – but they often crop up in Maths tests and can be used to find the Lowest Common Multiple or Highest Common Factor of two numbers… more

negative-numbers
Negative numbers
Working with negative numbers can be confusing, but a few simple rules can help you add, subtract, multiply and divide successfully… more

maths
Useful terms in Maths
Maths is complicated, but a good first step on the road to understanding it is to get to know the most useful terms. There are lists in the front of the Bond books, but here’s my own contribution. I hope it helps! more

algebra
Algebra
Algebra is supposed to make life easier. By learning a formula or an equation, you can solve any similar type of problem whatever the numbers involved. However, an awful lot of students find it difficult, because letters just don’t seem to ‘mean’ as much as numbers. Here, we’ll try to make life a bit easier… more

Divisibility rules OK
Divisibility rules OK!
Times tables can be tricky, and there’s no substitute for learning them by heart. However, the divisibility rules can at least tell you whether an answer is definitely wrong. I’m a great believer in ‘sanity checking’ your work. Just ask yourself, “Is this crazy?” If it is, you’ll have to do the question again! more

Back-to-school-blackboard-chalk
Tips for the QTS numeracy test
The QTS numeracy and literacy tests are not very popular, but trainee teachers still have to pass them before they can start teaching in the state sector, so I thought I’d try and help out. There is always more than one way of doing a Maths question, but I hope I’ll demonstrate a few useful short cuts and describe when and how they should be used… more

Here be ratios
Ratios
Hundreds of years ago, it was traditional to put dragons on maps in places that were unknown, dangerous or poorly mapped. Ratios are one of those places… more

Fractions, decimals and percentages
Working with fractions
People don’t like fractions. I don’t know why. They’re difficult to begin with, I know, but a few simple rules will help you add, subtract, multiply and divide… more

Number sequences
Number sequences
Number sequences appear in Nature all over the place, from sunflowers to conch shells. They can also crop up either in Maths or Verbal Reasoning, and both are essential parts of 11+ and other school examinations… more

Fractions, decimals and percentages
Fractions, decimals and percentages
Pizzas are very useful, mathematically speaking. However much we hate fractions, we all know what half a pizza looks like, and that’s the point. Numbers don’t have any intrinsic meaning, and we can’t picture them unless they relate to something in the real world, so pizzas are just a useful way of illustrating fractions, decimals and percentages… more

Useful formulas
Useful formulas
What is a problem? A problem = a fact + a judgment. That is a simple formula that tells us something about the way the world works. Maths is full of formulas, and that can intimidate some people if they don’t understand them or can’t remember the right one to use… more

Short cuts
Short cuts
There is always more than one way of solving a Maths problem. That can be confusing, but it can also be an opportunity – if only you can find the right trade-off between speed and accuracy… more

French

French verbs
French regular verbs – present subjunctive tense
The subjunctive in French is generally used in the present tense after expressions such as ‘il faut que’ and certain verbs that also take the word ‘que’ after them. These are generally the ones that express feelings or doubts (eg craindre, vouloir), especially when two parts of a sentence have different subjects, eg ‘I want her to be happy’ becomes ‘Je veux qu’elle soit contente’. Verbs ending in -er or -re have one set of endings, but  -ir verbs have another… more

French verbs
Preceding Direct Objects in French
Forming the perfect (or pluperfect) tense in French is sometimes made harder than necessary by what’s called a Preceding Direct Object (or PDO). The object of a sentence is whatever ‘suffers the action of the verb’, eg the nail in ‘he hit the nail on the head’… more

French verbs
French regular verbs – conditional tense
The conditional tense in French is used to show that someone ‘would do’ or ‘would be doing’ something. All verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and the endings are different (as shown here in red)… more

French verbs
French regular verbs – future tense
There is only one future tense in French, and it’s used to show that someone ‘will do’ or ‘will be doing’ something. Verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, but the endings are the same… more

French verbs
French regular verbs – past tense
Here are the basic forms of French regular verbs in the past tense, which include the perfect (or passé composé), pluperfect, imperfect and past historic (or passé simple). All verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and there are different endings for each that are shown here in red… more

French verbs
Common French verbs – present tense
Language changes over time because people are lazy. They’d rather say something that’s easy than something that’s correct. That means the most common words change the most, and the verbs become ‘irregular’. In French, the ten most common verbs are ‘être’, ‘avoir’, ‘pouvoir’, ‘faire’, ‘mettre’, ‘dire’, ‘devoir’, ‘prendre’, ‘donner’ and ‘aller’, and they’re all irregular apart from ‘donner’… more

French verbs
French regular verbs – present tense
Nobody likes French verbs – not even the French! – but I thought I’d start by listing the most basic forms of the regular verbs in the present tense. All French verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and there are different endings for each that are shown here in red… more

Learning the right words
Learning the right words
One of the frustrations about learning French is that you’re not given the words you really need to know. I studied French up to A-level, but I was sometimes at a complete loss when I went out with my French girlfriend and a few of her friends in Lyon. I was feeling suitably smug about following the whole conversation in French…until everyone started talking about chestnuts! more

Non-verbal Reasoning

Non-verbal Reasoning
Non-verbal reasoning tests are commonly found in Common Entrance exams at 11+ and 13+ level, and they’re designed to test pupils’ logical reasoning skills using series of shapes or patterns. It’s been said that they were intended to be ‘tutor-proof’, but, of course, every kind of test can be made easier through proper preparation and coaching. more

Photography

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African field guide
Find an alphabetical list of the most common animals seen on safari in Africa, including mammals, reptiles and birds. more

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Basics of photography
Learn all about the basic aspects of photography, including types of camera, types of lenses, the Exposure Triangle (shutter speed, aperture and ISO), focus and other settings. more

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Game drives
Read all about the best gear, equipment to take with you on safari, learn the rules of composition and find out the best workflow for editing your wildlife images. more

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How to stand out from the herd
Read this quick guide to improve your wildlife shots by setting up something a little bit different, from slow pans to sunny silhouettes. more

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Introduction to Lightroom
Learn how to import, edit and organise your images in Lightroom, including the main features available in the Library and Develop modules and a summary of keyboard shortcuts. more

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Making money from photography
Find out how to start making money from your photography with this quick and easy guide to entering competitions, putting on exhibitions, selling through stock (and microstock) agencies and more. more

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Rules of composition
Find out the rules of composition to help you get the most out of your photography, including the Rule of Thirds, framing, point of view, symmetry and a whole lot more. more

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Safari pub quiz
Challenge your friends and family on their wildlife knowledge with this fun quiz. more

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Wildlife photography
Learn how to take great wildlife shots by preparing properly, taking the right equipment and getting to know the rules of composition. more

Verbal Reasoning

VRTypeO

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. Here is a guide to the different kinds of problems and the best ways to approach them. more

Descriptive Writing

Grand Central

Exams at 11+ and 13+ level always let you tell a story in the writing section, but they sometimes provide a picture and simply ask you to describe it or to ‘write about it in any way you like’. Writing a description is obviously different from writing a story, so it’s worthwhile pointing out the differences and the similarities.

When you write a story, the best way of doing it is probably to follow the five-step process that I outline in Story Mountains:

  1. Choose the title
  2. Brainstorm for ideas
  3. Plan your work
  4. Write it
  5. Check it

You can use a similar basic method for doing a description – except the planning stage obviously doesn’t involve creating a story mountain! – but what are the differences? Steps 1, 4 and 5 are pretty much the same, but you might want to have a look at these tips for the brainstorm and planning.

Brainstorm

When you’re brainstorming for a story, you have to think about characters, genre, period, setting and plot, and you also have to make sure there’s a ‘problem’ to solve so that your idea fits into a story mountain. However, descriptions don’t necessarily have all of those things in them, so you have to think about it in a different way.

The simplest form of description would simply involve describing what’s in a picture (or imagining what’s there if you’re just given the title). That might result in some very imaginative creative writing and open up the possibility of using some great vocabulary and all the poetic devices you can think of, including similes and metaphors.

However, the very best descriptions have to have some kind of ‘hook’ to grab the reader’s attention, and that usually means a central character, situation or even a mini ‘plot’. You obviously need to describe exactly what’s in the picture, but what if you want to say more? What if the picture doesn’t have the things in it that you want.

That’s a bit tricky, but you can always ask questions or just ask the narrator to imagine things.

Hal Morey’s picture of New York’s Grand Central Station is a good example. The shot has lots of elements to it, including the architecture, the people and the beams of light from the windows, so you could easily spend your whole time going over the picture in great depth, picking out each detail and thinking up the best words and metaphors to describe it.

Vocabulary is important here, so you might make a list of the words that you planned to use. One good way of organising this is to think about the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. It’s sometimes difficult to get beyond the visual when you’re analysing a picture, so this method just forces you to think of the other aspects of a scene. Try to make separate lists for each of the senses. The visual vocabulary might include the following:

  • columns (not just walls)
  • vaulting (not just roof)
  • passengers (not just people)
  • spotlights (not just light)
  • cathedral (not just station)
  • nave (not just hall)
  • balustrade (not just railing)

It’s not enough to use words like ‘roof’ when more imaginative synonyms exist such as ‘vaulting’, so try to think of the very best words to use. After all, the examiner can’t tell that you know a word unless you use it! And the same goes for metaphors.

Where did the word ‘cathedral’ come from? Well, the shape of the hall and all the windows are similar to what you’d find in a cathedral or a large church, so why not use that in a kind of ‘extended metaphor’?

An extended metaphor takes a comparison and uses it more than once, so the main part of the hall might be the ‘nave’, the two large arched windows might be the ‘west windows’ and the people might be the ‘congregation’.

Even better would be to link the metaphor to the purpose of the other building by saying something like this: “The congregation bustled to find their seats in the pews as they made their daily act of worship to the god of commerce.”

Suddenly, you’ve gone from a bland description of what you can see for yourself to a new and imaginative way of looking at the world.

The other category of words on your checklist should be feelings. Why simply describe what people look like and not examine how they feel? As an example, use the context of Grand Central Station to imagine what’s going through the passengers’ minds? Are they bored, are they reluctant to go to work, or are they happy to be bunking off for a day at the beach?!

So what else can you do to take your writing to the next level?

The answer is to introduce a main character or some kind of situation or miniature plot. You’re hardly ever ‘banned’ from using a plot in this kind of question, so there’s no problem with introducing one, but let’s stick with the idea of doing a description rather than a story.

The Grand Central picture is again a good example. What would be the character or the situation or the plot here? Well, the obvious idea is to pick is a commuter who’s late for his train. You could introduce the description by focusing on one individual in the picture and explaining why he’s in a hurry.

You could then have a kind of countdown clock as you described all the people and objects he sees as he rushes to make his train:

     Lionel Carey was in a hurry. He only had five minutes to make his train to get to the most important meeting of his life! He struggled along with his precious, old, leather briefcase, catching his fedora as it was blown off his head and cursing the long overcoat he had chosen to wear as it made him sweat uncomfortably and almost tripped him over. Now, what platform did he need?
     Four minutes to go…

And so on. This gives the passage a clearer focus and a sense of tension, excitement and mystery. Will Lionel catch his train? Where is he going? What is the meeting about? It just adds another layer to the description – and ideally leads to higher marks!

Alternatively, you can talk about things that are not in the picture by doing one of the following:

  • ask questions, eg if the picture was of the Colosseum in Rome, you could ask questions like Was this where the Roman gladiators stood before they made their way to their deaths in the arena?
  • create a section in which the narrator imagines objects or events, eg It was here that the emperor would stand before giving the thumbs-up or thumbs-down sign that would signal the fate of the gladiators.

Planning

It’s fairly obvious how to plan for a story because it has to have a plot, but how do you plan for a description? Do you just describe what’s in the picture, starting perhaps on the left and working  your way across? Or do you separate your work into five different paragraphs on each of the senses, with perhaps an extra one for the feelings of the travellers? Or can you introduce a timeline, charting the progress of an imaginary character – such as Lionel Carey, hurrying to catch his train?

Each one might work, but you’ll probably get the best marks for something that engages the reader, and the best way of doing that is to have a central character and a carefully selected situation to place him in:

Lionel Carey in a hurry – needs to catch train for meeting, looks for platform

4 mins

Describe Lionel – importance of what’s in briefcase, mysterious ‘she’ he’s meeting
Describe station – architecture, light, people

3 mins

Describe people he sees
Bumps into coffee cart
Argues with staff
Will he ever see ‘her’?

2 mins

Describe trains – steam, smoke, whistle
Wrong platform – needs to run to Platform 16

1 min

Describe running, bumping into people, curses

Time’s up!
Too late – but wait! Train is delayed. He can give daughter Xmas present after all!

Whatever the picture or title, try giving this method a try. If you brainstorm and plan correctly, focusing on all five senses and people’s feelings and using a central character to add excitement and mystery, I’m sure you’ll do a good job.