In the good old days, 11+ or 13+ candidates were simply asked to do a comprehension and write a story in their English exams. However, the creative writing papers have changed recently, and candidates might have to do a wide range of creative writing tasks, such as writing a diary entry or a newspaper article. This post should help you understand the basic format of a newspaper article enough to write your own in a convincing way.
The picture above shows a typical article taken from the online edition of The Daily Telegraph. It happens to be from the sport section, but it follows a similar pattern to most articles, whether they’re in news, opinion or any other section.
Here are the basic elements that you need to copy in your own article:
Headline. This says what the news item actually is and will usually have only 5-10 words in it. This one’s a little longer, but it still leaves out one or two words, in this case the ‘a’ in front of the words ‘shock call-up’. Articles such as a, an and the are normally left out of the main headline, as are auxiliary verbs such as being and having. For example, if the headline was in the passive, it would read something like ‘Josh Tongue handed shock call-up’, not ‘Josh Tongue is handed shock call-up’. Notice also that it’s in the present tense—even though the event obviously happened in the past! That’s just a convention or habit, but you need to do the same.
Subheadline. This explains the main headline in a bit more detail. This is generally a bit longer, so the rules are slightly less strict on leaving out words. Notice that the word ‘an’ makes it into this one, but there’s no ‘the’ before ‘nets’.
Byline. This tells the reader who’s written the article and where it was written. In this case, it’s just the journalist’s name and location, but columnists sometimes have a mini-biography.
Date. This shows the date and time when the article was published.
Picture. You probably won’t have to draw a picture, but you might possibly have to show where it goes in the article and say what would be in it. In this case, it’s just a picture of Josh Tongue bowling at Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Caption. The line under the picture usually repeats the headline again in different words, and there’s usually a credit for the photographer who took the picture or the agency that provided it. In this case, you can see it was Philip Brown via Getty Images.
Lede. The first paragraph is called the ‘lede’ for historical reasons that aren’t important now! It usually repeats the headline with a bit more explanatory detail, including dates, locations and a bit of background.
Other paragraphs. There’s no set number of paragraphs for a newspaper article, so you’ll need to check the question to work out how much to write. However, most newspaper articles include the most important information at the top of the article and less important details further down. These usually include a mix of the following:
Background. This is not part of the actual story, but it helps explain what’s going on. For example, in the second paragraph of this article, we find that ‘Tongue has never played at Lord’s before’.
Interviews. The usual sources journalists use to back up a story are interviews with the people concerned. In political stories, you might find quotations from both sides of a controversial argument. In this case, all we see is a short quotation from Chris Woakes, who ‘spoke of a “dark” summer in 2022’.
Statistics. Another way to confirm a story is by using numbers. This is common in articles about economics. However, in this case, we find that Woakes ‘averages 61.2 with the bat and 11.3 with the ball’.
Anecdotes. Journalists often try to ‘hook’ the reader or generate an emotional reaction by telling a story. In this case, we hear how Woakes ‘was sidelined by a knee injury and wondered if he would add to his 45 Test caps’.
Every newspaper has a ‘style guide’ that helps journalists decide how to write the story. These cover all kinds of grammatical points, including such things as how to capitalise words or where to use commas. Here are a couple of common usages:
Use people’s full names (and titles) when first mentioning them in the article. After that, just use their surnames. In this article, for instance, it’s ‘Josh Tongue’ in the first paragraph but ‘Tongue’ after that.
Use ‘elegant variation’ to avoid repeating people’s names too often. It can get a bit repetitive to use people’s names all the way through an article, so it’s normal to think of different ways to refer to them. In this article, Chris Woakes is referred to as the ‘seasoned international and Lord’s specialist’.
Treat what interviewees say as quotations rather than speech. That means you don’t need to put a comma before the spoken words, as with the word “dark” in this example. It also means you have to put the full-stop after the speech marks and not before.
Don’t write in the first person. Unless you’re supposed to be a columnist writing an opinion piece, you shouldn’t use the words ‘I’ or ‘me’.
Write a news article about a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, volcanic eruption or tsunami.
Write a sports report about a football match.
Write an article about the importance of saving the planet.
Write a restaurant review.
Write an obituary for a famous person who’s just died.
Hyphenation is not the most important thing in the world, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Here are the three rules you need to obey if you want to get it right.
Hyphenate in between syllables. Syllables are just the different sounds in a word, and you can count them. For instance, happily has three syllables because there are three different sounds (hap-, -pi- and -ly). Putting the hyphen in between syllables just makes it easier to read. This also means that you can’t hyphenate words that have only one syllable. Sorry, but you just can’t…!
Start the second part of the word on the next line with a consonant. Again, it just makes it easier to read if you start the second part with a consonant. Hence, the word ‘cleaning’ in the picture should be hyphenated before the ‘n’ and not after!
If there’s a double consonant or two consonants in a row, put the hyphen in between the two. This almost always makes the word easier to read because it breaks the word in a ‘natural’ position. For instance, the word ‘railway’ naturally breaks into ‘rail-‘ and ‘way’.
And that’s it…! Here are a few sample questions to test yourself on.
Hyphenate the following words correctly. (There may be more than one option!)
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.
Yes, it’s important for their copy to be readable, but we have rules on capital letters, spelling, punctuation and other grammar primarily to make language more understandable, not less, so there is a price to pay when mistakes are made.
In addition, newspapers these days employ far fewer copy editors to correct mistakes, so journalists are increasingly having to do spell checks and grammar checks themselves – with predictable results!
As a tutor, I’m in a difficult position. On the one hand, I accept that language changes over time, but my job depends on telling my pupils what is right and what is wrong.
I have to draw a line in the sand and tell people what I would do, but that’s based on the education I got forty years ago!
I’m far more comfortable with language changes that happen over a timescale of centuries rather than years or even decades, and I still teach people not to use words like ‘alright’ or ‘onto’ even though most people wouldn’t know what I was on about.
Anyway, feel free to make up your own mind. Here’s a quick list of the ways in which the ‘style guides’ of newspapers and magazines try to change the rules of English in order to make their articles more ‘readable’:
Paragraphs only include one or two sentences (meaning that you often have to check back to see who ‘he’ or ‘she’ is).
Commas are omitted before the word ‘and’.
Commas are omitted after openers/sentence starters/fronted adverbials.
Split infinitives are permitted.
‘Sentences’ may start with conjunctions even though they are strictly speaking only clauses.
‘Likely’ may be used as an adverb.
Writers also simply make mistakes, and my pet peeves are the use of ‘centre around’ (rather than ‘centre on’) and words like ‘focussing’ (rather than ‘focusing’).
I’m sure we can all think of a few more examples, but I thought I’d illustrate my point by putting together a list from just one newspaper on just one day – The Daily Telegraph on Thursday 2 September 2021.
Have a look at the quotations and see how many mistakes you can spot!
‘But, now 34 and in the twilight of his career, it is hard to see Solskjaer using Cavani in the sort of wide role supporting Ronaldo that he became accustomed to for a while at PSG in order to accommodate Ibrahimovic centrally.’
This is not a full sentence as it starts with ‘but’. It is actually only a main clause that needs another main clause before it. The other problem is that we don’t know who or what is 34. By the way it’s phrased, it looks like ‘it’ is 34, but that’s impossible, so maybe it’s Solskjaer, but that’s not right either. It’s actually Cavani!
‘The Norwegian has already admitted he “maybe overplayed” Fernandes and Marcus Rashford is currently sidelined until later next month following shoulder surgery after repeatedly being asked to play through the pain barrier.’
The comma before ‘and’ has been left out. This happens a lot in the papers, but you should be able to see from this example how confusing it is. Commas are a signal to pause when you’re reading, but without that pause It seems as though Solskjaer overplayed both Fernandes and Rashford because it looks like a list. However, the word ‘is’ lets us know that we’re actually entering another main clause. This is just plain confusing and results in readers having to reread sentences in order to make sense of them.
‘Any club sanctioned by Fifa would face further disciplinary action if they defied any ban on fielding affected players – although the teams would likely only do so if they planned on trying to overturn such a ban.’
Pronouns are a problem these days, often because writers don’t want to follow the convention of assuming that an individual is male when using the word ‘anyone’ or ‘everyone’. Using ‘them’ or ‘their’ is an ungrammatical cop-out. Here, the writer uses the plural pronoun ‘they’ to refer to the singular noun ‘club’, which is debatable to say the least. I’d say it was grammatically wrong, but I’ll admit that British English (though not American English) treats clubs as plural when using their names, for example in saying that ‘Liverpool have bought a defender’. That’s all well and good, but that’s not the case here. It’s not the name of a club that’s being used, just the word ‘club’. The other problem is the use of ‘likely’ as an adverb. This is a perfectly acceptable American usage, but ‘likely’ has always been an adjective in British English – until recently!
‘He said: “Monetary policy has always influenced fiscal outcomes — interest rate changes influence sovereign financing costs. But, with QE, the character of the relationship has changed.”’
Colons should be used when introducing a list rather than speech, and ‘sentences’ shouldn’t start with the word ‘but’.
‘In 2019, it was condemned by its own former chairman for celebrating the resignation of a Labour MP, who was chair of the party’s friends of Israel group, on its Twitter account.’
The problem here is the use of commas around the relative clause (‘who was chair of the party’s friends of Israel group’). Yes, a pair of commas may be used to fence off ‘extra information’ from the rest of the sentence, but relative clauses following ‘who’ and ‘that’ are a special case. They need commas if you’re describing something or someone, but not if you’re defining something or someone. Here, the writer is defining which Labour MP is meant, so no commas should be used. It’s the same when using ‘which’ and ‘that’. You should use ‘which’ with a comma to describe, but ‘that’ without a comma to define.
‘She put longevity above genuine achievement, and popularity above actually tackling Germany’s real problems.’
This is the reverse of the missing comma I mentioned before. The comma before the word ‘and’ here implies that a new main clause is about to start and that the reader should expect a verb after the word ‘popularity’, but in fact it’s just a list. Again, this causes confusion and reduces readability by forcing readers to reread the sentence to check the meaning.
‘Its economy only survives thanks to her predecessor’s labour market reforms, and the fact that the euro is much cheaper than the Deutsche Mark would have been.’
Again, this is another example of the redundant ‘Oxford comma’ in the middle of a list.
‘Reread some of your old columns, dust out your biography of Churchill, and, above all, stop trying to imitate Angela Merkel.’
This is yet another instance of the misplaced comma before the word ‘and’. I presume the writer means ‘dust off’ rather than ‘dust out’…!
‘Many centre-ground voters, while they may not allow themselves to become over-heated by the subject, will nevertheless acknowledge the fact that allowing such migrants to remain indefinitely in Britain when many thousands of others are rejected after applying through formal channels is unfair and unjust.’
All that’s wrong with this is the tautology at the end: ‘unfair’ means ‘unjust’, so you don’t need both adjectives.
‘It all adds up to an entangling web of sclerotic bureaucratic processes that will do little to actually protect the environment.’
I realise that the need to avoid the split infinitive was based on an arbitrary comparison with Latin, in which the infinitive literally can’t be split because it’s one word rather than two, but the convention is still common enough to make most people shiver when they read something like this.
‘There’s a clear need to reduce emissions to tackle climate change and conserve the environment. But we need an approach that doesn’t borrow tools from the old socialist handbook.’
The second ‘sentence’ is only a fragment as it starts with ‘but’.
‘Countries with the most economic freedom perform 50 per cent better on Yale and Columbia universities’ Environmental Performance Index, while those with controlled economies perform worse.’
‘While’ is a subordinating conjunction and so shouldn’t have a comma before it.
‘In response to climate change, the Adam Smith Institute and the British Conservative Alliance are focusing on three areas. First, a border-adjusted carbon tax that would account for the costs to the environment while encouraging innovation. Second, embracing nuclear energy by addressing the high fixed costs to design. And third, a clean free trade agenda including abolishing tariffs and quotas on environmental goods and joining the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability.’
This is just a list, so the writer should’ve used one sentence instead of piling up sentence fragments that don’t have a subject or a verb. The last ‘sentence’ shouldn’t start with ‘and’ either.
‘Former Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli once wrote, “ I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best ”.’
Here, the comma before ‘Benjamin Disraeli’ shouldn’t be there because he is one of many prime ministers. If there’d been only one prime minister, then there should’ve been commas before and after his name, but there are no circumstances in which you should only have one comma.
‘A number of scenarios could unfold: among them a really bad flu epidemic, a new variant that evades the vaccines, or a brutally cold winter that fills the hospitals.’
The first problem here is the phrase ‘among them’. I’d say it was a grey area, but I would leave it out – the colon should introduce the list itself. The second problem is the comma before ‘or’. Yes, it’s a co-ordinating conjunction (or FANBOYS word), but that just means there should be a comma in front of it if it’s being used to join two sentences together, not when it’s separating items in a list. It’s the same for the word ‘and’ and other co-ordinating conjunctions.
‘Meanwhile the NHS is at full stretch to try to reduce the waiting times on operations and diagnostics, with its capacity is reduced by ongoing Covid precautions.’
First, there should be a comma after ‘meanwhile’ or any other adverb at the start of a sentence. Second, the word ‘is’ shouldn’t be there.
‘GPs are still reluctant to see patients face to face, and this is putting additional pressure on hospitals, with health problems spotted later and multiple problems are piling up.’
This is a similar problem, the word ‘are’ being left in by mistake after ‘problems’.
‘Even pre Covid, winter meant headlines screaming “ NHS in worst crisis ever”.’
‘Pre’ is only a prefix rather than a word, so it needs a hyphen. There is also an extra space left in by mistake before ‘NHS’.
‘So lets remember Disraeli’s wise words.’
‘Lets’ should be written with an apostrophe before the ‘s’ as it stands for ‘let us’.
‘We must rebuild the Nightingale hospitals now, this Autumn, before it is too late.’
While ‘Autumn’ is a proper noun, it is not capitalised in English.
‘Some 15,000 beds was prepared last year under the Nightingale plan.’
‘Beds’ is plural, but ‘was’ is singular.
‘There is a short, sharp army recruitment advert running at the moment. It’s slogan is Fail, Learn, Win.’
This time, the apostrophe is wrong. The word should be ‘its’, meaning ‘belonging to it’. You might also argue that there should be inverted commas around the slogan itself.
‘We were not prepared. So let’s learn the lesson. We must be prepared. Then we can win the battle against Covid.’
I know writers and politicians like short, sharp sentences, but this is getting ridiculous! The writer here manages to make two sentences into four…
‘We must now put many thousands of retired medics doctors, nurses on standby. A Medical Reserve, along the lines of the Territorial Army.’
This comes from the same article, which was full of mistakes. There should be a comma after ‘medics’, and the word ‘and’ should replace the comma before ‘nurses’ as it’s the last item in the list. The last ‘sentence’ has no subject or verb, so it should probably start with ‘It should be’.
‘Some 40,000 retired medics offered to come back to help last year, but only 1 in 8 were engaged due to overwhelming bureaucracy.’
Again, this shows the problem with plurals. The number ‘1’ is obviously singular, so how can you say ‘1 in 8 were engaged’?!
‘Yes it will cost money. But it will be cheap at the price if it helps avoid tier restrictions, more lockdowns, more furlough.’
There should be a comma after ‘yes’ as it’s an interjection, the full-stop before ‘But’ should be a comma, ‘But’ should start with a lower case ‘b’ and the word ‘and’ should replace the comma before ‘more furlough’. Apart from that, it’s fine…!
‘Every winter the NHS needs more capacity, we would have both beds and staff.’
There should be a comma after the phrase ‘every winter’ as it’s an opener, and the comma after ‘capacity’ should be a full-stop – this is known as a ‘comma splice’.
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.
There are a number of words that are spelled differently in American English, so you just have to watch out for them. English schools want pupils who are fluent in British English, not the American version – however similar it might be!
The first English dictionary was produced by Samuel Johnson, who published A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.
However, after the War of Independence, Noah Webster was annoyed by all the ‘English’ textbooks in American schools and decided to try and prove that America had moved on from its colonial past by ‘simplifying’ English spelling and making it more consistent.
The result was A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1806, and then An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828.
If you’re trying to learn English, that was an unfortunate decision!
However, there are a few typical changes that are easy enough to reverse.
-ize should be -ise, eg ‘realize’ should be ‘realise’ (but ‘capsize’ is the same in both).
-yze should be -yse, eg ‘analyze’ should be ‘analyse’.
-se should be -ce, eg ‘defense’ should be ‘defence’.
-l- should be -ll-, eg ‘traveled’ should be ‘travelled’.
-or should be -our, eg ‘color’ should be ‘colour’.
-er should be -re, eg ‘center’ should be ‘centre’ (but ‘thermometer’ is the same in both).
-e- should be -oe- or -ae-, eg ‘encyclopedia’ should be ‘encyclopaedia’, and ‘diarrhea’ should be ‘diarrhoea’.
Some of Webster’s alterations caught on in Britain, such as deleting the silent -k in words such as ‘publick’ or spelling ‘connexion’ as ‘connection’, but there were many others that didn’t even make it in the States – phew!
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…!
School entrance exams are very stressful for pupils and parents alike, and it would be nice to be able to reassure them by giving them all the pass marks for their target schools. Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that.
Schools adjust the marks from Common Entrance exams at 11+ and 13+ to allow for the different ages of the children. Some will have a birthday late in the school year, which means they’ll be ‘young for their year’, and it’s generally agreed that it would be unfair to penalise those children by asking them to compete directly against other pupils who might be up to 12 months older than they are.
That’s a big difference at such a young age, so schools ‘standardise’ marks using a formula that adjusts for the relative age of each pupil. That formula also includes adjustments for various other factors, so it’s impossible to know in advance what your child’s standardised score will be.
On top of that, schools don’t often publish their pass marks, so what are pupils and their parents to do?
Well, if you can get hold of your child’s standardised score – and that’s a big if! – then you can at least check whether that score has been good enough in the past to guarantee a place at certain schools. There’s a website called elevenplusexams.co.uk that has posted what they call ‘Entry Allocation Scores & Collated Cutoffs’ for a few schools in Essex. You can find the 2019 figures here, and you can also find out the results and offers for Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School, The Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield Grammar School for Girls here. If your chosen schools are not on those sites, feel free to search for them online.
I’m sorry I can’t be of more help, but at least that’s a start.
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!
Colons can only be used to introduce a list where the introductory phrase could form a sentence on its own. If not, you shouldn’t use any punctuation at all.
I went to the supermarket and bought the following items: apples, pears and bananas.
I went to the supermarket and bought apples, pears and bananas.
Note that you can still use colons even if there’s only one item in the list:
I only wanted one thing from my men: courage!
Have a go at the following questions and see if you can add the right punctuation. It’ll either be a colon, a semicolon, a comma or nothing at all.
I love chocolate biscuits and milkshakes.
He said “I always go the gym on Wednesdays.”
There were three items on her shopping list flour, sugar and eggs.
He prized only one quality in his players teamwork.
He stayed in his room it was far too hot to go outside.
Semicolons can be used either to separate two main clauses if one explains the other or to separate items in a list that are long and/or contain commas.
He was very careful not to make any spelling mistakes; his teacher was always having a go at him for bad spelling.
The entries to the competition came from London, England; Paris, France; and Berlin, Germany.
Note that the semicolon before the ‘and’ is optional. We don’t generally use commas before ‘and’ in a normal list, but some people think using a semicolon in the same situation makes things clearer.
Have a go at the following questions and see if you can add the right punctuation. It’ll either be a semicolon, a colon, a comma or nothing at all.
I love chocolate biscuits and milkshakes I used to have them all the time as a kid.
She said, “I always go the pool on Saturdays it’s the only day I get enough time.”
There was only one thing she wanted to do go and get her hair cut.
His team always scored great goals the other team just scored more.
I never cook chicken I’m afraid of making myself sick.
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.
Who v Whom
Who and whom are both relative pronouns, which mean they relate to the person you’ve just been talking about. Note that they don’t relate to animals or things, just people. The difference is just one letter, but it signals that one of them stands for the subject (in the nominative case if you’ve ever done Latin) while the other stands for the object (in the accusative).
The subject of a sentence is the noun or pronoun that controls the verb, in other words the person or thing that’s ‘doing the doing’.
The object of a sentence is the noun or pronoun that is suffering the action the verb, in other words the person or thing that’s having something done to it.
For example, in the following sentence, ‘the girl’ is the subject, and ‘the boy’ is the object:
The girl tapped the boy on the shoulder.
We could also use pronouns, in which case ‘she’ is the subject, and ‘him’ is the object.
She tapped him on the shoulder.
Note that we use ‘him’ rather than ‘he’ in this case. That tells us that the boy is the object and not the subject. It’s the same with ‘who’ and ‘whom’. In fact, it’s the same letter – the letter ‘m’ – that tells us that ‘him’ and ‘whom’ are both the objects of the sentence, and that might be a good way to remember the difference.
For example, in the following sentence, ‘the girl’ is still the subject, so we use ‘who’:
They saw the girl who had tapped the boy on the shoulder.
In the next sentence, the boy is still the object, so we use ‘whom’:
They saw the boy whom the girl had tapped on the shoulder.
Note that neither who nor whom needs a comma before it in these cases. That’s because we are defining which people we’re talking about. It’s a bit like ‘which’ and ‘that’: ‘which’ describes things and needs a comma, but ‘that’ defines things and doesn’t. If we already know who people are and simply want to describe them, then we do use a comma.
They saw Patricia Smith, who had tapped the boy on the shoulder.
They saw Paul Jones, whom the girl had tapped on the shoulder.
In these cases, we know who the children are – Patricia and Paul – so all we’re doing is describing something that has happened. There is only one Patricia Smith and one Paul Jones, so we don’t need to define them. That means we need to use a comma in both cases.
I hope that all makes sense. Here are a few practice questions. Just decide in each case whether you should use ‘who’ or ‘whom’.
They talked to Jim, who/whom lived in Stoke.
He played football with the boy who/whom had red hair.
She was friends with the girl who/whom played volleyball.
Who/whom do you think will win the egg and spoon race?
Who/whom did they put in prison?
Who’s v Whose
The words ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’ are homophones, which is another way of saying they sound the same but mean completely different things. ‘Who’s’ is short for ‘who is’ or ‘who has’ while ‘whose’ is a possessive pronoun that means ‘of whom the’ or ‘of which the’. For example, take these two sentences:
Who’s going to the cinema tonight?
He was a big man whose hands were larger than dinner plates.
The first means ‘Who is going to the cinema tonight?’ whereas the second means ‘He was a big man of whom the hands were larger than dinner plates’. The only reason we don’t say those things is that they’re a bit of a mouthful, so it’s easier to use ‘who’s’ or ‘whose’.
I hope that’s clear now. Here are a few practice questions. Just decide in each case whether you should use ‘who’s’ or ‘whose’.
Who’s/whose in charge of the tennis rackets?
Who’s/whose bag is this?
He speaks to the woman who’s/whose behind the counter.
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.
The reason why homophones are important is not just to do with the general need to spell correctly. Many people think getting them wrong is a ‘worse’ mistake than simply mis-spelling a word because it means that you don’t really know what you’re doing. Anyone can make a spelling mistake, but using completely the wrong word somehow seems a lot worse. That may not sound fair, but that’s just how a lot of people think, so it’s worth learning the common homophones so you don’t get caught out.
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:
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…
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!).
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.
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.
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 (or maybe a full-stop). 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.
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!
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
Choose the title
Brainstorm for ideas
Plan your work
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.
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.
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
Describe Lionel – importance of what’s in briefcase, mysterious ‘she’ he’s meeting Describe station – architecture, light, people
Describe people he sees Bumps into coffee cart Argues with staff Will he ever see ‘her’?
Describe trains – steam, smoke, whistle Wrong platform – needs to run to Platform 16
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.
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.
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!”
“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!”
“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.
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.)
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!
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
If you think you’re ready, here are a few sample questions. Which of these is a full sentence?
Apostrophes. The difference between feeling you’re nuts and feeling your nuts.
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?!
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.
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.
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! Alternatively, here are a few sample questions. Just choose the correct option.
He stole James’s/James’/Jameses book.
She marked the childrens/children’s/childrens’ homework.
He didnt/didn’t/did’nt mind at all.
They wont/wo’nt/won’t be back in time.
The two girls/girl’s/girls’ bags were next to each other.
You need to get three As/As’/A’s to get into Oxford.
I love the clothes we used to wear in the 1970s/1970’s/1970s’.
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.
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 lots of lists of spelling rules on the web, but I thought I’d put down what I think are the most useful ones.
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/ soundcomes after the letter c. The most common exceptions are weird and seize.
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 shiner, fiver 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 winner, bitter 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.
If the word has more than one syllable and has the stress on the first syllable, don’t double any final consonant, eg focusing, not focussing. This rule sounds a bit complicated, but it’s still very useful—as long as you know how to pronounce the word! Which syllable is stressed often changes if the word is used differently. Progress, for instance, has the stress on the first syllable if it’s a noun but on the second if it’s a verb! 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.
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 shoeless, contain becomes containment and green becomes greenness. However, words ending in -y need the y changing to an i, so happy becomes happiness.
When adding a suffix starting with a vowel to a word ending in a silent -e, the e must be dropped unless it softens a c or a g. An e 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 c 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 –e to make sure the word sounds right, eg managing is fine without the -e, as the i in -ing keeps the g soft, but manageable needs to keep the -e to avoid a hard /g/ sound that wouldn’t sound right.
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 skilful, beautiful and wonderful.
Words ending in -f or -fe always change the f to a v in the plural, eg leaf becomes leaves, and knife becomes knives. The only exceptions are chief, dwarf and roof. You can remember them all by memorising this sentence: “The chief dwarf sat on the roof.” PS I know Tolkien writes about ‘dwarves’ rather than ‘dwarfs’ in The Lord of the Rings, but that’s just because he thought ‘dwarves’ sounded better!
When is a verb not a verb? When it’s a part 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!
If you struggle to remember what they all mean, think about the words themselves. Sometimes, there’s a clue in the way they sound, eg adverbs describe verbs, pronoun sounds like noun, preposition contains the word position and a conjunction is the ‘junction’ between two sentences.
A noun is 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 ______.
An adjective is 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.
A verb is 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.
A pronoun is 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.
An article is a word that introduces a noun, ie a, an or the.
Strictly speaking, an article is just one kind of ‘determiner’, a word that introduces a noun:
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.
An adverb is 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.
A preposition is 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.
A conjunction is a word that connects two sentences together (sometimes called a connective), eg and, but or because.
‘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. Alternatively, subordinating conjunctions are sometimes known as ‘WABBITS’ because some of the commonest ones start with those letters (when, where, while, after, although, before, because, if, though and since).
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.
An interjection is either an outburst like hey or a word people say when they’re playing for time, eg well or now.
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?
Here’s a quick quiz…
What are the nine parts of speech? (9 marks)
What do they all mean? (9 marks)
What are the four different kinds of noun (4 marks)
What are the three different kinds of pronoun (3 marks)
What are the two kinds of article? (2 marks)
What are the two kinds of conjunction? (2 marks)
What are the two words that help you remember the different kinds of conjunction? (2 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…?!
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.
Format and put the correct punctuation and capital letters into the following lines of speech:
I say john what time is it she asked
hello she said my name is tara
what are you talking about he cried I never said that
hello he said whats your name Sarah she said Im Alan Nice to meet you you too
I hate chocolate she said I only really eat chocolate ice-cream
Before I went to Belarus, I was warned it would be like going back to the Soviet Union: brutalist architecture, statues of Karl Marx and a hankering after the Communist era.
In fact, I ended up teaching English to a very nice couple called Mikhail and Natasha, who were very generous and hospitable to me and had a far from typically Russian (or Belarusian) attitude to politics and economics.
She ran a chain of pharmacies, he worked in the agriculture business, and neither of them could understand their friends’ passion for Russian imperialism.
I flew out in March 2014 after a last-minute scare when the agency tried to bring forward my flight with only three days’ notice! Fortunately, that was resolved happily enough, and I was met at Warsaw airport by a driver who would take me across the border to Brest (aka Brest-Litovsk).
The city didn’t have its own airport, so it was a choice between driving across the border from Poland or flying to Minsk and facing an even longer trip by car. When we arrived at the border, big men with big guns stopped the car to check our papers, and we waited to be allowed through.
An hour and a half later, we were still waiting! That has to be the worst border crossing I’ve ever had in my life…
My driver took me to the Hermitage, which was the best place in town (I checked: it was €83 a night – or free if you knew the owner!), but I had a shock when I unpacked my bag and tried to boot up my laptop.
LOT Polish Airlines had managed to drop it from a great height, and was so battered and bruised that the only thing it could do was beep forlornly! (In hindsight, I should perhaps have put it in my carry-on rather than my checked luggage, but I had all my photographic equipment in my camera bag, and there wasn’t really enough room…)
I met Mikhail and Natasha in the hotel restaurant and told them what had happened, and Mikhail very kindly offered to ask his IT department to have a look at my laptop and see if it could be fixed. Natasha even lent me her MacBook until eventually I got mine back – minus a memory card slot that was too damaged to fix…
I was in town to teach Mikhail and Natasha, but they generously farmed me out to a couple of friends of theirs and even Natasha’s mother at one point. (Same iPhones, just different brand of luxury German saloon…)
We quickly slipped into a daily rhythm. I’d start the day by having breakfast in the hotel. On the way to the restaurant, I’d always pass an old German shop till that looked rather photogenic. I planned to come down and take a few pictures of it one day, but it wasn’t until my final week that I eventually got round to it.
Unfortunately, I left the ISO rating on 1600 by mistake, so I had to do the shoot all over again, but I was rewarded when the users of Pixoto voted this my best photo ever!
My best photo ever…?
Breakfast was a struggle, not just because of the rather limited Eastern European rations but because of having to listen to Lana del Rey’s latest album on a loop every morning. I asked at reception if they had any other CDs, but I was told that there was an exhibition of paintings in the foyer, and the artist had made it a condition that Lana del Rey would be played all the time to set the right mood!
One day, the barman tried to compete by playing drum ‘n’ bass at full volume to drown out the sound of Miss del Rey, but it didn’t last…
At nine o’clock, I’d leave the musical torture chamber and walk over to my clients’ apartment, where I would teach Mikhail for an hour and a half and then swap to Natasha for a similar period when she got home from work.
I’d then have a couple of hours to myself before meeting them both for a (very) late lunch at Caffè Venezia, which Mikhail always paid for. They knew the owner, and it was right next door to Mikhail’s office, so it was his favourite place.
There would always be someone to talk to, and the Italian owner knew enough English to be able to keep up a good conversation. After lunch, Olga would pick me up for her lesson, and I’d spend an hour and a half at her house before getting dropped off at my hotel again.
In the evenings, Mikhail and Natasha would usually invite me to dinner, either at a restaurant or at their place. Mikhail explained that there were only three decent restaurants in town – Caffè Venezia, Times Café and Jules Verne – and we ate at all of them.
Natasha was also an excellent cook, and Mikhail had a very well stocked wine fridge, so a typical meal would consist of smoked salmon and caviare washed down with champagne followed by salade de magret de canard and lightly grilled sea bass accompanied by a rather nice Puligny-Montrachet!
We also had dinner with Olga and Sergei one evening, and I had the novel experience of helping Olga and Natasha make ‘pierogi’, a kind of semi-circular dumplings similar to tortellini, which we filled and wrapped. I also had the rather dubious honour of nibbling on black bread topped with carpaccio of pig fat! Well, nothing tastes too bad after four glasses of vodka…
Another constant part of our routine was talking about the Crimea. The annexation by Russia was on the news every day, and we inevitably ended up talking about it as part of our lessons and over lunch or dinner. Today, Crimea.
Tomorrow, the Ukraine. The day after that, perhaps Belarus. You don’t quite realise the difference in your countries’ political traditions until you hear stories about living next door to the Russian bear.
Natasha told me a couple about her own family. Once, when Gorbachev was briefly threatened by a palace coup in 1991, she and Mikhail had actually emigrated to Poland for the day – just in case perestroika and glasnost had come to an end and the borders had been closed.
How many times do we feel we have to leave the country before a British General Election?! She also told me about her grandmother, who decided to take her family to Poland back in the 1920s, when it was briefly possible to leave the old Soviet Union.
She was waiting on the station platform, ready to catch the train, when she suddenly realised her wallet had been stolen! With all her money gone, they couldn’t possibly afford to leave home – and their family history was changed beyond recognition for the next 60 years…
Mikhail and Natasha were also very sporty, and they were kind enough to include me in their regular plans. We went for a long (and very energetic!) walk around the city before dinner one night, and I even had games of volleyball and tennis with Mikhail.
I hadn’t played volleyball for about 30 years, so I rather embarrassed myself on court, but at least I beat him at doubles – although that was probably because I was playing with the coach! We also spent the final Saturday cycling in the Białowieża Forest with Olga and Sergei, which is now a National Park and World Heritage site that spans the Belarusian/Polish border a few miles north of Brest.
The forest is great for cycling as it has a grid of roads from which cars are banned. We drove there in an old van that was big enough to hold all the bikes. Once we’d arrived, I was given a mountain bike, and we set off into the woods.
Our first stop was the zoo, which was a series of enclosures containing all the local animals to be found in the forest (and a few others). This was my chance to take a few pictures of my very first Russian bear, together with wolves, ostriches and a family of European bison.
Close-up of a wolf head in profile
We then cycled around the forest for a couple of hours and had a picnic lunch at the residence of Father Frost – a kind of Santa’s Grotto but without the snow! I always like a civilised picnic, but this was the first time I’d had one with pancakes, venison and samogon – or Russian moonshine…
I always try to take advantage of my foreign residential jobs to take pictures of the local landscapes, flora and fauna, so it was good to have a chance to use my camera again. There weren’t many photogenic sights to be seen in Brest, apart from a few onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches, but I found inspiration in the animals.
The following day, I went walkabout and visited the Brest fortress, which is where the first battle was fought in Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Russia. To commemorate the occasion, they’ve installed an enormous block of stone with a Russian soldier’s head carved out of it called the Courage Monument.
CNN once ran a story placing it first in a list of the world’s ugliest monuments, but they swiftly had to remove it when the Russians and Belarusians took offence!
Eyes of soldier on Brest fortress monument
That evening, I walked back into town to find St Simeon’s cathedral, which I’d first seen on my walk with Mikhail and Natasha. Russian Orthodox churches all have the distinctive ‘onion domes’, often painted gold, and they can look spectacular under floodlights.
St Simeon cathedral in Brest at night
I have to say that I really enjoyed my fortnight in Belarus. It was sometimes quite hard work spending so much time with my clients, as I had to concentrate on their English (and my own) even when we were just chatting together, but I was very lucky to be placed with a couple of similar ages with such similar interests and values.
When people come home from holiday, they often say, “The people were very friendly,” but I’m never quite convinced. After my trip to Belarus, I can safely say I’ve changed my mind. Whatever the economic, political and military history of the country, I’ve never been looked after quite so well, and I have to thank Mikhail and Natasha for showing me the best of Belarus.
I’m also even more thankful to have had the English Channel to protect us from invasion. Our history would have looked very different without it…!
Have you ever tried to do a 10,000-piece jigsaw of grey seals on a grey rock in a grey sea under a grey sky?
Tricky, isn’t it?
The key to doing a jigsaw puzzle or writing a description is attention to detail.
Everything matters: the mood, the setting, the period, the action, the characters – everything that our five senses can tell us and more. To try and produce the very best description you can when faced with any English exam that includes a composition question, it’s important to approach it in the right way.
Choose the Right Question
(1 minute, assuming you have 30 minutes for the whole question)
Common Entrance exams at either 11+ or 13+ usually offer a choice between a story, an essay or a description, perhaps of a photograph or illustration. If you choose the description, make sure you know something about the subject or at least have a good enough stock of synonyms or specialist vocabulary to describe it properly. If the picture is of a horse in a tack room bit you don’t know anything about horse riding, leave well alone!
We always write more imaginatively and at greater length if we’re writing about something we like or enjoy, so try to find a question that gets an emotional reaction out of you. If you like beautiful things, then you might respond better to a photograph of a sunset in the Maldives than a montage of burnt-out cars in Beirut!
This is where attention to detail is most important. Before you take the exam, make sure you have a mental checklist of all the aspects of a scene that you might need to describe. Once you start planning your description, take a sheet of paper and divide it up into sections (or use a mind map with different bubbles for sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell). Make notes based on all five senses. Even if you can’t think of anything to write about one of them, such as ‘taste’, use your imagination. If it’s a seascape, is there the tang of salt on the air? Can the sailors smell land?
Think creatively about how to approach the description. A little bit of plot or context goes a long way to creating an appropriate mood, so think about topping and tailing the piece with one or two sentences about the observer. What’s the point of view of the narrator? Is he or she a spy, a pilot, a soldier or a scientist? Is he or she deaf or blind? Would it be better to write in the first or third person?
Even if you don’t decide to tell part of a story, think carefully about what the atmosphere of the scene should be. Every situation will demand a different mood or tone. Do you want it to be peaceful, suspenseful or frantic? What’s about to happen? Is it an ambush, an escape plan or a drug deal?
The atmosphere should be reflected in the vocabulary you choose to describe the scene. Make a list of the words that have the right associations or connotations, including ‘wow words’ or ‘golden words’ that you think might impress the examiner. Think of as many synonyms as you can. Why ‘destroy’ when you can ‘annihilate’? Why should a tree be plain old ‘green’ when it could be ‘verdant’?
Writing descriptively is not the same as writing an essay or doing a comprehension. You don’t need to be brief and matter-of-fact all the time. Think of different poetic devices you can use to make the characters or objects jump off the page. Can you get over the atmosphere or the emotion better with a simile, a metaphor or onomatopoeia? Is the sun in the Sahara desert ‘rather warm’ or ‘as hot as the furnace in the forge of Hell’?
Write a Plan
Failing to plan means planning to fail. I’ve read hundreds of compositions written by pupils of all ages, and it doesn’t take long to realise when something hasn’t been planned. You don’t need a plot here necessarily, but you do need some sort of structure. Look at the ideas that you came up with during your brainstorming and decide how to group them together.
Draw up a brief outline on a clean sheet of paper, listing the different paragraphs and including bullet points for each with the subject matter, key concepts or particular words that you want to use. What needs to go first? How are you going to finish? Are you going to take each sense in turn? Should you describe the different parts of the scene one by one, the lake followed by the mountains and then the village?
Write the Description
(whatever time you have left, less 5 minutes to check at the end)
Stick to the plan. It’s all very well having a plan, but getting your head down and writing the whole answer without looking at it is no better than not having one in the first place! If you do have a good idea that you want to include, by all means add it to the plan, but make sure you don’t get carried away and write too much about one topic, leaving too little time for all the others.
You don’t get any marks for answering a question that’s not even on the exam paper, so make sure you don’t get tempted to wander off the beaten path. Re-read the question now and again. Are there any special instructions? Are you doing exactly what you’ve been asked to do? Are you covering every part of the question?
Write as quickly as you can. I could never write as much as I wanted to, and one of the professors at my Oxford interview actually complained about it! I had to tell him I hoped that I was giving him ‘quality rather than quantity’, but I wish I’d been able to hand in six sides rather than four! You don’t have much time, so don’t spend a whole minute searching for the perfect word when another will do. You can always come back to it later when you check your answer.
Check your Work
Check for spelling, punctuation and capital letters (as you should for any piece of writing in English).
Check you haven’t made any other silly mistakes, either grammatical or stylistic. Make sure you’ve said what you want to say, and feel free to cross out the odd word and replace it with a better one if you can. Just make sure your handwriting is legible!
If you follow all these steps, you may not have the greatest ever description in the history of English literature, but you’ll have given it your best shot! If it helps, challenges or inspires you, here’s one of my favourites. It was written by James Joyce and comes in the final paragraph of his short story The Dead:
“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried.
It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
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’ and involves long hours of hard work, boredom, and often embarrassment (when you find out your mark).
Pretty soon, your first essay turns into a weekly essay, and the pattern is set for the rest of your educational life. Essays can be stressful, particularly when laziness, the opposite sex or a preference for extra-curricular activities leads to a caffeine-fuelled ‘all-nighter’, but here are a few tips for getting by in the exams…
Choose the Right Question
Sometimes, you won’t be able to choose the question, as your teacher will make one up for you and expect you to answer it whether you like it or not. In most exams, however, you’ll have a range of questions to choose from, and that’s when it’s important to go for a topic that you have studied and might – just possibly – enjoy writing about.
When I was at Oxford, I only revised for the number of essays that I knew I would have to tackle. That caused a bit of a problem in the Examination Schools when I found out I couldn’t do the advertising language question because my tutor had got the sections mixed up (!), but it saves a lot of revision time.
I’ve written (and marked) Heaven knows how many essays, and the key to success is almost always the quality of the ideas – but how do you come up with good ideas in the first place? Studies have shown that the best way is to brainstorm.
That means spending five minutes or more doing nothing but thinking up ideas. One idea often leads to another, so the point is to be creative and not worry about which ones are good enough to use.
I’ve led brainstorming sessions for business people, and there are always one or two who spend their time shooting everybody else down in flames, but there is no such thing as a bad idea. The right time to think about which ideas to use is when the list is complete and you can begin to pick out the main themes.
To get the most out of your brainstorming, it’s a good idea to impose some structure, but what works best depends on the nature of the question. If it asks for pros and cons, then it might make sense to draw a line down the middle of a sheet of A4 and come up with separate lists of arguments for and against.
Other questions lend themselves to mind-mapping, which involves writing down an idea, drawing a circle around it and linking it with other similar ideas by drawing lines between the bubbles.
Whatever method you choose, it must give you a list of points to make and also the evidence to back them up. ‘Point, Evidence, Explanation’ (or PEE) is a useful tool for structuring your paragraphs in an essay, but there are plenty of variations on that, including PEEE (which adds Expand at the end) and PETAL (Point, Evidence, Technique, Analysis and Link).
Whichever format you use, just make sure your brainstorming generates enough ‘points’ with supporting ‘evidence’ that you don’t run out of things to say half-way through! You normally won’t have a great deal of time for brainstorming, so you don’t have to write down everything in full sentences.
You just need enough key words to remember what you meant. That means using abbreviations for characters’ names, leaving out ‘filler’ words like ‘the’ or ‘a’ and generally playing fast and loose with the normal rules of grammar. Your notes don’t have to be neat either – as long as you can read them yourself…!
Write a Plan
Once you have enough ideas, it’s just a matter of putting them in the right order and grouping them together into sensible categories using a standard template. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes, and the right structure will help the reader navigate through the essay, setting up signposts to show what’s going to be discussed:
“Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em!”
That may sound a bit repetitive, but it’s a good way to make your essay clear, readable and well structured. Take a clean sheet of A4, draw lines a little way from the top and bottom and label the three sections ‘Introduction’ (or ‘Intro), ‘Main body’ (or ‘MB’) and ‘Conclusion’ (or ‘Conc’).
The introduction should sum up the answer to the essay question, list the topics to be covered and – if necessary – explain your approach. For example, if you’re asked whether Macbeth is Shakespeare’s ‘darkest’ play, you might make the following notes:
“Intro Yes, but… Literally or metaphorically ‘dark’? Importance of night scenes Many evil characters Pessimistic view of human nature?”
The question is ambiguous. What does ‘darkest’ mean? There are plenty of important scenes set at night, including Macbeth’s encounters with the witches and his murder of Duncan, but the play is also about the evil of ambition and the lengths it drives us to – whether or not Shakespeare himself believed human nature was fundamentally sinful.
Your introduction will make these points, set out your own interpretation and list the areas you’ve decided are within the scope of the question.
The main body should sketch out the meat of the essay, with a section for each topic and every point backed up by some sort of evidence, either a quotation, a statistic or an episode in the story. Your notes might include the following:
P: Night scenes are important – pathetic fallacy E: Witches, murder of Duncan
P: There are many evil characters (witches, Lady M, M’s own ambition) E: ‘oftentimes to win us to our harm/The instruments of darkness tell us truths’ E: ‘Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself’
P: S’s view of human nature is hard to find E: Keats’s ‘negative capability’
Yes, the encounter with the witches takes place at night, but the ideas of literal and metaphorical darkness are deliberately mixed together. This is the pathetic fallacy at work, creating a mood of uncertainty, fear and foreboding through stage lighting and sound effects.
The witches (and Lady Macbeth) do encourage Macbeth in murdering Duncan and doing whatever he has to do to wear and keep the crown, but Macbeth’s own ambition is the root cause.
This is not a morality tale about human nature in general. In fact, as the poet John Keats pointed out, Shakespeare possesses a kind of ‘negative capability’ that makes it almost impossible to ‘hear’ his voice and opinions in those of his characters.
Finally, the conclusion should mirror the introduction by repeating the answer to the question and recapping the topics discussed or points made plus any more general comments you may want to make.
Write the Essay
The most important point to make here is that you should stick to the plan. It’s very tempting to go off on a tangent when you have a good idea on the spur of the moment, but it can too often lead you off track. If the idea is good enough, by all means include it, but make sure it fits into your plan first and change the template accordingly.
You should also try to find an appropriate tone of voice. We all use different kinds of words when we’re talking (or writing) to different people, and the language we use for essays should be careful, mature and precise. Hamlet might be ‘gobsmacked’ when he accidentally stabs Polonius through the tapestry, but there’s probably a better word to use…!
In the PEE format, each paragraph should begin with a sentence containing the point you want to make (taken from your plan). After that, you should introduce the evidence to back it up (also from your plan), followed by a more detailed explanation.
Quotations should be short and sharp. I understand the temptation to write down a long quotation just to make it look like your essay is longer than it really is, but examiners are wise to that trick! Try to find instead the key word or phrase that best supports your argument and build it into one of your own sentences.
If you want to miss out a few words, use the ellipsis (…). If you want to change the quotation to make it fit grammatically, put your changes in square brackets.
Try to avoid waffle. I know it’s sometimes difficult to think of enough to write, but expressions such as ‘it says in the text that…’ or ‘the author says that he thinks that…’ are just a waste of space. Quality is more important than quantity – at least, that’s what I told the tutor who interviewed me for Oxford when he complained I hadn’t written very much!
Say what you mean and mean what you say. It’s sometimes very tempting to write something because it sounds academic or impressive or professional even though you don’t really mean it. Try to avoid it if possible. The worst sin is to plagiarise a critic whose book you might have read. Copying someone else’s work is bad enough, but copying it when you don’t even agree with it is even worse!
Demonstrate your knowledge. Nobody likes a show-off, but the examiner has to judge you on the basis of your essay alone, so take every opportunity to drop handy pieces of literary trivia into your answer, particularly if they relate to the broader genre or literary period to which the text belongs. If you can show that you know about the historical or cultural context as well as the text itself, then you’ll stand out from the crowd.
One other small point is that essays are generally not written in the first person. It sounds a bit childish to write ‘I think…’ all the time, so you might want to find other ways of expressing an opinion, either by dropping the ‘I think’ altogether or stealing a trick from TS Eliot, whose answer was to (over)use the passive in phrases such as ‘It is thought that…’.
Check your Work
The three main points of grammar to check are spelling, punctuation and capital letters, but you should also read your essay through to yourself to make sure it makes sense and says exactly what you want it to say. These are the most important five minutes of the exam, so don’t take the easy way out and claim you don’t have time. Make time!
What are the five steps you should take when writing an essay?
What are the two types of ideas you should think of when preparing an essay?
What tool can you use to help structure your ideas?
What are the three sections of an essay?
What goes into the first part?
What goes into the second part?
What goes into the third part?
What are some of the ways of proving your arguments are true?
What should you try and do when writing the essay itself?
What should you check for at the end?
Electric vs petrol cars: which are better?
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Do you agree?
Should children be forced to wear school uniform?
What children do after school is more important than what they learn in school. Discuss.
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’. If a FANBOYS word is NOT used to separate two clauses, then you don’t need a comma, eg in lists.
‘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. Alternatively, subordinating conjunctions are sometimes known as ‘WABBITS’ or ‘WABITS’ because some of the commonest ones start with those letters (when, where, while, after, although, before, because, if, though and since).
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.’ A tricky example of this is when you introduce people with a description of who they are, for example by saying ‘his best friend, James, is coming for dinner’. This is extra information, so there does need to be a comma before and after the word ‘James’. However, that’s only because the meaning is NOT changed by adding his name: nobody can have more than one ‘best friend’, so it HAS to be James, and including his name therefore makes no difference as to whom we’re talking about. If you said ‘his friend James is coming for dinner’, on the other hand, you shouldn’t put commas around ‘James’ because James is not the man’s only friend – or let’s hope not, anyway! That means adding the name ‘James’ DOES. change the meaning of the sentence, so it’s no longer just extra information.
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…”
Put the correct punctuation in the following sentences:
I like music shopping and dancing
The food was good but he didn’t like the service
The book arrived after she went to the shops
He put on a jacket that was thick enough to keep out the cold
She called her mother which is what she usually did on Sunday evenings
At the end of the road he saw a fox
These apples are expensive he said
What are you doing she cried I need those biscuits for the charity bake sale
When Im on my own she admitted I watch a lot of daytime TV
Could you help me please David he asked
Fortunately he was experienced enough to avoid capsizing the boat
He stood nervous and bashful in front of the prettiest girl hed ever seen
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’.
An analogy is sometimes just a simple comparison, such as ‘the heart is like a pump’, but it is more often more complicated than that, for instance when it describes a relationship between two things, eg ‘As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly’.
Hyperbole is another word for extreme exaggeration. As Dylan Thomas once said, “Our discreditable secret is that we don’t know anything at all.”
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 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.
A transposed epithet sounds complicated, but it’s just an adjective that’s used to describe the ‘wrong’ noun. ‘Transposed’ means swapped, and ‘epithet’ means a word or phrase used to describe something (like an adjective). Hence, Dylan Thomas writes about ‘the dogs in the wet-nosed yards’ in Under Milk Wood. Obviously, it’s not the ‘yards’ that have the wet noses, but the ‘dogs’!
The pathetic fallacy means using the weather or landscape to create an upbeat or downbeat mood. ‘Pathetic’ means to do with emotions while a ‘fallacy’ is something that people believe even though it’s not true, such as the idea that the Earth is flat. We all know that it’s possible to be happy on a rainy day or unhappy on a sunny day, but that’s not how we feel sometimes, and that’s why the pathetic fallacy can be so powerful. Thomas uses it a lot in Fern Hill, telling us, for example, that ‘All the sun long it was running, it was lovely’ when he was young, but the mood changes in the final verse when he starts talking about death, and that’s emphasised by words such as ‘shadow’ and ‘moon’.
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!
Can you spot the poetic devices used in the following examples?
as flat as a pancake
faster than a speeding bullet
death stalked the land
it’s an oven in here
the trees danced in the wind
how now, brown cow?
the cat in the hat
“Why, why, why must you do that?”
“What is the most important question facing our country today?”
He had 12 pens in his pencil case, but not one pencil.
Whether you’re doing something as easy as climbing Mount Everest or as hard as writing a story, you always need a plan!
One of the ways of planning a story is to use story mountains, 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.
However, the story mountain is only part of the process.
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+ combined English entrance exam, you should have around half an hour left for the composition after doing the reading comprehension.
The routine to follow includes the following five steps:
Title: choose the right title or question
Brainstorm: think of ideas
Plan: create the story mountain
Write: write the story
Check: check your work.
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 Title (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 a newspaper story or diary, but there will usually 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’ve never ridden a horse, it would be pointless trying to write a story all about horse racing, and it would probably be pretty boring!
2. Brainstorm Ideas (5 minutes)
Some pupils go straight into writing the story at this point. Big mistake!
You have to give yourself time to come up with the best possible ideas, and you certainly won’t make it easy for yourself to structure the story if 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 be patient, and don’t just go for the first one you think of.
That’s like walking into a shop and buying the first pair of trousers you see: they might not be the right size, colour, design or price, so you have to browse through the whole range.
Try to come up with at least two ideas so that you can pick the best one. Just make sure it’s believable!
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. 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.
Try to use five or six words for each section (missing out ‘filler’ words such as ‘the’ and ‘an’), such as ‘M frees dog from fence’ or ‘Shark bites F in leg’.
Just remember that the opening has two parts to it, so your story will have six main paragraphs, not five.
(That doesn’t include any lines of dialogue, which should be in separate paragraphs.)
A. Opening (or Introduction)
The best way to open a story is probably to start ‘in the middle’.
Most fairy stories start with something like this:
Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess with long, golden hair. Esmeralda was madly in love with Prince Charming, but her wicked stepmother kept her locked up in a tower a thousand feet above the valley below…
The trouble with this kind of description of the characters and their situation (‘exposition’) is that it’s just a bit boring!
Nothing actually happens.
Far better to think of the most exciting moment in your story and start from there:
“Aaaaaaagggghhh!!!” screamed Prince Charming as his fingers slipped from Princess Esmeralda’s icy window ledge and he fell a thousand feet 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.
That means the opening needs two paragraphs: 1. Grab the reader’s attention 2. Describe the main character
Why do you need to describe your heroes? Well, the more the reader knows about them, the more they can imagine what they look like, how they sound like and how they might behave in certain situations.
That leads to sympathy, and sympathy is important because the reader has to care about the heroes in order for stories to be exciting.
So how should you describe them?
Here’s a quick list of the major details in roughly the right order: 1. Name 2. Age 3. Job or school 4. Looks (including eye colour, hair colour and style, height, build, skin tone and favourite clothes) 5. Home 6. Friends and family 7. Personality and interests 8. USP or ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ – something that makes the characters special and readers want to read about them.
You can be as detailed or as general as you like about some of these things, but giving more detail is usually better as it helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
Your hero’s home, for instance, could just be ‘London’, or it could be ‘the famous Blue Cross lighthouse on the promontory overlooking Shark Bay in Antigua’!
Overall, you should probably be writing eight to 10 lines of A4 for the whole description.
You can even save yourself time by thinking up, say, three ‘off-the-shelf’ characters and memorising them (see article).
B. 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?
C. Problem (or Climax or Dilemma)
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.
D. Solution (or Resolution 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.
E. Ending (or Outcome)
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 of a TV serial might literally be hanging on to the edge of a cliff, and the viewer would obviously have to ‘tune in next week’ to find out if he managed to hold 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!
Finally, you could always have a ‘twist in the tale’, in which the good guy turns out to be a bad guy, for example.
It doesn’t take long to write – just a sentence or two – but it’s a great way to leave readers scratching their heads and thinking, “Wow! I never saw that coming…”
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.
Don’t Leave Loose Ends
A good story will have narrative tension. In other words, it will be exciting.
Part of that involves doubt about whether your heroes will succeed or not, and that’s where the ‘good’ questions come in.
If readers are asking themselves questions like “Will the hero escape?” or “Will the hero survive?”, then you’re doing your job as a writer.
Those are ‘good’ questions because they get to the heart of what the story is all about and keep your readers guessing.
Excitement comes from uncertainty and doubt, so you want your readers to wonder what’s going to happen.
Look at it another way: imagine if they didn’t ask themselves any questions at all. That’s basically the same as saying they’d be bored stiff!
However, you don’t want them to be asking ‘bad’ questions. These are the loose ends that crop up if you don’t give good enough explanations for your characters’ actions or abilities.
For example, if your hero is robbed and tries to solve the crime on his own, the obvious loose end is why he didn’t call the police.
Alternatively, if your hero has a special power like being able to read minds, you either need to explain where it came from (like Spiderman being bitten by a radioactive spider) or admit that it’s somehow ‘mysterious’ so that your readers can stop worrying about it.
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 ‘cerulean’ instead of ‘blue’ will impress the examiner no end – as long as you know how to spell them!
Use Energetic Verbs
You can create energy in different ways, but choosing powerful verbs is a good way to appeal to the imagination and show part of someone’s character along the way. For example, if a kid is greedy, you could say ‘he picked up the slice of chocolate cake’, but saying ‘he grabbed the slice of chocolate cake’ suggests he just wants to stuff his face!
Use the Active Voice
You can either use the passive or active voice. The passive voice shows something happening to someone; the active voice shows someone doing something. For example, ‘he was hit by Mark’s shovel’ is passive, but ‘Mark hit him with the shovel’ is active.
As you can probably see from this example, the active voice is better at showing power and intention. Writing that someone ‘was hit’ almost suggests it was an accident, but ‘Mark hit him’ shows exactly what happened and whose fault it was!
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 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!
I’ve written an article on them if you want to find out more, but the most common ones are these:
Sentence structure (ie long and short sentences or simple, complex and compound sentences)
Show, Don’t Tell
Whether you’re describing characters or the environment, it’s better to show rather than simply tell the reader. Telling is lazy, but showing engages your readers and makes them part of the experience, letting them use their imagination to work out what’s going on rather than spoon-feeding them every detail.
For example, it’s easy to say a character ‘was a keen walker’, but it would be better to say she ‘hiked six miles of the Appalachian Trail every weekend’. Equally, rather than describe someone, you could use dialogue instead. Rather than say ‘he was tired’, his best friend could say, “You look like you were up all night!” Another way is to suggest something and then surprise the reader later in the story. For instance, you could describe a black-and-white poster of an old yacht on a girl’s bedroom wall but only reveal she’s an expert sailor when she has to sail across the bay to rescue someone.
One way of looking at it is to imagine that you’re directing a film rather than writing a story. In films, you hardly ever hear a narrator telling you what’s going on. You’re simply shown everything you need to know. You might see someone’s breath on a cold night, for example. If you want to do the same when writing a story, you can make your description much more vivid (and alliterative!) by saying ‘Frank’s breath formed frozen clouds in front of his face’.
A similar trick is to leave out the answers to questions. This is something screenwriters do all the time to keep the audience in suspense! “What are you going to do to get your revenge?” one character asks another, but you’ll have to wait to find out…!
Appeal to the Senses
It’s easy to forget to describe a scene during a story, but that means readers can’t imagine it and so won’t feel as if they were actually there. One way to make your descriptions more vivid and memorable is to appeal to the five senses:
You don’t have to use them all, but try picking the most important ones. Obviously, you need to show what the setting looks like, but if it’s a coffee shop, for instance, you could say ‘she inhaled the aroma of freshly brewed espressos’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s always useful to read through your story to make sure everything makes sense. It’s very easy to get distracted the first time around, but it’s usually possible to spot silly mistakes like missing letters or missing words on a second reading.
And that’s it! I hope these tips on story mountains will help.
Test yourself on what you’ve learned about story mountains from this article!
What are the five steps to writing a story?
What are the five stages of a story mountain?
How many main paragraphs should be in your story?
How do you know which title to pick?
What’s wrong with using the first idea you think of?
What are the Three D’s?
What are five different poetic devices?
What should you check your work for?
Try going through the whole five-step process to write a story based on the following choice of titles (all but one taken from actual 11+ papers):
A Summer’s Day
A Fresh Start
The Voice in the Darkness
The Hot Afternoon
My Father Was Furious
The Swimming Lesson
The Picnic by The Lake
Great Things Come from Small Beginnings
The Person in The Queue
Through The Window
The Long Hot Summer
The First Day of Term
Crossing The Line
Show And Tell
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.)
Here are two stories created by Open AI’s ChatGPT chatbot entitled The Ghost from the Future.
The ghost from the future appeared out of nowhere on a dark and stormy night. It was a transparent figure, translucent and ethereal, with eyes that glowed like embers in the night. It drifted silently through the streets, its movements flowing and graceful, as if it were weightless and without substance.
As it moved, the ghost left a trail of frost in its wake, coating everything it touched with a thin layer of ice. People who crossed its path recoiled in fear, feeling a chill run down their spine as the ghost seemed to look straight through them.
No one knew where the ghost had come from, or why it was here. Some whispered that it was a harbinger of death, sent to collect the souls of the doomed. Others believed it was a lost spirit, trapped between worlds and unable to find its way to the afterlife.
Despite the fear it caused, the ghost from the future continued to haunt the town, appearing at random intervals and in unexpected places. No one knew how to stop it, or even if it could be stopped. All they could do was wait and hope that it would eventually move on.
One day, a brave young man named Jack decided to confront the ghost. He gathered his courage and followed it into the woods, determined to discover its true nature and purpose.
As he pursued the ghost, Jack realized that it was moving towards a decrepit old house on the edge of town. He followed it inside, and was shocked to find that the ghost was leading him to a hidden room in the basement.
Inside the room, Jack found a strange and ancient machine. It was covered in dust and cobwebs, and looked as if it had not been used in centuries.
The ghost from the future stood beside the machine, gesturing for Jack to approach. As he drew closer, the ghost spoke in a whispered voice that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.
“This is a time machine,” the ghost said. “It was built by a madman who sought to change the course of history. But he was stopped before he could use it, and now it lies here, forgotten and abandoned.”
“What does this have to do with me?” Jack asked.
“You have been chosen to travel into the future,” the ghost replied. “You must go and see what has become of the world, and bring back knowledge that will help us to prevent a terrible fate.”
Jack hesitated, unsure if he was ready for such a daunting task. But the ghost from the future was insistent, and in the end, he agreed to go.
He stepped into the time machine, and with a flash of light and a wave of dizziness, he was whisked away into the future.
What he found there was a world unlike any he had ever seen. The cities were filled with towering skyscrapers and flying cars, and the streets were crowded with people of all shapes and sizes.
But there was also a sense of dread and darkness that hung over everything. The air was thick with pollution, and the sky was a sickly shade of green.
Jack soon discovered that the world was on the brink of disaster. Climate change had wreaked havoc on the planet, and the oceans were rising at an alarming rate. Many species of animals and plants had gone extinct, and the air was toxic to breathe.
With the help of a group of rebels who were fighting against the ruling government, Jack set out to uncover the truth about what had happened to the world…
The ghost from the future was a strange and eerie presence that no one could explain. It appeared out of nowhere, in the dead of night, and always seemed to be watching. It had a pale, transparent face and cold, dead eyes that seemed to see right through you.
People whispered that it was the ghost of someone who had died in a terrible accident, or perhaps a victim of a crime. Some even said it was a warning from the future, a glimpse of what was to come if things didn’t change.
No one knew for sure, but one thing was certain: the ghost from the future was a chilling reminder that the past was never truly gone, and the future was always lurking just around the corner.
As the ghost continued to haunt the town, people began to fear for their safety. They locked their doors at night and avoided going out after dark. But despite their best efforts, the ghost from the future always seemed to be one step ahead, appearing at the most unexpected times and places.
One day, a young girl named Emily was walking home from school when she saw the ghost from the future standing in the middle of the road. She tried to run, but the ghost was too quick. It reached out with its cold, bony hand and touched her on the shoulder.
In that moment, Emily felt a strange sensation wash over her. She felt as if she was being pulled into the future, and she saw visions of what was to come. She saw wars and disasters, but she also saw moments of great happiness and love.
When the vision ended, Emily was back in the present, but she was different. She had a newfound sense of purpose, and she knew what she had to do. She had to warn the people of her town about the dangers of the future, and do everything she could to help them prepare for what was to come.
With the help of the ghost from the future, Emily began to spread the word. She held meetings and organized events, and slowly but surely, people began to listen. They started to take action, and the town began to change for the better.
Thanks to Emily and the ghost from the future, the people of the town were able to face the future with hope and courage, knowing that they were ready for whatever came their way.
To pass Common Entrance, you have to remember the iceberg.
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 like a scuba diver…
There are two main types of English question at 11+ and 13+: reading comprehension and 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 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:
Read the passage
Read the questions
Read the passage again
Answer the questions
Check your work.
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.
Don’t just read it as fast as you can to get it over and done with, but take your time and read it as if you were reading aloud.
If you don’t understand something, re-read it and look at the context.
For example, it might say there are dozens of ‘delphiniums’ in the garden.
You might not know what delphiniums are, but it’s pretty obvious they must be plants or flowers!
To make sure you’ve got the main points of the story, it’s a good idea to ask yourself the W questions at the end:
Who are the characters?
What are they doing?
Where is the story set?
When is it set?
Why are they doing what they’re doing?
How are they doing it?
It might help to tell yourself the story – just to make sure everything makes sense.
Read the Questions (1 min)
Once you’ve read the passage, it’s time to read the questions so that you know what to look out for when you read the passage a second time.
Again, understanding and remembering them are more important than sheer speed.
If it helps, you can ask yourself how many questions you can remember after you’ve read them.
Alternatively, you can underline key words and phrases in the questions to help you focus on what you have to do.
Read the Passage Again (5 mins)
Reading the text twice is probably a good compromise between speed and memorability.
It also gives you the chance to underline or highlight the answers to any of the questions you happen to find.
Some people suggest only reading the passage once, but that means you wouldn’t know it well enough to answer any questions off the top of your head.
If you can’t do that, you’ll end up having to hunt through the text for the answers, so you’ll have to read most of the passage three or four times anyway!
Answer the Questions (15-30 mins, depending on the length of the exam)
You’ll probably have around 15 minutes to answer the actual questions.
There are usually 25 marks available, which means around 30 seconds per mark.
The number of marks available for each individual question will tell you how much time you have to do each one, eg two minutes for a four-mark question.
Answering the questions is obviously the most important job, and there are a few things to remember…
Answer Each Question in the Same Way
Try to be consistent in the way you answer the questions, and make sure you do all the things you need to do: a) Read the question carefully. b) Read it again (and again!) if you don’t understand it. c) Check the mark scheme to work out how many points and pieces of evidence you need. d) Scan the text to find the answer, underlining any words you might need. e) Write down the answer. f) Read it through to make sure you’ve actually answered the question correctly and you haven’t made any silly mistakes.
Read the Question Carefully
You’re never going to get the right answer to the wrong question, so make sure you understand exactly what you need to do.
If that means reading the question two or three times, then that’s what you’ll have to do.
Use the Mark Scheme as a Guide
Most exam papers will let you know the number of marks for each question, so you should bear that in mind when 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.
You should also try and work out how many ‘points’ and pieces of ‘evidence’ you’re being asked for:
A point is the basic answer to a question, and it might be a fact, a reason or an explanation.
A piece of evidence is usually a quotation that backs up whatever point you’re trying to make.
Working out the mark scheme can be a bit tricky as there are three possibilities for the breakdown of marks:
Points and evidence
You just have to read the question and see what makes the most sense.
Here are a few tips:
If the question asks you to ‘refer to the text’ in your answer, that’s code for saying you need evidence.
If the question asks you to explain a quotation, that means you’ll just need points because they’ve already given you the evidence. Try making a point for every keyword in the quotation.
If there’s an odd number of marks, you probably won’t need to provide a mixture of points and evidence. In that case, you’d end up with a point without any evidence or evidence without any point!
Once you’ve worked out how many points and pieces of evidence you need, it might help to write down the matching number of P’s and E’s and cross them off as you find them in the text and/or include them in your answer.
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 follow 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.
The only exceptions are ‘filler’ words such as ‘the’ and ‘of’ or words that don’t have any obvious alternative, eg ‘football’ or the names of the characters.
You need to show that you understand the passage, and you’ll actually be marked down for using quotations – even though that’s what’s usually needed.
Look in the Text
Even if you read the text twice, 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. That way, you can make sure you get the answer right and support it with the right evidence.
One way of speeding up your search is to work backwards through the text to find the word(s) you’re looking for. Yes, it sounds daft, but if you scan the text forwards, it’s very tempting to read every word properly – which just slows you down.
Answer the Actual Question
I often see pupils writing down facts that are true but don’t actually answer the question.
For instance, if the question asks how Jack feels after losing his dog, it’s no use writing, “He’s crying.” That’s not a feeling.
It’s a bit like writing “2 + 2 = 4”. Yes, that may be true, but it’s completely irrelevant!
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 either if it’s the meaning of a word or if the question gives you special permission. It might say something like ‘you don’t need to use full sentences’, or it might just ask for a particular word, such as an adjective or someone’s name. In that case, you shouldn’t have to use a full sentence – but it is a bit of a grey area!
Make Sure any Word Meanings Work in Context
Even the simplest words sometimes have different meanings, so you can’t know which one is the right one just by reading the question. You need to check the context by looking back at the passage. For example, ‘bark’ can be the sound a dog makes or the outside of a tree!
You also need to make sure your answer is the right part of speech, such as a noun or an adjective. Synonyms are always the same part of speech, so the meaning of an adjective will never be a noun or a preposition!
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’, say.
The best way to make sure you’ve got exactly the right answer is by putting it back in the original sentence and checking that it means the same thing. For example, if the question asked, “What does annihilated mean in line 13?”, you’d have to think of your answer and put it into the sentence instead of the word annihilated.
Suppose the sentence was, “Alexander the Great annihilated the Persian army.” If you chose ‘destroyed’, that would be fine, because “Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian army” means the same thing. However, it wouldn’t work to say ‘destroy’ or ‘it means to destroy something’ because those wouldn’t fit.
Don’t Use PEE (Point, Evidence, Explanation)
PEE is designed to help you write essays rather than do a comprehension.
At Common Entrance, it’s unlikely a question will ask you for a point, a piece of evidence and an explanation.
That would mean two points and only one piece of evidence, which is unbalanced.
It’s also confusing because it suggests that an ‘explanation’ is somehow different from a ‘point’.
This is not true: points can be explanations as well as facts.
Answer ‘How’ Questions by Talking About 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 just describe how he 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.
If it helps, you can keep a mental checklist and look for each technique in the passage: a) Poetic devices How has the author used metaphors, similes, diction or sentence structure? b) Parts of speech What can you say about the kind of adjectives, verbs or adverbs used in the passage? c) The Three Ds Has the writer used Drama, Description or Dialogue to achieve a particular effect?
However difficult the question is, just remember to write about language rather than what happens in the story.
Use the Same Tense as the Question
Most of the time, people use the ‘eternal present’ to talk about works of fiction. Sometimes, though, 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!
So which tense should you use?
The simple answer is to write in the same tense as the question. That way, you’ll never go wrong.
Sometimes, the question will tell you to do something, which means the verb is in the imperative rather than the past, present, future or conditional tense. If that happens, you just need to look at one or two of the other questions to see which tense they use. You can then use the same tense in your answer.
Don’t Repeat the Question in Your Answer
In primary school, teachers often tell their pupils to do this to make sure they’ve understood the question.
It’s not wrong and you won’t lose a mark for it, but it just takes too long.
I’ve seen children spend a whole minute carefully copying down most of the question before they’ve even thought about the answer!
It’s a bit like the old joke:
Why did the chicken cross the road? I don’t know. Why did the chicken cross the road? The chicken crossed the road because it wanted to get to the other side!
If this punchline were your answer in a comprehension, you’d be writing down six words before you’d even started answering the question – or earning any marks! That’s why you should start with the word after ‘because’, which means writing ‘It wanted to get to the other side’ in this case.
This normally means using a pronoun, which is much shorter than a noun phrase like ‘the chicken’. Whatever the question asks about, just turn it into a pronoun and start with that. In this case, you don’t need to say ‘the chicken’ because it’s obvious what you’re talking about, so you can just say ‘it’.
Never Write ‘Because’
Unfortunately, bad things tend to happen when you use the word ‘because’:
You might repeat the question in your answer.
You might not use a full sentence (if you start with ‘Because…’).
You might misspell it.
You might waste time (since it’s five letters longer than ‘as’!)
That means you should NEVER write ‘because’. ‘As’ means the same thing and is impossible to get wrong. Even then, you should only use it for two-part, ‘what and why’ questions. For instance, imagine you’re asked, “Does Jack feel sad after losing his dog? Why?” In this case, it’s fine to say, “Yes, as he was his best friend.”
Answer All Parts of the Question
Examiners will sometimes try to catch you out by ‘hiding’ two questions in one.
You should be careful with these questions, eg ‘How do you think Jack feels about losing his dog, and how do you think you’d 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!
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.
Using quotations is tricky, and there are a lot of things to remember.
Make sure you use quotation marks (“…”) or inverted commas (‘…’) for anything you copy from the text.
Copy the quotation out accurately.
Drop the keywords into a sentence of your own, eg Jack feels ‘devastated’ by the loss of his dog.
Quotations are not the same as speech, so the full-stop goes after the quotation marks, not before, eg he felt ‘devastated’. ‘Devastated’ is not a full sentence, so it doesn’t need a full-stop after it. The full-stop belongs to your sentence.
Don’t just tag a quotation on the end of an answer, eg Jack is really sad, ‘devastated’.
Don’t start with a quotation followed by ‘suggests’ because it won’t make sense, eg ‘Devastated’ suggests Jack is really sad. ‘Devastated’ is not a noun or a pronoun, so it can’t suggest anything!
If you really want to use ‘suggests’ or ‘shows’, it’s better to start with ‘The word…’ or ‘The fact…’, eg The word ‘devastated’ suggests Jack’s really sad or The fact Jack is ‘devastated’ suggests he’s really sad.
If the quotation is too long, you can always miss words out and use an ellipsis (…), eg Liz went to the supermarket and bought ‘apples…pears and bananas’.
If the quotation doesn’t use the right tense, you can always change the verb. Just put the new ending in square brackets, eg Jim ‘love[s] strawberries’ instead of Jim ‘loved strawberries’.
Remember the Iceberg!
As you can see from the picture, the vast majority of an iceberg remains hidden from view.
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…!
Multiple-choice tests are generally easier than long-format ones because it’s easier to guess.
Because of that, the most important thing to remember is to answer ALL the questions. It only takes a second to guess if you don’t know the answer.
The best method is to work by process of elimination. That just means narrowing down your options by crossing off any answers that simply can’t be true. As Sherlock Holmes once said to Dr Watson, “Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth!”
You may not be able to cross off all the ‘wrong’ answers, but every one improves your chances. Let’s say there are five options. That means you have a 20% shot at getting the question right by pure guesswork. As you cross off the answers one by one, your chances rise to 25%, then 33%, then 50% and finally 100%!
Just remember that the answer won’t always be black and white. There are often shades of grey in comprehensions, so it’s not a question of finding one single, ‘right’ answer but the one that’s ‘the most right’.
To get the highest possible score, it’s important to understand the marking policy. That depends on the school, but let’s take the Sutton 11+ multiple choice test as an example. There are a few things to bear in mind:
The test is split into four sections: Spelling, two Texts (ie comprehensions) and a Comparison of Texts (ie another comprehension)
Each question has five possible answers (A to E).
There may be one right answer or a combination of answers, but there are never five right answers.
If the question asks for one answer, marks will only be awarded if you select the correct option (and no others).
If the question asks for two answers, marks will only be awarded if you select the two correct options (no more and no less!).
If the question asks for more than one possible answer (1, 2, 3 or 4 options) without saying how many, you should obviously try to pick all the correct ones. You might score a mark if you don’t select them all, but there’s no further explanation.
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 – and it’s no excuse to say, “I didn’t have time.” You need to make time!
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.
However, spelling and grammar is still important.
Schools have different marking policies:
Some don’t mark you down for bad grammar (although a lot of mistakes won’t leave a very good impression!)
Some use a separate pot of marks for spelling and grammar to add to the overall total
Some take marks off for each grammatical mistake – even if you got the answer ‘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 so that you have a few minutes left at the end.
You’ll probably gain more marks by correcting your work than trying to finish the last question, so it makes sense to keep that time for checking.
If you do that, there are a few simple things to look out for.
Check the Answers are Correct and Complete
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 lost marks by forgetting to look at all the pages, so you should always check you haven’t missed any questions.
This is the main problem that most Common Entrance candidates face, but there are ways in which you can improve your spelling.
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.
Check if a word appears anywhere in the text or in the question. If it does, you can simply copy it out from there.
Choose a simpler word if you’re not quite sure how to spell something. It’s sometimes better not to take the risk.
Check Capital Letters
This should be easy, but candidates often forget about checking capitals in the rush to finish.
Proper nouns, sentences, speech and abbreviations should all start with capital letters.
If you know you often miss out capital letters, you can at least check to make sure all your answers start with a capital.
Make sure you’ve put full-stops, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes and question marks in the right places.
Commas give almost everybody problems, but you can at least check there is a full-stop at the end of every sentence.
Check Other Grammar
It’s always useful to check for missing words and to make sure everything makes sense.
Grammar may not be the first thing on your mind when you’re answering the questions. However, you can usually spot most silly mistakes if you read through your answers carefully at the end.
If you want to test your knowledge of this article, here are a few questions for you. You can mark them yourselves!
What are the five steps involved in doing a comprehension? (5 marks)
Name three things you should do when reading the text for the first time. (3 marks)
Why should you read the questions before re-reading the text? (1 mark)
What should you be doing when you read the text for the second time? (1 mark)
What are the six steps to take when answering a question? (6 marks)
What are five hints and tips for answering questions? (5 marks)
What are the two types of things that questions might ask for? (2 marks)
What are the two occasions when you don’t need to answer in a full sentence? (2 marks)
Name five poetic devices. (5 marks)
What five things should you be checking for at the end? (5 marks)