Tag Archives: Tutoring

How to Write a Letter

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

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

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

Sender’s Address

It’s important to put the address of the sender (not the recipient!) at the top right of the letter (see above). The postman obviously doesn’t look inside the letter, so the address of the recipient needs to go on the envelope instead!

The only exception is if it’s a business letter intended to be posted in a window envelope. In that case, it needs to have the recipient’s address positioned above the sender’s address at just the right height so that it shows through the window when an A4 sheet is folded in three.

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


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!



How to Become a Private Tutor

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.

Past Papers

The other thing I needed to do was to find past papers to give to my pupils. That was a bit tricky in the early days until a kind parent gave me a collection of photocopied exams. After that, I carried a couple around with me to take to lessons, but it wasn’t a great solution, so I decided to create a website – this one.

Over time, I collected dozens of past papers and wrote various articles on how to do different kinds of question in Maths, English and French. Now, I don’t have to carry around anything with me or spend time dictating notes. I can simply ask my pupils to look it up online.

Setting up a website is pretty easy using WordPress or something similar, but you should feel free to use the resources on my past papers tab if you don’t want to go to the trouble yourself, and all my articles are available for free if you need them.

The main ones I use for English are about doing comprehensions and writing stories, but there are plenty more. The website proved unexpectedly popular, and I had over 28,000 visitors last year! The other advantage is that it generated enough business for me not to need agencies any more.

That means I can charge what I like, I don’t have to pay any commission, and I can have a direct relationship with all my clients without anybody acting as an intermediary – and often just getting in the way!

Business Cards

I know it sounds a bit old-fashioned, but having business cards is very useful. If you’re just starting out, nobody knows your name, so paying a few quid to market your services is one of the best investments you can make.

You never know when people will tell you they’re looking for a tutor, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to give them a business card. Even if you don’t have a website, it will at least tell them how to reach you, and you should get a lot more clients out of it.

How Can I Find Work?

Tuition agencies are the best place to start, but there are different kinds. Some are online and simply require you to fill out a form for them to check and vet, but others ask you to go through an interview, either over the phone or in person.

Either way, you need to put together a tailored CV that shows off your academic achievements and highlights any teaching experience you’ve had. This may not be very much at the beginning, but you simply need to show enough potential to get you through the door.

Once you’ve shown enough aptitude and commitment to get accepted by a few agencies, you’ll rapidly build up your experience on the job.

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





A-Star Tuitionastartuition@btinternet.com01772 814739astartuition.com
Approved Tutorsapprovedtutors.co.uk
Athena Tuitionathenatuition.co.uk/
Beacon Tutorsinfo@beacontutors.co.uk020 8983 2158beacontutors.co.uk/
Bespoke Tuitionemma@bespoketuition.com07732 371880bespoketuition.com
Bigfoot Tutorstutors@bigfoottutors.com020 7729 9004bigfoottutors.com
Bright Young Things07702 019194brightyoungthingstuition.co.uk
Dulwich Tutorsinfo@dulwichtutors.com020 8653 3502dulwichtutors.com
Enjoy Educationkate@enjoyeducation.co.ukenjoyeducation.co.uk
Exam Confidence
First Tutorsfirsttutors.co.uk
Fleet Tutors0845 644 5452fleet-tutors.co.uk
Greater London Tutors020 7727 5599greaterlondontutors.com
Harrison Allenharrisonallen.co.uk
Holland Park Tuitionrecruitment@hollandparktuition.com020 7034 0800hollandparktuition.com
IPS Tutorsinfo@ipstutors.co.uk01509 265623ipstutors.co.uk
Ivy Educationivyeducation.co.uk
Kensington & Chelsea Tutorstutors@kctutors.co.uk020 7584 7987kctutors.co.uk
Keystone Tutorsenquiries@keystonetutors.com020 7351 5908keystonetutors.com
Kings Tutorsemily@kingstutors.co.ukkingstutors.co.uk
Knightsbridge Tutors07890 521390knightsbridgetutors.co.uk
Laidlaw Educationlaidlaweducation.co.uk
Mentor & Sonsandrei@mentorandsons.com07861 680377mentorandsons.com
Osborne Cawkwellenquiries@oc-ec.com020 7584 5355oc-ec.com
Personal Tutorsadmin@personal-tutor.co.ukpersonal-tutors.co.uk
Russell Education Groupjoe@russelleducationgroup.comn/a
Search Tutorssearchtutors.co.uk
Select My Tutorinfo@selectmytutor.co.ukselectmytutor.co.uk
SGA Educations@sga-education.comsga-education.com
Simply Learning Tuitionsimplylearningtuition.co.uk
The Tutor Pagesthetutorpages.com
Top Tutors020 8349 2148toptutors.co.uk
Tutor Houseinfo@tutorhouse.co.uk020 7381 6253tutorhouse.co.uk/
Tutor Hunttutorhunt.com
Tutors Internationaltutors-international.net
UK Tutorsuktutors.com
Westminster Tutorsexams@westminstertutors.co.uk020 7584 1288westminstertutors.co.uk
William Clarence Educationsteve@williamclarence.com020 7412 8988williamclarence.com
Winterwood winterwoodtutors.co.uk

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

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

Where Will the Lessons Take Place?

When I first started tutoring, I had to cycle to all my clients. I put a limit of half an hour on my travel time, but it still took a lot of time and effort to get to my pupils. Fortunately, I’m now able to teach at my home, either in person or online using Skype and an electronic whiteboard, which means my effective hourly rate has gone up enormously.

Travel is still a little bit of a problem for most tutors, though, and I certainly couldn’t have reached my pupils without having a bicycle. I didn’t have a car, and public transport wasn’t really an option in most cases.

You just have to decide how far you’re prepared to go: the further it is, the more business you’ll get, but the longer it’ll take to get there and therefore the lower your effective hourly rate.

The other possibility, of course, is teaching abroad. I’ve been lucky enough to go on teaching assignments in Belarus, Greece, Hong Kong, Kenya, Russia, Switzerland and Turkey, and it’s a great way to see the world.

The clients can sometimes be a little bit difficult, and the children can sometimes behave like spoiled brats (!), but staying with a great client in a sunny getaway overseas can be a wonderful experience.

The only reason I don’t apply for more foreign postings is that I don’t want to let down my existing clients – going away for three weeks just before the 11+ exams in January would NOT go down well!

When Will the Lessons Take Place?

If you’re teaching children, lessons will usually be in the after-school slot between 1600 and 2000 or at weekends. That does limit the amount of hours you can teach, but it’s up to you how much you want to work.

I used to work seven days a week, but I eventually gave myself a day off and then another, so I now work Sundays to Thursdays with Friday and Saturday off.

During the holidays, you lose a lot of regular clients when they disappear to the Maldives or somewhere for six weeks (!), but others might ask for an intensive sequence of lessons to take advantage of the extra time available, and there’s obviously a greater chance of a foreign assignment.

All that means that the work is very seasonal, so you should expect your earnings to go up and down a bit and plan your finances accordingly.

What Should I do During the Lesson?

I generally teach from past papers, so I ask pupils to do a past paper for their homework and then mark it during the following lesson.

‘Marking’ means marking the questions, obviously, but it also means ‘filling in the gaps’ in the pupil’s knowledge. If he or she is obviously struggling with something, it’s worth spending a few minutes explaining the topic and asking a few practice questions.

I’ve written a few articles on common problem areas in English and Maths, such as commas and negative numbers, so I often go through one of those and ask the pupil’s parents to print it out and put it in a binder. After a few weeks, that collection of notes gradually turns into a ready-made revision guide for the exams.

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

I approach English in a slightly different way to begin with. There are two types of question in the 11+, comprehensions and creative writing, so I generally spend the first lesson teaching pupils how to do one of those. I go through my article on the subject online and then ask them to answer a practice question by following the procedure I’ve outlined.

They usually finish it off for their homework. After a few weeks of stories or comprehensions, I’ll switch to the other topic and do the same with that. I also ask pupils to write down any new words or words they get wrong in a vocabulary book because building vocabulary is very important for any type of English exam (and also for Verbal Reasoning).

I ask them to fold the pages over in the middle so that they can put the words on the left and the meanings on the right (if necessary). Every few weeks, I can then give them a spelling test. If they can spell the words correctly and tell me what they mean, they can tick them off in their vocab book.

Once they’ve ticked off a whole page of words, they can tick that off, too! I usually try to reinforce the learning of words by asking pupils to tell me a story using as many words as possible from their spelling test.

It can be a familiar fairy story or something they make up, but it just helps to move the words from the ‘passive’ memory to the ‘active memory’, meaning that they actually know how to use them themselves rather than just understand them when they see them on the page.

What Homework Should I Set?

Most children who have private lessons have pretty busy schedules, so I don’t want to overburden them. I generally set one exercise that takes around 30-45 minutes. That might be a Maths paper or an English comprehension or story, but it obviously depends on the subject and the level.

Just make sure that the student writes down what needs to be done – a lot of them forget! You should also make a note in your diary yourself, just so that you can check at the start of the next lesson if the work has been done.

What Feedback Should I Give the Parents?

I generally have a quick chat with the mother or father (or nanny) after the lesson to report on what we did during the lesson, what problems the child had and what homework I’ve set. This is also a good time to make any changes to the schedule, for instance if the family goes on holiday.

If that’s not possible, I’ll email the client with a ‘lesson report’. Some agencies such as Bonas MacFarlane make this a part of their timesheet system.

How Much Will I Get Paid?

When I first started, I had absolutely no idea how much I was worth, and I ended up charging only £10 an hour, which is not much more than I pay my cleaner! Fortunately, a horrified friend pointed out that it should be ‘at least’ £35 an hour, and I upped my rates immediately.

I now charge £60 an hour for private lessons, whether online or in person. Unfortunately, some agencies such as Fleet Tutors don’t allow you to set your own rates, so that’s one thing to bear in mind when deciding which agencies to work with.

However, they did provide me with quite a bit of work when I first started, so it’s swings and roundabouts. The pay scale often varies depending on the age of the student and the level taught, so you’ll probably earn more for teaching older students at GCSE level or above if the agency sets the prices.

If you have any private clients, you can obviously set whatever rate you like, depending on where you live, the age of your pupils, whether lessons are online or in person and so on. Personally, I only have one rate (although I used to charge an extra £5 for teaching two pupils at the same time), and I raise it by £5 every year to allow for inflation and extra demand.

Tutoring is more and more popular than ever these days, and I read somewhere that over half of pupils in London have private lessons over the course of their school careers, so don’t sell yourself short! You should be able to make around £25,000 a year, which is not bad going for a couple of hours’ work a day!

Foreign jobs are a little different, and there is a ‘standard’ rate of around £800 a week including expenses. That means your flights and accommodation are all covered, and you can even earn a bit more on the side if you decide to rent out your home on Airbnb while you’re away!

When it comes to day-to-day expenses such as taxis and food and drink, it’s important to negotiate that with the agency before accepting the job. It’s no good complaining about having to live in the client’s house and buy your own lunches when you’re in Moscow or Bratislava! It can be a dream job, but just make sure you look at it from every angle:

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

How Do I Get Paid?

Most agencies ask for a timesheet and pay their tutors monthly via BACS payments directly into their bank accounts. That’s a bit annoying from a cash flow point of view, but there’s not much you can do about it – other than using a different agency.

When it comes to private clients, I generally ask for cash after the lesson, but it’s even more convenient if they can pay via standing order – as long as you can trust them! I once let a client rack up over £600 in fees because he tended to pay in big lump sums every few weeks, but then his business folded, and I had to use a Government website to try and chase him up.

Fortunately, his wife saw the email and paid my bill, but it took months to sort out. Normally, though, the worst that happens is that a client just doesn’t have the right change and promises to pay the following week, so you just need to keep track of who owes what.

I hope all this helps. Good luck!


Divisibility Rules OK!

And, no, this is nothing to do with Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak…

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

The divisibility rules are quite simple (except for the ones for 7 and 8). They tell you whether a number can be divided by any number from 1 to 10. They’re most useful when simplifying fractions…or when you’re struggling to remember your times tables!

  1. Must be a whole number, eg 2, but not 2.5.
  2. Must be an even number ending in 0, 2, 4, 6 or 8, eg 22, but not 23.
  3. The sum of the digits must be divisible by 3, eg 66, but not 67.
  4. The number formed by the last two digits must be ’00’ or divisible by 4, eg 500 or 504, but not 503.
  5. Must end in 5 or 0, eg 60, but not 61.
  6. Must be divisible by both 2 and 3, eg 18, but not 23.
  7. If you double the last digit and take this away from the number formed by the rest of the digits, the result must be 0 or divisible by 7, eg 672 (2 x 2 = 4, and 67 – 4 = 63, which is divisible by 7), but not 674.
  8. The number formed by the last three digits must be ’00’ or divisible by 8, eg 5,000 or 5,008, but not 5,003.
  9. The sum of the digits must be divisible by 9, eg 666, but not 667.
  10. Must end in 0, eg 110, but not 111.


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

A ratio is just a model of the real world, shown in the lowest terms, but answering ratio questions can be just as scary as meeting dragons if you don’t know what you’re doing. The key to understanding ratios is to work out the scale factor.

This is just like the scale on a map. If a map is drawn to a scale of 1:100,000, for instance, you know that 1cm on the map is the same as 100,000cm (or 1km) in the real world. To convert distances on the map into distances in the real world, you just need to multiply by the scale factor, which is 100,000 in this case.

(You can also go the other way – from the real world to the map – by dividing by the scale factor instead.)

To work out the scale factor in a Maths question, you need to know the matching quantities in the real world and in the model (or ratio). Once you know those two numbers, you can simply divide the one in the real world by the one in the ratio to get the scale factor. For example:

If Tom and Katie have 32 marbles between them in the ratio 3:1, how many marbles does Tom have?

To answer this question, here are the steps to take:

  1. Work out the scale factor. The total number of marbles in the real world is 32, and the total in the ratio can be found by adding the amounts for both Tom and Katie, which means 3 + 1 = 4. Dividing the real world total by the ratio total gives 32 ÷ 4 = 8, so the scale factor is 8.
  2. Multiply the number you want in the ratio by the scale factor. If Tom’s share of the marbles in the ratio is 3, then he has 3 x 8 = 24 marbles.

The matching numbers in the real world and the ratio are sometimes the totals and sometimes the individual shares, but it doesn’t matter what they are. All you need to do is find the same quantity in both places and divide the real world version by the ratio version to get the scale factor.

Once you’ve done that, you can multiply any of the ratio numbers to get to the real world number (or divide any real world number to get to the ratio number). Different questions might put the problem in different ways, but the principle is the same.

One complication might be having two ratios that overlap. In that case you need to turn them into just one ratio that includes all three quantities and answer the question as you normally would. For example:

If there are 30 black sheep, and the ratio of black to brown sheep is 3:2, and the ratio of brown to white sheep is 5:4, how many white sheep are there?

This is a bit more complicated, but the basic steps are the same once you’ve found out the ratio for all three kinds of sheep. To do this, we need to link the two ratios together somehow, but all the numbers are different, so how do we do it?

The answer is the same as for adding fractions with different denominators (or for solving the harder types of simultaneous equations, for that matter): we just need to multiply them together. If we were adding fifths and halves, we would multiply the denominators together to convert them both into tenths.

Here, the type of sheep that is in both ratios is the brown one, so we simply have to make sure the numbers of brown sheep in each ratio (2 and 5) are the same by multiplying them together (to give 10). Once we’ve done that, we can combine the two ratios into one and answer the question. Here goes:

  • Ratio of black sheep to brown sheep = 3:2

Multiply by 5

  • Ratio of black sheep to brown sheep = 15:10
  • Ratio of brown to white sheep = 5:4

Multiply by 2

  • Ratio of brown to white sheep = 10:8
  • Therefore, ratio of black sheep to brown sheep to white sheep = 15:10:8

Now that we have just one ratio, we can answer the question by following exactly the same steps as before:

  1. Work out the scale factor. The total number of black sheep in the real world is 30, and the total in the ratio is 15. Dividing the real world total by the ratio total gives 30 ÷ 15 = 2, so the scale factor is 2.
  2. Multiply the number you want in the ratio by the scale factor. If the number of white sheep in the ratio is 8, then there are 8 x 2 = 16 white sheep.



Here are a few practice questions:

  1. One hundred paintings have to be selected for an art exhibition. If the ratio of amateur paintings to professional paintings has to be 2:3, how many amateur paintings and professional paintings have to be selected?
  2. The ratio of brown rats to black rats is 3:2. If there are 16 black rats, how many brown rats are there?
  3. Peter has 20 blue pens. How many red pens must he buy if the ratio of blue to red pens has to be 2:3?
  4. There are 35 children in a class and 15 are boys. What is the ratio of boys to girls?
  5. There are 15 girls and 12 boys in a class. What is the ratio of girls to boys? Give your answer in its simplest form.
  6. A newspaper includes 12 pages of sport and 8 pages of TV. What is the ratio of sport to TV? Give your answer in its simplest form.
  7. Anna has 75p, and Fiona has £1.20. What is the ratio of Anna’s money to Fiona’s money in its simplest form?
  8. Sam does a scale drawing of his kitchen. He uses a scale of 1:100. He measures the length of the kitchen as 5.9m. How long is the kitchen on the scale drawing? Give your answer in mm.
  9. A recipe to make lasagne for 6 people uses 300 grams of minced beef. How much minced beef would be needed to serve 8 people?
  10. A recipe for flapjacks requires 240g of oats. This makes 18 flapjacks. What quantity of oats is needed to make 24 flapjacks?
  11. Amit is 12 years old. His brother, Arun, is 9. Their grandfather gives them £140, which is to be divided between them in the ratio of their ages. How much does each of them get?
  12. The angles in a triangle are in the ratio 1:2:9. Find the size of the largest angle.
  13. In a certain town, the ratio of left-handed people to right-handed people is 2:9. How many right-handed people would you expect to find in a group of 132 people?
  14. Twelve pencils cost 72p. Find the cost of 30 pencils.
  15. Jenny buys 15 felt-tip pens. It costs her £2.85. How much would 20 pens have cost?
  16. If three apples cost 45p, how much would five apples cost?
  17. Sam is 16 years old. His sister is 24 years old. What’s the ratio of Sam’s age to his sister’s age? Give your answer in its simplest form.
  18. A map scale is 1:20000. A distance on the map is measured to be 5.6cm. What’s the actual distance in real life? Give your answer in metres.
  19. A recipe for vegetable curry needs 300 grams of rice, and it feeds 4 people. How much rice would be needed for 7 people?
  20. £60 is to be divided between Brian and Kate in the ratio 2:3. How much does Kate get?


Teaching Greek children is like watching France play rugby: you never know what you’re going to get…

I just spent two weeks in Greece preparing a Greek boy and his twin sisters for 10+ and 12+ entrance examinations at a school in England. Highlights included spending a long, sunny weekend at a holiday home in Lagonissi, spending another long, sunny weekend skiing near Delphi – I wonder if the oracle saw that one coming! – and seeing the Parthenon every day from my hotel balcony.

Political refugees take many forms, but, personally, I prefer shipping magnates fleeing with their adorable (if strong-willed) families from Communist governments in the Mediterranean…

What a Turkey!

When it comes to incest, folk dancing and teaching kids who burst into tears every few minutes, my advice is: “Just say no.”

I was due to spend nine weeks in Turkey early in 2015, teaching a 12-year-old boy Maths and English, but all I ended up with was a two-week holiday in the Ankara Sheraton and a client who refused to pay! I only managed to do four lessons before it became clear that things weren’t going to work out, so all I could do was take pictures of the food in the restaurant and the view out of my hotel window.

Given the circumstances, all I can do now is publish a few of the pictures I took. And learn an important lesson: if everything about a job from the very beginning seems wrong, it’s probably better just to say no…



Cold Turkey

Pool, beach or hammock? Hammock, beach or pool? Hmm…

That was the decision that faced me every day during my teaching assignment in Turkey. I was staying at Club Isil in Torba, near Bodrum, for six weeks to teach three Kazakh brothers and their cousin.

They were seven, seven, 11 and 14 years old, and I was there to teach each of them English or Maths for an hour a day. I only worked a maximum of five days a week, and the cousin was only there for a month, so I had plenty of time to do my own thing.

Sometimes that can be a bit difficult on a residential assignment, as you don’t know anyone apart from your clients, and there’s no guarantee of where you’ll be staying or what facilities or transport will be available.

Fortunately, my Kazakh clients put me up at a five-star all-inclusive beach resort called the Isil Club, so I had the choice of pool, beach or hammock every afternoon, plus the use of wi-fi throughout the grounds and the opportunity to participate in a host of sporting activities, including tennis, volleyball and Flyboarding.

Stairway to heaven

Stairway to heaven

Every weekday morning, I would have breakfast from the buffet on the terrace and walk to the front of the hotel, where I’d get picked up at 0845 by a chap in a golf cart and dropped off at my clients’ pair of luxury houses in the grounds of the next door Vogue Hotel.

The first time I walked down the steps to the villas, I thought I’d walked on to the set of Beverly Hills 90210. Each villa had an infinity pool on the terrace, with a view looking out over a sweeping sunlit Mediterranean bay dotted with the odd luxury schooner or motor yacht.

Inside, the houses were both chock full of marble and gold leaf, and there was a constant stream of staff to keep the place looking immaculate and look after our every need. I’d teach for three or four hours and then hitch a lift back to my hotel with one of the staff or even one of the boys. It’s not often I get driven home by an 11-year-old pupil, but that’s what happens when he’s given a Renault Twizy for his birthday…!

I got along pretty well with the boys, although they were rather reluctant students, and their mothers generally left me to my own devices. I’m told that’s fairly typical of clients from the old Soviet Union, but it’s just a bit disconcerting when nobody comes to pick you up and you think you’ve been sacked until you get a belated text to say it’s just someone’s birthday!

I quickly settled into a routine of teaching in the morning and then reading the paper online, sunbathing and watching sport and movies on my laptop for the rest of the day. My main problem was trying to do too many things at once.

It would’ve been nice to be able to sunbathe with my laptop out on the terrace or alongside the various incarnations of Bambi and Thumper on the dock, but it was too hot and bright. It was two weeks before I saw my first cloud, so I didn’t even have the excuse of bad weather to stay indoors. Everywhere I go these days, it always seems to be 35° – either in Centigrade or Fahrenheit!

The Isil Club wasn’t quite so luxurious as the Vogue – where I was greeted by a couple of beautiful girls and offered a free cocktail when I arrived from the airport – but it still offered everything I could possibly want.

I had to switch rooms initially, but that was only because of a glitch in the wi-fi signal, and I ended up in the ideal spot. My front door opened on to the main bar and reception area, but I also had French windows giving access to a grassy lawn at the back (where I found the hammock!), and the restaurant and water sports centre were within easy walking distance.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all available from a buffet out on the terrace, and there was a wide selection of salads, hot dishes, deserts and anything else you might fancy. The hotel was run on an all-inclusive basis, so I never had to pay for anything, and it was very tempting to eat far too much. After a couple of weeks, though, I decided to eat what I actually liked rather than everything in sight!

All you can eat...

All you can eat…

The facilities were fabulously comprehensive, including a huge swimming pool, volleyball and tennis courts, artificial five-a-side pitches, table tennis and pool tables, a sauna and spa and a water sports centre down by the dock equipped with catamarans, Jet Skis, banana boats and Flyboards.

(There was even a zoo next door, although it was even smaller than the one in Hong Kong!)

I hardly ever go on beach holidays, so it should’ve come as no surprise when I swam two lengths of the pool with my iPhone in my pocket! That put me off swimming for the rest of the trip, and I didn’t even do many of the other activities – even though I used to love sailing when I was a boy.

However, I’d always wanted to try Flyboarding, and I booked a lesson in the final week. I was strapped into boots attached to what looks a bit like a snowboard, except with two nozzles for the water jet on the underside.

There was also a red hose or pipe hooked up to a Jet Ski, and that was what provided the power. It was pretty difficult to get the hang of it, but I did manage to hover around ten feet off the water a couple of times for a few seconds. I asked Yusuf to take some pictures, but the memory card in my camera stopped working, so I don’t have anything to show for it! Typical…

Fortunately, I did manage to take a few shots myself. I recently took up photography fairly seriously, so I’m always looking for great photo ops, and I was very excited about the idea of getting pictures of the instructors.

I ended up getting to know one of the instructors quite well, and he was an expert Flyboarder. The first time I saw him, he was soaring 20 feet into the air then diving into the water, only to shoot up into the air again and dive again.

It was spectacular!

The only problem was trying to work out when he was due to go out. I asked Yusuf to let me know by text, but he never did, so I ended up camping out on the terrace with my laptop, checking the dock every few minutes to see whether the Flyboard had moved from its usual spot. At least it got me out of the house – and the photos were worth waiting for…

Flyboarder diving in perfect high backlit arc

(This is not me)

Dive! Dive!

Dive! Dive!

I took lots of shots of Yusuf, a couple of the other instructors and a few holidaymakers trying it for the first time. If you want to sell pictures of people online (as I do), you have to get a model release from everybody in the shot, so I did a deal with everyone: you sign the model release, and I’ll give you all the photos for free.

Yusuf was particularly chuffed. “Many photographers ask to take my picture,” he told me once, “but it would not be the same as you.”

The other big chance I had to take pictures came when the American singer/songwriter Akon gave a concert at the Vogue Hotel. One of my pupils told me about it, and I went along to check it out. It turned out to be a very professional gig – just like something you’d expect to see in a big outdoor arena – and it was a great chance to take some good close-up shots.

The grounds were so big that there was plenty of room, even quite near to the stage, so I was lucky to be there. The good thing about going to a private concert at a five-star hotel is that you don’t find any of the usual drawbacks of live music. You don’t have to queue up to get in, you can get as close as you like, and you don’t even need a ticket!



When I wasn’t taking pictures or staring at a laptop screen, I tried to meet a few people in the resort, but it was always difficult. I asked a couple of girls to dance and complimented another couple on their dresses, but it never got me anywhere.

Eventually, I gave up and started taking my lunch and dinner plates back to my room rather than eating out on the terrace beside the buffet. However, I did go along to the regular scheduled volleyball and tennis tournaments, and that paid off during the last couple of weeks of my stay, when I met a group of Belgians who were very keen on volleyball.

They played every morning and evening and invited me to join them, so I went along and got to know them pretty well. There were Goodness knows how many Belgians and other Francophone tourists in the resort, so I’m glad I could speak French.

The social ostracism is the worst part of any residential assignment abroad, so it was good to be able to have a chat with a few people over the age of 14!

All in all, I had a very good trip. The clients were happy, I came back with a proper tan for the first time since I ‘retired’ at 29, and I tried out something I’ve always wanted to do. I also managed to take hundreds of pictures.

What could be better? The only disappointment hit me when I got back home to the UK and found that all the sunny beaches and beautiful girls in bikinis had disappeared. My turkey was cold after all…



Tweets from Turkey


Sunbathing in Bodrum is like watching French films – you end up thinking breasts aren’t special at all. I need someone to set me straight…

I saw a dolphin playing in the sea and someone having sun cream rubbed in by two beautiful Thai girls. I’m not sure which impressed me more…

When a woman spends 5 mins putting on her bikini top, should you a) ignore her, b) offer your help or c) ask the topless woman next to you?!

The area around the swimming pool here is like a walrus haul-out in the Arctic, except the creatures are 700lbs lighter (in most cases)…

They may not be as glamorous as polar bears in the Arctic, but there’s still a place for French blondes in bikinis called Aurélie…


I’m the least observant person in the world. It’s taken me a week to find the muesli! Now, where’s the champagne and caviare…

One day, I’ll get bored of dining on the terrace while watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, but it won’t be this week…

This hotel is so posh they put soy sauce in a sherry glass. Impractical, but classy.

I’m going to write a book called The All-You-Can-Eat Buffet Diet. It’ll have the same hundred recipes on every page…

For dinner tonight, I was tempted by the ‘turkey chest’ with ‘potetoes’ or ‘fish from the owen’, but I chose pizza instead. Easier to spell…

The French/Belgians

We almost had a Casablanca moment today. When a hundred Germans are singing German drinking songs around the pool, it can only end badly.

It’s a sad day when a pretty French girl in a bikini asks if she can lie next to you on the sun lounger but then calls you ‘vous’. Sigh…

I just heard a French woman say, “Un, deux, trois – cheese!” to her children. Photography, the universal language…

It’s hard to be one of the lads when you’re playing volleyball with Frenchmen. I call them ‘tu’, but I’m so old they have to call me ‘vous’!

“Due to the Belgium National Feast, the 21st. of July, we would like to invite you to a cocktail at the pool, today at 19:30pm. Isil Club”


I’m in the middle of a Transformers marathon, and I’m feeling more and more admiration for director Michael Bay (and Megan Fox, obviously)…

Living abroad means watching every sporting event live, so I now have three windows open for the cricket, the golf and the motor racing…

Great to see Jon Favreau’s Chef. I haven’t seen such a fine feel-good foodie film since Tampopo and Babette’s Feast!


Why don’t web pages from The Daily Telegraph load properly in Turkey? Is the paper still being punished for its Gallipoli coverage…?

When your profile is being viewed by 63-year-old women, you know you’ve reached the bottom of the online dating pool…


Middle-aged guys should be banned from water parks. I think I’ve broken my ankle…!

I just lost an air rifle competition by 14 points to 10. If we’d been using AK-47s, it would’ve been a different story…

When I won the singles and doubles matches to win the tennis today, everyone just walked off. It’s the opposite of ‘all must have prizes’…!

That’s the first time I’ve ever had to score a tennis match in French. I suppose it’s better than volleyball in Russian.

Flyboarding is just like snowboarding, except you have 20 feet further to fall! Ouch…


I went to the zoo today – if you can call it that. The Vogue Hotel is having a competition with Hong Kong for the world’s smallest zoo…

I spent last night on the beach with three cats named Hobie, shooting the stars and watching shooting stars.

I’ve just realised from my photographs which way the stars rotate in the northern hemisphere. Any guesses…?

I just offered to send someone a few photos, and he told me he didn’t have an email address! I didn’t know what to say…

Here I am, watching Lois & Clark and the US PGA on my laptop, sitting on the terrace at midnight while my camera takes photos of the stars…

Thank God that’s over. No more sunshine, no more beaches, no more pretty girls in bikinis. I’m really, really happy to be home. Really…


Turkey’s the only place I know where storms don’t involve either rain or even clouds…

I just saw Akon perform last night at the Vogue. I think in future I’ll only go to private concerts at five-star hotels…

Does anyone want an iPhone? I have one that swam two lengths of the pool with me this afternoon…

I was shaken awake by an earthquake this morning…


Lost in Translation

My best experience in Moscow could easily have been my worst.

“Would you like to come to dinner with us at Café Pushkin and then see the Spasskaya Tower international military music festival in Red Square?”

“Yes, I’d be delighted.”

“Shall we meet you at the restaurant at six thirty?”

Oh, dear. My heart sank. It was my first time in Moscow, and I had only one hour to make sense of the Moscow Metro system all on my own. My clients had kindly given me the equivalent of an Oyster card and an iPhone with a local SIM card in it, but I had to get to the station first.

The nearest one was more than 15 minutes’ walk away, so I decided to try and get the bus. The only problem was that I didn’t know whether my smart card would work. Fortunately, it did. The next problem was knowing which platform to use in the Metro.

I don’t speak Russian, and all the signs and the names of the stations were in Cyrillic, so it was no easy task! Even when I got on the right train, it was very difficult to know where I was. There are so few signs on the Metro stations that it was almost impossible to see one and decipher the station name as the train flew past.

Even the announcements over the PA system were no help, as I didn’t even know how to pronounce the names of the stations en route! I eventually had to make do with counting them. That worked out fine, and I got off at the right one, only to get lost again.

I thought I’d be safe with Google maps, but the network was so slow that my phone wasn’t telling me where I was but where I’d been five minutes earlier!

The weather was so poor that I couldn’t navigate by the sun, and there were so many major roads and sliproads that it was impossible to cross them without taking the underground subway – which was even more confusing!

When I finally reached the restaurant, I was lucky enough to see my clients on the steps.

Phew! Never again…

The food at Café Pushkin was delicious, and my clients Dimitri and Yana encouraged me to try the local specialities and generously paid for my meal. Before we left for the festival, their son Boris showed me round the gorgeous antique interior.

He was 12 years old, and I had come to Moscow for three weeks in September 2013 to help him prepare for his entrance exams at various private schools in England. Everything had happened very quickly. From being told about the job to getting on the plane had only been seven days!

During that time, the only real obstacle had been getting a visa. In return for a couple of hours online and a visit to the Embassy (involving an obligatory lie about being in full-time employment), I was given my Russian visa name. This is similar to your pornstar name, except it’s decided by the Russian Embassy. Mine was NIKOLAS UILLIAM ДЭИЛ, by the way…

Despite the travel nightmares, that evening with Dimitri, Yana and Boris turned out to be the highlight of my trip to Moscow. After dinner, we walked to Red Square from the restaurant and spent the next couple of hours watching a succession of international marching bands play music and go through their parade ground drills in front of the spectacular backdrop of a floodlit St Basil’s Cathedral.

Better Red than dead

Better Red than dead

It was my first ever visit to Red Square, and it was quite an introduction! I was keen to take as many photos and videos of the event as I could, and Boris was doing the same sitting next to me.

By a freakish coincidence, he had almost exactly the same camera as I did (the Nikon D800E), so we had plenty to discuss that night and for the rest of the trip when it came to photography. This might give you some idea of the spectacle…


The only disappointing thing about the evening was that the family decided to leave early. I only discovered this later, but there was a firework display at the end of the show. How spectacular would that have been to see fireworks over St Basil’s?! Sadly, I missed out, and I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance again…

The bad news continued on the photography front when the weather stayed cloudy, misty, rainy and miserable for the entire trip. I had been keen to see St Petersburg and the onion-domed churches of Zagorsk and elsewhere, but there was no point in those conditions.

One result of that was that I didn’t have very much to occupy my time. There were a couple of people that I’d planned to see, but it wasn’t possible in the end, so I spent a lot of time in my hotel room. I got on with Boris and his parents reasonably well, and Yana very kindly provided me with lunch most days (although I could have wished for something other than borscht and black bread almost every day!), but it was a bit lonely sometimes.

I’d have been pulling my hair out if I hadn’t found a free VPN service that gave me 24/7 access to Sky Sports! My agent Andrei was also just a quick Skype call away to sort out any problems or just to pass the time. I really appreciated that, and we met up for a curry when I got home to cement our friendship.

I did take a few photographs while I was over there. I’d seen a nearby church out of my hotel window, so I walked over there on my day off and captured the onion domes for posterity.

"It's like an onion..."

“It’s like an onion…”

There was another old church just across the road in a residential gated community, but the security guards at the entrance wanted a bribe to let me in!

In the absence of any exciting landscapes or architecture to shoot, I decided to be a bit more creative. I was up on the 23rd floor of the Astrus Hotel, so I got a good view down Leninsky Prospekt. I took a few ‘miniatures’ of the tower blocks first…

Mini Moscow

Mini Moscow

…and then I went a bit ‘arty’ with my zoom!

Trabants and Mercedes as you've never seen them before...

Trabants and Mercedes as you’ve never seen them before…

The only other pictures I took were of one of the receptionists downstairs called Polina. She bizarrely felt she had to ask permission from her colleagues before she would agree, but we ended up having a good chat.

We’re even friends on Facebook now, so perhaps I should’ve plucked up the courage to talk to her a bit earlier. Who knows what might’ve happened? You know what they say about Moscow girls…

I have a few other memories of my trip:

  • the phenomenal upload speed of my hotel’s DSL connection (23.36Mbps!)
  • the water pressure in the shower – which made me feel like a rioter being hosed down by a water cannon
  • seeing a picture of Boris Johnson on his bike on the bedroom wall of my student Boris; finding a Russian medal on the kitchen table that Dimitri had won for his service to the motherland
  • seeing an abandoned car in the middle lane of Leninsky Prospekt; getting through the Moscow traffic honk-a-thon every morning, when my driver would get so close to the other cars that the parking alarm would regularly go off
  • trying to negotiate the return of my laundry in English with an old Russian woman speaking German!

All in all, I’m glad I had the opportunity to go to Moscow. The family were very kind and generous and easy to talk to, and I made a good friend in Andrei. It’s also another place I’ve been able to tick off my bucket list. Now, where next, I wonder…?!

Remember the Iceberg!

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:

  1. Read the passage
  2. Read the questions
  3. Read the passage again
  4. Answer the questions
  5. 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:

  1. Points only
  2. Evidence only
  3. 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.

Use Quotations

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.

Check Spelling

This is the main problem that most Common Entrance candidates face, but there are ways in which you can improve your spelling.

  1. 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.
  2. Check if a word appears anywhere in the text or in the question. If it does, you can simply copy it out from there.
  3. 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.

Check Punctuation

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!

  1. What are the five steps involved in doing a comprehension? (5 marks)
  2. Name three things you should do when reading the text for the first time. (3 marks)
  3. Why should you read the questions before re-reading the text? (1 mark)
  4. What should you be doing when you read the text for the second time? (1 mark)
  5. What are the six steps to take when answering a question? (6 marks)
  6. What are five hints and tips for answering questions? (5 marks)
  7. What are the two types of things that questions might ask for? (2 marks)
  8. What are the two occasions when you don’t need to answer in a full sentence? (2 marks)
  9. Name five poetic devices. (5 marks)
  10. What five things should you be checking for at the end? (5 marks)

Total: 35 marks