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
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
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
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 only
- Evidence only
- 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
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)
Total: 35 marks