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Remember the iceberg!

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

Once you know what you’ll have to do in the exam, the next job is to work out how much time you have for each task and, during the comprehension, for each mark available. Most papers last an hour or an hour and a quarter, and the marks are equally divided between the comprehension and the composition. That means you have half an hour or so for the comprehension. However, not all of that time can be spent actually answering the questions. I recommend reading the passage, reading the questions, reading the passage again, answering the questions and then checking your work.
If there are 25 marks available, you have around 30-45 seconds per mark. The number of marks available for each individual question will tell you how much time you have in total, e.g. two minutes for a four-mark question.

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. Rather than reading it as fast as you can – just to get it over and done with – you should go as slowly as you would if you were reading it out loud and make sure you understand everything. Re-read any bits where you get stuck and ask yourself the W questions as you go along: who, what, where, when, why and how? It may help to summarise the text in your own words, just to make sure everything makes sense.

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

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

Answer the questions
This is obviously the main task, and there are a few things to remember:

  • Use full sentences.
  • Make sure any definitions you’re asked for fit exactly in the context.
  • Use PEE (Point, Evidence, Explanation) for longer answers.
  • Use the right tense.
  • Don’t repeat the whole question in the answer.
  • Use quotations.

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

Check your work
However old you are and whatever you’re doing, there’s one tip that beats all the rest: ‘check your work’! In the case of 11+ or 13+ comprehensions, the most important thing is to test candidates’ understanding of the passage, but spelling and grammar are still important. Schools have different marking policies. Some don’t explicitly mark you down; some create a separate pot of 10 marks for spelling and grammar to add to the overall total and some take marks off each answer directly, even if the content is ‘right’. You may want to make a quick checklist and tick each item off one by one:

  • Full and correct answers.
  • Spelling.
  • Capital letters.
  • Punctuation.
  • Other grammar.

Nick Dale, Common Entrance Tutor

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