How your child can prepare for an English comprehension exam
By Victoria Burrill
12 Apr

Victoria Burrill is the author of our new English for Key Stage 2 series. An English teacher for Years 3-8 at a London prep school, Victoria has extensive experience of preparing children for 11+ and 13+ exams and shares her invaluable advice for any child looking ahead to an English comprehension exam.

A student once defended himself to me with the statement, “But you can’t revise for English, Miss, because you don’t know what’s going to be on the exam paper!”  A small tear began to well up in the corner of my eye as he spoke. Of course you can revise for English! The preparations might look very different to revising for history or science, but you can prepare very thoroughly to equip yourself with and refine the skills needed to excel at the 13+ Common Entrance English papers (and any other exams for that matter).


Read read read

It will be no surprise to you, I’m sure, that the more you read, the easier comprehension becomes. Most English teachers sound like a broken record on the topic but honestly, it’s true. Your vocabulary broadens, your familiarity with decoding a text improves, the pace at which you can draw inferences and read between the lines speeds up and if nothing else, you are significantly raising the chances of having already read the text which eventually turns up on the exam paper.

Read in a range of different genres, don’t limit yourself to your favourite style. Try something new - you might surprise yourself! Oh, and definitely pick up a poetry book or two. Reading for pleasure is probably the most fun, lowest impact, most enjoyable type of revision; make the most of it.

Take it slow

When you open the paper, the first thing you need to do is read it carefully. No notes, no highlighters, no panicking. Just read. You can’t possibly consider commenting on a text before you’ve read it through with a clear head.

Once you have a general sense of the passage, look at the questions. Highlight key words - they give you the clue about what your answer should look like. If it says 'How does the author..' you should probably be looking for literary devices. If it says 'Explain in your own words..' you’ll need to think of some synonyms. If it begins 'What is your impression of…' your answer should be a summary, probably with some key adjectives that you have chosen (see below for more advice on this). 

Look at how many marks are available and decide how many points you need to make for each question. Focus on your weak points - if you tend to forget to refer to the correct part of the text, highlight the lines you are allowed to use. If you often don’t notice the 'in your own words' instruction, highlight or circle it.   

Now you are ready to start penning your responses to the questions. 

Words matter

We tend to associate vocabulary choices with the writing paper, but it’s equally important in comprehension. If you are asked to give your impression of a character, identify a feeling or summarise the mood of a poem, you need to have the right words. You need to know the difference between nervous, anxious and fearful. You should be able to recognise whether someone is determined, forthright or arrogant.  In order to prepare yourself, make a list of key characteristics, emotions and moods. Use past papers’ mark schemes to get you started. Use a dictionary (or a friend or teacher) to help you find out the precise definitions of these words. Now practise on the book you are currently reading or a film you have watched recently - describe the characters, identify the mood and make a note of how characters feel.

Also, choose words deliberately in your answers. For example, refer to ‘nouns’ and ‘adjectives’ not just ‘words’ that the author uses. Refer to literary devices by name. Try to avoid too many pronouns; make it clear what you are referring to. If it’s a poem, refer to the ‘poet’ not the ‘writer’. 

“Glue” it together

To add some flair and style to your answers, it is important to make your words flow. You may be familiar with the P.E.E (point, evidence, explanation) but a few ‘dots of glue’ will help to stick your ideas together. Phrases such as ‘this suggests that...’, ‘the reader can infer that…’, ‘the resulting effect on the reader is…’ or ‘this evokes a feeling of…’ helps the sentences to flow and makes your answer feel cohesive and well thought through. 

You may also choose to use some discourse markers to join ideas together when you are making more than one point. A simple ‘moreover’ or ‘conversely’ can act as a signpost to the examiner, pointing out where you are due more marks! 

Even up the “odds”

One of the most common questions I get from Common Entrance students is what to do about the 5 and 7 mark questions, which don’t easily divide into pairs of marks. My advice is simple - make an additional observation as part of one of your points. Single-word analysis is a great way to do this. Make your point, give your quote, explain your quote and now pick out one particular word which has a strong impact and explain it further. Use the connotations of that word and the context in which it is usually found to add extra insight into the writer’s choice. This helps you to show a deeper understanding and gain that extra ‘odd’ mark.
Best of luck for your revision.

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