English comprehension is a key test of English skills in exams and tests. It is required to pass the 11+, 13+, GCSE, IGCSE, IB and A-level English Language. So what are the key skills being tested and how can your child score high points on the test?
Understanding Explicit and Implicit Information
The single most important skill in an English comprehension test is the skill of extracting relevant and accurate information from the text. This information will be either explicit or implicit in the passage.
This type of information is obvious because the text simply tells you what you need to know. If the information is explicit there will be no hidden connotations, no misunderstanding (hopefully) and no judgement required from the student. For example, if the text states that ‘Sam was very angry…’ then we know that Sam was very angry; we cannot interpret this as Sam being happy, joyful or relaxed. The skill your child needs is to extract the information and quote from the text. In practice, English comprehension tests tend to start by asking for explicit information, which is the easiest skill.
This is more difficult to extract from the text and there is much more room for error. Children can find it hard, because it is a higher-level skill than extracting explicit information. The information you need will not be so obvious; it will be implied. Your child needs to spot the clues in the text that suggest the information. For example if the text says ‘Sam strode out of the house and slammed the door loudly behind him. His face was bright red, his lips tightly compressed and his fists were clenched. He strode towards his car and threw open the door with a grunt…’ we would use the clues to infer that Sam was angry. However, the writer has not told us that, but used Sam’s actions and appearance to infer that this is the case. English comprehension tests usually move on to ask for implicit information and these questions may carry higher marks.
Understanding Sentence Structure
Having an understanding of sentence structure can help your child’s understanding of the passage and give them a way to gain marks. The way that sentences are structured in a passage will have a considerable impact on the way we read it and understand it. Sentence structure also ensures cohesion by connecting ideas between sentences and through the text. If your child can understand how ideas link together at sentence level, they will get a sense of how ideas and themes link throughout the whole passage.
For English comprehension tests, your child should be able to recognise four types of English sentence and understand the effects created by each type.
- Simple Sentences e.g. I kicked the ball.
- Compound Sentences e.g. I kicked the ball and it hit Tom.
- Complex Sentences e.g. Tom cried because the ball hit him.
- Compound – Complex Sentences e.g. Tom cried because the ball hit him and I apologised immediately.
Sentence structure can be used to create effects in passages such as a change in pace, the creation of tension (suspense) and dramatic effects.
Some English comprehension tests, such as the current AQA GCSE paper 1, require your child to understand the way texts are structured by the writer. Children often dislike these questions, but they are relatively easy to understand. Some papers helpfully give your child clues e.g. ‘this text is from the beginning of a novel.’ Look at the way the passage opens. What techniques has the writer used to gain the interest of the reader? What is the effect?
Then look for structural changes within the passage. Does the setting change e.g. move from outside to inside? Does the passage start in one place but finish in another? What is the effect of this? Do the characters change? Does the focus of the text change?
Finally, your child should look at the ending, especially if the paper tells them the passage is from the end of a story. How does the writer finish the text? Have they answered all our questions? Or have they left us questioning what has happened? Especially if it is a complete short story, check if it is a circular structure i.e. we end up where we started.
English comprehension is a key element of learning or studying English. The tips above should give your child a strong starting point and the ability to gain high-grade answers.
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