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Reading Comprehension (1)

A number of schools are using comprehension passages to whittle down their candidates these days, especially independent schools. I once saw a comprehension set for 11+ entry that was more for the parents to be impressed by than the children have a chance of completing successfully. This was genuinely the case - the vast majority of candidates didn't understand the passage, let alone appreciate the sort of nuances which were being tested for. The marking was, of course, carnage and sometimes you'll have to prepare your child for worst-case scenario and not to worry about not understanding a tough piece.

On the other hand, there are a number of schools which use a multiple choice approach and this will be addressed in a separate section.

The primary issue with answering a written comprehension is knowing what format is required for answering. Will notes and single word answers suffice, as they tend to do in SATs? Will the examiners want a precise, full-sentence answer and reduce marks if this is not provided? Check in advance if you can; wasting time getting a child to write in full is pointless if they have no need to do so while you don't want to lose marks for writing insufficiently.

I recently sat with a child who was reading a difficult book (by Anthony Horowitz, a well-respected author) and was amazed to realise just how little he was able to understand from the story. When I asked him comprehension questions, he was totally baffled. Your child may be completely lost in the words which are on the page so be prepared to give them coping mechanisms rather than tell them to try harder. Relaxation, deep breathing, counting to ten; anything that calms a child down can help him or her to think straight. Unlike the other elements of an entrance test, this one is dependent on understanding one thing - everything is hinged upon the one element and there are no different questions which you can turn to instead. The passage I've chosen to work from is deliberately difficult to follow and should give you an idea of what your child will have to endure on the day!

I suggest you print out a copy of the questions without my comments and see whether you child answers in a capable way and if not, go through the advice and see whether there are some tips that you can use to help them.

For the following questions we will be referring to a passage from 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain. The story is set in the nineteenth century, in the USA. The main character, the narrator, is a boy called Huckleberry. He lives with Widow Douglas, who has been teaching him about Moses.


Question 1

What does Huckleberry want to do at the start of the passage?

The first question on any paper is bound to be taken from near the beginning of the passage. If not, it'll be a real surprise. The intention is to provide a 'gimme' at the start so that every child can feel at ease.

There are very few ways to get this one wrong, even if you have failed to understand the passage. Remind your child to begin at the beginning as the question-setter will have done so. They will, generally, work their way through the text so the second question will relate to something a little further along the paragraph, and so on. If you set your own questions from a book then try to do the same thing.

The answer expected would be 'Smoke' or, if sentences are required, 'Huckleberry wants to have a smoke.' Remember that full-sentence answers have a noun as their subject, not a pronoun, so don't start with 'He...' It really is worth checking how pedantic the marking will be if at all possible!

Question 2

Explain Huckleberry's views on smoking.

This is a question which revolves less upon factual recall from the text and much more on interpreting it. The answers are there in the text but need to be sorted out, hence the prompt word, 'Explain'. Huckleberry is clearly keen on smoking but he is told that he cannot do so by the widow. We need no reference to her views; no marks are ever available for background information and waffle.

The narrator's belief is that the act of smoking is 'a thing that had some good in it'. This is the key phrase and it's no bad thing to underline the bits that stand out as you read it, especially once you have read through the questions and have an idea what is being sought.

The ideal answer should be something like this:

Huckleberry believes smoking is quite a good thing to do.

Be aware that over-emphasising the word 'good' is daft; we cannot expect full marks for saying that Huckleberry finds smoking 'great' as the quote we are working from only says 'some good'. Stick to the text and the sentiment behind it.

Question 3

Why does Twain make reference to the widow using snuff? (line 8)

This is a question which requires a specific answer but will allow a bit of interpretation. It is looking to see whether your child can grasp the sense of injustice felt by the narrator; if the word 'irony' gets mentioned here then all the better.

This is the first time a line number has been mentioned in a question. Be very careful that your child sticks to the particular reference given and doesn't try and answer from elsewhere in the text.

The question is about snuff, which of course is something which the average child doesn't know about. In some cases, such tricky words will be explained but in this case I've chosen not to explain it. I think that, if you read around the word, you should be able to realise that the narrator is unhappy that it seems to be 'one rule for the widow, one rule for me'. The words 'of course' should make the careful reader think - is the author saying it ironically? Whatever this 'snuff' is, the widow takes it and is stopping Huckleberry from smoking. Train your child to read, re-read and think carefully about the parts that are tricky to understand. What could it mean? What does the tone seem to suggest? There is no easy way to find an answer if you don't know what the words mean, but here is a model answer:

The widow uses snuff, which Huckleberry feels is similar to him smoking, so he feels annoyed that there seem to be different rules applied to each of them. It shows a sense of injustice.

The last sentence is a little extra which would show a deep understanding of the text; I would expect a marker would be happy to read an answer which just contained the first sentence.

Question 4

In your own words, explain what the widow thinks about smoking.

This may well ring bells with a lot of parents - the dreaded 'in your own words' question! Be careful that your child knows the requirements; they don't have to use variations on every single word that is used in the original, but they do have to avoid the key words being repeated.

Firstly, find the answer in the text. The widow is referred to in the first paragraph and Huckleberry explains that she thinks smoking was '... a mean practice and wasn't clean, and I must try to not do it any more.'

Next, try to understand how many points are being made. There are three things being referred to, as is made clear by the use of 'and'. It's a 'mean practice', it 'wasn't clean' and she feels Huckleberry should 'try not to do it any more'.

The final element is the rewording. 'Mean practice' is quite tough for a ten-year-old to explain. I would suggest 'bad habit' is near enough and within the average child's vocabulary. We could use 'dirty' for 'wasn't clean', and 'try not to do it any more' could be rephrased as he should 'stop doing it'.

The final answer we come to is:

The widow thinks smoking is a bad habit, it is dirty and Huckleberry should stop doing it.

There is nothing to be gained by adding anything more; the points have been made and in a succinct way.

Question 5

Which word suggests that Huckleberry is accepting of Miss Watson?

This is a tricky one as there is no space for bluffing whatsoever. Either you know it or you don't. Let's examine how we can do this if we don't immediately spot it.

At the point Miss Watson is introduced by Huckleberry, we are likely to find the answer. Failing that, read through the conversation they have and see what adjectives (describing words) get used.

Of course, the question is worded in a fairly awkward way. Many children won't understand 'accepting' as a concept; if this is the case, get them to look at the root of the word and work from there. 'Accept' is the root - Huckleberry 'accepts' Miss Watson according to the question.

So, back to the answer - Miss Watson is described as 'tolerable', which again is an awkward word for youngsters but is the only adjective which suggests acceptance of her by Huckleberry. The alternative adjectives, like 'slim', make no reference to how he feels about her. They are merely descriptive and factual.

The answer I would hope for is 'Tolerable' or, if sentences were asked for, 'Huckleberry finds Miss Watson 'tolerable' and therefore he is accepting of her.'

Remember to encourage any direct quotes to be bounded by single quotation marks.

Question 6

What does Huckleberry mean when he says that Moses was 'no kin to her'? (line 6)

This sort of question is a nightmare for tutors - and therefore parents - as it requires specific knowledge of the meaning of words. My fallback position is to say that a child's best bet for success in an English paper is to read more rather than be tutored. The more you read, and of course that means a variety of texts with a dictionary to hand for unfamiliar words - the more you understand about language and meaning.

The key to this question is to know the meaning of the word 'kin'. Without this knowledge, you should guide your child to the line it comes from and get them to read the quote in context. Unhelpfully, the whole sentence is grammatically incorrect as it refers to Moses and then uses the relative pronoun 'which' rather than 'who'. However, a sensible guess would suggest that Huckleberry believes the story of Moses to be irrelevant. The importance of Moses passes Huckleberry by - if your child is unable to tell you that 'kin', roughly, means 'family' or 'relatives' then they should at least be saying something like 'Huckleberry thinks that Moses is not important to the widow'. At least an answer like this will show a clear understanding of the tone of the piece, even though the answer is only partly right.

A correct answer would go along the lines of 'Huckleberry means that Moses was no relation to the widow; he is not 'kin' or family. '

Question 7

What was Huckleberry learning with Miss Watson?

This is another easy question as it involves straight facts - the problem is that Huckleberry was learning different things with different people and your child must realise that jumping in is not a good idea. The previous question was about how Huckleberry had been learning about Moses so the unwary may write about that. The correct answer comes from line 12 where it says '[she] set at me now with a spelling book'. If your child doesn't understand the exact meaning of the words in this sentence they should apply the rationale that any reference to a spelling book is likely to mean he was learning to spell. They should look to find anything else that suggests subjects to learn and, given there is none, go for that. Just because you haven't got a definite answer doesn't mean you can't get it right; apply common sense and try to visualise the scene. Put in your idea of what is happening and see whether anything else mentioned goes against it. If not, you're likely to be correct.

A full sentence answer an examiner would expect is, 'Huckleberry is learning spelling with Miss Watson.'

Question 8

Give the correct version of 'warn't' (Line 22)

This is a slightly tricky one as the most obvious answer is not the one that fits the sentence in the text. As with any question which mentions a line number, go to the exact point and look at the words in context. 'Warn't' could quite easily be seen as a corruption of the word 'weren't' and the unwary will fall into the trap. Whether Huckleberry meant to say 'weren't' or not is irrelevant - it would make no grammatical sense so cannot be correct.

Once you look at the word in context you can see how the regular, modern-day version can only be one thing - 'wasn't'. If you are asked to provide a word which is a direct replacement for another, you must be able to read the sentence without any changes other than that which you have been told to make. 'I warn't particular' becomes 'I wasn't particular'. It helps, of course, to understand the meaning of 'particular' in this sentence but if in doubt, try to get a feel for Huckleberry's tone and see what sort of sentence is created by inserting alternative words.

Question 9

What is wrong with the phrase 'Don't know nothing about it'? (Line 5)

This is a grammar question. A smart answer will provide the correct terminology but don't worry, there will be full marks available for a complete explanation that makes sense.

As we are being told things by the narrator, an uneducated boy of the nineteenth century, we are presented with a lot of words and phrases that we are unfamiliar with. The style is deliberate as the author wants us to believe in the story and it is entirely appropriate, albeit difficult for us to understand at times. Don't expect your child to decipher everything perfectly, that is a long way off what they will be expected to do, but they will hopefully be able to explain why something specific is not 'Queen's English'.

Firstly, there is no need to waffle. The question asks what is wrong with the phrase so there will be no marks for detail on the context. The reason it is wrong is that there is a double negative - anyone who states this will be getting full marks straight away!

'Don't know nothing' means that you do know something. 'Don't' means the negative of 'know nothing' so it is using the negative twice in the same sentence. In fact, it's something which occurs more than once in the piece. If you say something is 'not not nice' you mean it is perfectly acceptable. Either the 'don't' must be removed or the word 'nothing' be replaced by its opposite, 'anything'.

Be aware that as 'don't' is a word made of two smaller words, it will be frowned upon by some teachers in formal writing and therefore children will wrongly state that 'do not' should be put in its place. Given that we are being presented with a story in a narrated form, with Huckleberry 'speaking' the story, it is perfectly acceptable.

A complete answer would look like this:

Huckleberry is using a double negative. Instead of saying 'anything', he says 'nothing', which means the widow DOES know something about it. He could also have said '...know nothing' as this would mean what he is trying to say.

Question 10

What do you feel about Miss Watson? Explain, using evidence. (4 marks)

Another of the open-ended questions that examiners occasionally put in to spot the really able readers. This is not about factual recall but everything about the subtleties of language and reading personalities.

Key areas that you could fall down in are, firstly, by looking at things through Huckleberry's eyes. There is no reward for retelling what he feels - this is about you, the reader, and the impression she leaves on you. Secondly, look at the number of marks available and decide how much needs to be written. As a rule of thumb, one mark will be given for a 'right' answer and one more will be given for a brief explanation of it. We encourage children to 'PEE' - provide Point, Evidence, Explanation - and 'POO' - Point Out the Obvious'. It's silly, but it sticks if you remind them of these daft acronyms!

Firstly, there are no answers to be lifted directly from the text but 'using evidence' means that the examiner expects a quote or two. Ensure all quotes are given single quotation marks and that punctuation is clear and left as in the original. Use of ... (ellipsis) is helpful and [ ] to enclose extra words are fine; they show a child can manipulate text to save time and avoid wasting words.

Think about the things Miss Watson does - scan the text and you come up with a list like this:

She teaches Huckleberry. She works him hard and it isn't very interesting. She tells Huckleberry off. She tells him about heaven and hell but will not use those words. She explains how she will always try and live a virtuous life.

Now we know what she does we can comment and pass our own judgement. Encourage your child to find the things that a) they know are right and b) they know they can talk about. Subtleties are all well and good but if they can't make their point succinctly then they shouldn't start it.

A reasonable answer would go along the lines of the following:

Miss Watson makes Huckleberry work hard and I think that is admirable but she seems to tell him off more than is fair. 'Don't put your feet up ... don't scrunch up ... set up straight' all suggest she is a hard task-master, especially as Huckleberry has been there for an hour. She seems to be a good person though - she wants to live a life which will take her to 'the good place' so I think her heart is in the right place.

This answer gets two points in - that she is harsh but virtuous. It backs up each point, briefly using direct quotes from the text so gets full marks.

It is succinct as there is no need to say 'She says, '.....'' as the words can be put directly into the answer. In a similar vein, ensure your child never writes 'The person quotes that...' as I regularly see this in all forms of comprehensions.

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