The IGCSE Language Exam (Reading)

good luck The CIE IGCSE (0522) English Language reading paper is fast approaching. Please do not panic, as you will be thoroughly prepared to succeed in this exam, due to the inspirational teaching of the English department and the countless hours of revision you have completed!

In addition to a series of short posts on each question of the exam, this piece is a general introduction to the paper, a guide to what to expect in the exam and how to revise for it.

THE EXAM

This exam is a ruddy long one: 2 hours to be precise. Your paper is marked out of a total of 50 marks, with 40 marks available for reading and understanding two extracts, and 10 marks available for the accuracy and sophistication of your writing. Because this is an English Language exam, I’m afraid we can’t run away from the fact they will be assessing your ability to use English correctly. Therefore, a high proportion of the ten marks are rewarded for correct spelling, punctuation and grammar.

For both Paper 1 (Core) and Paper 2 (Extended), you are required to read two non-fiction sources (these are usually a travel article, an excerpt from an autobiography, a journal entry, etc.). I highly recommend that you spend at least 15 minutes reading these sources, after you have read what each question is asking you. This will give you a greater chance of identifying the necessary features for each question. In the Extended paper especially, these texts will be quite lengthy and probably rather dull. However, you must make sure you read each text fully and annotate as you go along. The Extended paper is split into just three questions. On both papers, it is imperative that you answer all the questions on the exam. Here’s a breakdown of the extended questions on Paper 2:

  1. Retrieval of information and inferring meaning (what the text is about)
  2. Analysis of language techniques (what are the thoughts and feelings of the writer and the effect language has on the reader)
  3. An informative and factual summary

The Core paper tests exactly the same skills, but question one is broken down into Parts A-G, combining elements of inference and language analysis. Question two on the Core is identical to the first question on the Extended paper, testing your understanding of what you have read and your ability to synthesise. Sometimes you are asked to explain in your own words or find key details. This tests your ability to skim read a text, scan for details and make inferences. Question three on the Core paper is identical to the Extended paper.

As English teachers, we always encounter the age-old question of ‘How long do I have to write for each question?’ Well young folk, we recommend that you spend around 40 minutes on question 1, 25 minutes on question 2 and 35 minutes on question 3 (leaving enough time to re-read the extracts and proof read your work).

KEY TIPS FOR ANSWERING EACH QUESTION

To achieve spiffing results in this exam, you will need to demonstrate your ability to read for meaning and understand the nuances of language. When reading the two extracts, be sensitive to the atmosphere being created and show appreciation of the feelings of any characters in your response. This means you need to don your detective hat, retrieve the most important information by highlighting the details and picking up on clues in the passage as you read. In each question, you are rewarded not only for identifying relevant material in the passage but also for development of those ideas and use of supporting detail. Some ideas might be quite subtle and implied. This means that you will need to infer meaning and read between the lines in order to write a convincing response. When you are preparing to write your answer, ensure that you understand exactly what the question is asking of you. It will really help you to highlight the material you are going to use in the text – using a pencil so that you can change your mind if you need to. Next, draw up a quick plan in order to organise the ideas you’ve found into a logical structure before you start writing your response.

Each question will tell you exactly what you need to focus on. For example, in question one you are given bullet points to remind you what should be included; in question two you are given two specific paragraphs to analyse, as well as a particular theme within them; and in question three you are given a particular focus to plot your own bullet points and summary. Please ensure you have covered what is asked of you. These bullet points and paragraphs can also help you to structure your answer. Be careful: select the most appropriate material for each section and do not repeat yourself. Do not drift away from the text. For example, in question one you are asked to synthesise the extract and infer meaning about a character/experience; this is not an asking you to write a narrative or short story.

Everything you write must be directly connected to the passage and be supported by references to it. In question one and three (b), you will be asked to use your own words. Embedding technical terms and short phrases from the passage here and there when you are giving details within your answer is fine. However, do not life large quantities of text, as this does not demonstrate your ability to understand meaning, just you can copy like a parrot. A stupid parrot.

Essentially, you should try to use your own words as far as possible when the question asks it of you. Furthermore, before you start writing, you will need to decide on the appropriate tone to use – you will decide this based on the audience outlined in the question and the purpose of your writing. In question one, you might even be writing in character in a different context. However, you can expect that you will have to write in a reasonably formal style – after all, this is an English exam, not PE.

You also need to give some consideration to the genre you have been asked to write in for question one. Even if the task is to write a letter to a relative or a journalistic article, still use a formal tone but do not worry about the presentational devices (letter head, address, newspaper columns, etc). Authenticity is key: try to imagine that this is a real situation (as far as possible) To achieve an A* in this exam, you must ensure think beyond just using some of the rhetorical devices you have been taught. Remember to use sophisticated language, ambitious punctuation and use a variety of different sentence types and starters. Show flair and originality by using satire and irony. Be creative; be impressive.

HOW TO REVISE

Many students think that you can’t revise for this exam. Many students who think this fail the exam, epically. The easiest way to revise for this exam is to read, read and read some more non-fiction stuff. Choose a newspaper article, a blog, a travelogue and identify and evaluate the different devices used for effect. Try becoming the character and write about your experiences using synonyms and creative devices. Brush up on your knowledge of word classes and descriptive language techniques – especially the more complex ones such as pathetic fallacy/plosives/juxtaposition/etc. Zoom in on specific words and explore the different connotations one can infer from the lexis used. Think about the different interpretations from different audiences. Then try to summarise the article in your own words, after highlighting at least fifteen different key pieces of information.

Next, there are a variety of different websites out there to help you revise (far better than this one, of course). Here are a few I recommend: https://bbaenglish.wordpress.com/category/english-language//, http://www.bbc.co.uk/skillswise/english, and http://milneenglishaccident.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/IGCSE  – also, there are many helpful videos on YouTube (just type in ‘CIE Reading Paper/Extended/Core’)

Finally, attempt as many past papers as you possibly can in exam conditions. Make sure you are strict with your timings and have no distractions. All past papers can be found here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/7llnxxwy068e798/AABt9iC-LerkmrHrqLVg4Ri_a?dl=0

If you would like to receive feedback for your answers, please do not hesitate to waft it under your teacher’s nose – we really do like this! Well that’s it for the content and summary of your exam.

Watch this space over the next few days for different posts for each question and the style of the exam. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Enjoy revising!

Sir

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Improving Your Writing – With a Little Help from George Orwell

In distant days of the Spice Girls, Nintendo 64s and fluorescent shell suits, one could very easily bimble their way through the English GCSEs, without giving any consideration or two-hoots to what makes for good writing. Now however, as the grammatically incompetent Bob Dylan once quoth, ‘The Times They are A-Changin’. With marks being awarded in most subjects for the quality of written expression, it is imperative that we try to remedy the situation. Therefore, this short tract, with a little help from George Orwell, will try to highlight the importance of writing eloquently and prepare you for life as a lexical champion.

I have already written on the different parts of speech and thus I presuppose that you can identify nouns, adjectives, clauses, metaphors and so on. Therefore, I will begin with Orwell’s celebrated rules of good writing before adding my emendations and additions.

The first requirement of writing is that it should be readily understandable. Clarity of written expression follows clarity of thought. If you can develop this process through excellent oracy, then so much the better. Think what you want to say, then write it as plainly as possible. Consider George Orwell’s six elementary rules from his wonderful work, Politics and the English Language:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

 (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. Let us consider each pontification and explore how they can be beneficial to our writing.

On Metaphors:

“A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image,” stated Orwell. Much of our language is built on metaphors without our being aware of it. As Alex Quigley explains, “Metaphors are essential for good writing. They provide the backbone to rhetoric. They are the stuff of imagination and they transform our stories. They can illuminate information and make explanations comprehensible. In short, they are essential.”

However, we need to be careful when using them. Dead metaphors can add subtlety and sophistication to your writing, but outworn metaphors should be avoided like the plague. James Geary argues that we use six metaphors a minute. His interesting and entertaining TED talk on the power and magic of metaphors can be viewed here:

On Short Words:

Use them. They are very easy to spell and even easier to understand. Do not waffle when brevity will suffice. Do not overuse polysyllabic lexis to sound like a fancy-pants. That is all.

On Unnecessary Words:

Upon occasion, additional words can add nothing but length to your writing. When using adjectives, ensure that they make your meaning more precise and be cautious of those you use to make it more emphatic. For example, very is often used to add greater detail, but leaving it out can sometimes offer more meaning and create a deeper effect. Try this: ‘He was smelly’ may have more force than ‘He was very smelly’.

Furthermore, never use three words when two spiffing ones will suffice. Remember this apology from parliamentary draftsman, Blaise Pascal ‘I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter’. Proofreading and a brutal edit will make your writing concise and formal. If possible, cut out subordinate clauses and take the shortest route to the end of the sentence. Do not pass go; do not collect £200.

Finally, we come to needless repetition and tautology. Some examples include: A major disaster could have been sparked off when Morris hit the dance floor”, “The bunny died of a fatal dose of laughing gas” and “Mr Fothergill kept it from his friends that he was going on a secret and unexpected journey.” I like Mark Twain’s comments on the subject when he exclaims, “I do not find that the repetition of an important word a few times–say, three or four times–in a paragraph troubles my ear if clearness of meaning is best secured thereby. But tautological repetition which has no justifying object, but merely exposes the fact that the writer’s balance at the vocabulary bank has run short and that he is too lazy to replenish it from the thesaurus–that is another matter. It makes me feel like calling the writer to account.”

On Active, Not Passive:

The passive voice invariably hides information and sounds pompous. If unsure of the difference, please see this slide:

active and passive

On Jargon and Foreign Phrases:

Avoid them as much as possible. Language from the office, bureaucracy, legal system, boring Science teachers, media trash, techy geeks, and those ruddy squaddies, should be ignored and replaced with plain and understandable expression. Keep it simple, stupid. Furthermore, do not get me started on the supercilious folk who like to drop in the odd Latin or French phrase to sound snooty. Shakespeare captures this perfectly in his bombastic and arrogant braggadocio, Pistol, when he screams “Si fortuna me tormenta, spero me contenta” to bemused prostitutes. The beautiful irony is that it’s a garbled mixture of Italian, French and Spanish, and means absolutely nothing. Shakespeare uses it to demonstrate the foolishness and faux intelligence of the character.

I hope the key messages of Orwell remain with you and help improve your writing. The more you are aware of your expression and the implicit decisions we make when trying to communicate, the more you write with clarity and sophistication.

How to write good...

Or not?