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Help your child get a higher grade in the English exam paper by staying clear of these typical errors that students make in the open-ended comprehension section

When it comes to the English comprehension exam, there are certain kinds of mistakes that children make that can be avoided with the right amount of practice and guidance. We spoke to three experts for some useful tips on how to work around them.

(See also: 5 ‘Cher-Recommended Ways to Study Smart on this Final Stretch to the PSLE)


1. Giving Incomplete/Vague Answers

There are instances when children think that they have answered the question but have, in fact, only dealt with part of it. Or they give an answer that doesn’t say much – and is, therefore, incomplete and wrong.

“Here’s a tip – ask yourself, is your answer strangely brief or short? If so, that probably means you need an extra content point,” says Sherlyn Hong, subject head of English (Upper Primary) at The Learning Lab, United Square. “And, if you cannot find it in the passage, then there must be an inference to make!”

Giving vague answers is also a common mistake in the comprehension paper. This involves using words like ‘someone’, ‘something’, ‘somewhere’ and even the word ‘how’.

Edwin Edangelus Cheng, founder and principal of EduEdge Learning Hub and creator of the ‘Formula-Style’ method of learning English using formulas, explains: “Giving vague answers will not be accepted by PSLE markers. So if your child is making such mistakes, advise them to eliminate the use of imprecise words from their answers.”

“Tell your child to be super-specific when giving an answer – and that means to give an answer which is clear to the PSLE markers and gives no room for doubt or misinterpretations,” adds Mr Cheng.

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2. Not Using Details from The Passage

The point of the comprehension paper is to pick out relevant details from the passage and transfer them accurately to the answer space. However, many children tend to write down their answers based on their memory and in their own words.

“What this does is that the answer is no longer the same as what was given in the passage and the meaning is changed,” says Lily Chew, founder and English teacher at Lil’ but Mighty. “For instance, if the passage states: ‘He suffered from arthritis in his right hand’, but the child writes: ‘His hands had arthritis’, the meanings are entirely different.”

Mrs Chew explains that the only exceptions are when the question asks for a child to explain a phrase which requires him to use his own words or if it is an inferential question which requires the child to draw a link to details and further. “If not, do remember to use the exact details and retain the original meaning of what the passage was putting across,” she adds.

3. Lifting Complete Sentences

On the other end of the spectrum, we have kids ‘lifting’ complete sentences or even an entire paragraph. Sometimes, the comprehension paper requires children to refer to the passage for the answers. A common mistake is when they copy an entire chunk of the passage and plonk it wholesale as the answer.

“You do not have to overhaul the entire sentence,” clarifies Ms Hong. “Pick a few words and re-organise them or provide synonyms. If you can, contextualise your answer and give it more meaning.”

(See also: PSLE: Top Teachers tell us 7 Secret Tips for Writing an English Compo that Scores)

4. Being Unable to Differentiate between Literal and Inference Questions

Questions in the comprehension paper can be categorised as ‘literal’ or ‘inferential’. Mr Cheng explains the difference between the two. For literal questions, answers may be directly located from a careful reading of the passage itself. For inferential questions, clues to the answer may be found in the passage; the answer has to be inferred from the given clues. In other words, the answer will come from our mind (via logical guesses) but not directly from the passage. Inferential questions might include phrases such as ‘why do you think’ or ‘how do you know’.

“The problem I’ve noticed is that many students have not been taught to differentiate questions between the literal and inference levels – they do not know how to recognise them,” he says. “It is highly important for your child to be able to identify the question level. This allows them to answer to the requirements and demands of the question.”

5. Using Unclear Pronouns

Pronouns are words like ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘them’. They are used to replace a noun like ‘the robber’ or ‘Simon’ in a sentence. An answer could become confusing and unclear if a noun is not stated before the pronoun.

Mrs Chew provides this example: “If your child is to copy the answer from the passage, he may use ‘him’ instead of stating ‘the robber’. This makes the answer unclear or ambiguous. The clearer answer might be: ‘The policeman pointed a gun at the robber from behind’. To avoid this mistake, make it a habit to start by stating the noun before using a pronoun.”

However, once a noun has been mentioned once, replace it with a pronoun. So, instead of saying: ‘David knew that in order for David to do well, David’s teacher would need to help him’, it’s better to replace ‘David’ with the pronoun to form this sentence: ‘David knew that in order for him to do well, his teacher would need to help him’.

(See also: 10 Proven Ways to Give Your Child’s Brainpower a Mega Boost)

Once your child has a better understanding of what markers are looking for in the comprehension paper, he’ll have a better chance of scoring higher in this exam.

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