A skills-based approach
The Common Entrance exam can often seem like a mythical beast. Tales are told in hushed tones; it is notoriously difficult to tame, and sitting the exam separates good knights from bad! Of course the exam is important, but what often gets lost amidst the tutors, the cramming and the pressure is that the English component of the exam contains every literacy skill a pupil needs to set them up for life.
Literacy isn’t just spelling and punctuation, it is a whole set of skills that encompass reading and writing and enable a person to understand, communicate and express ideas. The exam at 13 is testing the student’s literacy ability and measuring it against his or her peers.
Whilst it would be impossible to go into the exam without ever looking at a past paper, it would equally be a mistake to just look at exam papers. Not only would boredom set in early, but the student would not necessarily get any better because they would not be addressing the skills required for literacy. I am going to briefly outline these skills below and demonstrate a few ways in which they can be improved.
Lost in a book
There are few things better for your child than a reading habit. Reading develops not just the obvious things like vocabulary or the ability to organise and express thoughts, but the intangibles, like expanding the limits of the imagination.
That does not necessarily mean knowing your hobbits from your orcs, but developing your thinking, your ability to think or feel what it is like to be in other people’s shoes – and that is a skill that can be applied to just about anything in adult life, from science to business.
As a rough idea of what a good reading habit entails, you should be looking at about 100 books completed between the ages of 8 and 13. After the age of 13 the amount of school work increases and the distractions mount.
We start learning some of these skills from the moment we are born: a baby will gradually pick up cues from its parents’ behaviour – are they happy? Angry? Worried? You can’t fool a baby! This skill is called inference.
Inference is the number one skill tested in the comprehension section of the paper. Consider this example:
We have an appointment for a lesson at 3:00. You have been so busy revising (!) that you haven’t left the house all day and so it is a surprise when you answer the door and I am standing there soaking wet.
What is the weather outside?
Well, you and 99 out of 100 people will then say that it is raining heavily. Of course, but how do you know? Where is the evidence?
Of course the most effective and enjoyable way to expand your vocabulary is read, read and then read again. This goes for adults as well as children. When we read we learn words without even knowing we’re doing it.
So, how can you practice for the vocabulary question in the exam? Well, are you able to explain your word meaning efficiently? We all know what a table or a pen is, but how many of us are able to briefly define the word?
Try this exercise with your son or daughter. Can you define a simple word? Explain what it means to someone who doesn’t know. For example, a doorbell – a device placed next to a door which, when pressed, alerts the occupant of a visitor.
The good news is that children practice this skill every single day of their lives. Simply by answering the question: how was your day at school today? your child is offering up a summary of that day’s events, even if the answer is simply “fine”! Dinner around the table is a great place for a relaxed conversation. Ask plenty of follow up questions.
Almost all 12 year olds share a pathological reluctance to check their work. I’ve often wondered why this is, and the only conclusion I can come to is that homework has generally become a task that needs to be completed, so much so that placing the final full stop would seem to signal the end of the homework procedure. As any professional writer will tell you, it is the proof reading, the editing and the redrafting that constitutes the vast bulk of the writing process.
Ask your child to write a story in 5 minutes. They won’t have time to check it so wait 24 hours and then give them their own story to read. Ask them to underline the mistakes. They will be amazed at the number of errors.
On some of the old home counties’ grammar school consortium papers there used to be a task that required the student to describe how one ate an ice cream or made a cup of tea. Even though the question sounds easy, it does actually test a genuinely key skill: can you explain a process utilising all the key details, in the correct order and make your explanation efficient and easy to understand? Many adults struggle with this skill; thoughts need to be organised and sentences efficient.
Beyond the Common Entrance
I offer this skills-based approach because by the time students reach secondary school so many of these skills are not practised. Instead, the content of the various courses becomes the focus of classroom activity: writing essays, reading and analysing the set texts. But these skills are applicable not just to the CE, but to GCSE, A-Level and beyond. I have worked with university undergraduates who struggle with their coursework because they have never really mastered the keys skills of summary or explanation.
In a series of blogs I will outline in more detail each of these skills and what parents can do with their children to improve them – often in ways that are actively enjoyable.
Words by Nicholas Christiaan – writer, English tutor and literacy consultant.
If you would like to know more about the support that Nicholas could offer your child, please contact Bonas MacFarlane’s Tuition Team on 020 3638 0462 or email Ellen Sowerby: firstname.lastname@example.org