11+ English comprehensions can look daunting to both complete and to mark, because initially it doesn't seem completely clear what sort of answer the examiners are looking for. With some experience, however, you can soon begin to spot the main types of questions. I'll go through these here, and explain how to tackle each type.
1. Simple Evidence
This is where the question asks you to find particular information from the passage. The information is supposed to be relatively self explanatory and it is not necessary to explain each quote. You gain one mark for every piece of information you find. These questions are usually at or near the beginning of the paper.
Question: Re-read lines 6 – 14. In what ways does Ed make his nest snug? (5 marks) - Consortium 11+ English 2014, Group 1
Answer:Ed had made his nest snug by building it inside a “hollow” which in turn is “in the lee of a wooded hill” to keep the wind away. He roofs it with “criss-crossed branches” and “cardboard” and makes himself a “bed of dry dead leaves…” He also keeps his “wood fire burning all day” to keep the nest warm.
Notice how the quotes are short and specific, and embedded into sentences (i.e. part of the sentences). This is much faster than copying out large pieces of text, and also shows that you understand specifically which bit of text is relevant to the question. You should aim to have your quotes be between 1-6 words, unless you have a good reason to make them longer.
Question: Find two things in the first paragraph which are special about the parrot's appearance. (2 marks) - Consortium 2009, 11+ English
Answer:The parrot has "fabulous colouring" and "black glitter[ing]...eyes".
Notice again the use of short, specific quotes. Also, it's possible to use square brackets to change the tense of verbs so that the quotes sits more comfortably in your sentence. The ellipsis (...) has been used to show that some text has been left out.
2. 'In your own words' questions
The indicator of this question type is that the exam paper will specifically ask you to answer the question "in your own words". Pretty simple. Try to inventively use your own phrasing, rather than simply substituting a few synonyms into the original passage. If possible, try and use advanced vocabulary. This is good practice for your composition, as well as possibly gaining you extra marks during your comprehension. Although the focus is on the content of your answers, better vocabulary can help you make your point with greater clarity.
Question: Re-read lines 38-45. Explain in your own words why Mr DuPont feels regretful. (4 marks) Consortium 11+ English 2014, Group 1
Answer:Mr DuPont feels remorse because it is a very cold day and he has destroyed the only shelter Ed had. He also realises that he'd obliterated the entirety of Ed's belongings, and also possibly put his life at risk.
Note that since it is a 4 mark question I have made an effort to include two ideas. Firstly that it is a very cold day and secondly that DuPont destroyed absolutely everything owned by Ed.
3. Point Evidence Explanation (PEE) questions
This is the big one. These questions are usually worth the most marks, and are often the hardest questions. If the question refers to the text, does not say ‘using your own words’, and is not a "simple evidence" question, then PEE usually is what you need to use. Other clues include instructions like "suggest reasons why...", "why do you think...", "how does the writer use language to..." or "how does the writer show..."
Here is an example from the 2008 11+ Consortium English paper. In the full passage, a boy refuses to hand over his conkers when his teacher tried to confiscate them. They end up getting into a tug of war and the string snaps.
Question: How does the writer make Mr Eggert seem ridiculous in lines 36-42? (6 marks) 2008 11+ Consortium
"Then it happened. The string snapped. It was like the collapse of a tug-of-war team. One minute Egghead was there, the veins throbbing in his huge red face, the next he was gone, catapulting backwards over chairs and desks in a most undignified manner, the broken string waving helplessly in his hands. His foot banged down in front of the desk, then shot right under it. I’ve never heard such a crack as his head made on that desk. I think the mark’s there now if you look carefully. But the conkers..." (extract from passage)
The writer uses very short sentences,“Then it happened. The string snapped.” This makes the string breaking seem more sudden and dramatic.
The above answer is worth two marks. I need to write two more like it to get full marks for the question. The red text is the Point, the green is the Evidence (i.e. the quote), and the blue is the Explanation (the hardest bit). A nice rule of thumb is never to end on a quote – the quote always needs explanation, and it’s easiest for the examiner to spot if it’s after the quote.
Question: Using information from the whole passage, suggest reasons why Ed stole the horse. (5 marks). Consortium 11+ English 2014, Group 1
Ed was filled with "rage" over his nest's destruction.This suggests he might have taken the horse as revenge. Additionally, he places a high value on "freedom" over material comforts ("warmth and food"), and may have wanted the horse to enjoy the same freedom. Alternatively, it's possible he wanted to break the law to remind himself that he can do whatever he chooses.
Notice again how the quotes are short, but there is always an explanation showing why the quote provides a reason why Ed stole the horse. Unexplained quotes are unlikely to get marks. Ideally you should never finish a PEE on a quote, as it usually means you haven't actually explained the quote. Since it is a 5 mark question, I have included 2x full PEE answers (4 marks), as well as one alternative explanation (1 mark).
4. Meaning of words / phrases
These questions come in two flavours. Either you are asked to provide a definition of a single word, or you are asked to explain the meaning of a phrase. The phrases they select are often similes, metaphors or otherwise difficult to understand.
Question: There are several vivid descriptions in this passage. What do the following phrases suggest to you? 'Obliterating his shaggy outline in the dying afternoon.' (2 marks) - 2014 English 11+ Consortium Group 1
The phrase literally means that Ed's silhouette was being obscured by the snow, but the words 'obliterating' and 'dying' makes it sound rather gloomy and morose.
When asked to explain phrases with figurative language in them, explain what the phrase actually means (shown in red). You might also want to include a further observation about what overall impression or feeling you get from the phrase (shown in green).
Alternatively, you could get a question like the one below, which is from a City of London School for Boys Sample Paper.
Question: What is the meaning of these words? (5 marks)
Here there's a mark for each definition; sometimes papers award two marks per definition. Even if you think you have no idea what the word means, it's generally worth looking at the word in context and having a go. Often you can guess correctly.
So there we have the four most common types of 11+ English comprehension questions. I've focused quite closely on the London Consortium papers because they show a nice homogeneity, but could equally have showcased papers from Sevenoaks, Dulwich, Haberdashers or Highgate, to name but a few. Some schools like to include specific grammar or spelling exercises in addition to the comprehension, and occasionally you will even see multiple choice comprehension questions (for example, in the City of London school for boys 10+ exam).
It is critical that you look up the exam papers relevant to your school and become familiar with their style of question. If papers are not available, find out all you can from friends, tutors, teachers and google. Nevertheless, the majority of papers I have seen seem to be nearly entirely populated by the above question types. If you master them, then you'll be in a great position to excel.