A typical 11+ English paper will award 50% of the marks for the writing task at the end, which usually asks the students compose a story.  As a parent or a new tutor, it can be a little daunting to mark these, as no mark scheme is provided. From discussions with teachers, parents and other tutors, as well as from marking scores of stories, I've put together a grading system. I mark stories on 5 axes:  plot (out of 10), vocabulary (out of ten), devices (out of 10), grammar (out of 10) and spelling (out of 5).  This blog post will go through each category and explain what I look for in order to award a mark of 80% or higher.

1. Plot

To get top marks, the plot must have a clear beginning, middle and end structure.  The plot needs to be plausible and engaging, with no large plot-holes.   The setting and characters need to be interesting and well fleshed out.  The problem the character(s) face should be interesting and a satisfying conclusion needs to be reached. The best way to improve your plot is to plan your story and to make sure not to make your story too complicated.

2. Vocabulary

For the purposes of marking, I tend to divide impressive words into two categories: ‘exceptional’ and ‘decent’. For top marks on a typical 11+ composition exercise, you want to aim for about 5 - 10 exceptional words and around 10 decent words. Here are some examples for reference:

vocab table2

3. Devices

This means similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia, (purposeful) repetition, alliteration, short sentences to build tension, juxtaposition, hyperbole, irony, sibilance, understatement and probably a few others that don’t immediately spring to mind.  Quite simply, it is impossible to gain top marks on a story if you use no linguistic devices.  The ones you use need to be original.  ‘She was as fast as a bullet’ is fine, but it's a little overused and won’t score as highly as something custom-made. For example,

The dark arrived quietly, softly.  Its coat trailed almost imperceptibly over the grass as it pulled up a chair on the village green.

You can improve your mark at least a little by inserting linguistic devices almost at random.  However, it is far more effective to think about what effect you want to create for the reader and why. Additionally, incorporating your advanced vocabulary into your linguistic devices will often gain more marks than including them separately.

4. Grammar

A story scoring in the top band (i.e. 80% or higher) will have at most one or two grammatical mistakes.  The most common culprits are the comma splice (often resulting in long run-on sentences), misusing direct speech, misusing the colon or semi-colon and forgetting apostrophes. I've written a guide on avoiding the most common grammar mistakes here. Students can also sometimes miss out words, and I suspect this is seen as less serious when it is more of a 'typo' than an actual misunderstanding.

Additionally, top-scoring compositions should include a wide range of correctly used punctuation.  Students should aim to include at least one colon, one semi-colon, a few complex sentences, a question mark/exclamation mark, and perhaps some direct speech.  A mixture of different sentence types is especially important.

5. Spelling

To gain top marks for spelling, it's not enough to make no spelling mistakes. The key to this category is using complicated words and spelling them correctly.  Note that if you have a really great word you want to use and you aren't quite sure how to spell it, it is still best to include it as long as the word is recognisable.  An 80%+ story will have at most one spelling mistake, and plenty of impressive vocabulary.