Background Knowledge is Key to Preparing for Comprehension and Composition

Comprehension and Composition: Preparing for the unexpected

It’s a step into the unknown: there are no formulas to learn. There are no processes to memorise. There are no significant dates to recall. Every year 30,000 students sit for the ‘O’ Level English Language exam and, unlike any other of their major subjects, they have no idea what the content of the paper will be.

Structurally it’s clear: students know that 70% of the marks lie in comprehension and composition and that the better their English grade is, the more academic opportunities are available to them. For comprehension they know there is a visual text, a narrative text and a non-fiction text. For composition they know there is a situational writing question and continuous writing question. The rest is a mystery.

This often causes stress for you as the parent and for your child as he/she asks the perfectly understandable question: how can we prepare for the unexpected?

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How important is background knowledge?

Over the past two decades, research into how we read and write has shown that the biggest factor affecting comprehension and composition is how much we know about the topic we are reading or writing about.

In the comprehension paper, the question types that students struggle with most – inference, authorial intention and summary – are all based on their understanding of the passage.

Your Pokémon Go obsessed child with a C5 average would likely be scoring an A1 in their comprehension paper if the text was about Pokémon Go. A student with good background knowledge can open up a comprehension paper on any range of topics and quickly understand what the writer is talking about. In their composition paper they can easily pull out interesting and well developed ideas for any question they are asked. Unfortunately, Pokémon Go is unlikely to be the sole topic of exams.

An encyclopaedic knowledge of all 151 Pokémon may help your child ‘catch ‘em all’ but because of the huge variety of topics that the ‘O’ Levels could include, this is not enough to succeed academically. For example, the 2015 ‘O’ Level paper included the topics of food, geography, consumerism and technology. In 2014 it covered science, nature and pollution.

So, what background knowledge does the ‘O’ Level exam require?

Consider a composition question from last year’s ‘O’ Level Paper 1, Section C: What, in your opinion are the advantages and disadvantages of having many things to choose from?

In order for your child to produce the relevant, interesting and wide-ranging essay required for the top marks, they need to know something about the following topic areas:

  • Choice is a new issue in many countries – for most of human history the concept of choosing clothes, schools or even spouses was alien to us
  • Even now, not all countries / societies have the amount of choice that we do in Singapore e.g. developing countries in Africa or Asia
  • Some countries choose to restrict their citizen’s choice based on economic / ideological reasons e.g. North Korea, Cuba
  • There are arguments and counterarguments for both of these systems, with no ‘correct’ system

Without knowing this, students can only write about their own limited experience of choice – perhaps the difference between a hawker centre and a mall, which won’t lead to failure but also won’t bring in the higher grades.

How can your child do better in this vital exam?

1) The short term

In the short term, teens often possess a fair amount of background knowledge gained from the variety of subjects they study and their personal interests (sport, travel, Pokémon Go!).

In the lead up to the exam, try drawing these strands together, for example, getting your child to make a timeline charting when scientific discoveries were made, historical events happened or works of literature were written. Or perhaps placing on a map the countries they have read about in social studies, English or geography. Research into cognitive processes suggests that by drawing these kinds of links between our knowledge, it becomes more meaningful and memorable.

2) The long term

Building up a general knowledge bank over time will give your child a huge advantage during the ‘O’ Levels. Our curriculum at the British Council supports this by focusing on non-fiction texts filled with information and essay writing.

From Secondary 1, our students study a topic for five weeks and regularly review what they’ve learned through quizzes and assessment tasks throughout the year. This leads to long term learning and retention: absolutely essential for those mid-year and end-of-year exams!

That doesn’t mean that your child’s passion for Pokémon should be squashed. Research is clear that the more students read about a topic, whatever it’s about, the better they do in school exams.

But in addition to this, your child needs to build a broad general knowledge to be able to quickly comprehend exam questions on a whole range of topics. Who knows, perhaps a well-chosen example of how Pokémon Go has affected sedentary lifestyles in Singapore might make the difference between an A2 and A1!


Article contributed by Robert Playfair, Head of Secondary Courses, British Council