Category Archives: Comprehensions

General advice on answering Comprehensions (Question A).

Game Based Learning

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement on Monday 26th January, 2015. Pat News

It’s all the rage you know! Turn your learning into a game and suddenly it doesn’t seem so tedious anymore. But how can games help develop your language skills, creativity and imagination?

Board Games

Scrabble is the obvious one, but at the risk of being ex-communicated from the English teaching fraternity, I’ll admit that I don’t like it!

So what do I play instead?

Articulate requires quick thinking, accuracy and to do exactly as the Mad Hatter requests in Alice in Wonderland – “say what you mean and mean what you say!

30 seconds is a fun Irish variation with homegrown prompts. You’ve got that much time to get your partner to guess all five words on the card in your hand!

Absolute Balderdash meanwhile asks you to invent the meaning of words, the plot of movies and obscure bizarrre laws. If you can convince your opponents that your answer is the real one (and the real answers are always a case of the truth being stranger than fiction!) you get the points! This game requires wit, wisdom, absurdity and a vivid, if twisted imagination!

Spoof News

There are some fantastic satirical news sites on the web right now, the best of the Irish ones being waterfordwhispersnews and Spoof news articles also make great gifts for loved ones if you’re feeling cheap and cheeky. Above you can see one I made for my Dad when he retired…

Thesaurus Time

My 6 year old recently discovered a pocket sized thesaurus on our bookshelf.

She thought it was the coolest book ever (there is no saving this child!) and instantly invented a game where she’d read out a word and test myself and her Dad on how many of the other words listed we could come up with!

I am completely rubbish at this game. As soon as she calls out a word (“betray” “neutral”) my brain goes blank. But I can see how practice is improving my instant-synonym-generating skills already. And that’s a skill you definitely need in an exam! Meanwhile, in real life? You’ll probably just consult a thesaurus… although that might be a bit awkward in a job interview!

Grammar Games

I hate those ‘which Friends character are you?’ quizzes which clog up my facebook timeline.

But the one quiz I cannot resist is the ‘How good is your grammar?’ quiz. I recently took the same quiz three times until I got ALL of the grammar questions right. 89% just wasn’t good enough. Google grammar quiz when you really have nothing else to do (or desperately want to tick off ‘study English’ from your to do list) and endless results will come up…


I’m not sure if I should admit this in a public forum, much less advocate it, but when I was in school we’d occasionally sit in the assembly area and over-dub the conversations the teachers were having with each other in the distance.

We were convinced they had no lives outside the school gates so we always imagined they were discussing chronically boring topics like the weather and the traffic or else us, the students.

It wasn’t until I saw this over-dubbing being done on comedy quiz shows like X that I realised we’d been engaging in tried and tested improv techniques.

Try it sometime by muting the sound on the telly and filling in the gaps with a mate.

Don’t try this in the cinema. People will hiss at you.

Don’t try this in school. It got us in some trouble as I recall…

Reverse pictionary

Pictionary works on the principle that you draw something and your team-mate guesses what it is. But we’re here to develop descriptive writing skills, so instead, take a random photo, don’t show it to anyone, then write a detailed factual description of what’s in the photo. Not you ask your friend to draw the photo as accurately as they can from just your written description. The more accurate their drawing (and stick men are perfectly acceptable here!) the more detailed and accurate your description. This really helps you to develop your observational skills when it comes to reading and responding to visual images.

Visual Imagery

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement on Monday 26th January 2015

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We tend to think of writing and photography as separate domains. Writing is all about word choice and sequence and structure; it’s about rhyme and rhythm and flow. Photography, on the other hand, is about framing and colour and light; it’s about focus and shutter speed and zooming in or out.

But what they have in common transcends what sets them apart. Both writers and photographers combine the raw materials of their craft in ways which can surprise and delight.

Photos and prose have the power to:

  • evoke an atmosphere
  • capture a moment
  • re-create an event whose time has passed forever
  • draw us in emotionally to the human drama of life, be it real or imaginary
  • arouse our curiosity
  • awaken our senses
  • conjure up cultures and experiences we would otherwise never encounter.

Context will determine which of the elements listed below combine to create a new work, whether written or visual. Some elements are unique to their medium; others transcend the boundaries between the two, but the key feature which unites writer and photographer is their devotion to creating powerful and memorable imagery.

Some of the ingredients they might use include:
• colour
• light and shade
• setting
• facial expressions and body language
• angle / perspective
• framing / zoom / focus
• objects / symbolism
• senses
• rhyme / sound effects
Have a look at the extract and the accompanying image below. Ask yourself which of the elements listed above are being used by the writer and photographer and what effect, if any, they’re having on you the reader / viewer?

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I didn’t plan it. I just desperately wanted to get home and not be in that car anymore. Mum had the heat pumped to the max to keep the windscreen clear but somehow the heat was adding to the clutter in my head, like the fog had evaporated from the glass and translocated into my brain. Then we hit the tailback. Miles of orange lights winking into the distance and suddenly I couldn’t bear it anymore. The silence and the heat and the oppressive weight of the tension between us. So I got out. Slammed the door, but gently, just enough so she wouldn’t have to reach over and close it again, straining the already torn rotator cuff in her left shoulder.

And then I walked. Slowly at first, glancing in at sad faces trapped in time. Rolls of fat cascading from a stubbly chin chowing down a breakfast bap; ruby lipstick caressing the wrinkly mouth of a glamorous granny; then a crying baby and a screaming couple and suddenly I pick up speed, turning to the landscape, the barren trees and the empty fields, the turloughs and the reeds and my heart rate lifts and I think ‘she’ll never catch me’ and all I can feel is the heat as my muscles strain and stretch and sing and I pray the tailback lasts forever.
Now, imagine you’ve been asked to answer the following question:

‘Imagery, both written and visual, contributes to the tense atmosphere in this extract’.
To what extent do you agree with this statement? In your answer, refer to both the written text and to the photograph which accompanies it.

Here’s a sample answer:

I find I’m not entirely in agreement with this statement, as I find the atmosphere in the photograph quite soothing. The imagery in the written text undoubtedly contributes to the tension we experience as we read. The writer zooms in on the heat and the windscreen condensation to effectively re-create the sense of claustrophobia felt by the narrator. As she observes that “somehow the heat was adding to the clutter in my brain, like the fog had evaporated from the glass and translocated into my brain”, the emphasis on confusion, on fog and on feeling too overheated is compounded when they hit a tailback. All of this imagery powerfully evokes the narrator’s frustration and her use of auditory images later in the passage, in the ‘crying baby and screaming couple’ ramps up the tension even higher.

However, in my opinion it is exclusively in the interaction between the written and visual elements that a tense atmosphere might be ascribed to the photograph. If I had seen the photo, but had not read the passage which accompanies it, I think the dominant emotion I would feel looking at it is amusement, not tension. Taken by itself, it’s a funny photo. The photographer has cleverly emphasised the irony of being told to ‘slow down’ when you’re stuck in an endless tailback by stripping the image of colour entirely, but retaining the ‘miles of orange lights winking into the distance’ in the brake lights of the cars and in the neon sign. The orange light against the black and white background catches your eye and forces you to register the humour of the situation the drivers find themselves in. Furthermore, the bare trees on the horizon add an autumnal feel and for me, the atmosphere in the photo, if examined in isolation, is quite restful. I will admit, however, that when you read the passage and then look at the photo, you do find yourself thinking less about the season and more about the frustration the drivers of these cars must be feeling as they sit there trapped in their cars.

Comprehending Texts

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement on Monday 26th January 2015.

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When you’re asked to read a passage and respond to it, certain skills are being tested. Do you understand what you’ve just read? Can you retrieve information quickly and re-phrase it in your own words? Can you read between the lines and comment on what is implied as well as what is openly stated? Can you identify gaps and speculate as to what information might have been deliberately excluded because it didn’t fit with the writer’s agenda? Do you understand the writer’s stylistic choices and can you elaborate on how certain words, phrases or images impact on your emotions?

Developing these skills is a process that takes place over a lifetime. Read more. Read widely. Read challenging material. But don’t let it simply wash over you. You also need to practice responding, to hone your critical thinking skills and to develop your understanding of language and genre. If you’re one of those people who has something to say about everything, provided your logic is sound, this is the place for you to shine!

Remember also that the word text is used in an all-encompassing way. Visual images which accompany the written element are considered part of the text and this includes not just photos but also paintings, cartoons, graphs and book covers. However, the questions will usually specify whether they want you to refer to the written or the visual elements or to a combination of the two in your answer.

Just as fashions come and go, certain trends emerge and often just as quickly disappear from exam papers.


Currently, questions relating to the visuals are highly specific and often ask you to connect the written and visual elements. For example:

– How does this image develop your understanding of the concept explored in the text? (this question related to a passage and photos exploring the cliffhanger as a storytelling device)

– How do the written and visual elements combine to capture a particular location and atmosphere? (asked both in relation to an Irish Times article about Grand Central Station and to the setting of Richard Ford’s novel Canada)

For the time being, these type of questions seem to have replaced more generic questions such as

Write a personal response to the visual image that made the most impact on you. You might consider the subject matter, setting, mood, caption, relevancy, photographic qualities / techniques etc… [use of colour, light, objects, details]” .

However, it’s worth remembering that exams are by their very nature unpredictable so what is a trend one year can fall out of fashion completely by the next!

Stylistic features:

A similar change has occurred in the style questions. The days of generic “Identify and comment on three features of the writer’s style” type questions appear to be over, and really, that’s no harm. It made it far too easy for students to waffle on in a general way about ‘rhetorical questions’ and ‘vivid imagery’ without really saying anything insightful or specific at all.

You do still get some questions that ask you to identify and comment on genre specific features, for example, features of effective speech-writing; the effectiveness of the passage as a piece of travel writing; or the autobiographical elements you found most engaging. Here you’re being tested on your awareness of the conventions of different genres, so once again, a very close reading of the text in front of you is an absolute must.

However, for the most part, the style questions being asked are now even more specific, so getting up close and personal with the piece of writing you’re supposed to be analysing is an absolute must.

For example, you’ll be given a statement:

– ‘Ford’s writing is characterised by its engaging narrative, lyrical beauty and concrete realism.

One of Heaney’s gifts as a writer was his ability to make complex and profound ideas accessible to the general reader.

The New Yorker has been described as a magazine that informs, entertains and comments‘.

Then you’ll be asked to what extent you agree with this statement and you’ll be instructed to refer to specific features of the writer’s style to support the points you make.

Two quick pieces of advice here.

1. Underline and number each element in the question so you don’t skip over or ignore part of the statement in your answer.

2. Don’t feel you have to agree 100% with the statement. You’re asked ‘to what extent’ you agree, so you’re being encouraged to perhaps partially agree, but also to problematise the statement. Maybe it overlooks something significant? Perhaps you agree with some elements of what’s being said but less so with others? Simply agreeing with everything that’s thrown at you prevents you in some ways from showing off your critical thinking skills, because if you just nod and agree, you’re not being at all critical, now are you?


Let it flow…

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word supplement on Monday January 2th 2015


Good writers value flow. When an idea works, they grab it, massage it and make it their own. When it doesn’t, they cut it loose and, like Frozen, they just ‘let it go’.

I’m not saying they don’t get writer’s block – they do!

Nor am I saying that words and ideas flow out of them like water from a tap. Their words are just squiggles on a page, the same as the rest of us. And thank god, or we’d have lots of empty taps and sopping wet pages on our hands, not to mention the cost in water charges!

But what good writers understand, in their deep heart’s core, is the importance of generating flow for the reader. Ideas need to be linked to each other; paragraphs need to be sequenced logically and the reader needs to be eased in – and eased out – of the reading experience.

So how, good reader, do you achieve this in your writing?


First and foremost you should do something with that brainstorm your teacher insisted you create! The ideas are there but which one will you start with? Something to really seize the reader’s attention? A quote? A shocking statistic? Now where will you go next? What ideas have something in common, even something tenuous, that will enable you to segue from one to the next so that they seem like logical progressions akin to steps on a staircase to wisdom? And when the journey’s over and the essay is nearly done, how will you loop back to your starting point yet add a depth that did not exist when the reader stepped out bravely on this journey with you?


Secondly, you need a thread which ties everything together. It can help to think of the paragraphs in your essay as the seven dwarfs. Each one has it’s own defining identity: not sleepy or dopey hopefully, but with recognisable features that make it distinct from all of the others. Yet there’s no question that they belong together! You can look from one to the next to the next and see how they all form an inseparable unit that would be weaker if any one of them went missing or was left behind.


Now that you’ve got a plan, a certain amount of flow will emerge from the sequence you’ve decided to implement. However, you need flow within your paragraphs as well as between them. This is where the third vital element of connectives comes in. These are words which form bridges, both within and between sentences. You’ll see a list of examples below but a word of warning here: connectives used well are almost invisible. Used badly, they’re like your Dad at a wedding with his trousers rolled up, wearing his tie as a headband and playing air guitar. They just look all wrong!

Here’s an example of connectives used well:

Ireland undoubtedly has a tradition of neutrality. Clearly this is the will of the people. However, it would be foolish of us to assume that this desire to remain neutral will continue indefinitely into the future. We live in an era of growing global terrorism and were we to be targeted by terrorists we would need to respond, not just for our safety but also for the safety of our neighbours. Furthermore, we are socially, economically and emotionally tied to Europe and so an attack on Europe would also be an attack on us.”

And here’s an example of connectives used badly:

Ireland has a tradition of neutrality. Furthermore this is the will of the people. Nevertheless it would be foolish of us to assume that this desire to remain neutral will continue. We live in an era of growing global terrorism and were we targeted by terrorists we would need to respond. At the same time we are tied to Europe socially, economically and emotionally so to conclude an attack on Europe would also be an attack on us.

Just typing that second example was like scrapping my nails down a blackboard and reading it back is like jabbing hot pokers in my eyeballs.

The bottom line is this: using connectives for the sake of it or because some teacher in the Indo supplement told you to won’t work. You need to understand the words you’re using. You need to know how they work to create flow in your writing.

There is no shortcut to this knowledge. You won’t just innately know how to use connectives properly, unless you’ve been reading voraciously from an early age and engaging in family debates around the dinner table on a daily basis all of your life, so you’ll need to practice. Reading a lot and reading the right kind of material (speeches, debates, newspaper articles, academic essays) will increase your familiarity with connectives and help them to flow more naturally into your own writing.

Sample connectives:

  • First of all…secondly…thirdly

  • In the beginning… then… ultimately…finally

  • Nonetheless, nevertheless, although, even though, however

  • Furthermore, in addition, above all, essentially

  • Thus, therefore, hence, as a result

  • On the other hand… alternatively… besides

  • Clearly, obviously, evidently, logically

So you’ve got the guidelines. You’re good to go. And now, to paraphrase Frozen once more, it’s time to ‘Let it flow, let it flow, can’t hold it back anymore…’

Embracing the Now

I’ve always been passionate about the idea that English is NOW. It’s in the articles we read, the ads we watch, the stories we tell.

But without critical thought, these things can wash over us like a sea of velvet and nails, at turns soothing and upsetting. One moment they’re there, but then, in an instant, they’re gone, as we move on to the next soundbite pop culture moment that appears in our feed.

Take, for example, the recent Sainsbury’s Christmas ad.

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The sheer beauty of the story seduces and the message it communicates about the human desire to make love not war creates a warm fuzzy glow. As we witness the bravery and triumph of ordinary men who lay aside hatred and politics and difference to celebrate their shared humanity we are swept up on a poignant feel good wave of love for our fellow man.

And then the Sainsbury’s logo pops up and we’re like WTF?

For me, the combination – or clash – of history, film-making and advertising left me simultaneously seduced and unsettled but, like most of us, I watched and then kind of just moved on with my day.

That was until this morning when I read this thought provoking critique of the ad in The Guardian:

It made me long to be back in the classroom.

Not to promote a Guardian view of the universe – I wouldn’t for a second simplify all of this down to the message ‘the ad is bad; the article is good’. But rather to provoke the kind of discussions that are not planned or pre-determined; that do not come with a pre-prepared worksheet but that emerge from rich texts speaking to each other in a way that fires the brain off on all cylinders.

By sheer co-incidence, as I wandered into our bedroom this morning, having just read the guardian article, I overheard my husband listening to this harrowing story of a soldier in Iraq whose entire squadron were killed when their vehicle exploded.

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It really hit home for me why the Sainsbury’s ad made me uncomfortable. It’s not only that the ad sanitises the brutal reality of war; it’s also my awareness that war is NOW, not just a fact of history that we remember. Perhaps in our determination to remember those who sacrificed their lives in the past we forget those who sacrifice their lives in the present. We forgot too, perhaps, that the never-ending cycle of conflict and war is proof of how little we have learnt from the mistakes of the past.

My brain didn’t stop there. It jumped to a tome by Robert Fisk that sits on our bookshelf “The Great War for Civilisation” and the cultural and geographical bias we’re barely aware of most of the time which offers us one view of conflicts; one side of every war.


It is in these rich texts talking to each other that we find opportunities for depth that do not exist when we only skim the surface.

From the ad, to the article, to the viral video and back to the bookshelf!

What a rich rabbit hole to fall down.

But now that I am Alice Through the Looking Glass, I can only gaze back in envy as I imagine in my minds eye the wonderful teaching moments these texts are generating in classrooms everywhere…