Category Archives: Comprehensions

General advice on answering Comprehensions (Question A).

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions

I stumbled upon this clever little quiz which asks you to match the facial expression to the emotion

and it got me thinking.

One of the things writers can do really well is evoke an emotion by describing a facial expression and/or some body language, without ever mentioning the associated word. In doing this they embody the idea of “show don’t tell” in their writing, offering hints and clues but allowing – expecting – the reader to decode the meaning for themselves.

So it might be a good idea to :

a. Take the quiz! See if you’re observant…


b. Pick one of the images. Turn the image into words. Describe what the face is doing without mentioning the emotion it captures.

And finally

c. Give the description to someone. Ask them to name the emotion you’ve captured in your description.

If they can’t get it ask yourself: are they the problem (they don’t get it!) or am I? Is my writing not specific/accurate enough to evoke that emotion in the reader?

If you’re not sure if it’s them or you, ask one or two more people if they can identify the emotion from your description.

If they can’t, chances are your writing is the problem!!!

If they can, yey you! Your writing rocks!


Book Covers sample answer

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement, March 2014.

Publishing houses often create more than one cover for the same book, particularly if they feel the book will appeal to ‘multiple target demographics‘. In simple English, this means they think people of different ages, life stages, genders, hobbies and education levels will all like this book so they can’t just target one specific group (young adult readers, romantic fiction fans, sci-fi nerds) with their advertising efforts.

One way they get around this is by creating different book covers aimed at different groups. For example, you can probably remember that there were children and adult book cover versions of all of the Harry Potter books so that adults didn’t have to feel embarrassed sitting on the train reading them!

As with the photographs, you may be presented with more than one cover and asked which one you prefer, or which one best captures the theme of the written text. In this case an extract from the novel itself will most likely accompany the book covers so that you get a flavour for the book even if you haven’t read it. You might also be asked to say whether or not the book cover would entice you to buy and read the novel.

When assessing the effectiveness of a book cover or for that matter of any product or advertisement ask yourself three questions:

  1. Does it grab my attention?

  2. Does it make an impression?

  3. Does it convince me to buy the book / product / service?

Have a look at this book cover for the wonderful novel Skippy Dies by Irish author Paul Murray.

skippy dies b

Sample Question:

Does this book cover for “Skippy Dies” make you want to read the novel? Give reasons for your answer, based on a close reading of the various visual and textual elements. (20 marks)

Sample Answer:

This book cover instantly grabs my attention. I really like the design and colour scheme: the geometric pattern of semi-circles in alternating shades of green and red against a warm cream background is quite hypnotic. It also looks like the cover had water spilt onto it in places as the paint has smudged and I feel this prevents the design from being too clinical in appearance. This slightly bohemian edge is again evident in the vertical lines drawn by hand around the edges of the rough red and cream semi-circles which reveal the title of the novel and the author. I like the handwriting font too which adds to the informal vibe. All of these features add a warmth to the book cover; a willingness not to be too perfect, which I really like.

In much smaller font at the top and bottom are quotes from reviews, sourced from reputable newspapers The Times and The Guardian. Including these snippets tells us this is literature, not pulp fiction, and yet the promise of fun and entertainment ensures we’re not scared off – if reading this book is “hilarious” and “outrageously enjoyable” then I can cope with the “tragic” content!

At the very bottom of the page we’re told this book was “SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2012 COSTA NOVEL AWARD” and fellow author David Nicholls describes Murray as “A brilliant comic writer” At this point it’s difficult to resist this book, it’s being so highly praised!

The title also instantly intrigues, with the stark warning that in this book “Skippy Dies”. It’s a daring concept to tell the reader what’s going to happen and yet still ask them to invest their time and emotions in the characters, three of whom are represented in little uneven edged coloured blobs, each with their own rough line drawing. The presence of two boys and one girl at first brought a love triangle to my mind, but the fact that the girl is on the right rather than in the centre made me question this assumption. Their youth suggests that this might be a coming of age story, but my awareness that a central character dies gives this book an edge. It makes me think this is not going to be some twee little teen romance, but rather a book which challenges and provokes.

To conclude, this book cover most certainly made an impression on me and I am now tempted to leave the exam hall to go buy it!


Sample answer visual texts

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement, March 2014.

We all know a good photo when we see it: a splash of colour, a glint in the eye, a captivating landscape, a moment frozen in time. Yet articulating what makes an image spellbinding can be quite difficult.

It can help to think of your eyes as zoom lenses and of the photo as a puzzle to be deciphered. Each piece of the puzzle can be zoomed in on individually, analysed, discussed and interpreted. Each element contributes to helping you make sense of the bigger picture.

Consider some of the following elements when interpreting an image:

Framing: What is your eye drawn to immediately? What’s in the foreground / background / centre / left / right of the frame? Is everything in focus or are some elements blurry? Why might this be?

Body language & facial expression: What mood is reflected in the subject’s face? Are their eyes telling you something? What about the tilt of their head? Look at their hands and arms and legs: are they reaching, holding, relaxing, moulding? Does the slope of their shoulders reflect their mood?

Setting: Where is the photo taken? When? Consider time of day, season and era. Clothes, hairstyles, accessories and objects can give you clues about where and when the photo is set.

Lighting & colour: is the lighting natural or artificial, indoors or outdoors? Are shadows used? To what effect? What colours stand out? Do they symbolise anything? Has a filter been applied? Why?

Comprehension questions on visual texts:

In the exam, there will typically be two or three images accompanying each written text. These can be any mixture of photos, paintings, graphs, book covers and possibly even cartoons, posters and advertisements. Although these last three have yet to make an appearance, whoever is setting the papers seems to like mixing things up a lot, so expect the unexpected! No matter what type of visual text appears, remember to zoom in on details, colours and, if relevant, text (font size & style). Questions can ask you to select your favourite image and explain why you like it; to describe the impact of the photo on you intellectually and emotionally; to evaluate how well an image captures a theme; or to assess how well the written and visual elements work together.

Let’s imagine this photo, and two others, accompany a text on the theme of childhood.

Hazel reaching up

Sample Question:

In your opinion, which of the visual images best captures the theme of childhood? Give reasons for your answer, supporting your points through close analysis of the visual text”. (20 marks)

Sample Answer:
In my opinion, image two, which shows a young girl reaching up to grasp the window ledge of an old school building, is the image which best captures the theme of childhood. Her small body is barely tall enough to see in the ‘window’ so she is on her tippy toes, her head is tilted right back and both of her arms are at full stretch. Her curiosity to see and to know, which is such a feature of childhood, is really endearing in this photo. [Focus on body language]

She looks too small to have started school yet and there is a nice contrast between the little girl outside the window and the painting of the two older children who are ‘in’ the schoolhouse. They are not nearly as enthralled by the concept of school once they have seen it from the inside, which is so true of childhood. As a child, you often want something really badly but once you’ve got it, you tire of it easily. [Focus on framing in the image, particularly the use of contrast]

I also found the detail in the painted children quite striking. The boy at the back of the window frame is pulling the hair of the girl in front of him. She looks quite distressed, while a shadow across his face captures his cruel intention. This detail captures the casual torment and violence children are capable of inflicting on each other. Physical fights, slaps, hair pulling and kicks from siblings and classmates are a feature of childhood many of us remember with a cold shiver down our spines. [Focus on facial expression & light/shadow]

Finally, this photo reminds me powerfully of schooldays from my childhood that seemed to drag on interminably. Neither of the painted children are paying any attention to their schoolwork: however, the clock on the wall says that it is a few minutes to four o’ clock so it’s hardly surprising that they’re finding it hard to concentrate! The torture of being trapped in the school for what seems like forever is further emphasised by the fact that it is clearly a bright summer’s day, reflected in the t-shirt, shorts and crocs worn by the little girl and in the blue sky at the top of the photo peeking through the fluffy white clouds. [Focus on weather, clothes and lighting to reveal season]

For all of these reasons, to my mind this striking image brilliantly captures the wonder, curiosity, fickleness and cruelty of childhood.

Comprehending & Responding

Helpful person

I’ve recently been thinking that in my eagerness to help students understand and appreciate how writing works, I’ve perhaps over complicated things with my OCD spreadsheet of writing techniques.

When you read something – an article, a poem, a story, a personal essay – zoom in on a section and ask yourself:

  • What does it make me think? 
  • How does it make me feel?

It really is that simple.

Once you’ve figured out what you think & how you feel about what you’ve just read, ask yourself

  • How did they do that then?

This is where techniques – the word choice, verb choice, 5 senses, emphatic statements, rhetorical questions, humour, lists, twists & assonance etc… come in!

You look at the beauty of the thing (at how it makes you feel & the thoughts that flood through your mind when you first see it) but you should also try to figure out how it was put together.

I’ve been comparing it lately to the difference between looking at a Ferrari, admiring how beautiful it is; perhaps even taking it for a ride…



and actually lifting up the bonnet to see how it works!

ferrari bonnet flipped


If you’re like me, you don’t really care how the car works, as long as it works. However, you and I will most likely never have to build a car. On the other hand, we will use language for the rest of our lives and the more we understand about how it works, the better we’ll be able to use it to communicate with our partner and our kids and our friends and our bosses and our colleagues and the world!

Now apply this analogy to reading. When you first see it, treat it like a Ferrari. Is it beautiful? How do you feel when you first see it? What does it make you think about?

Then look under the bonnet and appreciate the skill involved in creating it.

DON’T simply learn off the general impact of a technique (lists bombard us with information; rhetorical questions make us sit up & pay attention); instead analyse the SPECIFIC impact of this SPECIFIC example on YOU!

So if you see a list, look at it in context.

Here’s an example of writing that uses a list:

The morning started off badly. It was raining when I woke up, which reminded me of the leak in my car I’d been ignoring for weeks and the air outside seemed warmer than inside when I went out to defrost the windscreen. My skin was so dry there was no way I was putting make-up on but I knew this was the wrong way to impress my new boss. Sitting into my car, the musty smell permeated my bones and I glanced down to see toothpaste stains flecking my smart navy belted dress. But it was too late now to go back in and change! Sigh… Instead, I twisted the key in the rusty ignition with a sad little slump of my shoulders

What does this make me think? How does it make me feel? And HOW does it produce these thoughts and feelings? (Try to integrate thoughts, feelings & techniques in your answer)

Sample answer:

I really like the authors list of minor catastrophes which blight her morning. I instantly felt sympathy for her as she admitted her very human tendency to ignore problems (the leak!) until they cannot be ignored anymore. I also wondered whether or not money was part of the reason why she hadn’t had the car fixed, as she also mentioned the lack of heating in her house (“the air outside seemed warmer than inside”). The overall impact of this list was to create the impression that this is a woman who is struggling to keep it all together. She’s eager to impress; after all, she’s wearing a “smart belted navy dress” but the toothpaste stains and the musty leaky car suggest that there’s a gap between the person she wants to be and the person she really is. Listing off all of these details from her morning routine as she heads out to work is a subtle yet effective way of developing her character and simultaneously arousing our sympathy for her.

Now let’s look at a different list, used in a different context, for a different purpose.

The litany of failures covered up by our government should stop us in our tracks. Consider the obscene salaries paid to tax-funded charity bosses; the appalling treatment of our Garda whistleblowers; innocent babies dying in under resourced maternity hospitals; record unemployment; chronic homelessness; exploding emigration figures and a political class so far removed from the lives of ordinary people that their major concern is whether or not they should issue an apology for any of this in the Dáil

What does this make me think? How does it make me feel? And HOW does it produce these thoughts and feelings? (Try to integrate thoughts, feelings & techniques in your answer)

Sample answer:

The author’s list of our governments failures is genuinely frightening. Unlike the drip feed of individual scandals which pepper our days as we tune in and out of the news on radio and in print, this list brings them all together as a stark reminder of the current state of the nation. The language is far from neutral however – the words “obscene” “appalling” “dying” “chronic” and “exploding” are all deliberately chosen to evoke an indignant and angry response in us as we read. Personally, I don’t normally respond to this kind of sensationalism. What I refer to as a ‘tone of moral outrage’ – think the kind of person who rings in to Joe Duffy’s radio show – generally makes me tune out! However, in this case, the examples given are so powerful that I did find my blood pressure rising as I read. I also think the use of contrast at the end of this list (distinguishing between the ‘political class’ and ‘ordinary people’) is a stroke of genius, as it makes politicians’ concerns seem petty and arrogant in the extreme.

You’ll notice that I’m discussing the same technique, but my answer is very different because the example I’m discussing is very different in each case.

Finally, consider this.

When you read any piece of writing, you should have a response. Every response is valid, including confusion and indifference. However, if a student tends to respond to everything he or she reads with indifference & confusion, I usually ask them to slow down, try again, see if there’s something there they might have missed the first time. Don’t try to understand every single image; instead tune in to the lines that sing for you, that speak to you, that twist your gut or make your heart soar or your eyes well up with tears.

Hopefully this helps!




7 Fixable Follies

Following our mocks, I made a list of avoidable errors that I come across again and again and again. Here are some of them, alongside some links and suggestions to help you sort them out.

PROBLEM 1 = Mis-read the question

SOLUTION = Underline the key words in the question. Still confused? Re-write the question in your own words to clarify what you’re being asked. If you still don’t understand the question, try to avoid it. Pick a different one if possible.

PROBLEM 2 = mis-use apostrophes

SOLUTION =  learn these simple rules.  Use apostrophes:

1. to show that something BELONGS to someone (possessive nouns)

2. to show a letter is missing because you squished 2 words together (contraction)

NEVER USE APOSTROPHES TO MAKE A WORD PLURAL! If the word is already plural, add the apostrophe after the s (no need to have two s’s in a row!). eg “The three dogs’ bowls were empty” is better than “The three dogs’s bowls were empty”

NEVER USE APOSTROPHES WITH HIS / HERS / ITS – ownership is already clear e.g. “It’s not his, it’s hers” – here it’s means it is

e.g. “Its only difficulty as an organisation is that it’s too trusting” – here the difficulty belongs to it (the organisation) but for ITS you don’t need to indicate possession. Only use an apostrophe with its is when it means “It is” e.g. “it’s raining”

To practice using apostrophes correctly, click here

PROBLEM 3 = spelling errors

SOLUTION = Create a personal dictionary. List all the words you have misspelled over the last two years. Write each word out ten times correctly.

It can help to break the word into sections.
If a word is particularly difficult, you can come up with a mnemonic (a memory trigger) to help you remember it. eg. Accommodation – two c’s, two m’s, three o’s– ooo, Carla Colley and Mark Madden shared accommodation in the hotel!

Get someone to test your spellings or try this method below to test yourself.  You’ll need a blank sheet of paper to test your spelling.  LOOK – SAY – COVER – WRITE – CHECK

For more tips check out

PROBLEM 4 = poor punctuation and sentence control leading to run-on lines, sentence fragments, comma splices and fused sentences.

SOLUTION = this is hard to fix.

A sentence expresses a complete thought. It contains a subject, a verb and a main clause (central idea in the sentence). Sentences can be simple or complex but you CANNOT keep adding on extra sub-clauses endlessly (using “and” “because” “as well as”). These afterthoughts tell the reader that you cannot control your sentences and create the impression that you don’t really know what you’re trying to say.

Too many short sentences will make your writing seem childish.
Too many long complex sentences in a row make it hard to follow (particularly when writing a speech). Practice identifying fragments at

If you ask a question, include a ? mark. You need to understand the difference between using a comma (please pause here) and using a full stop (this idea is over).

PROBLEM 5 = lack of flow

SOLUTION = practice using these connectives in your writing

  • To qualify a statement you’ve just made use: although, unless, except, despite, yet, nonetheless.
  • To show cause and effect: because, therefore, thus, as a result, stemming from this, as a direct consequence
  • To emphasise: above all, particularly, obviously, clearly
  • To illustrate: for example, including, such as, for instance, in this case
  • To compare / contrast: similarly, likewise, equally, instead of, by contrast
  • To add an idea: also, as well as, moreover, additionally, furthermore
  • To indicate time: firstly, secondly, lastly, next, then, finally, meanwhile, whenever, until, immediately, afterwards, later, earlier
  • To indicate position: within, outside, throughout, beyond, among, beneath, furthermore, in the foreground, in the background, left of centre, right of centre, the focus is on…
  • To sum up: finally, let me finish by saying, lastly, in conclusion, ultimately

PROBLEM 6 = floating quotes

SOLUTION = integrate quotes. Watch this video or follow the rules below which derive from the video:

METHOD 1:Introduce the quotation with a statement and a colon – Jones uses statistics to convince us that smoking is a major health concern: “78% of smokers die prematurely”. NEVER insert a quotation as a stand-alone sentence.

METHOD 2: Introduce the quotation with the writer’s name: As Jones observes, “78% of smokers die prematurely”. (Or instead of observes use describes/ illustrates / argues)

METHOD 3: Blend the quote into your own sentence (this is the best method) – It is profoundly shocking to think that I could be one of the “78% of smokers [who] die prematurely” and reading this article has certainly made me rethink my habits.

PROBLEM 7 = casual language, cliches and slang. 

Those who don’t read a lot suffer from this affliction and frequently struggle to use language appropriate to the written word. Often it sounds like they are ‘speaking’ to you from the page.

This results in long slang-infested often incoherent sentences, with several sub-clauses, a lack of full stops and other punctuation and ideas which are added on at the last minute and sometimes other vague stuff which make the sentence hard to follow and it becomes very irritating for the reader. You get the idea!

SOLUTION = First of all, just be aware that there’s a difference between spoken and written language. Or as the UEFAP website expresses it: “Written language is relatively more complex than spoken language. Written language has longer words, it is lexically more dense and it has a more varied vocabulary. Academic writing is relatively formal. In general this means that in an essay you should avoid colloquial words and expressions”.

Look at the way language changes depending on the context by doing these exercises: and try this one to practice formal writing.