Higher close reading skills
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Higher Close Reading Skills. Section A: UNDERSTANDING. Section A: UNDERSTANDING THE MEANING. 1) Using your own words 2) Context questions 3) Link questions. 1) USING YOUR OWN WORDS. USING YOUR OWN WORDS.

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Higher Close Reading Skills

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Higher close reading skills

Higher Close Reading Skills

Section a understanding


Section a understanding the meaning


  • 1) Using your own words

  • 2) Context questions

  • 3) Link questions

1 using your own words


Using your own words


  • Some interpretation questions, like the example below from a recent Higher English examination paper, are designed to test whether you understand the basic meaning of the passage.

  • Question: Paragraphs 5, 6 and 7 deal with the “issues” referred to in line 69. In your own words, describe clearly what the three main issues are.

  • 6 marks

Using your own words1


  • You will be asked to gather pieces of information which you must answer as far as possible in your own words.

  • Simple words from the original passage may be used if there is no obvious alternative, but where there is an obvious alternative you should use one.

  • Figures of speech in the original must always be put into plain language, and any non-standard expression, for example slang or archaisms (old-fashioned words), must be rendered in simple, formal, modern English.

  • * Warning!!!! It is essential that you do not “lift” whole phrases or sentences from the original: these will not be awarded any marks, even though you have understood the question and the answer is correct.

What the examiner is looking for


What the examiner is looking for1


  • How much should you write? Every exam paper has what is called a “marking scheme”: the number of marks which are allocated to each question.

  • A marker cannot give you any more than the number allotted, and he will look for the required amount of information before awarding full marks to a question.

Own words question breakdown


  • Before you write your answer, you must take note of the number of marks available. For two marks, it is likely you will need to supply two pieces of information, but alternatively you might be required to give one detailed piece or four brief pieces.

  • It will be necessary for you to consider the wording of the question carefully for guidance. Occasionally, direct guidance may not be given and in this case you must use your common sense.

  • Obviously, one brief piece of information will be inadequate for a four mark question; conversely, providing a ten line answer for a one mark question is unwise as you will waste valuable time.

Worked example


  • ‘Thinking of Grandpa now, I recall the clouds of pungent smoke that he puffed from his favourite briar, his small shrewd eyes, still very blue, and the gleaming dome rising from fleecy tufts of white hair.’

  • Question: What three characteristics of “Grandpa” does the author remember?

  • 3 marks

  • Answer: She remembers her grandfather smoked a strong-smelling pipe. He also had intelligent bright blue eyes and a bald head with a little fluffy white hair.



  • Understanding of “briar” is shown by using the more general term “pipe”. The metaphor “gleaming dome” is simplified to “bald head”.

  • Since the word “eyes” is a common word with no obvious alternatives it may be used again.

  • There are several possible alternative words for “shrewd”, and “intelligent” is an acceptable one. Since “grandpa” is colloquial, the more formal “grandfather” is used in the answer.

  • If the question were worth only 1 or 1 1/2 marks, it could be answered more briefly: Her grandfather smoked a pipe, he had blue eyes, and was very bald.

For practice


2 context questions


Context questions


  • As well as showing that you understand the writer’s general meaning, you will also be asked more precise questions, to show you understand particular words and phrases.

  • For Example:

  • ‘Show how the first sentence provides a context which enables you to understand the meaning of the word’...2 marks

Context questions1


  • In a so-called “Context” question, such as the one above, you will be asked:

  • (a) to explain the meaning of a word or phrase, and also

  • (b) to show how you deduced the meaning from its placing in the text.

  • This involves identifying clues in the sentences immediately surrounding the word.

  • You must quote these words or phrases that provide the clues and briefly explain how they help to confirm the meaning.

Context question breakdown


  • If the context question is worth 2 marks, you will generally be awarded if follow the formula below:

  • A) 1 mark for getting the meaning right and

  • B) 1 mark for the quoted piece of evidence with a brief explanation.

  • It is usually possible and advisableto quote two pieces of evidence and it is essential if the question is worth a total of 3 marks.

Worked example1


  • Here is a worked example:

  • The rumour that Douglas was a prisoner was still unsubstantiated. There had been no witnesses to his bailing out of the plane, and no solid information could be expected from beyond enemy lines for weeks, perhaps even months.

  • Question:

  • ‘Show how the context helped you arrive at the meaning of the word unsubstantiated.’

  • 2 marks



  • A) The word “unsubstantiated” clearly means unconfirmed. (1 mark)

  • B i) The context makes this clear as it says there were “no witnesses” who could say for sure the news was true ( ½ mark),

  • B ii) and the phrase “no solid information” also repeats the idea of there being no firm proof. ( ½ mark)

For practice1


3 link questions


Link questions


  • Another type of question which is designed to test your understanding of meaning, as well as your appreciation of the structure of a text, is the so-called “link” question.

  • You will be asked to show how one sentence provides a “link” in the argument.

  • The “argument” need not be a discussion: here “argument” means the progression of ideas in a piece of writing and the link will join one idea to the next.

Link question breakdown


  • QUESTION: “And therein lies the rub’ Explain how this sentence acts as a link between the first paragraph and the two following paragraphs.

    2 marks

  • Usually, but not invariably, the “link” sentence will stand at the beginning of a paragraph.

  • Part of the sentence — often, but not always,

  • A) the first part — will refer back to the previous topic

  • and

  • B)another part of the sentence will introduce the new topic which follows.

  • Such questions are usually worth 2 marks, which are awarded for correctly identifying the parts of the sentence that link back and forward and the two topics which they connect.

What you should do


  • You should show the link by following the formula below:

  • A) first quoting the part of the link sentence which refersback to the earlier topic,

  • B)explaining what this topic is,

  • C) and then quoting the part of the link sentence which looks forward to the next topic,

  • D)explaining what this is.

  • E) The sentence may also begin with a linking word or phrase such as “but” or “however” which points to a change of direction and you should also comment on this.

Worked example2


  • Here is a worked example:

  • ‘William Shakespeare is easily the best-known of our English writers. Virtually every man in the street can name some of his plays and his characters, and many people can also recite lines of his poetry by heart. However, despite our familiarity with his work, we know relatively little of the man himself. We do not know when or why he became an actor, we know nothing of his life in London, and almost nothing of his personal concerns.’

  • Question

  • Show how the third sentence acts as a link in the argument.

  • 2 marks




  • The phrase “our familiarity with his work” looks back at the topic of how widely known Shakespeare’s work is.

  • The conjunction “however” which begins the sentence suggests a contrasting idea to follow.

  • The second part of the sentence, “we know relatively little of the man himself’, introduces the new topic, namely the things that are not known about Shakespeare, and a list of these follows this “link” sentence.





Section b analysis


Section b appreciating the style


  • 1) Word Choice

  • 2) Imagery

  • 3) Structure

  • 4) Tone, Mood and Atmosphere



  • The most important thing to remember when tackling analysis questions is to make sure you are absolutely clear on what you are being asked to do.

  • Remember that in an Analysis question it is unlikely that you will be being asked merely to explain meaning.

  • If that were the case, the question would be marked U.

Key points

Key Points

  • There are four pointers to what kind of question you are being asked:

  • 1The use of the letter Ato remind you that analysis is required.

  • 2The naming of a particular feature or technique in the question, for example:

  • Show how the writer uses imageryin lines x—y to emphasise the impact of...

  • 3 The instruction to look at a section and then ‘Show how...’ with a list of possible features which you might try, for example:

  • Show how the writer conveys his feelings in lines x—y. In your answer you may refer to tone, point of view, onomatopoeia, imagery, or any other appropriate language feature.

  • 4 The instruction to look at the writer’s languageand ‘Show how...’, for example:

  • Show how the writer’s language in lines x—y highlights the importance of...

  • In this last case there is no named technique or feature to guide you. You must go through your own mental list of techniques and see which you can identify as being important, before you can start your answer. You would probably consider more than one feature.

Common mistakes

Common Mistakes

  • In the fourth type of question people sometimes make the mistake of assuming that languagesimply equals meaning and paraphrase the lines to show that they have understood them. This will get 0 marks because it ignores two important instructions:

  • • The A4 the end of the question

  • • ‘Show how…’ something works

Be aware of lists in questions

Be aware of lists in questions

  • There are two kinds of lists:

  • • closed lists

  • • open lists

Closed lists

Closed Lists

  • An example of an closed list would be:

  • Example 1

  • How does the writer’s language make clear her annoyance with the newspapers?

  • You should comment on two of the following techniques:

  • word choice, imagery, sentence structure, tone.

  • In this case, there are no other options available: you have to do two from that list.

Open lists

Open Lists

  • An example of an open list would be:

  • Example 2

  • How does the writer’s language make clear her annoyance with the newspapers?

  • You should comment on two of the following:

  • word choice, imagery, sentence structure, tone, or any other appropriate technique.

  • Here you are being given the opportunity to do any two techniques which seem to you to be appropriate. The chances are, though, that the ones which have been listed will be useful

Another example of an open list would be

Another example of an open list would be:

  • Example 3

  • How does the writer’s language make clear her annoyance with the newspapers?

  • You should comment on techniques such as word choice, imagery, sentence structure, tone...

  • ‘Such as’ means that there are other techniques which are not mentioned but which you could try. The three dots indicate that the list could go on for ever.

  • The ability to work out how a list can be helpful to you is necessary in the Close Reading paper, but it also has a part to play in the Critical Essay paper, as you will see when you get to that section of the book.


Named features?

A closed list of features?

An open list of features

• ‘The writer’s language’ and make your own list?

One or another?

One and another?

One and/or another?

More than one?


  • Make sure that you recognise what you are to do in Analysis


  • In your answer, are you being asked to refer to:

1 word choice questions

1) Word Choice Questions

Word choice

Word Choice

  • This is a very simple idea.

  • When you are being asked about word choice you are simply being asked to look at the words and see why the writer has chosen those particular words to describe some thing or some feeling, rather than any other similar words.

For example

For Example

  • A person who is under average weight for his or her height, for example, could be called ‘underweight’, ‘skinny’, or ‘slim’.

  • What would be the effect if the writer chose the word ‘underweight’?

  • Probably you could say that the person was being looked at in a clinical, sort of medical way, and being seen as in need of treatment. Perhaps the context of the passage might be a political one, talking about disadvantaged areas where people do not get enough to eat.

For example1

For Example

  • If the writer chose to use the word ‘skinny’, what would be the effect?

  • The person is being described as thin but in an unattractive way, perhaps suggesting something angular and bony.

  • If the writer chose ‘slim’, what would be the effect of this particular word?

  • Again the person is being described as thin, but in an attractive way, suggesting perhaps a smooth, neat, elegant appearance.



  • ‘Underweight’, ‘thin’, ‘skinny’ and ‘slim’ all mean roughly the same,

  • the effect of choosing one of them instead of the other three is quite powerful.

  • What makes the difference is the connotation of each word.

Denotation and connotation

Denotation and Connotation

  • You should be aware of the difference between the denotation of a word and its connotation(s).

  • Denotation — The denotation of a word is its basic, plain meaning, if you like. If you are asked an Understanding question about a word or phrase, what you are trying to give as an answer is its denotation — its ‘meaning’

  • Connotation — When you are asked an Analysis question about word choice you are required to give the connotation(s) of the word — which contribute to its impact or effect.

To take our present example

To take our present example:

Worked example3

Worked Example

  • ‘Transferring the sultry sensuality of a Latin* street dance to Edinburgh on a wet winter’s night would not appear the easiest of tasks. The rain batters the glass roof of the studio, competing in volume with the merengue** blaring from the sound system. In the background, the castle, lit up, stares down grandly against the foreboding skies.’

  • * Latin is short for Latin American

  • ** merengue is a form of Venezuelan dance music

  • Question: Show how the word choice in these lines helps to point up the contrast described here. 2A

  • Since you are asked for a contrast here, it is certain that you will have to look at two examples of word choice: one for each side of the contrast.

  • All the words in yellow type could be used in your answer, but it makes sense to choose two words or phrases which you can see something obvious about.



  • Answer 1: ‘Sultry sensuality’ suggests something hot and sexy which is normally associated with warm sunny places in contrast with ‘foreboding skies’ which suggests something dark and threatening and gloomy or ‘wet winter’s night’ which suggests cold, which is inhibiting to the emotions.

  • Or

  • Answer 2: ‘The rain batters’ suggests an assault on the roof, as if the rain is trying to get in and drown out the dancing in contrast with the ‘merengue blaring’ which suggests something enjoyable, loud, warm and confident.

Hints and tips

Hints and Tips

  • Note that word choice may be extended to cover a short phrase as well as single words but you have to quote exactly what word or phrase you are going to consider in your answer.

  • You can do this by putting the word or phrase you are going to deal with in inverted commas, or you could underline the relevant words.

  • But you have to show the marker which words or phrases you have chosen.

  • You can’t write down something as long as ‘the castle, lit up, stares down grandly against the foreboding skies’.

Key points summary

Key Points - Summary

  • It is important to realise that normally you get no marks for identifying interesting words.

  • If you wrote down ‘sultry sensuality’ and batters’ you would get no marks

  • If you wrote down sultry sensuality and ‘batters’ and simply say what the words mean you would get no marks.

  • All the marks that you are going to get will arise from the connotations which you discuss.

For practice2

For Practice…

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