Hello everyone! Today what I’m going to talk about is how to deal with reading comprehension on the IGCSE. Specifically, by the end of this blog post, I’d like to take you through a discussion of the unique challenge of reading comprehension in the context of the IGCSE, help you understand how to deal with reading comprehension questions on the IGCSE, and at the end of the day, lead you to excel and practice for reading comprehension questions as you go through the process of preparing for your exams.

Alright, so let’s go right ahead and dive in!

Alright, so the first language English exam tests reading comprehension in a bunch of different ways – but before we even begin to think about how Cambridge thinks about reading comprehension,

If you look at the syllabus overview, that tells you right there that the syllabus aims to get students to read a wide range of text fluently with good understanding, enjoying and appreciating a variety of language, to read critically, to use knowledge gained from wide reading to inform and improve their own writing.

What this means is that Cambridge is making the assumption that throughout the entire course of this program, you’re going to be doing a lot of reading and bringing that to bear in your exam performance.

However… This may be true for some people, but it probably isn’t true for all.

But in any case, let’s try to understand what it is that Cambridge is looking for.

Throughout the IGCSE exam, you’ll be assessed on reading based on your ability to demonstrate an understanding of explicit meanings (R1), implicit meanings and attitudes, analyze, evaluate, and develop facts, ideas, and opinions using appropriate support from the text, understand how writers achieve effects and influence readers, and select and use information for specific purposes.

In this blog post, we’ll be discussing this in the particular context of your Paper 1, where you’ll need to demonstrate each of these skills through various questions.

As we discuss this, you’ll see samples of the papers from Winter 2021 on the screen. Please feel free to follow along and cross-reference, perhaps by opening the papers up in a separate tab and then going through the discussion 🙂

Like most IGCSE English exams, your Paper 1 comprises two separate documents: the insert, which contains the text you need to read and comprehend to answer the exam paper’s questions, and the question paper, which contains the questions themselves.

You might wonder why you need to understand all these different assessment objectives. The reason is that, regardless of the techniques you learn in school to obtain answers quickly from the paper, these skills will be necessary for any reading comprehension task.

Understanding a text means not only knowing explicitly what it discusses or what happens in it, but also grasping its implicit meanings and attitudes. What is the text suggesting? What attitudes does it embody? How does the writer feel about certain issues? These are all important components of understanding a text, which often requires you to go beyond what has been immediately presented on the screen to being able to understand how the different elements relate to one another.

Obtaining understanding may require you to analyze, evaluate, and develop facts, ideas, and opinions. You may also need to make inferences, extrapolate from what you’ve read, and even create examples of texts inspired by what you’ve read that are faithful to the source material. It also means you need to become comfortable using evidence to support your ideas, so you can justify your statements in any written communication context. This skill is crucial, and we’ll discuss it more later on.

You need to demonstrate in R4 an understanding of how writers achieve effects and influence readers, and lastly, select and use information for specific purposes.

At the same time, though, there is a level of complexity that is inherent to this task – the quest for understanding is not one that is so easily conquered to the extent that one can simply receive what one wants merely upon looking for it at first glance; rather, it is a quest for a fruit that takes time as well as energy in order to cultivate, But one that is more easily obtained when one has managed to secure the correct habits in order to do so.

One useful way to think about ways in which you can validate that you have understood something is to ask yourself questions about the material, and then see if the answers that you have produced are consistent with your reading of the text, and also consistent with your answers to the other questions that you have formulated in your head– you may also consider if the answers that you have obtained to your questions, you towards other productive questions, and also into another productive series of questions that require a deeper understanding.

MeanwhileWe’ll delve into all of this during the exam paper walkthrough.

Now, let’s first tackle question 1a), which asks, “Give two things that the writer is doing before the rain begins according to the text.In turn, question 1b) goes on to ask “Using your own words, explain what the text means by ‘signals the arrival’ and ‘flees in panic.'”

The importance of understanding the assessment objectives you read about earlier in this post becomes clear in these questions, not just where you’re asked to explicitly describe what the author conveys about what the writer is doing before the rain begins, but in turn where you’re asked to explain what the text means.

Why is that the case? Well, if you want to use your own words to explain something, then how can you do that unless you’ve managed to understand it? That is an act of successful reading, and not just casually writing down anything that occurs in your head; it requires you to understand and piece together the meaning of a phrase as it has been given to you in order to create something that is otherwise meaningful, by retrieving it from the text, not from your own presumptions or thoughts, and then demonstrating that you are able to reproduce what was conveyed to you.

Now let’s look at the next question, Question 1c).

“Reread paragraph 2.

Give two reasons why conversation might be limited, if not impossible.”

This question, too, requires students to demonstrate understanding of what is going on in the text from a content perspective.

If you understand the context from reading the text, then you know that what is happening is that the people are currently experiencing a flood, they are suffering, and they are just sitting together inside shelter in order to protect themselves from it. However, knowing this isn’t sufficient – you need to infer that because the people were all bunched up together in a very cramped space, and that they are there there only because they need to take shelter and have no reason to have a conversation otherwise, they therefore have little reason to take part in conversation.

Being able to answer this question requires some degree of logical reasoning. What are the logical relationships between the different parts of the paragraph? How do the elements relate to one another? These are logical puzzles which you are responsible to resolve, as they are essential towards obtaining the mastery of meaning that you seek.

Suppose that you have obtained a preliminary answer – cross check and validate it – does it truly match up with what has been included in the text? Are there stronger answers? Any additional questions that bring up after you have managed to obtain the answer to your preliminary questions?

The requirement of being able to do these things is something that is characteristic of all reading comprehension (IGCSE, SAT, or otherwise), as in all cases, there are things that you need to infer from the text and deliver in the context of the exam response; some of these things won’t be explicit; you need to reason them out.

If you look at question 1d), then you’ll see the same pattern right here, where you have to again make use of explicit meanings to identify problems, and then use inference to explain why life is difficult for the people of the region during the raining season; the same faculty of reasoning is in turn recruited yet again except in a slightly more advanced fashion in question 1e), which basically reads:

“Using your own words, explain why the hot period is a happier time for the people of the region.”

I’d like to take a moment here to emphasise that that the ‘using your own words’ part here is important, because Cambridge explicitly requires you to paraphrase and understand each text that you read, rather than just rely upon the words that you see inside the text – partly, because if you are only able to repeat that the words that someone has said to you, that suggests that you did not understand them and are merely relying upon your surface level appreciation of their intended meaning – you are demonstrating surface level understanding, and that is not okay when you are participating in an international examination.

Let’s now look at Question 1f).

In 1f), students respond to a summary question. It’s not just a blind summary where you just shorten the text, but instead what you have to do is to respond to what you’ve read inside a text and then go right ahead and then explain what it is that you see.

Here is what the question says.

“According to text B, what did the residents of this community feel and do during the most recent severe winter?”

So if you notice right here the text is describing what living through a severe winter is like in the writer’s locality. That’s not really something that’s directly related to what the prompt is; in fact, you might have to look for several points and identify several possible candidates that you can use, because there aren’t really many explicit statements about this, which means that you have to kind of take out different points here and there from inside the text in order to actually summarize it.

A lot of students have come up to me and told me that they face trouble with this. It’s not that easy to figure out what to shorten because you have to somehow figure out what you’re going to include in the first place.

And how do you decide what to include in the first place? You do so by understanding what is important, what is necessary, and what needs to actually go inside the summary.

It’s not just tricks regarding how to take out points and then arrange them alongside one another.

No. In order for you to actually write an effective summary, you will need to read the text and understand what is actually going on. That is absolutely crucial and fundamental for you to be able to create a response that actually will accomplish the goals that you are looking for by synthesising and understanding which points actually are related to one another, rather than simply appreciating the words on the surface level, without a clear understanding of how they are structured in relation to one another.

Let’s now look at the next question, Question 2, which is about text C.

In question 2a), what you have to do is demonstrate comprehension in such a way that you understand the meaning of particular contextual references in the context of what is provided in these questions right here.

Again, this is a type of understanding that you need to demonstrate along the way. And also what you need to do in 2b) is to explain what the writer means by each of the words underlined.

So you can see right here that there are some words such as “parched”, that you need to understand. And this requires you not necessarily to have the best vocabulary. I’ve seen students who don’t necessarily have the greatest vocabulary but still are able at the end of the day to answer questions like these because they are able to read in context by looking at what’s to the left and what’s to the right of the particular word to be able to make inferences about the meaning.

From there, we need to explain how that suggests the feelings being portrayed.

In this case, it’s important to consider the context , as I alluded earlier, to understand what is actually happening with the emotional states of the characters through inference, as well as through the particular choices of words that the author has made.

Take note of what’s happening: the cafe owner is throwing up her hands.

When would you throw up your hands?

Would you do it if you’re extremely happy?

Perhaps, right?

Well, in this particular context, can we substantiate that the café owner is extremely happy from the evidence?


But in this particular case, the author then says, “Then, turning alarmed, she shouted at a couple of well-dressed gentlemen seated at a corner table.”

Here, it seems reasonable to say that the emotion being described is not happiness and that we should change our assessment – frustration might be a better fit.

Look further at the evidence – consider the sentences before and after the lines that you were looking at, and consider the paragraphs before and after as you ask yourself what the overall picture is about after you have come to comprehend the individual detail, before cross validating and zooming back in again to verify that your initial understanding was correct.

It is here, after you have come to comprehend the whole from the part, and the part in the context of the whole, that you will see that the emotion that the character was experiencing could have been exasperation… But it’s probably not happiness.

In all cases, support your responses with evidence, and at every point, ask yourself whether your analysis aligns with the text surrounding the section you’re examining. This will help you construct your response effectively.

Now, question 2d) is the renowned writer’s effect question.

I could write an entire blog post about this, and in fact, I have.

The writer’s effect question requires you to read two different paragraphs and explain how the author uses language to convey meaning and create an effect.

You have to choose three examples of words or phrases from each paragraph to support your answer. Your choices should include the use of imagery.

As before, this question tests your reading comprehension skills as it requires you to analyze and evaluate the author’s choice of words.

This is where your language analysis skills will be most needed. You have to understand the effect of specific words and how they achieve that effect.

You should discuss how a particular overall effect is created through the choice of words.

For instance, if there’s a beautiful metaphor or personification, you need to explain how that depicts the effect of heat on the landscape and the speaker.

You can assert that the landscape appears tortured.

The text states, “The violence of the heat seemed to bruise the whole earth.”

So, why did the author use the word “bruise”?

Isn’t it typically living entities that get bruised? Don’t we usually associate that word with physical injury?

The answer is yes, we typically do. Which is why we can say the writer uses descriptive imagery like personification and metaphor to depict the heat as an oppressive force, ravaging the entire landscape, and creating an unbearable environment.

This is essentially what you have to do: understand, analyze, and convert your analysis into well-structured paragraphs. Show that you understand the writer’s strategic choice of words to create specific effects. This requires a firm understanding of how writers achieve effects that influence readers, and the ability to analyze, evaluate, and support your points with evidence from the text. That’s where other things, like the PEEL method and your ability to draw inferences and make connections, become extremely important.

Let’s finally discuss Question 3.

In Q3, you’re tasked with reading a given text, in this case, “The Long Hot Walk,” and subsequently answering a question that requires you to develop facts, ideas, and opinions.

This is primarily relevant to R3, but also includes R1 and R2, because it’s essential to understand what facts, ideas, and opinions are present in the text. It would be challenging to effectively convey these, particularly related to the feelings or opinions of the character you’re asked to imitate.

In this context, you need to demonstrate the ability to comprehend the text and imagine yourself as a character other than yourself.

Consider this: you’re told to assume the role of the eating place owner. You must imitate this character, envision the environment, and consider what the owner might say about the eating place.

Of course, familiarity with the formats of the texts you’ll encounter is essential. However, how do you accomplish this?

As a side note, if you’re tasked with writing an interview, you need to familiarize yourself with that format initially.

Beyond this, you must identify key points within the text, such as what tourists need to know about the region. For instance, it’s cold in the morning but hot during the day, and water may be scarce. You should be able to incorporate these points into your interview.

If you’re discussing the effects of extreme thirst and how to manage it, you’ll need to make certain inferences. The text does not provide explicit information on this, so you may have to infer details such as fantasies of water, delirium, or potential fainting due to “extreme fatigue.”

You might also discuss local measures to improve safety in the region, which requires an understanding of the region’s dangers. This necessitates reading with an eye towards evidence that supports these points in the text.

It’s not just about noting points, but responding to the question by deciding what to include. This is vital for the IGCSE as well as reading comprehension in general.

In real life, you may not always know what evidence to look for, but in the IGCSE, you’re expected to find supporting evidence within the text.

Once you identify what is needed, you can highlight the points and proceed, but it’s crucial to grasp what’s happening.

Alright! That wraps up this blog post about reading comprehension in the context of the IGCSE’s Paper 1. I hope you found it valuable. We’ll continue this a little later with a discussion about reading comprehension in the context of Paper 2 later on.

For now, my advice is this: Always focus on understanding. Reflect on your preliminary understanding, as it forms the basis for further analysis. Without basic comprehension, giving views or opinions becomes challenging. Your opinions may be poorly structured, and you won’t be able to achieve your desired outcome.

Reading comprehension is not merely the act of reading, but rather the ability to understand, analyze, and interpret what is being read. Students who wish to improve their reading comprehension skills should focus on active reading techniques, such as predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing. It’s also crucial to understand the broader context, make connections, and draw inferences from the text. The habit of looking up unfamiliar words and concepts can significantly expand one’s vocabulary and enhance comprehension. Students should also practice summarizing texts in their own words to ensure they’ve truly understood what they’ve read.

For students to demonstrate their comprehension effectively, they need to engage in consistent practice. The more exposure one has to different texts and contexts, the better they become at understanding and interpreting them. Students should make it a habit to analyze various texts, including news articles, essays, stories, and more, to understand different writing styles and perspectives. Furthermore, engaging in discussions and debates about what they’ve read can also help deepen their understanding and demonstrate their comprehension skills.

In conclusion, reading comprehension is a crucial skill, not just for acing English exams like the IGCSE, but also for a broader range of academic and professional contexts. The key to improving and demonstrating this skill lies in understanding the text deeply, thinking critically, practicing regularly, and not shying away from challenging material. Remember, each text offers an opportunity to learn, grow, and enhance your reading comprehension skills, so always approach it with an open and curious mind.

2 thoughts on “Reading Comprehension in IGCSE First Language English (0500) – Paper 1.

  1. Yen Nee Seow

    Hi Victor,

    Thanks very much for your helpful guidance on tackling and developing the required skills to score the IGCSE English comprehension which goes beyond academic excellence….. so many adults in the workspace lack this essential skill.

    1. victortanws

      Thank you for your kind comment, Yen Nee!

      Yes, I do perceive that a lot of people in the workplace and also on social media don’t seem to demonstrate skills in critical reading or reading comprehension, which is one of the things that has led to the possibility that people in Malaysia or in the world at large become misinformed by disinformation released by less than reputable sources or people with bad intent and a desire to deceive.

      I hope that this piece helped you to develop some of those skills in some way and also that if you found it helpful that you would consider sharing it with others around you who may find it to be useful or interesting. Thank you so much for your kind words and for your compliments, and I look forward to serving you further with more interesting content in the days ahead.

      Regards, V.

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