Tips to Ace the Comprehension Section of Your IGCSE English Exam

The IGCSE English exam is split into different sections and has a total of 80 marks that you can earn during the exam. In this article, our CambriLearn teachers share their tips on how to pass the comprehension section of the Cambridge IGCSE English Exams.

What to expect in the IGCSE English Exam

Our teachers, having reviewed several of the past English comprehension exam papers, found that the exam is broken up into three skill levels;

  • approximately 33% of the comprehension questions will be easy, 
  • 33% will be slightly harder, 
  • and 33% will require that you put on your thinking cap. 

The tips below will equip you with practical strategies that you can use to complete even the most difficult questions in the exam. 

Start by reading the questions and numbering the paragraphs

Before you jump into the text, start by reading the questions first. This will help you look out for information as you read through the text that will help you answer the questions. 

Once you’ve read the questions, move on to numbering the paragraphs in the text. By doing this, you’ll create a quick reference guide to help you find the answers to the relevant questions. The questions will also help you ensure that you’re using the correct paragraph as reference when answering questions. 

Break the questions into smaller, understandable, requirements

When working through the individual questions, break the requirements down into smaller parts by determining: 

  • If there is a requirement to provide a list of answers. For example, give three reasons why.
  • If the examiner expects you to answer the question in a specific way. For example, if the question asks you to answer using your own words, then you’re expected to answer using synonyms and paraphrasing. 
  • Review the number of marks you can get for the question. If the question is weighted three marks, make sure you’ve answered the question giving the required number of bullet points or reasons.
  • Consider reading your answer from the point of view of the marker. Can you identify three points in your text that would qualify for marks to be awarded? 

Answering the non-obvious questions with inference

Inference means using the information provided in the text to make an informed assumption about what you don’t know by reading between the lines. 

Step 1: Identify if it is an inference question

Sometimes the question would make it clear that it expects you to infer information from the text. The question will have the words “suggest”, “imply” or “infer” in it. 

Some questions don’t make it quite as obvious, but you’ll know that an answer requires some inference if the text does not give you the answer at first reading. 

Step 2: Assume that the passage has the answer

Once you’ve established that you have an inference question, you’ll need to trust that the passage contains the information you need to make the correct inference or assumption. 

For example, if the text goes into detail about the benefits of planning a tour in a specific way, you could infer that there are disadvantages if you plan the tour in a different way. 

Step 3: Look for clues

In the exam, the question will often refer to a specific paragraph number in the text, and a specific line in the paragraph. Make sure that you’re referring to the same paragraph as the examiner. 

Let’s take a look at the sample question and text form the June 2020/21 Cambridge Exam. 

Text to read

So what is bicycle touring? Well, it's completely self-contained and people take on cycling trips for pleasure, for adventure and a sense of freedom.  

Touring can range from single to multi-day trips and even years. Tours may be planned by the participant, or organised by a club or charity as a fund raising venture. 

People of all ages and backgrounds and regions of the world choose the bicycle as their favourite means of travel. 

It's an exciting challenge that allows us to explore new landscapes and cultures, build fitness and experience the joy of breathing fresh air. 

The good news is that you don't need to be a super athlete to enjoy cycling. However you may want to spend some time training on a bike before your trip, be realistic about what you can do and create achievable goals. 

A reasonably fit adult carrying less than nine kilograms of additional equipment on their body can expect to travel an average of a hundred kilometres per day on paved roads and still have time to stop and sightsee. In particularly flat or mountainous terrain, the average will increase or decrease accordingly. 

You'll need to decide if after your daily exertions you want to camp or stay in a hotel. You’ll want to camp because it's inexpensive, independent and closer to nature, or you can stay in hotels as they are comfortable and will result in less gear to carry.

The question

Explain why camping rather than staying in hotels during your tour can slow down your progress? (For three marks).

The text gives us the clue that carrying more gear will result in decreasing the daily distance you can travel, which will slow you down. But, that’s the only obvious clue the text gives the reader about why camping could slow you down on a bicycle tour. 

The question requires that the student digs deeper and come to their own logical assumptions based on what they have read. Why else could camping on a bicycle trip slow you down? 

Here are some of the reasons that we could infer: 

  • When camping, you’ll need to stop your daily ride sooner to find a suitable camping spot before the sun sets. 
  • You’ll also likely start a bit later because you need to break your camp down the following morning. 
  • You can further infer that a hotel is more comfortable, ensuring that you’ll get a good night’s sleep and therefore you’ll recover fully after a day’s riding. 

What to do when you just don’t know

When you’ve read the text and find that you’re still unsure about the answers you’ve inferred, write down what you think. Even when uncertain, writing down your inferences could mean the difference between an additional mark to get top marks or missing out on a mark because you left the question unanswered.

How to ace your exam in summary

Read the questions carefully, and answer the questions keeping the total number of marks in mind. When the answer isn’t obvious, use inference to make relevant conclusions. Assume the answer is in the text, and put on your thinking cap if you feel that you need to dig deeper. Finally, write what you think down. Even when you’re uncertain. Your answer could be right.

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