Expert tips and tricks for the DSE English Language exam

Expert tips and tricks for the DSE English Language exam

Two teachers talk about the questions students struggled with in the DSE English Language exam, and how you can avoid making the same mistakes this year

The DSE English Language exam is fast approaching (April 7-8). With less than two months to go, what can you do to improve your score? Young Post asked English teacher Ansley Lee Kwan-ting, from Kiangsu Chekiang College, and Mia Wong, a tutor from Modern Education, to explain which questions students struggled with most in last year’s exam and how you can get a better score.

The HKEAA report on candidates’ performance is a useful reference tool, as it points out where students went wrong and how to make your answers stand out. It’s worth spending HK$84 to buy the report and study it.

Paper 1: Reading

Lee says some students had problems with cloze questions (those where you have to fill in missing words) because they could not spot the key words. The exam report said students did particularly badly in Part A Q12 (i) and (v-vii) because these questions required “more abstract answers”.


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To answer these questions, Lee suggests the following steps: first, digest the text. At this point, don’t spend too long searching for key words. Understand the message the writer is trying to convey. Then, read the questions and make sure what you think are the answers fit the context. For example, Q12 (i) asks you to state the “aim” of the notes on the lucky study. An aim indicates the rationale behind a plan. So look out for phrases like “to examine why”, “to solve” or “to find out”. Finally, don’t neglect grammar. The questions drop hints about what types of parts of speech are required. Q12 (ii) starts with “Used a ... ”, so your answer should be a noun. Another example is Q12 (vi): “Lucky people were able to …”. Your answer should begin with the base form of a verb, such as “get”, “spot”, “see” and “find” (the messages).

Lee stresses the importance of grammar, not just to help you figure out the answer, but to make sure you answer properly. “Remember the DSE English exam is testing your language proficiency. Bear in mind that all of your answers in the reading paper should be grammatically correct. To cite a cloze question as an example, the answer of Part B1 Q40 (ii) needs to agree with the subject ‘a hawker’. Even though last year’s marking scheme shows that answers such as ‘die’ or ‘retire’ were acceptable, students should ensure that they put the verb in the correct form: ‘dies’ or ‘retires’. No one knows if this year’s examiners will accept your answer if you use the wrong [verb] form,” she says.

Students had difficulty answering inferencing and tone-based questions, Lee says. “These questions asked students to guess the writer’s opinions or thoughts. Remember, these questions are not straightforward; it’s not as easy as just searching for keywords. Read the text until you understand what the writers are talking or thinking about. Use your reasoning skills, and ask yourself why the writer has come up with a particular conclusion. There must be a reason or a situation for making such a judgement. It’s also worth trying to spot some words, especially adjectives, which reveal the writer’s thoughts.”


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For instance, last year’s Part B2 Q52 asked what the writer was “critical of”. To answer this question, Lee recommends interpreting the text and paying extra attention to the adjectives or phrases which the writer used to criticise an issue. For this question, Lee highlights some words like “ridiculous”, “morally reprehensible” and “they are nothing more than”, which hint at their feelings towards this subject.

The report highlighted that a lot of students had problems with pronouns. Wong recommends using clear and specific words rather than pronouns. For example, many candidates in Part B1 Q34 used “they” to refer to “food hawkers”. But there is no guarantee that examiners understood what candidates were referring to.

Paper 2: Writing

Part A asked candidates to write a 200-word speech about the importance of interpersonal relationships and school rules. Wong says some students struggled to understand what they were supposed to do because they didn’t read the question carefully.

“They should pay more attention to the key word, ‘importance’,” says Wong. Candidates had to ask themselves “why these things are important, instead of giving tips on how to make new friends or comply with school rules.”


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Wong reminds students that they should write their answer in the appropriate tone, register and style, and in the voice of the person you have been assigned. For example, last year’s students were asked to write a speech from the President of the Students’ Union welcoming new students. As the task assigned the role of a senior student, the speech should be friendly and encouraging.

Lee suggests avoiding phrases like “you must do this” or “there is no choice so you have to follow the rules”. Instead, try warmer, more welcoming expressions like “this would really improve your experience”.

On the other hand, if you are assigned the role of principal or a company CEO in this type of question, your speech should have a more authoritative tone.

But always stick to the genre of the task, stresses Wong. If Part A asks you to write a speech, don’t do it in letter format.

“Another problem was that some students wrote way too much for Part A. The word count is part of the test, too – it tests whether you can write your answer in a succinct way. Keep it short and concise,” Wong says.

“Also, try not to use overly difficult words or idioms to challenge your markers. Your writing should be easy to understand. The report also pointed out ‘quotations which were not appropriate to the context undermined the credibility of the speaker’. Don’t quote a successful person if it doesn’t fit the context of your answer,” Wong says.

Part B is a more difficult paper as students need to write about 400 words.

Wong reminds students that the proposal is a kind of formal writing, so contractions and abbreviations are not appropriate. It’s also a good idea to use sub-headings and numbered lists in your proposal as these make it easier for examiners to follow your ideas.

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