Nervous about the big day? Don’t panic! Kenneth Lau, a tutor at Beacon College, shares some last-minute tips for the DSE English Language paper:
Paper 1: Reading
Most candidates still hesitate when it comes to deciding whether to choose B1 or B2. Lau says past papers can be a good indicator. He recommends Form Six students do both B1 and B2 in every past paper from 2012-2015. If your B2 score is much lower than that of B1, don’t risk it. And decide early on which one you’re going for. There’s no point wasting precious time in the exam room making your decision.
It’s also a good idea to make a checklist to mark which question types
When the exam starts, try not to jump straight to the questions. Familiarise yourself with the reading passages first: take a look at the title, subhead, first and last paragraphs.
Multiple choice questions will catch out some students as they immediately select the answers whose exact words can be found in the passages. Don't fall into that trap. Look at the question one more time, ask yourself what it’s asking, look out for synonyms and choose your answers carefully.
For summary cloze or sentence completion, make sure your answers are meaningful and grammatically correct. So there are two steps: (1) search for the correct words / phrases; (2) change the part of speech (if necessary).
Long questions, such as contrasting, referencing or asking for reasons, are never easy as most of them are open-ended. But it’s not the end of the world. Some words (e.g. because, since, due to) or punctuation (e.g. a dash) can help you find the causes. And remember, there are lots of different types of causes: good / bad, long-term / short-term.
When the long question asks you to make a comparison, try to use comparative / superlative adjectives or adverbs.
Paper 2: Writing
The marking scheme for the writing paper consists of three parts – content, language and organisation. According to Lau, you should focus most on the content element.
Candidates should read the questions three to four times before planning and writing to make sure their ideas answer what the question is asking. Answers which are well written but off topic are not likely to score high marks. Don’t waste time trying to write a complicated answer if you don’t understand a single word in the question.
Try not to use words or idioms that are overly difficult and will challenge your markers. Your writing pieces should be clear and easy to understand.
Instead of repeating phrases like: “I think / In my opinion”, try to use a variety of expressions such as: “I hold the view”, “I am convinced that”. For expressions like “I suggest” or “I recommend”, try “One way to tackle the problem would be to ...”. You are also encouraged to use cleft, or complex, sentences: “What the government should do is ...”
Common grammar errors include verb forms (tense, subject-verb agreement, gerund / infinitives), singular / plural nouns and use of prepositions.
Manage your time well. Examiners in previous years reported that students did very well (or something unnecessary) in Part A, but they didn't finish Part B. Lau suggests spending about 40 minutes on Part A and 80 minutes on Part B.
If a question in Social Issues asks you about solving problems, don’t just go straight to writing solutions. Follow these steps: first, define what the problem is. Second, describe it. Third, talk about what its effects are. Then, you can give suggestions or solutions.
Part A is generally a piece of narrative writing, such as a short story or article. Part B consists of eight questions which are based on the modules in the Elective Part. Again, for Part B, choose three electives that you think you’re most likely to answer.
A better answer should show that you have looked at different angles. If a question is asking you to tackle the phenomenon of obesity, it can be answered in the following way: first, what can be done in schools (e.g. students’ eating habits and what products are on sale at tuck shops). Secondly, what measures should the government consider (e.g. promoting a healthy lifestyle). Also, include the limitations and expected difficulties of the solutions or measures.
Paper 3: Listening and Integrated Skills
Candidates who got all their Part A answers correct were far more likely to get 5** or 5*, says Lau. Test yourself using the past papers.
Part A generally comprises note-taking (form-filling, sentence completion, Q/A, flow chart), a map or logical questions.
Prepare for Part A by checking the spelling of family names, countries, cities, nationalities, streets, districts, tourist spots. Be careful when it comes to spelling places like Admiralty, Tai Kok Tsui, Sham Shui Po, the Philippines.
The answers are mostly spoken in an indirect way. Be aware of the synonyms. If the question asks you about the effects, watch out for words like: “so”, “the result is ...” or “what would happen is ...”. When the question asks you what nationalities the speakers are, remember that the person is not likely to say: “I’m a Filipino.” Instead, they would probably say: “I’m from the Philippines.”
According to Lau, unless the questions in Part B clearly state students should rephrase, you can quote from the information given, just don't rely on it or over quote it.
When you quote from the data file, remember to change pronouns, tense and formality. Also be careful of the time, date and places.
When you write any letters, don’t forget the ending or complimentary close. Be careful of the spelling: “Yours sincerely”, “Yours faithfully”, “Regards”.
When it comes to map filling, be aware of expressions like: “heading north”, “turning left”, and “go along the street”.
When the questions are asking you about the speakers’ attitude, their tone is usually a good indicator. You can hear it in their voice when someone feels surprised, depressed or delighted.
Lau said there is not a huge difference between B1 and B2 as candidates will listen to the same script. Again, decide which one you are going to do before going into the exam.
For each element of Part B, along with assessing how well you have answered the question, language, organisation / coherence, appropriacy can also improve your score. For language, you can get points depending on how well you use grammar, pronouns, spelling and reference words. Organisation refers to how you structure your answer: organise your answers in a logical way, making sure you answer the question. Remember the linking sentences between each paragraph should be coherent. Appropriacy forces you to consider the situation on a personal level. You should write your answer in an appropriate register, tone and style. If you were a restaurant manager and the question asks you to write a letter in reply to a customer complaint, try to comfort the customer. For example, you could write: “We sincerely apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
Paper 4: Speaking
According to Lau, discussion topics generally include debating, organising events, solving problems, discussing a social phenomenon or reaching a consensus.
Part A: Group Discussion
Candidates should engage in give and take. As well as stating their own ideas, they should also respond to others. The discussion is about exchanging ideas or reaching a consensus, not just about what you have to say.
This is not a good speaking strategy: “Well said. I also think [your own idea].” When you agree with a candidate’s viewpoint, it would be better to share what you agree about, and why you have the same opinions, instead of voicing your own ideas immediately.
After sharing your own views, ask others what they think of what you've just said. You can do this by using expressions such as: “Do you agree with my ideas?” “Do you have more ideas to add”
When you are about to discuss the next topic, make sure the conversation flows in a logical manner. You can say something like: “Let’s move on to the next part.” But how can you stand out from everyone else who is saying that? Get yourself more involved in the discussion with phrases like: “It seems we’ve covered a lot of good ideas Do you have more ideas to add?If not, let’s talk about …”
It’s a speaking test, so other things like pronunciation, stress and intonation still matter.
Speak up! This shows you're confident about what you're saying.
Body language matters! Maintain eye contact with the assessor and other candidates. It seems like you are intimidated or uninterested if you don’t look at anyone else. Good posture will also give examiners a better impression of you.
Again, as with any exam, your word choice and grammar should be accurate.
Part B: Individual Response:
This part tests your ability to improvise.
Make full use of the one minute. Try not to stop in the middle of your response.
Use this helpful formula to make sure you aren’t missing anything: stance + reasons + examples / evidence / experience + details.
Your examiners probably like listening to your experiences instead of a scripted answer. Link your own experience to the questions. This demonstrates that you're capable of thinking on the spot and aren't just repeating a memorised script.
Show you have looked at different angles and considered the issue from different perspectives by using these phrases: in the past / nowadays, locally / internationally, politically / socially / economically / culturally.
It's a group discussion, so it's not just about you; it's about how you interact with others. If someone in your group is going off track, try to guide them back on to the subject. If the question is about preparing for a debating competition, make sure other candidates are not arguing with each other.