Read Well to Write Well: Strategies for Reading Comprehension

For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries—to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style…It is fit for the beginner and learner to study others and the best. For the mind and memory are more sharply exercised in comprehending another man’s things than our own.

~Ben Jonson

The English playwright and poet Ben Jonson knew what it takes to succeed in writing: read, observe, and exercise. In other words, it is important to observe the work of others and practice often. If you can understand what you read, then you will be able to:

  • Use the knowledge you have gained to support your own ideas
  • Apply the structure and style that others use to your own writing.

But understanding what you read, or reading comprehension, takes practice and intention. Before reading a text, it will help if you set a purpose. Take a look at the reading and ask yourself the following:

  • What is the topic of the text?
  • When was it written?
  • What issue(s) will be addressed?
  • What conclusion(s) might the author reach about the issue(s)?

Then, as you read the text, consider these questions:

  • What reasons does the author give for their statements or belief?
  • Is the author using facts or opinions?
  • Has the author used neutral or emotive words?
  • What seems to be the writer’s position?
  • What assumptions does the writer make?

Finally, when you have finished the reading, answer these questions:

  • What does the author leave out?
  • Whose perspectives, experiences, or attitudes are not considered?
  • Do you accept the arguments made by the author? Why or why not?

Setting a purpose will help you become a better reader, and being a better reader will improve your writing. By asking yourself the above questions, you improve your close reading skills. While speed is important when reading, comprehension is more essential to being a good reader. Strong reading comprehension requires close reading and a critical eye. Close-reading is a thoughtful, critical analysis of a text, which focuses on both structure and meaning to develop a deep, precise understanding.

To help you improve your engagement with a text, you might consider making a few notes as you read:

  • Notes to explain meaning
  • Synonyms for unfamiliar words
  • Challenges to opinions that are expressed
  • Examples to support points that are made
  • Connections of your own experiences or wider knowledge
  • Questions about the text

By enhancing your reading skills, you will also greatly improve your writing ability. So, if you aspire to be an excellent write, don’t forget to pick up a book!

Source: Pavich, Jill. Cambridge International AS Level: General Paper Coursebook

IGCSE First Language English Paper 2: Narrative Writing

The Cambridge IGCSE First Language English Paper 2 is title Directed Writing and Composition. Section A tests both reading and writing skills. You can check out our previous post on genres to learn more about that. Section B, though, tests only the student’s writing skills.

Section B of Paper 2 gives the student four options to choose from: two descriptive prompts and two narrative prompts. Our last post covered descriptive writing. This post will give some suggestions for succeeding in the narrative writing.

Photo by Pixabay on

Below are sample narrative prompts:

  • Write a story that ends with the phrase ‘he couldn’t believe his eyes’.
    Write a story where one of the characters becomes ill.
  • Write a story that involves solving a problem.
  • Write a story which includes the words, ‘… this could not be the present …’.
  • Write a story with the title, ‘Visitors’.
  • Write a story which involves a mistake in the sending or receiving of a message.

Mark Scheme

24 marks are given for style and accuracy: The plot is well-defined and strongly developed with features of fiction writing such as description characterization and effective climax and convincing details.

16 marks are given for content and structure: Many well-defined and developed ideas and images create a convincing overall picture with varieties of focus.

Photo by Pixabay on

Tips for the Narrative

  • Write from personal experience, and make it interesting.
    • Makes it credible and engaging
    • Avoid zombies, aliens, and monsters
    • Make it believable
  • Time and length are short
    • Structure and organize
    • Develop a plot: Beginning, middle, end
    • Allow to time to edit
    • Have a realistic but interesting ending–don’t just start strong
  • Use narrative features
    • Setting (imagery, sensory details)
    • Characterization (2-3, and believable)
    • Conflict (main issue)
    • Dialogue (not too much)

  • Style and Accuracy
    • Punctuation and grammar
    • Tense consistency
    • Spelling…proofread!
  • Vocabulary and Sentence Structure
    • Appropriate vocabulary
    • Varied sentence structure (see next slide from descriptive writing)

IGCSE First Language English Paper 2: Descriptive Writing

The Cambridge IGCSE First Language English Paper 2 is title Directed Writing and Composition. Section A tests both reading and writing skills. You can check out our previous post on genres to learn more about that. Section B, though, tests only the student’s writing skills.

Section B of Paper 2 gives the student four options to choose from: two descriptive prompts and two narrative prompts. This post will give some suggestions for succeeding in the descriptive writing.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Below are sample descriptive prompts:

  • Write a description with the title ‘The playground.’
  • Write a description with the title, ‘The factory’.
  • Write a description of a place where animals are kept in captivity, such as a zoo, wildlife park or
    sea-life centre.
  • Describe the inside of an interesting shop.
  • Describe waking up to find the scene around you has changed.
  • Describe a group of tourists outside an attraction.

Mark Scheme

24 marks are given for style and accuracy: Precise, well-chosen vocabulary and varied sentence structures, chosen for effect; consistent well-chosen register suitable for the context; spelling, punctuation, and grammar almost always accurate.

16 marks are given for content and structure: Many well-defined and developed ideas and images create a convincing overall picture with varieties of focus.

Descriptive Skills

  • Metaphors: Compares two dissimilar things saying it is something else
    • “He was a beaten dog.”
  • Similes: Directly compares two dissimilar things.
    • “He looked the way a beaten dog might look.”
  • Sensory details: words that stir any of the five senses: touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight.
  • Personification: Speaks of concepts or objects as if they had life or human characteristics.
    • “ I saw a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils; / Beside the lake, beneath the trees, / Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” -“I Wandered Lonely….”, Wordsworth
    • “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land” -The Waste Land, by Eliot
    • “Her heart was divided between concern for her sister, and resentment against all the others.” -Pride and Prejudice, Austen
  • Adjectives: words that describe the qualities or states of being of nouns (enormous, silly, yellow, fun, fast).
  • Hyperbole: exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.
  • Juxtaposition: placing two elements close together or side by side. This is often done in order to compare/contrast the two, to show similarities or differences, etc.
Photo by Flash Dantz on

Varied Sentence Structure

  • Simple: has one independent clause.
    • I read the novel.
  • Compound: has two independent clauses.
    • I read the novel, but I did not like it.
    • I read the novel because it was homework.
    • I read the novel; it was amazing.
  • Complex: has one dependent clause joined to an independent clause.
    • Because I was lucky, I did not get caught.
    • Whenever I study, we don’t have a pop quiz.
  • Compound-Complex: has two independent clauses joined to one or more dependent clauses.
    • While I was studying, Tom was gaming; however, he already knew the material.
  • Variety of sentence openings:
    • The biggest coincidence that day happened when John and I ended up seeing each other.
    • Coincidentally, John and I ended up seeing each other that day.
    • In an amazing coincidence, John and I ended up seeing each other that day.
    • Guided by some bizarre coincidence, John and I ended up seeing each other that day.
  • Short and long sentences

Some points to keep in mind

  • Show don’t tell.
  • Point of view movement; zoom in on different objects of focus.
  • Think of a photograph.
  • There will be some components of narration (action and movement), but avoid writing a narrative.
  • Complex and effective, but not difficult for your reader; instead, it shows thought-out organization and progression.
  • Engaging and interesting.

The ACT English Section

On the ACT, there are three ‘English-related’ sections: English, Reading and Writing. As you prepare for the test, you should keep a few things in mind that will help you get a higher score.library

Let’s look at the English section today. This section involves a lot of passage correction. There are five passages, each accompanied by a sequence of multiple choice questions. You’ll have 45 minutes to address the 75 questions. That means you have to move fast!

The types of questions can be broken down into three categories.

  1. Punctuation: These questions test your knowledge of internal and end punctuation, with focus on the relationship of punctuation to meaning.
  2. Grammar and Usage: These test your understanding of subject and verb agreement, pronoun and antecedent relationships, and relationships between modifiers and the word modified. They also test your knowledge of verb formation and formation of comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs.
  3. Sentence Structure: These are concerned with relationships between and among clauses, placement of modifiers, and shifts in construction.

With so much ground to cover, where do you begin? Below are ten areas that you can focus on to be prepared for the English section of the ACT.

1. The concise choice is the “best” choice: There are often questions in which multiple options seem correct. If there are no new grammar errors introduced, the shortest answer choice is often the correct choice. Although an answer might not be grammatically incorrect, it might be redundant or wordy. For example, if something is said to be “happy and joyful”, it’s redundant and not the best choice. The writing should be simple and to the point.

2. Semicolons: A semicolon can be used to join two independent clauses when the second clause restates the first or when the two clauses are of equal emphasis.

I don’t know if I studied enough; I should review more.

They can also be used to join two independent clauses when the second clause begins with a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, etc.) or a transition (in fact, for example, etc.).

I know I am ready for this test; in fact, I could take it right now!

3. Commas: There are many uses for commas, but let’s just look at the main ones. First, they’re used to separate words and word groups in a simple series of three or more items.

We ate pasta, bread, and cheese.

Commas are used to separate two adjectives when the adjectives are interchangeable.

The small, black car is affordable.

Use a comma when starting a sentence with a dependent clause (a clause that cannot stand on its own).

When I arrived, the dinner was ready.

Use commas to set off nonessential parts of the sentence.

The dog, wanting to find his bone, went outside.

4. Subject and object pronouns: When a noun is used in relation to a verb, it can be either a subject or an object. Subjects “do” verbs and objects have verbs “done” to them. For example, “The car hit me.” Who is doing the hitting? The car. So the car is the subject. Who is receiving the hit? Me. So “me” is the object.

When we replace the object or the subject with a pronoun, it’s important to know if it’s a subject or object—this will determine what type of pronoun we use. The below chart tells you which to choose depending on what type of noun is being “replaced” by a pronoun:

Subject Pronouns Object Pronouns














One problem is that some of us have been incorrectly told, for example, that “John and I” is correct; we may have been told that we shouldn’t say “John and me.” Of course, this is not true! It depends on the relationship of the nouns to the verb. For example, let’s look at this:

Ella gave the cookies to John and me.

Ella did not give them to “John and I”. After all, we would never say, “Ella gave the cookies to I.” Right? That’s because the pronoun is receiving the action of being given cookies. On the other hand, let’s look at this example:

John and I gave her the cookies.

In this situation, “John and I” are the subjects so it’s “I” instead of “me”. The object is now Ella, so we use the object pronoun “her”. Ella is receiving the action–she is now the object of the verb.

This also applies to the use of “who” and “whom”. When we have a question about the subject, we use “who”:

Who hit me?

amusement-park-1840626_1920The “who” is doing the verb, hitting. Now, let’s say I did the hitting but I don’t know who I hit:

Whom did I hit?

Remember that the “M pronouns”—including “whom”—are objects that receive the action: Me, hiM, theM, whoM. Remember that the pronouns with “M” are objects, and you’ll ace it!

5. Verb tense: There are six basic verb tenses, two for each time period:

Simple Present: They sing.

Present Perfect: They have sung.

Simple Past: They sang.

Past Perfect: They had sung.

Future: They will sing.

Future Perfect: They will have sung.

The choice with the consistent tense use is the correct choice. If we’re talking about the past, stay in the past:

I told him that I had been there before.

If we’re talking about the future, stay in the future:

I will notify them that they will be in that room.

6. Number agreement: The English section often includes long sentences in which the main subject and the verb are separated by lots of words or clauses. If you identify the subject of each sentence and make sure the verb matches it, you will do well.

Nouns and verbs are both parts of speech with number. We write them differently if they refer to just one thing or multiple things. For example, “One cat climbs fast” but “Two cats climb fast.”


Number agreement simply means that the noun and the verb have the same number (singular or plural). Be on the lookout for modifiers and words in between the subject and the verb that might throw you off:

The writing in those poems is wonderful.

Notice that it’s “is” because the subject is “writing” not “poems”.

7. Logical flow and strategy: The English section will ask you to determine the order and focus of sentences or paragraphs. You will also be asked about adding, revising, or deleting sentences as well as how a sentence aligns with the purpose and focus of a paragraph or the passage as a whole.

8. Commonly confused words:

  • There, their, they’re
  • Through, thorough, threw
  • Have vs. of (could’ve = could have)
  • Accept vs except
  • Affect vs effect
  • Eminent vs imminent
  • Hole vs whole
  • Then, than
  • Already, all ready
  • Beside, besides
  • Further, farther
  • Who, whom, whose, who’s

9. Fragments: A complete sentence needs a subject and a verb in a complete main clause. This is NOT a complete sentence:

Good movie.

This is a complete sentence:

That was a good movie.

If it lacks a verb, it’s a fragment.

10. Parallel structure: In parallel construction, the phrases or items must be in the same form. This can be tested with a few parts of speech: nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc.

For example, we should have “I like eating, sleeping, and reading.” It would be incorrect to write, “I like eating, to sleep, and reading.” The “to sleep” is not parallel to the verb format of the other two items.


Those ten areas are among the “favorites” for the ACT English section—you’re likely to see them on the test. Now, here are some final tips to leave you with:

  • Everything not underlined is taken as fact. Everything underlined is under question.
  • Don’t worry about looking for errors in the passage; focus on the parts being questioned.
  • Read the questions, and then look over surrounding sentences for context.
  • Ask yourself:
    • Does this sentence contribute to the topic? Is it new information or is it merely rephrasing the same information?
    • Is the style and tone consistent with the rest of the passage?
    • Do the paragraphs transition well and are they consistent with the others?

Stay tuned for tips on the Reading section of the test! Also, for individualized instruction, contact Lux Writing Center.

Tips for traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language

School breaks are a wonderful time to take your children abroad where they can learn about different countries, languages, foods, and sites. And homeschooling allows for an even greater flexibility to travel.

My wife, son, and I had the opportunity to live in South America for two years. This was an experience that I feel was fundamental to our child’srunning view of the world. We have also spent significant time in Mexico. Furthermore, these trips have opened up a variety of writing projects for our son.

However, not knowing the language of a country that you’re visiting is not unusual. Many people love to be in new countries and experience new cultures, and traveling is an invaluable addition to one’s education—but we can’t simply pick up a language in a few weeks or even months. We shouldn’t let these language barriers prevent us from exploring the world around us, though.

So, what should you do when you don’t speak the language of the land? Below are a few tips I came up with while living abroad.

Learn the basics. At least learn how to say hello, please, thank you, excuse me, and goodbye. In Ecuador, for example, you don’t just walk into a store, look around, and leave. You should say “Buenos dias” or “Buenas tardes” (depending on the time of day) when you enter a store. If not, you’re rude. Furthermore, when you leave a small store, it’s important to say, “Gracias,” even if you didn’t buy anything.

As a safety precaution, learn how to say a few distress phrases. Even if you don’t end up needing them, you’ll feel more at ease having words like “help,” “emergency” and “police” in your vocabulary.

I also recommend you learn to ask for bathrooms, food, and drink. These can be important.

Use hand gestures and sounds. Nodding, pointing, and even making movements that represent what you’re saying can be very successful. Of course, gesturing for a bathroom might not be a good idea. So, like I said in number one, learn how to say it.


Bring a notepad. Drawing pictures is a great way to get your point across without having to play Guess-what-I’m-saying-based-on-my-gestures. Also, in Spanish-speaking countries, you could sometimes get away with writing the word in English, first. If you need a hospital, for example, you could communicate by writing the word. When a local sees the word in writing, they’ll know what you need because it’s the same in Spanish. If you say it in English, though, they might not understand you since the pronunciation is different.

Take notes. In that notepad, write down some important words and phrases that you think you might need but haven’t been able to learn. If it’s a short list and you know what’s in it, you’ll be able to find it fast. As a plus, you might learn those important words and phrases just from writing, saying, and repeating them.

Also, in the notepad, you could put the street address where you’re staying. If you get lost or don’t have a ride, you could show a taxi driver the address, with the nearest cross street–even if you don’t know how to pronounce it.

Be patient, stand back and observe. Many questions can be answered without speaking. Before asking, you might see a sign that indicates public bathrooms or a street name that looks familiar.

Use your smartphone. I recommend you use it as you would a pocket dictionary. You can also use a smartphone to translate text in photos, like street signs or menus.

Using a smartphone in some areas might prove to be a bit dangerous, depending on where you’re traveling. In that case, you might consider the old-fashioned method: a paper dictionary.

boatsThen, there’s the ever-frustrating suggestion: Take classes, meet a local, start a conversation. People traveling and living abroad have heard this over and over again. These are great ways to learn the language. However, for those who have tried this approach, you know it’s easier said than done. You don’t just learn it by being in a new country. Learning a new language is hard work and it’s frustrating. But be strong, have patience, learn the essentials, and enjoy the country you’re in.

If you decide you want to learn a new language, you will be taking on a worthy task. You can read more about the benefits of learning a foreign language in an earlier  post: Improve your English Grammar by Learning a Foreign Language.

Tips From a Linguist: How to be a better writer

Writing well can be challenging, and the work is sometimes intimidating. In an effort to make the process easier for all of us, Eric Barker of Time reached out to Steven Pinker to talk about the rules and science behind good writing.

vintage-1170657_960_720Pinker offers tips for becoming a better writer. He is a cognitive scientist and linguist at Harvard, and he was recently ranked as one of the top 100 most eminent psychologists of the modern era.

His latest book is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Below are six tips from the Harvard linguist to make you a better writer.

  1. Be visual—make your reader see

“We are primates, with a third of our brains dedicated to vision, and large swaths devoted to touch, hearing, motion, and space. For us to go from ‘I think I understand’ to ‘I understand ,’ we need to see the sights and feel the motions. Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images.”

  1. Don’t assume everyone knows what you know

“…another bit of cognitive science that is highly relevant is a phenomenon called ‘the curse of knowledge.’ Namely, the inability that we all have in imagining what it’s like not to know something that we do know. And that has been studied in various guises in the psychological literature. People assume that the words that they know are common knowledge. That the facts that they know are universally known… the writer doesn’t stop to think what the reader doesn’t know…Show a draft to some people who are similar to our intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. This sounds banal but is in fact profound. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us.”

  1. Don’t bury the lead—tell the reader what your point is

“Readers always have to fill in the background, read between the lines, connect the dots. And that means that they’re applying their background knowledge to understanding the text in question. If they don’t know which background knowledge to apply, any passage of writing will be so sketchy and elliptical, that it’ll be incomprehensible. And that’s why journalists say, ‘Don’t bury the lead.’ Basically, a writer has to make it clear to the reader what the topic of the passage is and what the point of the passage is. That is, the writer has to have something to talk about and the writer has to have something to say… The exact place in which the point of a text is displayed is less important than the imperative to divulge it somewhere not too far from the beginning.”

  1. You don’t always have to play by the rules, but you should try

“That’s right: when it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum. The editors of a dictionary read a lot, keeping their eyes open for new words and senses that are used by many writers in many contexts, and the editors add or change the definitions accordingly…There is no tribunal. There’s no rules committee when it comes to English. It’s not like the rules of Major League Baseball which are exactly what the rules committee stipulates them to be. That would just never work with language. There are hundreds of millions of English speakers and they are constantly adding new terms to the language. They’re constantly changing shades of meaning.”

  1. Read, and read a lot!

“I don’t think you could become a good writer unless you spend a lot of time immersed in text allowing you to soak up thousands of idioms and constructions and figures of speech and interesting words, to develop a sense of writing at its best. Becoming a writer requires savoring and reverse-engineering examples of good prose, giving you something to aspire to and allowing you to become sensitive to the hundreds of things that go into a good sentence that couldn’t possibly be spelled out one by one.”

  1. Revise

“Much advice on good writing is really advice on revising. Because very few people are smart enough to be able to lay down some semblance of an argument and to express it in clear prose at the same time. Most writers require two passes to accomplish that, and after they’ve got the ideas down, now it’s time to refine and polish. Because the order in which ideas occur to a writer is seldom the same as the order that are best digested by a reader. And often, good writing requires a revising and rearranging the order of what you introduce so that the reader can easily follow it.”