SQA Candidate Guidance
Higher English Close Reading
Some facts about the paper
The Close Reading exam paper lasts for one hour and forty-five
minutes. (Date and time for 2011: Friday 13 May, 9.00am to 10.45am)
The exam paper will have two passages on a related theme. The
passages will be selected from works of non-fiction, from essays, or
from quality journalism. The ideas will be complex and expressed in
sophisticated English. The total length will be in the region of 1,500
words. The length of each of the two passages may vary from year to
year: the first passage may be longer than the second, or the first
passage may be shorter than the second, or both passages may be of
The questions (which are printed in a separate booklet) will test your
ability to understand the writers' ideas, to analyse the writers'
techniques, and to evaluate the effectiveness of the writing. There will
always be at least one question requiring comparison of the passages.
The total number of marks available is 50. The number of questions will
vary. The number of marks allocated to each question is shown at the
end of each question.
As well as an indication of the number of marks allocated, there is a
code letter to tell you which skill is being tested in each question. These
codes are: U for Understanding, A for Analysis, E for Evaluation.
Sometimes these are combined to indicate that there is a focus on more
than one skill – for example, U/E indicates that you are being asked to
show an understanding of the writer's ideas and to make an evaluation
Full details of the Arrangements for Higher English can be found on
Specimen question paper
The specimen question paper for Higher English can be found on
Some general advice
It is important to use your time wisely so that you answer all the
questions and are not rushing to finish the last two or three questions.
You might consider allocating amounts of time to groups of questions.
For example, if you try to 'earn' about 7 marks every 15 minutes or
about 5 marks every 10 minutes, this will ensure an equal allocation of
time to all questions.
Allocation of marks/length of answers
The number of marks allocated to a question will give you a clear idea
of the length of answer required. A question for 1 mark can probably be
answered in very few words, while a 4 mark question (especially if it is
coded A or E) will require a detailed answer making a number of points.
A common mistake is to spend too much time on the early questions.
Remember that the questions at the end are often quite 'high value'
ones – so it's important to give them enough time. Also, don’t waste
time writing unnecessarily long answers with pointless
introductions which simply repeat the question – get to the point quickly.
While answers on some Evaluation questions will need to be written as
'mini-essays', most answers do not need to be in sentences.
Remember to look at the code letter(s) for the question and focus your
Introduction to the passages
There is usually a brief introduction (printed in italics) just before each
passage begins. This can be very important. If the examiners have
thought it necessary to provide an introduction, it will be because they
think it will help you to understand the passages more easily.
How to prepare/practise for the exam
The general importance of reading
The best preparation for this part of the examination is extensive
reading of the types of English from which the passages are usually
selected. This should be done over a long period of time – you cannot
expect to become familiar with this type of complicated writing by
looking at a couple of past papers. The more comfortable you become
with the type of writing, the less daunting the passages in the exam will
seem. You may even begin to guess the types of questions the
examiners will ask.
Quality newspapers, quality magazines/periodicals, types of non-
The simplest way to find appropriate writing is to read regularly one or
more of the 'quality' UK newspapers (often referred to as 'broadsheet',
although some of these are now printed in 'tabloid' – or 'compact' –
form). The 'opinion' or 'comment' sections are the most valuable, but
extended news coverage is also useful. Magazines and periodicals
which deal with serious topics such as current affairs, politics, media
issues, history, science, religious/ethical issues are also appropriate
places to find suitable writing. Similarly, a non-fiction book (or collection
of essays) dealing with any of these topics would be helpful. Your
teacher/lecturer or school/college librarian may be able to suggest some
Material which is purely, or largely, factual is not helpful. You need to
be reading about ideas, in writing where the writer is developing a line
Past exam papers/SQA's website
Looking at previous exam papers is the most obvious way of making
yourself familiar with the layout of the paper and the style of questioning
within it. Recent past papers in Higher English are available, published
by Bright Red Publishing, and can be purchased in most bookshops.
(Note that these are published exactly 'as sat', and may not reflect
recent slight changes in format.)
The marking instructions for recent Close Reading exam papers can be
found on SQA's website.
Some specific advice
Questions on understanding
Answer these 'in your own words'. Even though the individual questions
do not state this, there is a clear instruction on the front cover of the
exam paper, and this is repeated at the beginning of the questions. It
means that you have to demonstrate that you understand the more
complex words and phrases used in the passage. If you simply quote or
use the words already in the passage, the marker won't know whether
you understand what they mean – and will assume that you don't.
The number of marks allocated to an Understanding question will
clearly indicate the number of points you are expected to make.
Try to make your answers to these questions fairly brief; using bullet
points is perfectly acceptable here.
For examples of this type of question, look at questions 1, 3(a) and 3(b)
in the 2008 paper, questions 5(a) and 10(b) in the 2007 paper, or
questions 5 and 9 in the 2006 paper.
The link question
This is a common question, although it's not asked every year.
Note that this is an 'Understanding' question. You must demonstrate an
understanding of each of the two paragraphs (or sections) being linked.
In addition you must identify the word or words in the link sentence
which connect with the preceding paragraph and the word or words in
the link sentence which connect with what follows.
So there are four elements in a successful answer:
a quotation (from the link sentence) which refers to the idea(s) of
the preceding paragraph;
an understanding of the idea(s) of the preceding paragraph;
a quotation (from the link sentence) which refers to the idea(s) of
the coming paragraph;
an understanding of the idea(s) of the coming paragraph.
For examples of this type of question, look at question 3(a) in the 2008
paper or question 5(a) in the 2003 paper.
If you are asked to 'summarise' or to 'identify the main points' or to give
the 'key reasons', your answer should be fairly brief. You should focus
on each main idea the writer is putting across. Don’t include any of the
supporting evidence or examples the writer uses – these will weaken a
'summary' (and waste valuable time).
Examples of this type of question can be found in question 11(a) in the
2001 paper, question 5 in the 2002 paper and question 6(b) in the 2006
paper. In the 2006 question, examiners found many candidates writing
extremely long-winded answers which repeated everything the writer
said. Not only is that very time-consuming, it is the opposite of what a
summary should be doing. The question (which was worth 6 marks)
could have been answered in three fairly concise sentences.
There is specific advice below about answering on imagery, sentence
structure, etc, but there is an important point to be remembered about
all Analysis questions.
You must pay attention to why you are analysing: the question nearly
always gives a clear focus for you about what the writer's use of a
feature is trying to achieve, and you should concentrate on this - don't
analyse 'in a vacuum'. For example, question 3 in the 2007 paper is not
an open invitation to analyse word choice and imagery for their own
sake, but to show how they convey 'the wonder of the library as a
physical space'. Similarly, question 4(c) in the 2008 paper asks you to
show how the writer's use of language "reinforces his criticism of the
conservationists' ideas", not just to write general comments about the
language. For other examples, see question 4 in the 2006 paper,
question 9(b) in the 2005 paper, or question 9 in the 2004 paper.
Questions on imagery and on word choice
These are questions most Higher English candidates find especially
difficult. It's not easy to 'learn' how to do them, since your ability here
depends on your sensitivity to language, and this is something that has
been growing gradually since you started learning to read. The
following bits of advice, however, might help:
You never get any marks simply for quoting a word or identifying
an image – the marks are always for the 'quality of comment'.
The comment must be specific to the word or image being asked
about – vague remarks which could apply to any word or image
will get no marks, and you get no marks for repeating the
When answering on word choice, try to go beyond what a word
means, and explore what it suggests (in technical terms:
connotation rather than denotation).
When answering on imagery, try to show how the literal root or
origin of the image is being used by the writer to express an idea
in a metaphorical way.
For examples of this type of question, look at questions 2(a) and 9 in
the 2008 paper, questions 3, 5(b) and 9 in the 2007 paper, or questions
3(c) and 8(b) in the 2006 paper.
Questions on sentence structure
Candidates find these questions difficult too. As with questions on
imagery and word choice, it's not easy to 'learn' how to answer them.
You have to be able to recognise relevant features of sentence
structure (eg brevity, length, use of listing, climax, anti-climax, repetition,
use of questions, balance, period), but the marks are given for the
quality of your comments on their effect in context.
For examples of this type of question, look at question 9 in the 2008
paper, questions 1(b) and 10 in the 2006 paper, or question 6(b) in the
Questions on tone
'Tone' is possibly the most difficult area of all. Not only will you have to
identify the writer's tone at a particular point in the passage (eg anger,
contempt, regret, nostalgia, irony, humour), you'll also have to explain
how the writer establishes the tone. The 'how' part is often done best
by exploring other aspects of language such as sentence structure,
imagery, and word choice (see the sections above) since these are
often used to convey tone. Also, features such as sound, exaggeration
and anti-climax are often used to establish tone.
For examples of this type of question, look at question 7(b) in the 2008
paper, question 3(b) in the 2005 paper or questions 6(b) and 10(c)(ii) in
the 2004 paper.
Questions on 'the writer's use of language'
Sometimes a question simply asks you to show how 'the writer's use of
language' does something or other. This means you're not being
guided towards a specific technique such as sentence structure or
tone. For these questions you must find the most appropriate
technique(s) and then deal with it/them in the way suggested above.
Remember, however, there will still be no marks for simply identifying a
feature or quoting a word or image.
For examples of this type of question, look at questions 2(b), 8 and
10(b) in the 2008 paper, questions 4(a) and 8(b) in the 2007 paper, or
questions 4 and 7 in the 2006 paper.
There will always be at least one question at the end of the paper
requiring comparison of the passages. You will have to compare and
evaluate the ideas in the passages, or the styles in which they are
written, or both of these.
Be very careful to establish whether you are to answer on style or on
ideas, and stick to the task.
You will always have to make reference to both passages, although you
don’t have to give each of them the same amount of attention. Note that
in 2006 the question referred to specific sections of each passage, not
the whole passage.
The best answers to these questions are often like little essays in which
you develop a clear point of view about the passages, supporting each
statement with specific reference to the passages. Poor answers are
usually a list of random thoughts with no clear line of thought.
When answering on style, it's acceptable to make some use of material
from previous answers, but it's a good idea to introduce a few 'new'
When answering on ideas, try to go beyond simply summarising what
the writers have said; it is likely that your opinion is being asked for – so
it is quite acceptable for you to give this, provided it is linked
appropriately to ideas in the passages.
Hint: have a brief look at the comparison question(s) before you start,
so that while you are working your way through the other questions and
becoming more familiar with the ideas and styles of the passages, you
will be able to give some thought to what you might say in the
For examples of this type of question, look at question 13 in the 2008
paper, question 13 in the 2007 paper, question 13 in the 2006 paper, or
question 16 in the 2005 paper.