Cambridge IGCSE English First Language Exam Tips
English First Language is currently offered at Core and Extended level, but 2019 is the final year in which teachers can choose to enter students for the Core tier. During the examinations, candidates will be assessed in terms of reading and writing, with some schools also carrying out speaking and listening assessments. There are some tips and tricks for every paper which you should be aware of before entering the exam.
All candidates will take a Reading paper (known as Paper 1 if you are taking Core, or Paper 2 if you are taking Extended). For this paper, you will have to read two passages and then complete various tasks. The first task is usually a directed writing task, where you have to write a new text (such as a diary, letter or interview) based on what you have read.
Tips for this section of the paper are:
- Don’t summarise: just use the information you need.
- Know your text types: if you are asked to write an interview, for example, make sure it looks and sounds like one in terms of e.g. format and tone.
- Read between the lines: while some of the information you need will be explicitly given to you, you will also need to pick up on characters’ attitudes through what is implied/suggested through certain words or phrases.
After this, Extended candidates have to complete a task where you show that you understand the effects that writers create. You are normally asked to choose 3-5 phrases from a text you have read that you think are especially effective, and explain why you have chosen them.
Tips for this section of the paper are:
- A phrase does not mean a whole sentence: keep the part you have chosen short and sweet (3-5 words) to help you analyse precisely.
- Know your literary and linguistic techniques, such as metaphors and imperative verbs, so that you can identify them easily.
- Explain why the chosen phrases are effective: talk about each one individually and in a really specific way, e.g. “lace-like light” suggests that the light filters through the trees in a fragmented, delicate way, with the assonance of the ‘i’ sound and alliteration of ‘l’ implying that this is also, paradoxically, continuous.
- Avoid very general vague phrases in your analysis: “it makes you feel like you are there” or “it paints a picture in your head” could be said about any phrase chosen.
Core candidates, instead, complete reading comprehension questions about what they have read.
Your final task in the Reading paper is a summary. You firstly need to select 15 relevant points from the specified text for 15 marks, before rewriting these into a continuous paragraph for 5 marks.
Tips for this section of the paper include:
- Keep each of your 15 points short: you will struggle to fill the box of 15 points on the answer paper if not.
- Do not exceed 15 points: any extras will not be credited. So select carefully and make sure you don’t repeat yourself.
- It is fine to copy from the text for the list of 15 points: speed is of the essence here. For this reason, full sentences aren’t needed.
- However, you should use your own words as far as possible in the continuous paragraph: this will help the examiner to see that you have really understood.
Teachers then have a choice. They can request that all of their students take the Writing paper, called Paper 3, which both Core and Extended candidates take.
The first task is another directed writing task, for which the tips are the same as in the Reading paper. Make sure your spelling, punctuation and grammar are correct, however – the examiners check this more in the Writing paper!
The second task gives you a choice of 2 narrative and 2 descriptive tasks. Of these total 4 tasks, you just do one. Make sure you know the difference between narrative and descriptive writing for this section of the paper. There should be no confusion in a piece of descriptive writing with writing a story.
Tips for story-writing tasks include:
- Make sure you have a clear beginning, middle and end – for this reason, planning is essential.
- Try also to not have too many characters, or you will not be able to develop them properly.
- Include dialogue to help you develop characters quickly and move the story forward.
- Avoid cliché endings or gratuitous sex/violence: examiners don’t tend to enjoy reading these. They want to see realistic stories that contain believable developments and events.
Tips for descriptive writing tasks include:
- focus on a single moment. Where a story is like a film, descriptive writing is like a photograph.
- Focus on all 5 senses and on the use of literary language techniques (e.g. similes).
- Make sure you make the reader feel like they are there; using the present tense and second person is a good way to do this.
- Don’t limit the reader’s visualisation by falling back on proper nouns (such as place names or brand names) – make sure you do the work for them.
If teachers do not want their students to take Paper 3 then they can request that they take Component 4, which is a coursework portfolio made up of 3 pieces of writing that you have done in class or at home. Your teacher marks these, but the scores are moderated by Cambridge. Good luck with your exams!