How you can avoid common HKDSE English exam mistakes a lot of people make

By Edmund Ho

We pored through the report from the examination authority and have come up with tips for all four papers

By Edmund Ho |

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The DSE Liberal Studies examination is usually seen as the hardest out of the three mandatory DSE subjects, but the four paper-long DSE English examination is no slouch.

Who wouldn’t be even a little bit apprehensive about going through this 5+ hour ordeal? Never fear; the English exam report has been released, and Young Post has picked out the most salient (bonus point for knowing this word) improvements you can make to studying for each paper.


The main problem that examiners saw in the reading section was that students either just paraphrased the sources to answer the question, or did not provide any evidence from the sources and just wrote down their opinion.

This is the trickiest part about reading comprehension; we’re inclined to paraphrase or rely on our opinions if we don’t understand the texts we must read. But, that is precisely the skill that Paper 1 is testing us on; the examiners expect to see not only an opinion, but also evidence from the text to back it up. Students who choose to do only one or the other have scored rather poorly.


In Paper 2, which focusses on writing, students’ performance was overall “satisfactory”. The main problem is the fluency of the answer. In all forms of writing, be it fiction, poetry, journalism or essays, clarity is always the key. If we as writers cannot get our ideas across in a clear and accurate way, then the entire piece of writing might as well be meaningless.

The goal is to get as many people to understand our writing as possible, and examiners have pointed out that choosing bigger words doesn’t necessarily make the passage easier to understand. Instead, try using the right word. Even if you have to write “he said” instead of “he intimated”, the clarity is more important than showing off your vocabulary.


Paper 3 is challenging for many of the test-takers because no one knows the content beforehand. The only way we can prepare for this paper is to familiarise ourselves with the tasks before they play the recording. One of the main reasons that we could mess up in this part is that we might over-compensate for being made to interpret conversations and recordings we have never before heard by writing everything down without thinking about it.

After we find out what the questions are asking for, we are then ready to listen to the recordings. But in your hurry to take notes, do not parrot vocabulary from the recordings. This makes it appear to the examiner that you haven’t really understood the question, and haven’t answered it in your own words.


The final paper, speaking and discussion, has always posed a problem for students. The fact is, learning how to read, write and listen is a far cry from actually using the language in practice. The students’ gut reaction, whether for solo or group discussion, is to speak extremely fast and try to pack as much information and words into the time as possible.

This instinctive scattershot approach in fact might lower your grade, because the examiner may not be able to understand you as clearly. It sounds counter-intuitive to speak less and score more, but with good tempo and pacing, you would be far likelier to score higher in this portion of the examination.

For group interaction, students tend to behave in a similar way to solo presentations, reading word-for-word from cue cards and generally not interacting with other students in the discussion. The exam tests whether you can present your ideas clearly, and also whether you can engage others in a meaningful and productive discussion.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge