HKDSE 2021: Tips to help you ace the English Language exam

  • Top tutor Kenneth Lau from Beacon College gives his advice for test success
  • Don’t waste time on questions you don’t understand, use context clues and review Hong Kong-related news topics in advance
Doris Wai |

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Keep this advice in mind while you're preparing for the English Language DSE.

There’s less than a month until the dreaded DSE English Language exam on April 27. As the countdown begins, Young Post asked Beacon College’s top tutor, Kenneth Lau, for his tips on acing Papers 1 and 2.

Paper 1: Reading

Knowing which paper to attempt is key. Lau suggests scanning through Part B2 first to see whether you get the gist of the passages. If there are more difficult words and phrases than expected, you should stick to B1 instead.

As you only have 90 minutes to finish this paper, you should focus your revision on frequently tested questions such as summary cloze, long questions (on “giving reasons” and “making comparisons” in particular), and true/false/not given questions.

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Judging from past papers, you should pay more attention to long questions related to irony, and conflicting ideas in which comparisons have to be made. Lau says students tend to lose points in these questions as they fail to provide a two-part answer, one explaining each side of the irony and opposing idea.

As for that common worry – vocabulary – Lau has some advice. Instead of wasting time pouring over words you don’t understand, he recommends you look at them in context to help you guess their meaning.

“Pay attention to context clues and discourse markers in the same sentence that hint at a definition or an example of an unfamiliar word directly in the text,” he says. “This type of context clue often uses signal words and connectives like ‘while’ and ‘such as’. Another way is to look out for same [synonym] signal words such as ‘in addition to’, ‘or’, ‘commonly called’, and opposite [antonym] cues like ‘in contrast’, ‘unlike’, and ‘instead of’.”

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Some questions test your understanding of figurative language. “This usually refers to metaphors and similes, and why they are used,” he says. “One way to approach these questions is to explain the literal meaning of the phrase and its corresponding idea in context to the passage using sentences like ‘Just as A …, B …’, ‘Both X and Y are …’ as a guide to frame your answer.”

As for questions about the tone of the passage, or the writer’s attitude, Lau stresses that you need an idea of the writer’s or characters’ overall emotion. As they are unlikely to change their sentiment over the course of the passage, this provides a hint as to whether they have a positive or negative attitude towards an item, person or event.

Keep in mind that management is incredibly important when you're taking exams.

Paper 2: Writing

In terms of questions that are likely to appear this year, Lau recommends reading up on the following: key issues related to education; climate change and the environment; teen-related problems; latest technology; and Hong Kong-related topics including housing issues and land use, economic inequality and ageing population.

Lau says students have a tendency to overlook a question’s context. He points to last year’s Paper 2, Part A, as an example, in which the task was to write a restaurant review. Some students simply wrote a commentary on the food, service, and environment without providing any background information about the restaurant or explaining why they chose it.

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“Instead of rushing to answer the question, take a moment to ask yourself whether you are familiar with the topic and the vocabulary required to write a solid essay,” he says.

Next, think about whether it should be persuasive, analytical, argumentative, or narrative based on the target audience before working on your draft.

While many students use mind maps to plan their answers, Lau suggests dividing the draft into three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. Each part should include a topic sentence, followed by supporting evidence and justifications, and concluding statement to help set the direction of the essay.

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While the planning stage is essential, you shouldn’t spend more than 10 minutes on it. As a general guide, Lau recommends allocating 45 minutes to Part A and 75 minutes to Part B, and to set aside 10 minutes for proofreading.

If you have the time before the exam, he recommends going through newspaper articles on hot topics so you have a good grasp of the words and jargon used. This could mean the difference between a Level 4 and Level 5 essay.

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