5 Common Reasons Why Your Child Loses Marks in the English Exam

Posted by Shafina Jaafar on August 22, 2018

“My child makes a lot of careless mistakes!”

This is a common plight many parents face with their children.

As a parent, you may wonder, “How can I better help my child?” or “What exam-savvy skills should my child put into practice to avoid making careless mistakes?”

In this article, our academic team at The Learning Lab Marine Parade Central explains the 5 common reasons why your child loses marks in the English exam.

For Your Lower Primary Child

1. Failing to Identify Clues

Very often, in the pressure-cooker setting of timed examinations, students find themselves in a rush to answer questions without first identifying the clues in the question. As a result, marks are lost due to subject-verb agreement.

Take for example:

Most students jump to the conclusion that the subject ‘Serene as well as Therese’ refers to two people, when in fact, they have failed to observe the Distractor rule.

•  The phrase as well as should not be treated as a synonym for and.
•  The expression X as well as Y should be interpreted as not only Y but also X, with emphasis placed on X.

Using the example above, the expression translates into Not only Therese but also Serene, with ‘Serene’ being our main subject.

The Academic Team recommends: Clues should be highlighted or underlined. This helps students to visualise their train of thought, and becomes a reminder of what they should look out for.

Applying the Distractor rule, students should highlight the following:

In consideration of the clues, the answer should be ‘is’.

2. Copying Chunks of Text from the Passage

The notorious comprehension open-ended (COE) is a component most students struggle to ace. Not only does it test one’s understanding of the given passage, it also requires your child to suss out relevant information.

Here’s the problem: many students adopt a ‘copy-and-paste’ method, lifting clues wholesale from the text and dumping them into their responses without considering if the question is fully addressed.

Take for instance the example here:

At first glance, the answer may seem right. Look closer, however, and you’ll find a few blunders:

1.  Who is ‘She’? Are we talking about Suzanne or Miss Sweet?

2.  The answer fails to answer in past tense (keyword: did)

3.  The answer can be refined to provide a clearer comparison of the individuals

The Academic Team recommends: Check through each final response and ensure that the necessary information is paraphrased accurately, and does not contain irrelevant details.

Your child’s answer should:

•  begin with a clear subject
•  answer in the right tense
•  use proper keywords to compare and contrast

For your upper primary child

1. Rushing to Answer the Questions Without a Thorough Understanding of the Text

Students often feel compelled to gloss over the texts and quickly get to the questions because they are hard-pressed for time in the exam.

However, this is not ideal as many components — namely the comprehension and the cloze passages — are testing the student’s understanding of the text. It will work in the student’s favour to take a little more time to more thoroughly understand the text before crafting answers.

The Academic Team's recommends: Ensure a sound understanding of texts before answering the questions.

When tackling the cloze passage, not reading the passage thoroughly may cause students to ignore or miss out key details which may be crucial clues to the answers.

2. Being Satisfied with the First and Only Answer

When students feel a great deal of anxiety during the exams, they alleviate their stress with every blank that they fill in.

Thus, their desire to quickly fill in the answer and move on is understandable.

However, this habit may prove detrimental because it may prevent students from thinking critically enough to arrive at the best answer. It may also deter effective checking.

The Academic Team recommends: Come up with two or more options for your answers and choose the better answer.

Students often find inferential questions daunting, because an inference requires independent reasoning and extrapolation, something even grown-ups struggle with.In the comprehension, this skill is particularly relevant to answering inferential questions.

Indeed, many inferences may be made, but which one is the accurate inference?

One strategy is to come up with more than one inference. Given the two options, students may then use the context and clues to decide which inference is the more accurate one.

Let’s look at the following excerpt and the accompanying inferential question.


Mr Murray now took over. “They are willing to give you a home.” Maia inhaled a long and deep breath. A home. She had spent the past two years in the orphanage.

Everyone was friendly and kind but a proper home … that would be a gift that went beyond her wildest imagination. Yet, she hesitated. What kind of home would it be? 

Adapted from Journey to the River Seaby Eva Ibbotson

Question: How do you think Maia felt about the offer of a home? Give a reason for your answer.

Possible Inference 1:

Feeling Reason
Maia felt happy. She had spent two years in an orphanage and now she would finally have a proper home.

Possible inference 2:

Feeling Reason
Maia felt uncertain. While she was happy she would finally have a proper home, she was not sure if the home would be desirable.

Students who come up with two possible inferences will likely choose the latter, which is more complete, compared to the first.

Unfortunately, students who arrive at the first inference and who do not think or look further will not get the accurate inference.

3. Merely Using Recall Instead of Carefully Transferring Information into Answers

Comprehension questions are not difficult to tackle — the exact answer can usually be found in the text. By all accounts, students should be able to get full marks for it.

Yet, many times your child may see caret signs (^) or the teacher’s frustrated comment in red: “Missing details!” or “Follow the sourcing carefully!”

This is because when answering comprehension questions, many students craft their answers based on what they recall “reading from the text”, and do not check their answers against the source.

They may then leave out details from the sourced text. The same habit is also commonly seen in Synthesis and Transformation, when many students do not get the marks because their new sentence is missing some details from the original sentence.

The Academic Team recommends: Use deliberate transfer strategies when crafting answers.

When tackling components which require the transference of information (e.g. the comprehension and Synthesis and Transformation), students should employ strategies to ensure that the information remains intact in the transfer.

Let’s take the following Synthesis and Transformation question as an example.


Mother told Julie, “You left your book on the table in this room yesterday.”

Mother told Julie that she had left her book on the table in that room that previous day.

Many students may leave details out, providing answers such as:

Example of wrong answers Part of the answer that has been left out
Mother told Julie that she had left her book on the table the previous day. “in that room”
Mother told Julie that she had left her book in that room the previous day. “on the table”
Mother told Julie that she had left her book on the table in that room. “the previous day”

A strategy that helps to prevent this is to group the words and number the different phrases that need to be transferred, as shown below:

This is a methodical way for students to craft and check their answers against the source.

Similarly, in the comprehension, students should carefully highlight the sourcing in the passage (and number the points if necessary) before meticulously transferring what has been highlighted to the answer for direct questions.

Download The Learning Lab's Full Guide to English Exam Excellence

To help your child prepare for upcoming English exams more effectively, download our English Exam Excellence guide to unlock bonus tips and practice questions for your child. 

Click here or the link below to download the guide. 

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