For an overview of English Language, the study design, what’s involved in the exam and more, take a look at our Ultimate Guide to English Language.
What Is a Short Answer Question?
The English Language exam is split into three sections - Short Answer Questions, Analytical Commentary and an Essay (see here for an explanation of what’s involved in the Essay component). The Short Answer Questions (SAQs) are at the very start of the exam and include 15 marks in total, usually consisting of 3-5 questions that are in response to a text. SAQs are designed to test your knowledge of metalanguage and your ability to elaborate on the situational and social context of the text in a concise manner.
As SAQs only have 15 marks, you should aim to spend 20-25 mins on this section in the exam. Because there are only about 25 minutes available to allocate to this section, they are also a test of your ability to quickly identify key features in a text.
The good thing about SAQs is that because there are specific mark allocations for each question, there’s a formula that you can apply to every question to help you obtain all the marks possible - and that’s what we’ll go through in this blog post, so you can ace every SAQ you come across :)
Common Command Words and What They Mean
The first thing you should do when approaching an SAQ is to recognise (and even better, highlight) the command words in each question in order to help you understand exactly what is required.
Here is a list of commonly seen command words and what they entail:
In response to this command word, you should state the example using metalanguage and line numbers.
If you are asked to ‘describe’, you should state the example with metalanguage and also give some details about it, such as how it links to the context of the text and/or its functions and social purposes.
Analyse, comment on, explain, discuss
Now we get to the heavier words that require a lot more elaboration and analysis. For these types of words, you should state the example with metalanguage, describe the immediate impact it creates and then link it to the broader context of the text (whether that be situational or social). So, you can think of these questions as a combination of ‘identify’ and ‘describe’ questions, with a bit of further elaboration attached to them.
SAQs usually range from 1-6 marks each and the way you should answer the question depends on how many marks are available.
As a general rule of thumb, do as the question says.
For example, if we look at this question:
‘Give one function of this text. Using appropriate metalanguage, identify two different language features that support this function.’ (3 marks)
The key phrase here that would distinguish a 2/3 from a 3/3 response is ‘that support this function’. Rather than simply stating two different language features, you should explain how they support the function of the text. It doesn’t have to be long, but at least 1 sentence of elaboration would be required to get full marks.
So, the overall mark allocation for this question is:
1/3: Stating the function
2/3: Identifying two language features
3/3: Linking the language features to the function
A question with a higher mark allocation might be:
‘Using appropriate metalanguage, analyse at least three stylistic and discourse features that contribute to the cohesion of this text. Refer to line numbers in your response.’ (5 marks)
This question has 5 marks, but only one command term (analyse). As such, in response to this question you would have to elaborate on each example - in this case, stylistic and discourse features - and link to how they contribute to the cohesion of the text.
Each example should be followed by at least 1 sentence that explains how it contributes to the text’s cohesion. You could also link the examples to their social purpose/function if this is relevant.
As a general rule, any sort of ‘analyse’ or ‘discuss’ question can follow this template:
1) Identify the example using appropriate metalanguage
2) Describe the immediate effect of that example (e.g. if it creates a humorous effect, if it makes the text hard to understand)
3) Provide further elaboration such as linking to social purpose/function/identity
If you think back to what we covered in the earlier section of this blog, you’ll see that this template follows the rule that higher-order command words (like ‘analyse’ and ‘discuss’) are a combination of ‘identify’ and ‘describe’ questions, with a bit of further elaboration also required.
Finally, here are some general tips to keep in mind when answering SAQs:
- Use precise, specific metalanguage (e.g. ‘first-person subject pronoun’ instead of just ‘pronoun’)
- Always link to the broader context for questions with more than 1 mark (whether that be situational or cultural)
- Highlight keywords and/or line numbers to help you avoid silly mistakes
- Always include line numbers when quoting examples
- If you’re unsure as to how much you are expected to write, the amount of space given to you in the answer section is usually a good indicator.
For more about how you can boost your marks in English Language, see this blog post about how to extend your skills further.