How to Answer a Close Reading Paper

The Close Reading part of your exam involves reading two passages, on a topic related to one another. You will then answer questions on these two passages, and one question comparing the two. The total mark for the paper is out of 50, and you only get 1 hour 45 minutes to read both passages and answer the question. The trick with Close Reading is to write less not more. After all, it’s a reading exam not a writing one. If you look at the questions they ask, there are a few patterns that emerge, and this will make answering much easier.

Read the Paper

The first thing to do in your exam is perhaps the most obvious – read the passages. Although the temptation is to read just one passage, or to read just the lines relevant to Question 1, it is better to read both passages all the way through right at the start. That will make your comparison question much easier at the end.


As you read the passage, have a pencil to hand. After each paragraph, write one word in the margin that sums up what the paragraph is about. If the writer is talking about reasons why it is bad for the environment to fly in an aeroplane, for example, you can write down ‘pollution’ or ‘environment’. This one word summary will make it really easy for you to compare the passages for the final question.

Also, as you are reading, underline any word or phrase that strikes you as being interesting, or standing out in any way. If a writer has used a strange phrase or word, underline it. Often, these will be referred to in the questions, and having underlined them will ensure that you save vital time. Doing this will also ensure that you are giving the passage your full attention – often difficult in an exam hall.

Once you have read all the way through both passages, you can move on to answering the questions. Because of the way the questions are set, there are styles of questions that are really common, and answering them is simple once you learn the formula.

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Understanding Questions

Understanding questions are perhaps the simplest questions on the paper. Think of understanding questions as asking what or how the writer is saying something. If you look in the margins next to the question, you will see a little ‘U’ there. This tells you that it is an understanding question. There are three main types of understanding question.


A summary question asks you to ‘explain’ what the writer is saying. This might involve summarising his/her main points, or just clarify a sentence. Remember to do this in your own words. The number of marks available for these questions is the same as the number of points you need to make. You can use bullet points for these questions. These questions are not bothered about imagery or any other techniques, so just rephrase what the writer is arguing.


The question may refer to specific lines, so go back and read those to find the answer. If you are struggling, underline the specific bit in the text where the writer makes his/her argument. Then you need to just put that into your own words.


A context question usually relates to a difficult word in the passage. Although it’s easier in these circumstances if you know the word – don’t worry if you don’t. Look at the sentence that the word is in, and get a general sense of what the writer is saying. Take the difficult word out of the sentence, and just insert a blank. Think about other words that can go in the sentence. If you think of a word you can put in that keeps the overall meaning the same, then you’ve got your answer.


Linking questions are very easy to repeat. Once you know the formula, you’ll be able to do every link question there is. A link question asks how effective a particular line (usually at the end or beginning of a paragraph) in linking the two paragraphs together.

A link is a connection, and so what you have to show is how the particular line provides a connection between what went before, and what comes after. So take a quote from the first half of your link sentence, and connect it with an idea in the above paragraph. Then take a quote from the second half of the sentence, and connect it with an idea in the sentence after. It’s that simple, although you need all of the elements to get full marks:

“Quote from first half of sentence” + link with idea from above.

“Quote from second half of sentence” + link with idea from below.

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Analysis Questions

Understanding questions ask you what the writer is saying, and analysis questions ask you why the writer is saying it. You don’t get any points for using quotes for analysis questions, but instead the marks are related to your quality of analysis. We can divide the Analysis questions into four different types. Again, as with the Understanding questions, keep an eye out for an “A” in the margin to let you know that this is an analysis question.



Imagery is an extremely common Analysis questions, asking you why a writer used a particular word. Imagery questions rely on metaphors or similes. To answer an imagery question you need to refer to what the image is literally referring to, as well as its metaphorical meaning. If a writer says that his love for something is “as deep as the ocean”, he is using the idea of the ocean being large and deep to express his feelings. To answer an imagery question, think about what the writer is literally describing, and how this may be relevant to the wider point he/she is making.

Word Choice

For Word Choice questions, you have to answer why a writer used a particular word in the sentence. With Word Choice, a writer will either be working hard to make a particular word fit into a sentence, or making it stand out. To make it fit in, you can use techniques such as alliteration (where two or more words start with the same letter), assonance (repetition of a vowel sound in two or more words), or sibilance (repetition of an ‘s’ sound in two or more words).

To make a word stand out, a writer may use a technique such as onomatopoeia (where a word sounds like the noise it is describing) to grab the reader’s attention. Alternatively, he may throw an informal/slang word into a list of formal words (or the reverse). As you read the section of the passage, look for words that stand out. Once you have spotted them (most likely you will have underlined them in your first read through) you now have to think what the writer is emphasising by making it stand out.

Sentence Structure

Sentence structure questions are based on the way that a particular sentence is put together. The most common example of a sentence structure answer is a list. Putting a list into a sentence helps to emphasise the range or number of options. Often a writer will do this to highlight a large range of problems, or a large number of arguments against something. Look for whether the list finishes with a climactic word, with the most extreme example at the end. Again, remember to say why the writer has used a list.

Parenthesis refers to either the use of brackets (like this) or the use of dashes – like this – which allow the writer to make an additional point without changing the core meaning of the sentence. Think about why the writer is including this information, or why he is including it as additional information, rather than as a main point.

Inversion refers to the reversal of the order of words in a sentence. Usually English follows a Subject Verb Object (SVO) order, such as ‘John kicked the dog’. John is the subject of the sentence, the object is the dog, and the verb is the kicking. A writer may reverse the order of a sentence to add emphasis to the word he brings to the start, or to delay the final word and so add suspense. For example, if we were trying to solve the mystery of who kicked the dog, the following sentence would add drama: “The dog was kicked by John”. If we were trying to work out who John kicked, then saying “The dog was kicked by John” would emphasise that it was the dog being kicked. In answering your own question, think about whether it is the first or last word that the author is trying to emphasise, and why.

The length of a sentence is something that a lot of students overlook. A writer who uses a lot of long sentences, and then a short one will often use the short one to emphasise a blunt point. For example, a writer may use a series of long sentences to make an argument, and then knock it all down with one short one. Alternatively, a writer may ‘balance’ two halves of a sentence, repeating a word or idea at both ends. A writer may also echo an idea from a previous sentence to emphasise his point.


Rhetorical questions are usually easy to spot. If a writer uses a question mark, it usually is a rhetorical question (since it’s not possible to get an answer). A writer will use a rhetorical question to make a point rather than to get an answer. For example, if the writer says, “Where will this madness end?”, he/she is not looking for a date or time, but instead to highlight that a series of improbable events have taken place, and aren’t showing signs of stopping. A rhetorical question is good device in engaging the reader whilst making a point.

A regular repetition of a phrase is usually designed to emphasise a point, and to show how important it is in a number of different circumstances. However, sometimes, a writer might be a bit trickier than that, by repeating a phrase in different contexts. For example, he might say that one side of an argument are pleading with people to “think of the children”. Later on, he might say that the other side are ‘thinking of the children’ or even that they should ‘think of the adults’. This repetition may be simply to entertain, although it is usually to highlight that both sides of the argument have something in common, or just to link together different arguments. It’s up to you to decide why.


For tone questions, there are really two parts. Firstly, you have to identify the writer’s overall tone (or the mood he/she establishes). Secondly, you have to show how the writer does this, through the use of examples (and quotes taken from the passage). Look out for the following tones – although be careful not to just fall into the trap of describing it as a ‘sarcastic’ tone. Some students instinctively write this without knowing fully what it means.

Emotive/Angry – a tone that tries to create an emotional response in the reader. Lookout for phrases that paint one side as ‘evil’ and one side as ‘good’.

Humorous/Informal/Entertaining – if the writer is clearly trying to entertain rather than be too serious. Lookout for ‘funny’ phrases.

Hyperbolic – When a writer deliberately uses exaggerated language to make a point. For example, if a writer describes something as ‘the greatest thing that has ever happened’, that would be hyperbolic.

Ironic – Ironic situations refer to situations where the outcome is the opposite of what was intended. For example, if I bought some flowers to make a room look nice, but I dropped the pot and spilled soil on the floor, the room would be messy. That would be ironic. If a writer describes someone’s intentions, and then says that the outcome was the opposite of what they intended, you could highlight that as irony. Be careful though, irony is not the same as sarcasm, which is often a deliberate under- or overstatement of an opinion “I’d love to sit through that boring meeting” or “I’d hate to eat all of that delicious food.” Irony and sarcasm are used to entertain as well as to emphasise the key point being made (that the meeting is boring or that the food is delicious).

After you've read through how to do Analysis questions, now have a look at our flowchart, which will walk you through how to answer (almost) every question.

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Evaluation Questions

Evaluation questions rely on you making your own judgements on the passage. Although they are mostly linked with the comparison question, sometimes you will get an Evaluation question asking, “How effective….” For these questions it is best to think about it as advanced analysis. For example, if the question asks you how effective the final sentence was as a conclusion to the passage as a whole, you need to highlight the reasons why the writer used that sentence to finish the passage. Look at ideas in the sentence that link with further ideas, and analyse the sentence itself. You should write in full sentences for Evaluation questions, as the marks you get will relate to the quality of your analysis, and not in the techniques you identify.

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Comparison Questions

Although the comparison question was changed recently, don’t worry about that. Thinking about how it changed will only confuse the issue. Modern comparison questions will ask you to compare the ideas of the two passages. This is why it is best to write a one-word summary of each paragraph as you go along. What you will be able to do now is to compare the paragraphs between the two passages. For example, if you have written ‘pollution’ by a paragraph in both passages, you can compare how the two writers deal with the issue of pollution. Write the comparison question as a mini-essay.

The full marks will come from the quality of your writing, not the number of points you make. Therefore, pick three or four areas that the two passages either agree or disagree, and write a mini-paragraph on each. Talk about which one you find more engaging, and why (for example, if passage 1 balances both sides of the argument more, or passage 2 is more entertaining). Learning to recognise ideas that both passages have in common (even if they disagree about them) is crucial in helping you answer this.

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Key Lessons to Take Away

  • When you are practicing your close readings, try and do five Understanding questions, and then five Analysis questions, and then five Evaluation questions. This will help you to work out the formula of answering faster, and mean you can identify weak spots in your answering.

  • Write Understanding questions as bullet points, one bullet point per mark. There's no point wasting time by writing too much on these.

  • Try and read a newspaper/magazine where possible. The more non-fiction you read, the more comfortable you will be with your close reading.

  • Keep it simple. If something looks like the right answer, it probably is. Most mistakes in close reading come from students who overthink, not underthink. Be confident in your answer, and you will write less. The mark schemes are often full of pages and pages of right answers – there’s often more than one per question, so you can trust yourself.

  • Practice. The only real way to prepare for a close reading is to do practice papers. These are available on the SQA website for free (click here to see them). So there’s no excuse.

  • Improve your vocabulary to help you out with the context questions. Buy a small pocket book and carry it round with you. Whenever you hear a word you don’t understand, write it down and look up the definition later. Then, when it’s exam time, you have a ready-made list of words to practice, and you’ll find everything much easier.

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  • Image Credits:

    Image 1: by Starry Raston via Flickr, Image 2: by State Library of Victoria via Flickr, Image 3: by Bjorn Bulthuis via Flickr, Image 4: by Roxanne Ready via Flickr, Image 5: Guido Alvarez via Wikimedia Commons