Nightmare English Language Questions

Imagine a paragraph of text, with some words underlined. The text is simple enough but the question terrifies you: identify the underlined phrases and illustrate their functions.

This is part of someone’s study nightmare today – a question which seems alien to them. So they send it to me in the hope that I may be able to help. Clearly I am very much a last resort!

I get quite a lot of questions about English as a second language. That isn’t my subject area so all I can do is share some general study principles in the hope that that may help.

When students can’t understand a question it’s often because they’re having difficulty understanding the way in which a question is phrased / packaged, rather than not knowing the answer. This is a very real, very common problem and it can be a big road block – you can’t answer a question / complete a task if you don’t know what you’re being asked to do.

So what do you do?

The first rule is always to ask yourself what you DO know eg what topics your course is covering, what sort of questions the tutor usually asks, what sample answers you may have seen to similar questions. Give yourself some context.

Read the whole question. The key to understanding questions is usually in the question somewhere. In this case it’s at the bottom of the page, identifying the topic as ‘kinds of phrases and clauses and their functions in sentences’. Yes, reading that gives me an instant desire to run away for a coffee too!

Break down the question as best you can. You have 2 tasks here:

Identify – define, label, describe the word / phrase.

Illustrate the function – explain what the word / phrase does, why it is there, what its job is.

Language questions can seem rather scary because they are technical, almost mathematical (a + b = c) and people often struggle to see language as technical.

It might help to search using terms like ‘subject object parts of a sentence’ (search engines don’t really appreciate punctuation!) or ‘functions of sentence structure’ to give you some ideas to work with.

Of course sometimes it’s possible to simply ask the tutor (or a more experienced student) what the question means / how to approach it!

For what it’s worth if you are struggling to understand a question you have my sympathy. It’s horrible. We’ve all been there!

Take a deep breath, break it down into smaller, more manageable tasks and apply what you know to those tasks.

I wish you all the very best with your studies.

PS I haven’t reproduced the image of the question sent to me out of respect for copyright. I realise that you may have liked to see the question but the study principles remain the same.