O Level English – An Analysis of the Summary Text for Exam Writers and Teachers by Jason McCorrister

Have you ever thought about writing your own non-fiction text for the O Level note-taking and summary? When you’ve taught note-taking, have you ever wanted a deeper understanding of how Cambridge designs their text so you could help students find the content points?  Then this article is for you!

The CIE non-fiction text and the note-taking task continue to evolve year after year with exam writers doing their best to make it harder to find content points.  If you are thinking of writing a text for student practise, you will want to have a good understanding of the parameters that CIE writers follow, the way Cambridge organizes the ideas in the text, the language features that are typical, and the difficulty level of the text.

I have done a deep analysis of the last six exams in order to understand the way the text is being written so that I can replicate the exam’s style.  See below for a list of the topics and the note-taking sections associated with each topic.

Basic Format

As a starting point, let’s set out some of the basic parameters for the writing.  You should aim for about six paragraphs and adjust your margins so that the text fits on one page.  Aim for around 48-50 lines and about 711 words.  You can see a summary of the previous six exams below:

Based on the exams, there should be a fairly even split between the content points in both the first and second sections.  Each section will contain a given point and an additional 7 or 8 content points that students will need to identify.  Individual paragraphs should have 4 or less content points.   The total number of content points should be 15 (+2 given points).  See the table below for the distribution in the last six exams.

Vocabulary Difficulty

The O Level exam tends to be a fairly challenging test of students’ vocabulary.  When writing a non-fiction text, you will want to make the difficulty of the vocabulary similar to the real exam.  One way to check the difficulty of the vocabulary is to think in terms of vocabulary frequency levels.  Researchers have made lists of the most frequently used words in English and put them into levels of 1,000 words (word families).  If you have read any of Paul Nation’s work on vocabulary levels, you will know that to have a good understanding of a text it requires an understanding of approximately 98% of the vocabulary in a given text.  So the question is, how big of a vocabulary would a student need in order to understand 98% of the O Level non-fiction text?  In the table below, you can see the word level results for the last six exams. 

Based on the results of the vocabulary analysis, I would estimate that in order for a student to understand 98% of the exam’s non-fiction text, a student would need a vocabulary of around 6,000 words (the one exception seems to be the October 2019 paper on “Silk” which contained a lot of technical and scientific terminology that increased its difficulty level).  In order to check the vocabulary level of a text, I recommend using the lextutor.ca website (https://www.lextutor.ca/vp/comp/).

Another way to check the difficulty of a text would be to figure out the lexile level.  At many schools we use Read Theory and record lexile levels to get a general indication of our students’ reading abilities as well as to get a general idea of how difficult various texts are.  The lexile scores for the O Level non-fiction text are consistently in the 1210-1400L range.  See Appendix 1 for an analysis of the Olive text vocabulary.

You can check the lexile level of a text by going to the following website:  https://hub.lexile.com/analyzer.   When writing your text, you should be able to adjust your writing’s lexile score and get it into the appropriate range by adjusting the difficulty of the vocabulary (using lower frequency words) as well as tweaking the sentence length and complexity.  See below for the lexile scores of the last six exams:

Hiding Content Points

Cambridge uses a variety of strategies to hide the 15 content points in the passage.  First of all, you must use poor writing style.  Forget what your English teacher taught you about effective transitions and linking devices to help your reader follow your train of thought and identify new ideas.  You should avoid transition words and linking devices and just abruptly add new points while adding some elaborations.  See the table below for the list of transitions and linking devices used in the last six papers and note how rarely these types of signposts are given for the content points:

As you can see, there aren’t many signposts.  Only “Olives” had a total of four transitions for its 15 content points, but the other texts had fewer.

In addition to limiting the use of transitions and linking devices, Cambridge is generally careful not to give away content points by repeating key words.  If, for example, the topic is about the “uses” of something, the writers try their best to avoid tipping off students by using the key word “use” in the text.

When writing non-fiction texts, writers typically use “PEE” structures (point – example – elaboration) so that a main point is given and then followed by elaboration on a topic.  In general, this structure also exists in the non-fiction texts of the CIE exam and so it can be beneficial to teach students to use and recognize this style.  However, it should be noted that Cambridge writers have begun flipping this typical structure to create distractors.  I call these E-first distractors (elaboration first) and most exams contain at least one clear example of this attempt to hide the content points.

As an example of this, we can look at the May 2020 exam on Coconuts.  The text says:

In this example, the main point is that coconuts are used in the beauty industry and this point is to be rewarded by the examiners.  However, the main point is preceded by the examples that coconut oil is added to shower gels and shampoos as well as the example that shells are used for skin products.  Students may make the mistake of writing the examples in their notes rather than the main point.  This in turn could hurt them in terms of “relevance” if they include the examples in their summaries.

In addition, sentences with points are usually separated by examples and elaborations to make them harder to spot.  In this way, they tend to be spread throughout the text.  I looked at two texts (Coconuts and Sports) and analyzed the sentences in each of them to try to find patterns in the way CIE embeds their content points.   In general, the points are not clustered together so a good rule is to avoid writing more than two points in consecutive sentences.  Points should be broken up with clauses containing elaborations or with entire elaborating sentences.  See the table below for the point distributions at the sentence and paragraph level for the two analyzed texts:​

A few more aspects of the text can be observed in the textual analysis above.  First of all, note that there is no longer an introductory or concluding paragraph.  Instead, the non-fiction texts get straight to the content. The Sport article even provides the “given” point in the first sentence.  

Also, elaborations don’t tend to cluster together so avoid writing more than one or two points of elaboration before supplying a new content point.  Another thing worth noting is that both texts have a lot of points squeezed into the final paragraphs.  Indeed, a pattern seems to be developing with CIE often putting numerous points in the final paragraph and this has become so common that 4 out of the last 6 exams actually ended with a point in their final words.

Punctuation and Grammar

The last six papers follow certain parameters in terms of how they use punctuation and exam writers should take note of what types of punctuation are used on a typical exam.  First of all, in order to increase the difficulty of the reading and to hide the points better, a lot of complex and compound sentences should be used.

One noticeable feature of the non-fiction texts is the frequent use of semicolons.  A good general guideline is to use 4 semicolons in the text.  Here is the breakdown for the last six exams:  coconuts 4, honey 3, olives 6, silk 5, sporting events 1, and sport 4.  On the other hand, colons are very rarely used – they were only used once on three of the last six papers. 

Dashes have occasionally been used in pairs to set off examples or to give the definition of a word.  In the Honey text we have this sentence which uses dashes to add an example: 

Additionally, there was an established custom among some peoples – for example, in both North
and Central America – to place jars of honey in tombs as food for the afterlife.  
In the Silk text we have this sentence using dashes to set off a definition:

Through time sericulture – the manufacture of silk – spread, so that ordinary people were allowed to wear it.

On very rare occasions the text may also use an exclamation mark as in the Honey text:

we would all agree that honey is just delicious!

Once in a while the passages may employ a sentence fragment beginning with “but” or “and” like in the Olive text: 

But this is not the only link between the olive tree and religion.  

However, the six most recent passages did not use any question marks or brackets so you should avoid using them.

​Topic Selection

Looking over the topics for the note-taking since 2015, you will notice that they tend to be the kinds of topics that students from different countries and different cultures will have some casual familiarity with but are unlikely to have in-depth knowledge of.  They are also topics that are not likely to be controversial or offend the sensibilities of people from different cultures or religions.

In categorizing the topics, I usually break them into two types:  chronological and abstract topics.  The chronological topics tend to explore the history or development of something.  It could include the stages of development of something, the spread of something, the growth in popularity of something,  the importance of something through the ages, or how something was done through the ages.   In my experience, these chronological topics tend to be difficult for students.  It can be challenging for them to distinguish between the elaborations and the actual points. 

The abstract or idea-based topics tend to be a lot easier for students to manage.  Common examples of this type of topic could be the advantages and disadvantages of something, the uses of something, the reasons for something, the concerns or problems caused by something, the importance of something, or the benefits of something.   See  the complete list since 2015 in Appendix 2.

Final Comments

I hope that my analysis of the O Level non-fiction texts will help both exam writers and teachers.  As I’ve mentioned before, the exams continue to evolve as the writers try new ways to make it difficult for students to find the content points.   Thus, it may be useful to quickly check that the paramaters listed here are still applicable as new exams come out.   Also, note that I have not included notes on how to design the opinion questions in this article.  Stay tuned for an upcoming article on the opinion question!

In order to make it easier for exam writers to remind themselves of the parameters,  I will summarize the basic ideas in the list below:

Non-fiction Exam Writer’s Tips

  • 6 paragraphs
  • 48-50 lines
  • 711 words approximately
  • 2 given points plus 7 or 8 content points for each section
  • four points maximum in each paragraph
  • 15 content points (+2 given)
  • 6,000 word level for 98% vocabulary coverage (https://www.lextutor.ca/vp/comp/)
  • 1210-1400L (https://hub.lexile.com/analyzer)
  • limit your use of transitions and linking devices (perhaps 3)
  • avoid using a key word to signpost content points
  • avoid clustering of points (more than 2 consecutive points without elaboration)
  • avoid clustering of elaborations (more than 2 consecutive sentences/clauses with elaboration)
  • write only one introductory sentence and then get to the given points
  • do not write a concluding paragraph
  • consider writing a content point in the final sentence
  • punctuation:
    • Use complex sentences to increase the reading difficulty
    • Use semicolons (4 per text)
    • Colons, dashes, exclamation marks, and sent​ence fragments may be used sparingly
    • Question marks and brackets should not be used
    • Give 1 E-first distractor (put the elaboration before the content point)
  • topics should be something most students will have some familiarity with and will not be controversial or offend cultural/religious sensibilities

Appendix 1 Olive Analysis 

from https://www.lextutor.ca/vp/comp/​

1,000 word level

2,000 word level

3,000 word level

4,000 word level

5,000 word level

6,000 word level

8,000 word level

9,000 word level

13,000 word level = gastritis [1]

16,000 word level = quran [1]

18,000 word level = monounsaturated [1]

Appendix 2

List of topics from 2015 to 2020

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