The Best Way to Answer Comprehension Questions – WASSCE (+PDF)

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Reading Time: 12 minutes

Today, you’re going to learn how to answer comprehension questions.

I will show you a practical demonstration of the best approach to your comprehension questions.

You will benefit immensely if you are going to be a candidate in the WAEC/WASSCE English Language test paper.

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So fasten your seat belts because we are going on an important ride. I’m about to take you to places that you probably might have never been before.

I’m referring to the secrets you must know about how to answer comprehension questions correctly.

My promise to you …

Here is my promise to you. From today onwards, it is not going to be business as usual. Your days of poor performance in Senior High School or WASSCE English Comprehension are going to be history.

You will know exactly what you need to do in order to give the best answers to comprehension questions in an examination.

Your eyes will be open to why you thought you did so well in the comprehension test but the one who marked your work said no. Because, like everything else, there are best practices for your comprehension test too.

Now, for my practical demonstration of the most effective way to answer comprehension questions, I am going to rely on some of the best comprehension past questions you can find.

Enough of the introductory stuff. Let’s get quickly down to our business of the moment = how to effectively answer comprehension questions.

Sample Comprehension Passage and Questions

Read the following passage carefully and answer the questions on it.

In Africa, there are more kinds of people with more differences among them-language, size, colour, clothes, food-than there are in the other continents. The knee-high pygmies are known as the shortest people on earth while the giant Watusis are Africa’s tallest and most beautiful.

There are examples of the lightest and darkest races with shades ranging from yellow through brown to black. Differences also exist in culture and history, with Ethiopians claiming that they have the longest history.

There was slavery in the ancient world and slaves were of all nations and races. An Ethiopian, Aesop, was among the slaves in Ancient Greece. He had a flat nose, thick lips and black skin, but these Negroid features had nothing to do with slavery in those days.

The victor in battle enslaved his enemy and the debtor would pay in labour what he could not pay in cash or food. The penalty for witchcraft, the punishment for coveting a neighbour’s wife and the retribution for showing disrespect for another’s religion was bondage.

Even in times of famine or great deprivation, wives and daughters were sold into slavery. This mode of slavery was practiced in Africa too, but it was not business.

The first slaves in modern times were captured years before Columbus landed in America. A Portuguese navigator exploring the west coast of Africa became the first modern slave trader. His men captured a fine-looking Moor wandering along the beach. To save his own life and in exchange for his release, this wealthy Moor offered his captors ten Negro boys who were eventually taken to Portugal where they served in the homes of the rich.

How to Write a Good Narrative Essay

Sample Summary Questions and Answers

Soon the demand for African slaves became so great that ships returning from Africa brought young negro boys as well as girls. Exploration was replaced by the lucrative trade in human beings and Portuguese traders began selling people to Spain and other countries long before other Europeans-the French, the Dutch and the Danes entered the trade.

Competition was so keen that these villains who were scrambling for slaves like hungry wolves began to take slaves any way they could, sometimes capturing entire villages. One could count myriads of heads loaded on ships like cattle.

The English were later attracted to the trade and became so active that they soon outdid the other countries; their deliveries were far larger and more regular.

Questions

a) For each of the following words underlined in the passage, give another word or phrase which means the same and can replace it in the passage:

PLEASE NOTE THE PARTS i HAVE HIGHLIGHTED IN BOLD LETTERING ABOVE.

i) shades ii) retribution iii) release.

iv) lucrative v) villains vi) outdid.

b) What are the three features of the Ethiopian that identified him as a Negro?

c) State the main difference between slavery as practiced in Africa and that practiced by Europeans later.

d) Why did the Moor give away as many as ten Negro boys for his release?

e) Give two words or phrases that suggest the writer’s attitude to the slave trade.

f) Why is it that the English deliveries were far larger and more regular?

g) ….. who were eventually taken to Portugal

i) What is the grammatical name for this construction?

ii) What is its grammatical function?

h) …… heads loaded on ships.

What literary device is used in the above expression?

How to approach the questions

Let’s now go to the most important stage in the English comprehension test. I’m talking about how to write the best comprehension answers to comprehension questions.

Note the steps you need to take to be able to write the best answers to comprehension questions.

Qs a) i) SHADES.

Answering Steps:

  1. Locate the word IN THE PASSAGE. “Shades” is located in paragraph 1.
  2. Examine the context in which it is used: ie. There are examples of the lightest and darkest races with SHADES ranging from yellow through brown to black.

Clearly the words used in association with SHADES have something to do with colour and since we are talking about “kinds of people” or “races”  it is SKIN COLOUR or COMPLEXION that the writer is referring to when he uses SHADES.

  • Identify the grammatical features of the word: “Shades” is plural so whatever word or phrase we choose to replace it must also be in the plural form. So our answer here will look like either

i) Shades – colours

    or

i) shades – complexions

ii) RETRIBUTION

  1. Location: Paragraph 2.
    1. The context:

The penalty for witchcraft, the punishment for coverting a neighbour’s life and the RETRIBUTION for showing disrespect for another’s religion were bondage.

In this particular case the issue here is wrongdoing or anti-social behavior. For the sake variety and the literary device known as parallelism, the writer first used other words in the context which amount to retribution for anti social behaviour. These are PENALTY and PUNISHMENT. Thus, your answer should look like this: either

      ii) retribution – penalty

      or

ii) retribution – punishment.

Note also that retribution is a singular noun so any word or phrase used to REPLACE IT IN THE PASSAGE must also be singular hence “penalty” or “punishment”.

iii) RELEASE

  1. Location: Paragraph 3.
  2. The context: His men captured a fine-looking Moor wandering along the beach. To save his own life and in exchange for his RELEASE, this wealthy Moor offered his captors ten Negro boys who were eventually taken to Portugal where they served in the homes of the rich.

Now consider the words we have underlined. It is always important to have this mindset as you try to answer comprehension questions.

“Captured” – a captured person is like a prisoner, he can no longer enjoy his FREEDOM so he will do anything to gain his FREEDOM back.

“to save his own life” – The Moor was captured and his life was in danger. He could only be safe (save his own life) when he regained his FREEDOM and he must do something for this FREEDOM (RELEASE)

“exchange” and “wealthy”: This Moor wass rich (wealthy) so he could afford to obtain (buy, or pick) “ten negro boys” in EXCHANGE (to pay for) his FREEDOM (RELEASE). Mind you, slavery was not new in Africa and it wais the rich  and powerful, like this wealthy Moor who could own slaves like these ten Negro boys.

“Served” the boys went to serve in place of the Moor. A servant is not a free person. Servants don’t have FREEDOM so it was for his FREEDOM that the Moor traded (exchanged) the boys.

Thus your answer could be:

iii) release – freedom

Note that “release” is used in its context as a noun not a verb or adjective so you cannot use “FREE” to REPLACE it. You need to use its noun form hence FREEDOM

iv) LUCRATIVE

  1. Location: Paragraph 4.
  2. The context: Exploration was replaced by the LUCRATIVE trade in human beings and Portuguese traders  began selling people to Spain and other countries long before other Europeans ……….. entered the trade.

First, it was exploration but it was replaced by a trade in human beings. Clearly, trading must be profitable in order to replace an earlier activity. Any kind of selling (including “selling people”) can only be profitable to be done on an international basis (selling people to Spain and other countries). Mind you, other Europeans, were attracted (entered) this obvious PROFITABLE (lucrative) trade or “business” (last word in paragraph 2)

  • Therefore even if the word LUCRATIVE is totally new to you, your guess can just be good as mine – a good answer is:

iv) lucrative – profitable

Note that “lucrative” is an adjective so the word used to replace it should also be an adjective hence PROFITABLE and not “profit” for example.

v) VILLAINS

  1. Location: Paragraph 4, line 6
  2. The context: Competition was so keen that these VILLAINS who were scrambling for slaves like hungry wolves began to take slaves any way they could sometimes capturing entire villages. One could count myriads of heads loaded on ships like cattle.

The people “villains” is used for are the slave traders. The writer says they were “scrambling” for slaves. Clearly these cannot be good people. Then the writer says they even captured entire villages! Is that not cruel (and evil)? After capturing their fellow human beings they pack (load) them on ships like animals (cattle) – this is clearly inhuman hence the writer compares them to wolves (vicious animals). Clearly what the writer means by villains is “evil characters” or “bad people”. Thus your answer can be: either

v) villains – bad people

      or

v) villains – evil characters

vi) OUTDID

  1. Location: Last paragraph.
  2. The context: The English …….. soon outdid the other countries; their deliveries were far larger and more regular.

The writer has used the punctuation mark, semi-colon, to announce an EXPLANATION of the word OUTDID. Thus what he means by “they OUTDID other countries” is :

“THEIR DELIVERIES WERE FAR LARGER AND MORE REGULAR.” In other words the English DID BETTER THAN or PERFORMED BETTER THAN or SURPASSED or OUTCLASSED other countries.

Please overcame is not appropriate in this context.

Note also that OUTDID is a verb in its past tense so any word or phrase used to REPLACE it must also be a verb in the past tense hence your answer can be:

vi) outdid – did better than

or

vi) outdid – performed better than

or

vi) outdid – surpassed

b) What are the three features of the Ethiopian that identified him as a Negro?

Answering Steps:

  1. Question analysis (so that you don’t deviate): key words to note are: three, features, Ethiopian, identified, Negro

THREE: three means three – don’t state two or one and don’t write four, five etc. Just state three.

FEATURES: features means characteristics or attributes; look for these.

ETHIOPIAN: Not the Moor or a Portuguese or an English man etc. So your answer must be only about the Ethiopian and no one else.

IDENTIFIED: it is all about the identity or identification of a Negro. What things about him can make you IDENTIFY him as a NEGRO? – not a MOOR or a WHITE MAN or YELLOW MAN.

  • Locate the answer in the passage: ie paragraph 2 , sentence 2:

An Ethiopian, Aesop, was among the slaves in ancient Greece. He had a flat nose, thick lips and black skin, but these Negroid features had nothing to do with slavery in those days.

  • Do not copy and present all the above extract as you answer.

As you can see, certain words here point to the fact that this is where the answer to this question is. These are: “Ethiopian” and “Negroid features”

What are the three features then? They are:

FLAT NOSE, THICK LIPS and BLACK SKIN

  • Provide a direct answer – no need to beat about the bush:

either b) a flat nose, thick lips and black skin

   or   b) i) flat nose

              iii) black skin

   or     b) He had a flat nose, thick lips and black skin

   or    b) The Ethiopian’s Negroid features were a flat nose thick lips and black skin.

   or    b) The features which identified the Ethiopian as a negro were his flat nose, thick lips and black skin.

          c) State the main difference between slavery as practiced in Africa and that practiced by Europeans later.

Answering Steps:

  1. Question analysis (so that you don’t deviate): Key words to note are:

State, main difference, slavery as practiced, Africa, Europeans later.

STATE: Just state briefly, don’t explain,

MAIN DIFFERENCE: just the major difference and only one difference. In other words, what one major thing set the two continents apart as far as the practice of slavery was concerned?

SLAVERY AS PRACTICED: It is all about slavery and how it was practiced. Don’t introduce a different issue (eg. Negroid features) in your answer here please.

AFRICA ………. EUROPEANS: The difference is between these two peoples (not between England and Spain etc:) so don’t talk about other people apart from Africans and Europeans.

EUROPEANS LATER: The Europeans came to practice slavery LATER. That is after Africans had themselves practiced it EARLIER. Thus to locate the area(s) of your answer, you must read the earlier stages of the passage, see how Africans practiced slavery and then move further towards the middle or end of the passage.your answer should therefore sound like this:

c) Whereas European slavery was business African slavery was not.

d) Why did the Moor give away as many as ten Negro boys for his release.

Answer Steps:

  1. Question Analysis:

Words to note:

WHY: This implies that your answer must be a REASON to explain the Moor’s action.

MOOR: It is all about the MOOR (not the Portuguese Ethiopian or anybody else)

GIVE AWAY AS MANY AS TEN NEGRO BOYS: This is the action for which your answer must give a reason. Note “AS MANY AS TEN” (this expression suggests that the number is a lot and there must be a reason or reasons for this.)

HIS RELEASE: It is about his release not his capture. So locate the answer at the place where he acted for his release.  

  • Locate the answer in the passage:

To save his own life and in exchange for his release, this wealthy Moor offered his captors his captors ten negro boys ……….

Clearly he was desperate to save his own life and since he was a wealthy (or rich) man he could easily afford ten negro boys. These explain his action.

  • So your answer can be:

d) He wanted to save his own life and he was rich enough to do so with ten Negro boys.

e) Give two words or phrases that suggest the writer’s attitude to the slave trade.

Answer Steps:

  1. Question Analysis:

Key words to note are

TWO: Whether you’ve decided to give words or phrases, they must be TWO, not one and not three or four or more.

WORDS OR PHRASES: You have been given options here. You are free to give words or to give phrases – suit yourself.

WRITER’S: Not your attitude, the Europeans’ or Africans’ attitude – only the WRITER’S please.

Attitude: His feeling about the subject (the slave trade). How he feels about the slave trade can only be derived form his choice of language (words or expressions) when referring to the trade and those who carried it out. So look for specific areas where his language betrays his feeling (his ATTITUDE).

SLAVE TRADE: It is about the SLAVE trade not the gold trade or EXPLORATION. It is also about the trade (business) aspect of it and  for that matter, the one practiced by the Europeans. It is not the non – trade (non-business) slavery in Africa that is being referred to please.

  • Locate the answer in the passage ie Paragraph 4.

Competition was so keen that these VILLAINS (evil people) who were SCRAMBLING for slaves LIKE HUNGRY WOLVES ……… One could count myriads of heads loaded in ships LIKE CATTLE.

The writer’s choice of the words in capital letters amply suggests an attitude of condemnation or disgust.

It is critical to consider words and expressions to correctly answer comprehension questions of this nature.

  • Your answer can then be:

e) i) villains ii) wolves

     or

e) i) like hungry wolves ii) like cattle

or

e) The words “villains” and “wolves” suggest his attitude of condemnation.

or

e) He shows his disgust for the slave trade by using such expressions as “like hungry wolves” and “like cattle”.

f) Why is it that the English deliveries were far larger and more regular?

Answer Steps:

  1. Question Analysis: words to note.

WHY: You are to give a REASON for this state of affairs.

ENGLISH DELIVERIES: It is only about the English as compared to the others; not SPANISH or PORTUGUESE deliveries. Also, it is about their SUPPLIES (deliveries) of slaves, not their EXPLORATIONS, for example.

FAR LARGER AND MORE REGULAR: These words will help you to easily locate your answer because they are directly picked from that part of the passage where the REASON (your answer) is located.

  • Locate the answer:

ie Last Paragraph:

The English ……. BECAME SO ACTIVE THAT they soon OUTDID the other countries; THEIR DELIVERIES WERE FAR LARGER AND MORE REGULAR

As you can see, the English outdid the other countries by delivering or supplying far larger quantities and more regular consignments of slaves as a result of their intense activity (became so active that).

  • So your answer can be

f) Because they were more active in the trade than the other countries.

Answer comprehension questions this way and you can be sure of a good score.

g) ……. who were eventually taken to Portugal

i) What is the grammatical name for this construction?

ii) What is its grammatical function?

Answering Steps:

  1. Question analysis

i) GRAMMATICAL NAME often refers to a phrase or a clause, not just a part of speech nor a figure of speech please.

ii) FUNCTION is determined by the position of the underlined in relation to another word/phrase/clause OUTSIDE the underlined group.

  • Locate the underlined in its context in the passage

…….. this wealthy Moor offered his captors ten negro boys who were eventually taken to Portugal

You can see that the construction begins with “who” so it is likely that it is an adjectival clause. Then also, it can answer the question: Which? Adjectives usually answer the question which kind? or which type? In this case, “which negro boys?”

The answer will be: Negro boys who were eventually taken to Portugal

Thus, it is an adjective but not noun or adverb.

Are you beginning to see the best way to answer comprehension questions?

The next question you may ask: which type of adjective? Phrase or Clause?

Now as you can see, the construction has a finite verb, “were” or in other words, it is easy to derive a complete sentence out of the construction so it cannot be a phrase but rather a clause. Put the two together and you have ADJECTIVAL CLAUSE.

  • Your answer for g (i) is therefore:

g (i) Grammatical Name : Adjectival Clause

  • Going back to the context and to the question we pose above you will realize that this construction is functioning in the usual way most adjectives function. That is, it is specifying or qualifying or modifying a noun (ie boy) or a noun phrase (ie ten negro boys)
  • Your answer for g (ii) can therefore be:

ii) Function: It is qualifying the noun, “boys”

or : It is qualifying the noun phrase, “ten negro boys”

See the tutorials on grammatical names and functions. It will enable you to go one step further regarding the best way to answer comprehension questions.

h) …… heads loaded on ships

      What literary device is used in the above expression?

Answer Steps:

  1. Question analysis: The question concerns literary appreciation (literature) and not grammatical analysis (grammar). So let your mind go to such terms as simile, metaphor, oxymoron, synecdoche, paradox, onetonymy, personification, onomatopoeia, irony etc. Avoid the mistake of thinking about noun, adjective, adverbial clause etc.
  2. Locate the expression in the passage ie. Paragraph 4.

………..Competition was so keen that these villains who were scrambling for slaves like hungry wolves began to take slaves any way they could, sometimes capturing entire villages. One could count myriads of heads loaded on ships like a cattle.

The writer is talking about the way slaves were captured and then transported on ships across the sea to far away lands here. HEADS therefore refers to slaves or HUMAN BEINGS loaded on ships.

Clearly,  part of the body (heads) is used to refer to the whole (people or human beings). This is the literary device we call SYNECDOCHE so your answer must be:

h) Synecdoche.

Note that the underlined expression featuring in the question does not include the last two words of the sentence, “like cattle” so do not fall into the temptation of giving your answer to be SIMILE. No please.

Last word …

I trust that you’ve finally found the secret to the correct way to answer comprehension questions. Never must you worry about how to answer comprehension questions anymore.

What other challenges do you face in your WAEC/WASSCE English Language, Literature or any similar examination?

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