Friday, June 8, 2012

Provincial Exam Tips from A Long time EPE Marker!

Thank you Peter McLennan for writing this great article!  I am reprinting in it's entirety to help students do better on their exams. Wonderful!!

Observations from a long-time English Provincial Exam Marker
Prepared by Peter McLennan on November 29, 2011. These are just my observations, and not a reflection of any official policies.

The Multiple-Choice sections:

Markers have little to do with the m/c sections, though we have been told that it’s common for “bad questions” to be eliminated. Questions are deemed bad when statistical analysis reveals that the question doesn’t discriminate between strong students and weak ones.

The Composition Questions:

In general, students should be reminded that the written responses are compositions, not merely answers to questions. Markers are looking for clearly articulated, perceptive understandings of the works in question. Because these are marked holistically, there is nothing that is automatically punished or rewarded (except writing the essays in verse, complete failure to address the question, or having wildly inappropriate content).

Note that on the rubrics, there is nothing particularly wrong with a paper at the scale point 4. But scale points 5 and 6 have notable strengths in content and/or expression

The Stand-Alone text:

The exam asks for a minimum of 150 words, in paragraph form. Paragraph form is assessed holistically. That is, markers are looking for logical development and support, but not necessarily for topic sentences and that sort of thing. Writing that sounds formulaic tends to suggest a 4. While length in-and-of itself obviously doesn’t indicate a good response, well-developed responses are often significantly longer than the minimum. Having said that, students sometimes “write themselves out of a 5”. That is, they had an upper-level paper, then padded it with useless fluff and ended up with a 4.

Students are told to make specific reference to the text. Markers have often commented that most students are good at incorporating quotations, so failure to do so is conspicuous. The stand-alone text often contains a shift in meaning or an irony—something with two sides. A good discussion involves consideration (and probably quotation) of more than one part of the text.

Sometimes students who are lost in the question quote huge swathes of text to avoid writing anything. A different error is committed by the student who quotes a “word” or “two” in “every” sentence.

If the passage is difficult, the multiple choice questions sometimes provide clues or some useful vocabulary for discussing the passage.

Mid-range papers are correct answers written in correct English. Upper level papers are articulate and reflect a mature, perceptive, well-developed understanding.

The Synthesis Essay:

Everything that pertains to the Stand-Alone text also pertains here.

Most English teachers have students compare and contrast things now and then, but we would do well to teach this more directly. Essays with well-synthesized ideas have the connection between the works as their subject, and use one text as the perspective from which to view the other. I tell my students to consider one text as providing the critical lens through which to view the other.

Upper level responses are detailed and thoroughly consider the texts in relation to the question.

Students should strive for a relatively formal academic voice in these, avoiding first person and avoiding editorializing (and avoiding referring to authors by their first names!).

Again, the point isn’t to produce an answer which is merely correct, but to produce an essay that elegantly and perceptively considers the question. A merely correct answer will likely net a 4.

The Composition (formerly the Original Composition):

The most successful approach here is generally the personal essay that illustrates the truth of the topic with a personal anecdote. Note that the first element on the rubric for all of the upper level scores has to do with control of language for effect. Style is important in the composition. Because “formulaic” is listed in scale point 4, a five-paragraph essay will likely net a 4, especially if the subjects of the paragraphs seem arbitrary or contrived. This can be useful for the weaker student who would be happy to get a 4.

It’s a good idea to start with some kind of a “hook”, and to give consideration to expressive elements of language.

It’s also a good idea to be positive. Even though there’s nothing on the rubric about it, I think it’s good for the marker to be thinking “She sounds like a nice kid.” I suggest to my students that if they want to show some human fault or foible, they show it in themselves, and explain how they hope they’ve grown from the experience. Everyone likes genuine humility and honesty in others. Above all, avoid second-person prescriptions “You should. . .”

The topics most often ask students to discuss a person or an experience that caused them to change, or from which they learned something important. Another topic thread has to do with quality of life—generally the idea that simplicity is good. The challenge, I think, is for students to avoid clichés while also avoiding being too cute or clever.

There’s no short-cut around the fact that upper level papers are well-written and engaging.

The Marking Process:

A number of measures are in place to ensure that standards are applied fairly and consistently. Written responses are read by at least two markers. Sometimes a third is consulted if there’s uncertainty, and every exam paper is looked over for consistency. If the mark on one question seems out of line with the others, it’s re-read. Additionally, markers do training sets and MAPs (marker accuracy papers?) throughout the session to maintain consistent standards. Every thirtieth paper or so is photocopied and inserted into the mix as a reliability paper. I have always been impressed by the professionalism of the markers.

Again, Peter McLennan many thanks for writing this article.

In addition to the comments that he has made, I would like to add a few concepts:

1) Practice exams are beneficial, but most classroom teachers do not mark the Provincial Exams. Often students will fair very well in class but they don't do as well on the tests. The reason for this is that students create relationships with their teachers and skill development is monitored closely. Student's improvement is rewarded by their classroom teacher. The Provincials are unbiased tests marked outside of classrooms and therefore prove a much more accurate depiction of a students academic level.    

2)  The final original composition is what I like to refer to as a "life lesson". It is the final thing that educators want you to consider prior to graduating.  It is important that student's use their own life experiences to answer this question, but the should ensure that they do not go off topic by using only one example. The topic is the most important, so students should address the answer at least 3 ways.  

3) Read the directions.  The test tells students how to answer the questions.  Multi-paragraph does not mean one long paragraph! While I agree that a formed essay should not appear to be completely structured, (essays should have 5 paragraphs with an introduction, three bodies and a conclusion form as a protocol of an essay) I do feel it is a good way to stay on task. Since so many students lack the necessary skills to achieve higher marks, I don't want to mislead students into thinking that they should just write one long paragraph.  I am happy to discuss this point further.

4) The Provincial exams are an opportunity to showcase what a student has learned over twelve years of formal education.  Students who do well on the exams are able to teach the marker that they have learned something over the course of their years in school.  Be sure, at every opportunity to teach the marker what you know - you will score well if you do!

5) The average mark on the Provincial exam writing components is 3.  The second most awarded mark is 4! It is important that students maximize their marks by using good transitions, support statements, quotations and buzz words (literary devices).  

Ask for help. Your teachers, and I, want you to succeed! 
 Feel free to visit my website at

How do I pass the Grade 12 English Provincial Exam?

I found a wonderful and helpful online guide written by: R.Beaton. B. Britney & V. Columbara 2008, that clearly explains some great tips for the English 12, Provincial Exams.  It illustrates my exact training methods and sentiments towards the key elements of the exam.  I invite you to have a read and prepare for the exam using these techniques. For more information, give me a call as I would be happy to expand on these ideas and assist students in reaching their goals.

English 12 Provincial Preparation

Remember that the Provincial Exam is worth 40% of you entire school grade. At this point, you should know what your class mark is. Take a few moments to figure what you “need” to get on your provincial in order to achieve your goal, whether your goal is to simply pass the course or get an A.

School Mark x 60% =

This is what you have entering into the exam. Your mark on the exam x 40% will be added to this for your final grade.

The English Provincial is divided into four sections. Each section is assigned a mark value and a suggested time period for completion. Although the time allotted for the entire provincial is 2 hours (120 minutes), everyone actually gets 3 hours (180 minutes) USE YOUR TIME WISELY!

Provincial Breakdown: (marks are approximate as they change every year)

Section Value Suggested Time Real Suggested Time

Stand Alone Text 20 marks 25 minutes 35 minutes

Synthesis Text 1 10 marks 10 minutes 10 minutes
Synthesis Text 2 33 marks 45 minutes 50-60 minutes

Original Comp 24 marks 40 minutes 50-60 minutes

Total 87 marks 120 minutes 165 minutes

Part A: Stand Alone Text

This section requires you to read a poem, answer 7 or 8 multiple choices questions and write a literary paragraph. The time suggested is 25 minutes. You should aim to complete this section in under 40 minutes.

Remember to read the question first, before reading the poem.

Pay attention to the title of the poem as it will often give you insight into the poem’s meaning, speaker, tone, etc.
As you read the poem, make notes or highlight to help you answer the question.
Read the poem more than once.
This is a literary paragraph. DO NOT USE “I”, DO NOT USE “YOU”. Write in third person.
Be sure to use quotes to support your answer. INTEGRATE YOUR QUOTES WELL.

You need to have a clear topic sentence. This sentence should contain the author’s name and the poem’s title.

Make sure your paragraph is as error free as possible. It’s the little errors that add up to a lower mark.

If you are having difficulty, sometimes simply restating the question can be a topic sentence (although not a great one).

Example Question: Discuss the jump in “Prelude to Jumping in the River” as a metaphor for making important decisions. Use paragraph form and support your response with specific references to the text. (2010 release)
Possible topic sentence: “In “Prelude to Jumping in the River”, the jump is a metaphor for making important decisions.”
* Remember to be more creative than this.

Part B: Synthesis Text 1

In the comprehension section, you are expected to read a non-fiction passage or a poem and answer the multiple choice questions based on the content of the passage. You are showing that you understand what you read. Read the questions carefully and answer to the best of your ability. Never leave an answer blank. If you have to, guess. Try not to spend more than the ten minutes suggested for this section.

This section should be easy marks. Don’t give them away by not reading the questions properly or making silly mistakes.

Part C: Interpretation of Prose (Short Story)/Synthesis Text 2

In this section you are required to read a short story, answer 8-14 multiple choice questions and write a synthesis essay that looks at the prose piece and either the non-fiction piece or the poem from Part B. Stories are usually about 2 pages in length. This section is worth 33 points – more than 1/3 of your entire provincial mark! The time suggested for the prose section is 45 minutes – use at least that much, if not more (remember the extra hour everyone gets).

The multiple choice questions you will be required to answer are both on the passage specifically as well as questions that deal with the synthesizing of both texts.

The multiple choice questions are one point each. Never leave a question unanswered – if necessary, use the process of elimination.

Multiple choice may ask you about terms, techniques, understanding the story, or vocabulary. KNOW YOUR TERMS.

For the essay, you are given a choice of two questions, but you only need to answer one.

Remember to read the essay questions first, before reading the story.

* It is very easy to score a 4 in this section but often hard to score a higher mark. Stay focused, prove your clear arguments and use strong, appropriate quotes to prove your thesis. Vivid, proper vocabulary will also help as well complex sentence structures that vary through the paragraphs.

As you read, use a highlighter or your pen to underline and make notes to help you answer the question. Write all over the booklet if you wish!

This is a literary essay. DO NOT USE ‘I’ OR ‘YOU’. Write in third person. This is a SYNTHESIS question – make sure you incorporate BOTH pieces of literature and answer the question.

Your essay needs to be at least 3 paragraphs long – if it less than that, you will lose one point from your mark. And will likely not score higher than a 3 because you haven’t developed your ideas.

Make sure your first paragraph is as error free as possible. This is where the marker gets their first impression of your writing ability. Don’t give them a reason to question your skill level.

Be sure to use quotes to support your answer. INTEGRATE YOUR QUOTES WELL.
*Quotes are like Barbies™ – they can’t stand up by themselves!

You need to have a clear thesis sentence. This sentence should contain the author’s names and the story’s titles and connect to synthesis. But it should not be the only sentence in your introduction.

Be sure to answer the question!

Synthesis questions may ask about the following: character*, theme*, tone, mood, irony, imagery, compare & contrast, and a variety of literary devices – metaphor, extended metaphor, symbolism*, allusion, etc. Be sure you know your terms.
* = very popular topics.

Essays are double marked on the 6 point scale, the marks are combined, multiplied by 2 and you receive a grade out of 24.

Do not refer to the author by first name only. Be clear on whether the author is male or female so that you use the correct pronoun. These little things if correct, tell the marker you know what’s going on. If you use the wrong pronoun or some other small error, it’s a little warning to the marker you may not understand what you read.

Avoid clichés, rhetorical questions or review like comments. Stay neutral and don’t preach or “teach” the markers about the story.
Eg; In the short story, “Andy Warhol”, the author, Jesse Smith does an amazing job of creating a vivid theme of overcoming hardship.


Part D: Original Composition

This section is worth 24 marks and requires you write an original composition. The suggested time is 40 minutes – use at least that and likely more.

The instructions for this section are as follows:
“Using standard English, write a coherent, unified, multi-paragraph composition of approximately 300 words on the topic below. In your composition, you may apply any effective and appropriate method of development which includes any combination of exposition, persuasion, description and narration.”

Your composition needs to be multi paragraph or you will lose marks.

You are given a topic to write about, but how you choose to approach the topic is up to you. Typically, narrative essays do better than expository simply because they tend to be more creative. However, many expository and persuasive essays have received 6’s. Write the way you write best.

Some past topics:

Keeping an open mind allows for growth. (Jan 2000)
The pursuit of freedom involves change. (April 2000)
It is important to have a realistic view of life. (April 2001)
People can create their own reality. (Jan 2002)
People can be influenced by their environments.(June 02)
Certain experiences can mark the beginnings of maturity. (Jan 03)
Our journey into the future begins in the past. (April 03)
Our views of the past change as we mature. (Jan 04)

Use some time to pre-plan. You need to be clear in what you are writing about. Remember to save some time to proof read and edit. You will only have time and room to write one copy – make sure it’s a good one.

* Handwriting can often be a factor in your mark. Be sure to be as neat and legible as possible. Don’t give anyone reason to lower your mark!

Make sure your first paragraph is error free and as engaging as possible. This is what will create the readers’ first impression of your work.

Have a title. It’s refreshing and a nice extra piece of pizzazz the readers enjoy.

Zeros are only given if the essay if completely off topic or if the language/content is inappropriate.

Remember your audience. Watch your language for slang, boring, common vocabulary and inappropriate content.

It MUST be your work! Re-writing common movie plots or novel story lines will not only insult the marker, but can result in a zero.

Some Helpful Tips….

The weekend before your exam:

1. Practice exams on-line.
  • Use the answer keys, and not just the selected response section; examine how the prose and poetry sections could be answered.
  • Practice narrowing the essay topics and write outline

2. Study your Literary Terms
  • Poetry and short story terms show up on the exam; know them!

The night before the exam:
  • Go to bed prepared: have everything you need for the exam ready to go.
  • Set you alarm (check AM/PM, volume etc); make sure you have a back up wake up option (parents, siblings, friends)
  • GO TO BED EARLY! (This really can’t be stressed enough)

The morning of the exam:
  • Be at school by 8am (your exam starts at 8:30) or if it’s an afternoon exam, be at school by 12:00 (your exam starts at 12:30)
  • Bring everything you need to be successful: 2-3 new pens, 2-3 sharpened pencils, an eraser, white out, good luck charms (medallions, rabbits’ feet, a lock of hair from a virtuous unicorn, a small vial containing the blood of an infidel – whatever works for you).
  • Give yourself as much time to get to school as possible. You don’t want to be rushed.
  • EAT Breakfast! It is the most important meal of the day, especially on exam days! And if you have an afternoon exam, EAT LUNCH!
  • Make sure you’re at the exam location at least 15 minutes early
  • Go to the bathroom BEFORE the exam. Wash your hands
  • Leave everything you don’t need in your locker: cell phone, backpack, Ipod.

The Exam:
  • RELAX! Deep breaths… calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean.
  • Read all the instructions carefully!
  • Read the writing topics before you write
  • For each section, read the questions before you read the text, especially the written-response questions
  • Plan all of your writing in an OUTLINE in the space provided.
  • Take your time and pace yourself. Write slowly, carefully, and neatly.
  • Make sure every sentence is complete; vary your sentences; use the best words.
  • No clichés, no salty language, nothing stupid. Think about your audience
  • Proofread everything! If you have time, go over it again! Proofread!

    This article has been copied directly from the writer. Right Choice Educational Programs and Tutoring services would like to thank the author  R.Beaton. B. Britney & V. Columbara 2008 for such a helpful piece.  

    Cathy Holmes,
    Right Choice Educational Programs & Tutoring Services