Answering ‘What is the effect of this quote?’ or ‘How is ___ effective?’ comprehension questions

A common but deadly 11+ question style!

Robert Lomax
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This sort of question doesn’t look so hard …

“Dad! What does it mean if something’s effective?”

“Well … “

Does it just mean ‘good’? No … it must mean that it works somehow … maybe like a really effective washing machine …

But how does that help?

I’ve had a few enquiries about this recently, so it seems to be on people’s minds.

When a question asks about the effect of something in a text, it is asking you to consider how it affects the reader. Usually it is easiest to think about emotional effects, but a word or phrase might also have the effect of making the reader think something interesting.

Sometimes a phrase will be effective because it clearly communicates the emotions of a character to the reader.

Here are some examples:

1. ‘He flung himself over the finish line’ is effective because the verb ‘fling’ conveys the runner’s desperation, but also because it suggests how little he cares about his body at this moment: you might ‘fling’ something which lacks value, such as a bag of rubbish.

It is a good idea to use the word ‘effective’ or ‘effect’ in your answer, to show that you are focusing on this aspect. Here, the answer explains how the quotation effectively shows the character’s feelings.

2. ‘That dandled a sandalled shadow that swam or sank’ has effective sibilance*. The ‘s’ sounds help me imagine the gentle swishing of the water, suggesting the calm of a quiet country day.

* sibilance is the alliteration of ‘s’ sounds.

If you can spot patterns of sounds (such as alliteration), it is comparatively easy to talk about their effect. When you find alliteration, look for the following things:

  • What does it literally suggest about the situation (‘the gentle swishing of the water’)?
  • What emotion/sensation does it suggest (‘the calm of a quiet country day’)?

3. ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ is effective because it takes great effort to row or sail against a current: the metaphor is a reminder of how much of a struggle life can be. ‘Borne back ceaselessly’ powerfully suggests that, for all that we try to push forward in life, we can never escape the effect of our past decisions. Furthermore, the plosive alliteration of ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds suggests the strength of the current pounding against the boat: this makes me feel the narrator’s desperation and helplessness.

This answer blends together the intellectual effect of the quotation (what it makes me think) and its emotional effect (what it makes me feel, especially about the narrator).

When you are discussing the intellectual effect of a phrase, be careful to do more than just translate its meaning into your own words: you must explain its effect fully. If you can talk about emotions as well, this will help.

Notice how the example discusses both the meaning of the words and their sound. This is a route to a high-scoring answer when a question is worth many marks.

If you found this post useful or have a question, please leave a comment below! I’d love to have your feedback. (Tick the “Receive email updates” box to receive an email when I reply.)

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1 Comment

  1. Mich

    Very well-explained – unravelling the mystery of this question. Thank you.


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