Read The Question (And Understand What it Means)

Teachers always emphasise that you must READ THE QUESTION before you answer it. Obviously you will read it, so what do they really mean?

What you have to remember is that every question has been written by an expert who wants you to demonstrate your knowledge is a specific way.  The words used in the question have been carefully selected to ensure that there is only one type of answer that can get you full marks. 

So, if the question asks you to describe the function of a gabion, it doesn’t want you to write about a groyne or loose riprap, it really does mean a gabion. If you have no idea what a gabion is, but are an expert on riprap, pick another question or move on; the question was specific and only a specific answer will get you some marks.

In the example question above, I used the word ‘describe’ – thats the word that tells you HOW to answer the question. Examiners use a set of words like ‘describe’ to let you know what they want. They are called ‘command’ words. Here are the common ones and what they actually mean…

Account for

Give reasons or an explanation for something.


Break the topic down into its individual parts and explain their characteristics.


This goes with a diagram, map or photograph. Add labels, notes or comments to explain what is happening.


Put both sides of an argument , not just one.  Your argument must be reasoned.


Look at the evidence and come to logical conclusions.


Work out the maths to find a value or answer.


Select from a list you’ve been given. If the question states ‘choose two’ it means two, not one or three.


Give your own opinion or thoughts about the topic. Back up your thoughts with facts and logic.


Explain the ways in which things are similar and not similar. For example, ‘the stream has a lower discharge than the river’ or ‘the galciers are of similar length’.


Fill in the missing bits. For example, complete this sentence… “A metal wire cage filled with rocks and used to defend a river bank is called a…..”.


Think about it, review the information, and then respond.


Look for the differences, then list and explain them. You do not need to look for similarities too.


Use the information you’ve been given to suport an opinion or statement about something.


Give at least two different perspectives on the topic. On the one hand… on the other hand…


Find the answer by examining the information you have been given.


Provide the exact meaning of the question topic. For example, ‘Define immigration’ requires you to explain what immigration is.


Look for the main features or characteristics of something. For example, explain what it does, what it looks like, how big it is, what it is made of, how does it interact with something else.


Start with the information you have been given, then go further and build on what you’ve already got.


Set out the arguments for and against something in a balanced and fair way. You can use key points and finish up with a reasoned conclusion.

Distinguish between

Explain the difference between the two things listed in the question. For example, distinguish between two related theories or ideas.


Produce a diagram, graph, map or sketch as specified in the question.


Give a rough value based on data you are given or have learnt.


Identify the positive and negative points and draw a reasoned conclusion based on the evidence.


Look closely at the data you’ve been given.


Say WHY something is the way that it is. Give reasons, advantages and disadvantages. Questions that include ‘explain’ often carry more marks and require a detailed answer.


Examine something in a neutral way. Don’t have any preconceptions and come to an impartial conclusion.


Provide a basic, simple and straight forward answer. For example, ‘The grid reference of the church is 192684’.

Give your views on / about

This is basically the same as ‘comment on’. Just say what you think about the topic.

How many / how much / How does

Give an answer based on the information you’ve been given or what you’ve learnt. For example, “How many villages are on the southern side of the river?’ or ‘How does a glacier erode it’s valley?’


Usually a low mark question requiring a brief response. Identify is much the same as ‘name’, ‘give’ or ‘say’


Use examples or diagrams to clarify the answer.


Take the data you’ve been given, and turn it into something understandable.


Support your answer with evidence and facts. Give sound reasons backed up with evidence.


Add words or sentences to a diagram, map, illustration etc to describe and identify  parts of it.


Produce a LIST,not sentences or long-winded paragraphs.


Find it and mark it on the map, diagram or illustration.

Mark position of

Find the required feature and identify it with an X or other symbol given to you.

Mark with an arrow and label

Find the feature, draw a line from the edge of the diagram to it, and end the line with an arrow. Give a short description of the feature at the other end of the line. One word may be enough. The arrow must clearly point at the feature. A vague position may not get you any marks.


Link up words / ideas /images from seperate lists.


Using the scale provided, work out the distance / height / size / quantity.


This is the same as Give, Identify or State.  For example, “name one type of sedimentary rock.”


Briefly explain or summarise the key points of the argument. Think of it as something between Describe and State.


It doesn’t mean come up with a cunning plan. It means mark a diagram or graph to show data points.


Use evidence to justify what ever the question is about.


Suggest the best option in your opinion, backing up your choice with an evaluation of the evidence.


Show the connections between the things mentioned in the question.


Look at the information and assess it.


Colour it in…CAREFULLY.


Provide evidence and an example to justify the assertion given in the question.  For example, “Show that there is a link between altitude and rainfall”.


Produce a basic outline drawing of whatever the question asks. For example, “Sketch the course a pebble takes when breaking on a beach subject to longshore drift.”


Just another way to say Give / Name / Identify something.


Look at the information CAREFULLY. ‘Study’ usually comes in the first half of a question. eg: “Study the graph, and then explain why temperatures have risen.”


It’s a little like ‘explain’ but without a definite right or wrong answer. You should give several reasons why something is the way that it is. For example, ‘Suggest why the river has been diverted’ might include flood control, water access, building works, etc. You need to provide plausable reasons for what’s happening.


Explain the main points, but do it briefly.


Yep, pretty obvious… put a tick in the right box.  Don’t put a circle round it, or use a cross or a squiggle… TICK it.

To what extent

Explain how much something is related to something else. Look at how successful is it / how important is it etc.

Use an example / case study / evidence to...

Use information from your case studies to answer the question. Not a vague and general answer, but an answer based on facts from your case study.

Use map evidence to ...

Give your answer by using accurate and specific information you have extracted from the map.

What is the meaning of...

Give the definition of the term used in the question. Questions like this are often low marks because only a simple answer is required.  For example, “What is the meaning of ‘migration’.

With the help of a diagram / sketch

Give a written answer AND a sketch / diagram as specified in the question.

Why is ...?

Give the causes or factors that explain the subject of the question.   For example, “Why is rising sea level a concern for  The Netherlands?” would require you to explain the low-lying nature of The Netherlands, the effect flooding would have on industry, housing, the economy, etc.