Insight writer and English teacher Claire Warr gives some tips and strategies for using the holiday period to prepare for your VCE English Exam.
The key words in the Section B examination instruction are ‘analyse’ and ‘how’. To analyse means to examine, consider and evaluate. These are all verbs – they imply doing and action – so effective responses will actively compare and contrast the two texts. An evaluation or analysis also suggests that you need to come to an understanding or conclusion about the issues and ideas presented in the texts. But what precisely do we evaluate or analyse? We analyse the different ways in which authors, playwrights, biographers and filmmakers tell us their story – this is the ‘how’ of the exam question. Some students will explain or summarise the narrative and hope that this is analysis: a very easy mistake to make, especially under time pressure in an exam. It is important to analyse in your response, rather than simply listing, explaining or describing.
The following activities and strategies will help you to clarify how texts present ideas and issues; use them as part of your revision and preparation for Section B of the English exam.
1. Make a list of specific differences between the two text types of your text pair.
For example, the specific differences between Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders (a novel) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (a play) include the following.
- The novel uses a first-person narrative voice to tell the story, supported by dialogue as heard by the narrator; the play uses mainly dialogue.
- Brooks uses chapters and a cyclical narrative structure; Miller uses a four-act narrative structure.
- The novel uses descriptive language and imagery to create a sense of time and place; the play uses the language of the characters, as well as stage directions, to describe tone, movement, sets and props.
- Brooks’ narrative is retrospective (until the epilogue); Miller’s characters speak mostly in present tense with some recounts of past events.
- Brooks’ central character narrates the story, but Brooks herself does not communicate directly with readers; Miller addresses the audience directly in lengthy descriptions of character and personal history.
2. Make a list of specific similarities between your selected texts.
For example, Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus and David Malouf’s novel Ransom both use textual elements to suggest ideas about storytelling and to explore the effects of transformation and change.
- Eastwood highlights the importance of storytelling through incidents such as Mandela reading the newspaper headlines to his bodyguards. The news reports and footage that follow depict a country in decline and on the ‘brink of civil war’, while voice-overs announce changes in the community and in the sporting arena.
- Malouf also concentrates on the significance of storytelling. Characters tell a range of stories, such as Hecuba relating her experiences of pregnancy and her dead sons’ childhoods; Somax telling the story of Beauty and how she was involved in the drowning of his son; and Priam telling the story of his rescue from being sold as human fodder.
3. Locate significant quotes from both texts that support the similarities and differences mentioned above.
Aim to find quotes that are not too long, as these will be difficult to memorise and to incorporate into your analysis.
4. Create a bank of useful sentence starters that enable you to discuss how ideas are conveyed.
- Funder utilises the elements of memoir to …
- Wright uses short, episodic scenes to provide snapshots of …
- D’Aguiar’s constant shifts between past and present highlight …
5. Develop a set of comparative language phrases to recall quickly in an exam situation.
If you practise these in your paragraphs, they should come to you easily because you have written them and used them in your analysis several times before the exam. For example:
- While Davidson suggests teamwork is important in any journey, Penn focuses on …
- MacCarter and Lemer acknowledge the significance of migration, yet Lahiri’s emphasis is on …
- Murray-Smith’s concerns are … but, in contrast, Atwood’s interest is mainly in …
6. Write structured paragraphs that focus on a key idea.
For example, the following steps show how you might construct a paragraph on the ways in which Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) and Funder (Stasiland) explore the significance of memory. You can use a similar approach for any central idea and pair of texts.
- Write a list of statements on the different ways Orwell and Funder address the idea of memory.
- Use one example of how Orwell illustrates this, from your list.
- Incorporate quotes (no longer than ten words) to support your findings.
- Use one example of how Funder illustrates this, from your list above.
- Incorporate quotes to support your findings, as above.
- Write a concluding statement – if each of the statements in the paragraph is true, what conclusion can you come to? Try to avoid using the personal pronoun ‘I’. Instead, try: ‘Funder and Orwell suggest that the significance of memory is …’
The focus of the task is on analysis and how authors, playwrights, filmmakers and biographers present their ideas and concerns. Keep this in mind when constructing and planning your comparative responses.
Need help preparing for the English exam? Purchase our English Exam Guides by Robert Beardwood and Melanie Napthine. The Guides include revision strategies and activities to help you prepare for the VCE English exam. From time management to proofreading responses, Insight’s English Exam Guides cover all the knowledge and skills required for success in the English exam.
Any purchase of English Exam Guide: Area of Study 1 or the English Exam Guides: Areas of Study 1 & 2 Value Pack comes with 64 FREE high-level sample essays.