English Language Exam: Nailed It! Six Tips for Section C Success

English Language Exam: Nailed It! Six Tips for Section C Success

This week Insight writer and English Language teacher Rebecca Swain gives six tips to help you with Section C of the English Language exam.

In theory, Section C of the English Language exam should be a breeze. You were writing essays in English for years before you signed up for English Language. Yet it continues to be the section that trips up the most students. The breadth of possible topics and the challenge of figuring out how to synthesise ideas, contemporary examples and stimulus can leave some students floundering. Last year, the average mark was 56.7%, the lowest of the three sections. But these six tips will help you to approach the essay with confidence.


1. Study the themes

Whether you call them themes, big ideas or something else, it is important that you understand the key concepts within the course. Look beyond your personal interests and revise the full breadth of themes. These include the continuum of informal and formal registers; the differences between written and spoken mode; the influence of situational and cultural contexts on discourse; the connections between language and aspects of national, cultural and social identity; and the various social purposes of language. The English Language Study Design unit descriptions will give you a strong sense of the themes, as will Insight’s VCE English Language Exam Guide 3rd Edition. For each theme, make sure you can define the key terms, know the associated linguistic theories and arguments, and can generate examples for discussion.


2. Answer the question

The biggest mistake you can make is to not answer the supplied question and instead write a pre-prepared response. Every year, some students come into the exam with an essay on a chosen theme that they have written in advance and learnt by heart. Every year, these students spot a key phrase such as ‘Standard English’ and immediately start scrawling out what they have memorised. Every year, they are penalised by the examiners. Just. Don’t. Do. It. The examiners are not going to reward this approach. They want you to interpret the exact topic in front of you, synthesise all the relevant ideas and arguments, and craft an appropriate response. Consider these topics:

  • ‘Those who wish to be admired must adopt Standard English at all times.’ Discuss.
  • ‘Standard Australian English is not much different from other Standard Englishes.’ To what extent do you agree?

If you trot out your pre-prepared Standard English response, you are unlikely to answer either question effectively. A strong response to the first topic will discuss the connections between Standard English and overt prestige and then challenge the phrase ‘at all times’ by discussing contexts where non-Standard varieties have covert prestige. A strong response to the second topic will identify what is distinctive about Standard Australian English in comparison to other national Standards, discuss why these differences are so few and acknowledge that the greatest differences occur in non-Standard Englishes.

Rather than wasting time preparing generic responses, practise engaging with different topics by constructing relevant arguments and exploring how phrases such as ‘at all times’ and ‘not much different’ can stimulate ideas.


3. Plan your response

An essay needs an introduction, a main body of three to four paragraphs, and a conclusion. You should present a clear contention and have a consistent line of argument throughout, with each of your body paragraphs presenting a point that supports your contention. Practise making clear plans that you refer back to as you write. Experiment with finding the balance between including too much detail in your plan (which takes up precious writing time) and including too little detail (which won’t be helpful for keeping your ideas on track as you write).


4. Practise working with the stimulus

Most students know they must use the stimulus but not everyone does this well. Start by questioning the idea contained in the stimulus: Is this example/opinion dependent on a specific context? Can this be extended to other situations? Is this an example of a rule or an exception? How does this connect to the essay topic? By asking such questions, you will learn to engage with the stimulus on a deeper level, making strong connections between the course ideas and your own arguments. Remember that you can quote the stimulus directly, but if you are only using it to grab a quick quote, then you aren’t getting the most out of it.


5. Prepare observational examples

Your examiners want to know that you have been attentive to language beyond the classroom. Reflect on the language around you and construct a list of examples to memorise. It’s acceptable to write in the first person ONLY if you are giving an observational example – for example, ‘My mother’s schwa insertion, where “film” becomes “filum”, is connected to her Irish heritage.’ Give your list a boost by also memorising a specific metalanguage term to go with each example.


6. Condense wider reading

You should have read or viewed academic research and contemporary Australian media this year. It’s time to review your notes and condense these into a list of ideas, arguments and examples you can use. For example, it’s not enough to know that Fraser Anning used the phrase ‘final solution’ in his parliamentary speech. You need to know why that matters and how you might use this information in an essay. Likewise, it’s not enough to know that the blend ‘plandid’ was shortlisted for the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year. You should also have reflected on what this says about modern Australian society. When condensing your wide reading, try to link each idea or example to at least one of the themes you identified earlier in your revision process.


Remember, the Section C response doesn’t have to be stressful. If you take an interest in the topics and reflect on all you’ve learned this year, it can actually be a lot of fun to write.


Need help preparing for the English Language Exam? Make sure you purchase the English Language Exam Guide 3rd Edition by Kirsten Fox. This comprehensive guide will enable you to work progressively through the different types of exam questions, building your confidence and exposing you to a range of language registers, text types and essay questions.

The English Language Exam Guide 3rd Edition is produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.

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