For the third post in our Reflection blog series, experienced English teacher Kelly Robertson considers some lessons that can be learned from the 2019 English exam, and offers tips on how to improve in 2020.
Answer the question
I know, it sounds obvious! But year in, year out, examiners see students making the same mistake, and the 2019 exam was no different. Remember to read your topic carefully and interrogate it. Does your topic contain an ‘absolute’, such as ‘everyone’ or ‘always’, that you can challenge? Does it contain an adjective, like ‘cynical’ or ‘overwhelming’, that needs consideration? Does your topic have two parts that both demand discussion? And, have you read the topic correctly?
Consider these topics from last year’s exam:
‘The murder of the Clutter family shakes the beliefs of everyone in the community.’
‘In Rear Window, Hitchcock presents a cynical view of relationships.’
‘Donne’s poems reflect both a joy in living and a constant awareness of mortality.’
Discuss. (Note that mortality is not to be confused with morality. The two words have very different meanings, and a misreading would be costly.)
Familiarise yourself with the range of question types. While you might be pinning your hopes on a ‘Do you agree?’ or ‘To what extent is …’ stem, how would you deal with a direct question? In last year’s paper, there were five direct questions. Take, for instance, this one on Nine Days:
How does Nine Days explore the relationship between the past and the present?
A less confident response might take a somewhat meandering approach to discussing the characters’ relationships or the general themes of the text. However, a more sophisticated approach might purposefully incorporate elements such as Jordan’s nonlinear structure, or her symbolic use of objects (such as the shilling and the necklace) throughout the generations of the Westaway family.
Lastly, while it might be tempting to rote-learn essays that have served you well and then reproduce one of them, or try to make it ‘fit’ one of the exam topics, resist the urge! Assessors are well-versed in the tricks of the trade – and that includes memorising slabs of material from the depths of the internet. An essay that responds to a different topic from what is on the exam paper cannot score highly. Have confidence in your ability and work with the wording with which you are presented.
Analyse, analyse, analyse
Three little words will be your friends:
What – How – Why
- What is the author saying?
- How are they saying it?
- Why are they saying it?
Often, students veer towards describing – in other words, discussing the ‘what’ – when in fact the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of their examples are essential to an effective analysis.
Writing about the text’s construction should be a priority. To do this, you need to be able to use metalanguage consistently and confidently. For example, how might a director’s use of particular camera shots or the film’s soundtrack serve to emphasise an idea or build the viewer’s understanding? In a collection of short stories such as Like a House on Fire, Cate Kennedy’s use of narrative voice, story titles, motifs, symbols, and even the order of the stories, are all worthy of consideration.
In your comparative response it can be easy to slip into a discussion of a character from Text 1 and follow it with a quite separate discussion of a character from Text 2. However, the heart of the task is to compare. As you embark on your comparative study, be sure to think about your texts’
- historical contexts
For instance, in the pairing I Am Malala and Made in Dagenham, there are significant differences between Pakistan under Taliban rule and 1960s Dagenham, in terms of the degree of agency women have and their ability to speak out. Further, while Malala’s story is, of course, real, the character Rita O’Grady is an amalgamation of a few machinists. These differences – in context and in construction – are integral to your analysis and comparison. This year, Pride replaces Made in Dagenham, yet the same principles apply – as they will with the other pairings.
While grappling with these elements in Sections A and B may seem overwhelming, it is well worth investing time into developing your understanding of how they manifest in your texts, and then how to write about them. At the end of the year, there will be hundreds – possibly thousands – of students writing on the same text as you. What can you do to elevate your writing above the ‘average’?
Continue to focus on why the author has made particular language choices: what impact were they seeking to have on their target audience? The form of the written text will also provide pointers. In the 2019 exam, the longer of the two texts was an advertorial, which was defined in the background information as ‘a paid advertisement that looks like an article’. Some students skimmed past this, or they read it and didn’t recognise its significance. Evidently, an advertorial has an agenda and this has a particular bearing on how you should read the text.
Write fluently and effectively
Throughout the year, work on the flair and fluency of your writing. In Sections A and B, being overly reliant on the key words of the topic can quickly start to undermine the quality and rigour of your writing. In Section C, avoid relying on phrases such as ‘makes the reader’, and select tone words judiciously. Further, generate a variety of sentence stems on which you can draw – and ensure these will steer your paragraph into analysis, not just description.
Finally, practise, practise, practise! When you receive feedback, make a conscious effort to try to implement it. Don’t shy away from rewriting a paragraph of an essay that your teacher suggests needs further work. You may not be able to master everything in one go, so isolate one or two skills to focus on and persevere. Given that the SAC for Analysing Argument is in Unit 3, ensure that you complete regular essays for this task while you work on your Unit 4 coursework, to keep those skills fresh.
The end-of-year exam may seem like a speck in the distance at this early stage of the year, but aim to play the long game. Start now, seek to make small improvements along the way to avoid common mishaps, and be in the best possible position on exam day.
Best of luck for the year ahead!
If you need a comprehensive guide to Year 12 English, try Insight’s English Year 12 2nd edition by Robert Beardwood. English Year 12 2nd edition is an invaluable resource for Units 3 and 4 of the English 2016–2021 Study Design. It explains all key knowledge and assessment requirements, and builds understanding in each Area of Study with models, step-by-step guidelines, sample responses and numerous activities.
If you’re looking for resources to help with text responses, Insight Text Guides have you covered. Each Text Guide offers a clear, comprehensive and accessible analysis, including a close analysis of each chapter or scene, and detailed discussion of characters, themes and ideas.
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