Reflecting on the 2019 VCE Literature Exam

Reflecting on the 2019 VCE Literature Exam

Yes, 2019 might be over, but that doesn’t mean it should be forgotten! In the first post of our Reflection blog series, experienced Literature teacher Elspeth Maddocks shares some lessons you can learn from last year’s exam experience – as well as some handy tips for preparing in 2020. 

What can I learn from last year’s exam?

One of the biggest worries for my students going into the 2019 Literature exam was whether they would understand the vocabulary in the topics in Section A. Although the 2019 exam did not use any tricky phrasing or obscure words, there’s no predicting what will appear on this year’s paper. Remember that no dictionaries are permitted in the exam, so being prepared for any of the key words in the topics is essential. Familiarise yourself with the common task words found in practice essay topics and past exams. This will help you avoid any nasty surprises on exam day.


What should I do during the year to prepare for the exam?

Your preparation for this year’s exam should start now, beginning with reading your texts. Starting to read early gives you more time to become very familiar with your chosen texts. You may find that you connect with or enjoy some texts more than others, for example, which can deepen your engagement and add vitality and flair to your essays. Make notes about your texts as you read, including any questions you have, new vocabulary you come across and key moments in the plot. 

TIP: A good way to deepen your engagement with a text is to read widely around it. Academic essays, reviews and other students’ essays can all help to broaden your knowledge of the texts, as well as build your understanding of the metalanguage.


What are the assessors looking for – and how can I find out?

There is no one particular answer that assessors look for in the Literature examination. However, by reviewing the examination report on the VCAA website – last year’s should be published soon – you can see some common errors and tips for scoring in the upper-mark range. Read through some of the exemplar essays in the report to see what students have produced in the past. While the last three reports make it clear that many different styles of writing are acceptable in the examination, the common denominator among high-scoring responses is the ability to show subtle, complex and sophisticated engagement with the chosen text.


How many practice essays should I write so that I’m ready for the exam?

How long is a piece of string? Students who do well on the exam generally practise writing on a range of different prompts. Successful students are also more likely to reflect regularly on the feedback they received throughout the year, so start making that a regular part of your study routine now.

TIP: Remember, there is no time for thinking breaks in the exam. Students who have done the preparation will be able to write continuously for the whole two hours on their chosen topics and passages. You will know you are ready when there is no prompt or set of passages that intimidates you.


Should I memorise my essays?

While it might feel safer to have something ready to go when you walk into the examination, writing essays ahead of time and memorising them is a mistake. Past examination reports have made it clear that some students who submitted essays that appeared wholly memorised failed to engage with the topic, and so often scored in the low to middle mark ranges. Of course, having a memory bank of key vocabulary, scenes and literary devices is important; however, you must be ready to apply your knowledge to the specific topics and passages on the examination. Not responding directly to these leaves you in danger of producing an irrelevant response.

TIP: Expand your knowledge of the texts and practise writing on as many questions and passages as you can to help build your confidence.


Do you have any final observations and tips for approaching each section of the exam?

Section A: Literary Perspectives

Think of this section in terms of a triangle: the top of the triangle is the text, and the two bottom points reflect the prompt and the perspective. The text is the most important element, so make sure you use memorised quotations, present a close reading of your text and explore the different aspects of the text’s construction. You should also establish a clear literary perspective and ensure that your vocabulary reflects the lens you are applying. It’s possible to use critics’ views in order to substantiate your interpretation, but this is not essential. Finally, ensure that the prompt is addressed throughout the essay.

Section B: Close Analysis

There are different ways to structure this essay; to score well, however, you must work closely with the language of the passages. Some students leap into their response without an introduction, while some find it easier to present their interpretation by including an introduction and conclusion. Your essay structure may vary, but the body paragraphs need to analyse the way the text has been constructed and examine how the author has used language to convey meaning. (This will help you to avoid writing a Views-and-Values-style essay.)

Remember that while the Literature examination may seem far away, it’s important to get started on your preparation now. Doing so will ensure you feel confident on the day and excited to share what you’ve learned.



Need extra help preparing for the Literature exam? Purchase Insight’s Literature Exam Guide 2nd edition by Robert Beardwood and Melanie Napthine. The Literature Exam Guide 2nd edition is a comprehensive resource for the VCE Literature exam; it explains the requirements of each section, unpacks the criteria and includes sample paragraphs and complete responses using popular texts.

Students looking for a comprehensive guide to the VCE Literature course can also purchase Insight’s Literature for Senior Students 5th edition by Robert Beardwood, which features practical guidelines, activities, models and annotated sample responses to enable students to build confidence and skills in all forms of literary analysis.

Both Literature for Senior Students 5th edition and the Literature Exam Guide 2nd edition are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.

Photo credit: LedyX/ Shutterstock

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