Seven survival tips for the English Language exam

Seven survival tips for the English Language exam

Insight writer and English Language teacher Rebecca Swain gives some tips and strategies to help prepare you for your upcoming VCE English Language exam.

English Language is a fascinating and, at times, daunting subject and its examination is no different. Following these seven tips will ensure you are confident and well prepared for what lies ahead.

1. Understand the exam. Your exam will be in three parts: short-answer responses to questions about a text or texts (20%), an analytical commentary about a text or texts (40%) and an essay in response to an aspect of contemporary linguistics (40%). One of the best things you can do is to access the past examinations and examination reports freely available on the VCAA website. While the past papers will give you material to practise with, the reports will provide you with a snapshot of common pitfalls and a strong sense of what the examiners will be looking for when they read your paper.

2. Know your metalanguage. You are expected to use metalanguage in all sections of the exam. Using relevant metalanguage frequently and precisely will establish your expertise in this subject. Using it inaccurately and without restraint sends the message that you are panicked and not in control of the content. In the analytical commentary and essay sections, you will decide what metalanguage to use. Always use the most precise term you can; for example, using ‘modal verb’ or ‘auxiliary verb’ is more precise than ‘verb phrase’. It is in the short-answer section that any lack of metalanguage knowledge is most often exposed, as you must respond to the questions the examiner chooses. Your Study Design contains a list of all examinable metalanguage. Most of these terms are listed on pages 17 and 18, but others are contained in the pages from 17 to 26.

3. Understand the big ideas. Your exam demands more of you than just remembering the subsystems. You must also engage with the complexities of some big ideas. Underpinning your whole course is the way that language variation connects to both social purpose and identity. You will need to understand, and have justifiable opinions about, ideas such as the influence of situational and cultural context, the social attitudes that people have towards language variation and the various social purposes of language.

4. Engage with the texts. The examiners do not want to read generic responses to the texts they have set. It is essential that you avoid going into the exam with a prepared list of features you will discuss (such as deciding that the first paragraph of your commentary will deal with coherence and cohesion, no matter what the text is). You are being tested on how capable you are of choosing the most relevant and important features for discussion. You should practise by reading a range of texts and writing responses that make strong connections between a variety of linguistic features and big ideas.

5. Respond to the question. Reading each question carefully is essential. In the short-answer section, pay attention to how much a question is worth and make sure the length and depth of your response is appropriate for the marks awarded. Pay attention to the command terms and respond according to whether you have been asked to ‘identify’, ‘compare’, ‘explain’, ‘discuss’ or ‘comment on’. Double-check that you have provided all requested material, including metalanguage, evidence and line numbers where needed. For the essay, avoid prepared responses on broad topics. Instead, you must look at the exact wording of the topic and address specifically what is being asked. Compare a topic about how people assert their cultural identity with language to a topic about how social attitudes can affect the language choices individuals make. Both topics deal broadly with the idea of language and identity, but they should elicit very different responses.

6. Support your ideas with evidence and examples. In the short-answer and analytical commentary sections you must frequently support your answers with evidence from the texts, always remembering to quote the relevant line number. For your essay, you will need to prepare and remember a range of interesting and original examples for each of the course’s big ideas. These examples should be drawn from contemporary society, media articles you have collected this year and your own experiences of language. Avoid relying on generic or textbook examples. Your evidence should be fresh and reflect your engagement with contemporary discussions about language use. It is worthwhile memorising a couple of words from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to allow you to illustrate differences between Australian accents.

7. Focus on the organisation and clarity of your writing. For many of you, English Language is your only English subject. It is expected that you are able to apply some of the theories you have been learning about to your own writing. Is it coherent? Is it cohesive? Does it use stylistic conventions appropriately? Does it conform to Standard Australian English? If spelling is a concern for you, focus on getting at least the metalanguage right. While there is no set structure for writing an analytical commentary, your essay must follow the conventions for this text type, including an introduction, main body paragraphs and a conclusion. Remember to use topic sentences and organise your ideas logically in every section of the exam.

It is worth remembering that the better you revise the content and practise the skills required, the more confident you will feel facing the exam in November.




Need help preparing for the English Language exam? Purchase our English Language Exam Guide (3rd edition) by Kirsten Fox. The Guide includes revision strategies, sample texts and high-level sample answers to help you revise and practise for the VCE English Language exam.

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