Understanding the task – the analytical text response

Understanding the task – the analytical text response

English teacher and Insight writer Kate Macdonell gives advice on how to tackle analytical text responses.

The analytical text response is a form of essay that most of you will be familiar with. It will be used for both SAC and end-of-year examination purposes. Although some students find the task straightforward, others find it hard to navigate. Below are some key strategies that will help you to tackle the task with relative confidence.

1. Know your text and its context

You need to read or watch your text several times. On your first reading you will gain a knowledge of the plot, main characters and relationships, and key ideas. However, having a deep understanding of the text requires more than this. In particular, after re-reading the text, you will need to ensure that you understand:

  • if, how and why main characters and/or relationships change during the course of the narrative
  • the minor characters and their relevance to plot, ideas and other characters
  • the narrative voice and how it impacts on the implied reader’s attitude towards characters and ideas
  • key ideas and how the narrative brings those ideas to light through dialogue, symbolism, narrative structure, setting and intertextual references.

You also need to have an understanding of the historical and cultural contexts of the work. This will help you to recognise some of the forces influencing the behaviour and decisions of the characters.

REMEMBER: you should be able to read any paragraph in the text and know what its purpose is. Ask yourself: what does this paragraph reveal about a character or a relationship or an idea?

2. Understand and engage with the topic

It is imperative that you read the topic carefully and that you engage directly with it. Sometimes topics will contain generalities that you might want to challenge or qualify – for example, a topic that suggests that all of the men in Burial Rites are powerful figures who oppress women. Others might contain a directive that emphasises a particular angle on the text that you should explore. For instance, a ‘how’ question about a character should prompt a different focus from a ‘why’ question or a statement and ‘discuss’ topic.

For example, the question ‘How does Medea evoke shifting sympathies for its characters?’ asks you to consider the ways in which the author has achieved a particular effect through such elements as characterisation, language, plot and dramatic devices. In responding to the question ‘Why does Medea evoke shifting sympathies for its characters?’ you might focus on the effects of these shifting sympathies and how they contribute to your understanding of themes and ideas. The topic ‘Medea evokes shifting sympathies for its characters’ followed by the direction ‘Discuss’ asks you to examine the statement from a variety of angles and also gives scope for you to challenge the statement. Because different directives will point you towards different sorts of responses, it makes sense to practise writing on different topic types.

REMEMBER: engage with the topic in front of you – an extraordinary piece of analysis that is off-topic will not secure a perfect mark. Ask yourself: do the introduction and conclusion each contain at least one sentence that clearly answers the question?

3. Develop an argument

Obviously, any text response essay requires an overall argument in response to the topic. You should be able to articulate that argument in one sentence. However, the way you develop and prove that argument will require some elaboration. When planning your essay, think about how your paragraphs are sequenced and why you want to sequence them in a particular way. How does the order of your ideas help to develop a logical and coherent line of argument? It is important that there is a kind of conceptual glue that connects the ideas from one paragraph to another and that you are not just repeating a single idea throughout the response.

REMEMBER: each body paragraph should express one strong idea. Ask yourself: what does this paragraph do to promote my argument that the others do not?

4. Demonstrate understanding

Your understanding of the text is made apparent in the arguments you make about it, your selection of points to discuss and the evidence you use to support and develop your ideas. Demonstrating understanding requires being able to show your knowledge of the text at both a macro and a micro level. It also requires you to use some metalanguage that will allow you to discuss specific elements of the text in an economical and expert way.

In the first instance, you need to know the text well enough to be able to identify its various component parts. Being able to do this will help you to determine whether your argument is sustainable given the text as a whole, and which elements of the text you should draw on to best support your analysis. Having this holistic understanding of how the component parts work together to create meaning in the text as a whole will also allow you to see which parts of the text you might want to cluster together in the one paragraph to develop a particular point.

You also need to be able to move from a broad view of the text to a close-up view of it by using evidence. Evidence, particularly in the form of quotations or, in the case of a multimodal text, discussion of mise en scène or visual elements, is crucial.

REMEMBER: short, pithy quotations are better than long quotations. Remember, too, that your quotations need to be contextualised and unpacked. To use an analogy from school parking zones, you want to ‘stop and chat’ with your quotations and examples, not just ‘kiss and go’.

5. Refine your writing

Writing is a craft and any written piece will be improved by re-drafting and editing. At the start of the year most of us will not be able to smash out the perfect essay in one go. And while you might want to hand in an unedited essay just to get it out of the way, that approach probably won’t do your ideas justice or help you to improve your writing. You must edit not only to check spelling and grammar, but also to ensure that your meaning is clear and on-topic, and that your ideas are sequenced logically both within and across paragraphs.

REMEMBER: sometimes you will need to move a whole paragraph, or rewrite it completely. Just do it; your essay will be better for it.


Need help getting to grips with your Year 12 texts? Our Insight Text Guides provide clear, comprehensive analysis of the whole text, and include chapter-by-chapter analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, practice essay topics, in-depth analysis of themes, and much more! Head to our website to view our list of Insight Text Guide titles.

Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.

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