VCE English and EAL: How to study a text

VCE English and EAL: How to study a text

This week, Insight writer and English and EAL teacher Niki Cook provides tips on how to study texts.

Studying texts is a key part of any English curriculum, and it’s certainly a major feature of the Unit 3 English and EAL courses. It’s something that you may have done many times, but how can you be sure that you’re studying a text well?

The tips below look at some of the steps you can take to ensure you know your texts inside and out.


Read or view the text multiple times

This may seem like an obvious statement, but to know any text well you should read it several times (or view it if you’re studying a film). The more you review the text, the more prepared you’ll be for SACs and the end-of-year examination.

Break your reading into steps to help with your understanding:

  • First reading – gather information and focus on understanding the plot. Don’t worry about themes or language use at this stage; only pay attention to who is involved and what is happening.
  • Second reading – focus on analysis now that you know the narrative. Use sticky notes to flag connections and make notes on how key ideas develop.
  • Third reading – analyse more deeply. Aim to identify how the author creates meaning across the text as a whole.

TIP: Remember that you are analysing this text – that is your purpose for reading it. It will help your analysis if you also enjoy what you are reading, but you need to focus on reading with a critical eye.


Understand the context

Remember that texts are not created in a bubble; they reflect and challenge the views and values of the time and place in which they were written. Therefore, it’s important for you to understand the background of the text and that of the person who wrote it.

Often, the context of when and where the text is set is different from when it was written. For example, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible is set in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. However, it was written in 1953 during the height of McCarthyism. The US government’s hunt for communists during this time mirrors the hunt for witches in Salem. Therefore, in order to analyse and understand this text well, you would need to have a thorough understanding of American society in both the late seventeenth century and in the 1950s.

TIP: Once you know a bit about the context/s in which a text is set and was written, you can then explore how contextual factors influence the views and values that are supported or challenged by the author.


Discuss textual features

The VCE Text Lists contain a range of text types: novels, films, short stories, plays, poetry and nonfiction texts. Each of these formats has specific conventions and stylistic elements that creators of texts use to help them tell their story and shape their audience’s understanding of the themes and ideas. Therefore, you will need to know the ones that are relevant to your text.

Some examples of text types and their features include:

  • Novels – structure, narrative voice, imagery, symbolism
  • Films – costumes, camera angles, editing, sound
  • Plays – stage directions, dialogue, structure of acts and scenes.

TIP: You need to understand the effects of the features used in your text. For example, if a novel is written in the first person, the narrative voice could be biased and might only present one point of view on events and characters, affecting the audience’s understanding of them.


Know the minor characters

When studying a text, you should develop a good understanding of the minor characters as well as the main characters. Minor characters are often functional – their purpose is to tell us something about how people respond to certain situations, to illustrate certain themes or to show another side of a main character.

TIP: Track the appearance of minor characters and identify their purposes in the text.


Build quote banks

It can be very helpful to develop quote banks for each major character and key theme. Aim for ‘hard-working’ quotes – quotes that can be used to illustrate multiple ideas and themes – and be sure to note the page number and the context of each.

TIP: Sometimes it can be overwhelming trying to work out which quotes are important. If you are studying a well-known text, use the internet to help you get started with this. For example, if you search ‘Frankenstein key quotes’, you’ll get a lot of results. Compare several lists of quotes – you’ll find that the same ones keep coming up again and again, suggesting their significance.

TIP: From your second reading onwards, use sticky tabs to highlight quotes that you think are significant in terms of the big ideas of the text, or useful examples of a character’s personality or development. As you build your knowledge and understanding of the text, you can then decide which quotes are most important and add more to your list. Look at the quotes used in the essay topics as well, as these are usually key quotes that relate to the central themes and ideas.


Break down essay topics

Going into the SAC or the exam without knowing the essay topic can be scary. You won’t know exactly what you’re going to be asked, but you can practise evaluating topics and generating ideas for essays. There are a limited number of aspects of a text that you could be asked to discuss, so if you know the themes, characters, structural elements and context well, you can be prepared for any topic.

TIP: Gather as many essay topics on the text as you can by asking your teacher for examples, referring to past exam papers or study guides, or searching for topics on the internet. Then, look for similarities between the topics and group them into categories.

TIP: Build a word bank of synonyms relating to key themes and ideas in your text. This will help you vary your vocabulary when writing. Topics often address similar ideas in different words, so being familiar with synonyms for key themes and ideas will help you identify the focus of the topic.


Studying texts is a key component of VCE English and EAL, so it is essential that you take the time to master the skills necessary to analyse your Unit 3 texts. Good luck!

Need help getting to grips with your Year 12 List 1 and List 2 texts? Our Insight Text Guides provide clear, comprehensive analysis of a single text, and include chapter-by-chapter analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, practice essay topics, in-depth analysis of themes and much more, while our Insight Comparisons offer a comprehensive analysis on a pair of texts.

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


 Photo credit: Good Mood/Shutterstock

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