This week, Insight writer and English Language teacher Rebecca Swain provides an overview of the Year 12 VCE English Language course.
Congratulations! You’ve decided to study VCE English Language, a sociolinguistics course that will expand your understanding and appreciation of language. This is a highly technical area of study that considers the formal systems and structures of language, as well as the way language is used to perform various social functions. Ultimately, successful English Language students learn to balance intricate grammatical knowledge with meaningful and detailed discussion of ideas.
The Year 12 VCE course focuses on the concept of language variation, in that there is not one version of a language, but many versions that are used for a range of reasons. In Unit 3, the focus is on the influence of context on language – when, where, why and with whom a discourse is happening. In Unit 4, the focus is on the relationship between language and identity – how individual people use language to send messages to others about who they are.
Assessment is split evenly between coursework and the final exam: 25% of your grade comes from Unit 3 SAC components, 25% from Unit 4 SAC components and 50% from the end-of-year examination.
The exam is broken into three sections: short-answer questions, analytical commentary and an essay. It is likely that some of your SAC components will mirror the style of the examination tasks; however, you may also be asked to complete annotated folios of texts, investigative reports or oral presentations as part of your assessed coursework.
Tips for success
Get organised: There is a great deal of technical content in this subject, so excellent organisation skills, regular work patterns and a strong work ethic will go a long way to helping you achieve your goals. Keep a list of the required skills, knowledge and understanding for each Area of Study throughout the year and cross each item off your list as you gain familiarity and confidence with it. At the end of each week, reflect on the content covered in class and consider where some extra effort might be warranted. Every student will find challenging areas in this course, so don’t stop when you hit a roadblock – write down the problem or questions for your teacher and follow up with them as soon as you can.
Learn the metalanguage: You cannot bluff your way through the metalanguage part of the course. You either know what modal verbs, clefts, assonance, antithesis and dysphemism are or you don’t. Be methodical with your study, and make sure you can define each term found in the Study Design. Then practice finding those features in written and spoken texts and make sure you can discuss their purpose or their impact on the text. You won’t learn every feature right away, but you should have learned about 90% of the metalanguage by the end of Unit 3.
Read closely: In writing short-answer responses and commentaries, you will be required to respond in detail to the language that appears in texts. Often, you will be required to do this under exam conditions, meaning that developing your analytical reading skills should be a priority. Practise reading short texts (one or two pages) and finding features from each of the subsystems: phonetics and phonology; morphology and lexicology; syntax; semantics and discourse. Make sure you read a variety of spoken and written text types such as speeches, sports broadcasts, conversations, monologues, literature, advertising, legal documents and letters.
Observe language: Don’t switch off as soon as you leave class – you can be practising your English Language skills all the time by paying attention to the language around you. What features stand out? Are they formal or informal? How might they have been influenced by situational or cultural context? What do they tell us about the identity of the person speaking or writing? You can observe language while using public transport, participating in sports training, having dinner with family and watching television. Practise until it becomes a natural part of your day.
Read widely: In this subject, you are expected to read a variety of texts in order to further your knowledge of language use in society. The material you gather, such as how language is being discussed in the media, is essential to include in your essays. Already this year, the Macquarie Dictionary and Australian National Dictionary Centre have announced their words of the year for 2018, a television presenter has been accused of racism and Unicode has announced the development of a new emoji. Being able to connect events like these to your coursework is a great way to demonstrate how widely you’ve been reading.
Debate: There are many parts of the course where a point of view, based in linguistic evidence, is needed. Learning to develop arguments and justify your stance will foster a deeper understanding of sociolinguistic theories and will, eventually, lead to more sophisticated essays. Practise these skills by having discussions within a study group. Consider debating some or all of the following questions: Does Standard English Language serve any purpose in modern Australia? Is writing a better medium of language than speech? Is there still a need for political correctness in contemporary society? Can using language to manipulate or obfuscate serve a positive purpose? Is it reasonable to judge somebody’s competence based on their language use? Once you have explored the ideas and possible arguments, try to capture them in writing.
Write often: This is an English course so you will be assessed not just on what you know, but on how you communicate your knowledge. You are aiming to produce logically structured responses supported by fluent and accurate written expression. In many cases, you will be required to write these responses under timed conditions. You simply cannot do this well without frequent and focussed practice. Put pen to paper regularly to write short-answer responses, commentaries and essays.
The English Language course can seem daunting at times, particularly as you learn to balance the expectations that you have a detailed knowledge of the subsystems, a deep understanding of linguistic concepts and the ability to interpret texts accurately and write effectively. By getting yourself into an effective study routine early, you will set yourself up for an enjoyable and productive year.
Need a comprehensive guide to the VCE English Language course? Purchase Insight’s English Language for Senior Students: A guide to metalanguage by Kirsten Fox. An invaluable resource for Units 1–4 of the English Language 2016–2020 Study Design, this textbook offers clear and accessible definitions of all metalanguage, accompanied by engaging activities and sample responses.
English Language for Senior Students: A guide to metalanguage is produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.