There are several areas that are necessary to master in order to perform a high score in the NESA HSC English exams. Let’s see them one by one.

Common Module – What are the underlying assumptions about the human experience?

How do the texts in your comprehension section explore the collective and individual experiences which shape human behaviour and the moral and ethical choices available?

Reading Task

Firstly, try to identify the purpose of the text whilst reading: is it designed to satirise, mock, convey or promote a particular idea? (Remember all forms of texts are ultimately persuasive in nature)

When reading the articles, remember to orientate yourselves:

  • Look at the title, consider and predict what the article might be about – by guessing you are already thinking and engaging and this will facilitate your comprehension.
  • Look at the beginning and end of the text; this is where you can often discover the purpose.
  • As you read be on the look-out for techniques, which you can deconstruct.
  • Do not answer a question which asks how the idea is expressed by simply saying “using descriptive or emotive language”. You need to explain what literary or poetic devices are used e.g. simile, metaphor, hyperbole etc.

Answering all these questions requires you to understand the conditions and contexts which contribute to the human experience and how effectively they are communicated! To answer ‘effectively’ requires you to cite the techniques e.g. – the use of register, tone, word choice and symbolism.

Section II of the Common Module paper requires you to write an essay. As the Common Module texts have been in place for quite a number of years, examiners are no doubt tired of predictive responses or, worse still, pre-learned essays.  These can come across as a little tired and lacking an edge in original thought and depth. Don’t see the question as an impediment to your rote-learned response, rather look at what the question is asking. The depth of response can be formulated by considering the assumptions that underscore the very nature of the question itself:

  • Why has the examiner chosen this question?
  • Is this really what the writer was trying to communicate?

Modules A and B

Both HSC Advanced English modules require your understanding of how the composer’s context and his or her audience informs on our understanding of the text. This must be established in your essay.

For example, Hamlet may well be a Prince torn between the Renaissance values of his world and his belief in the church, and of course Shakespeare’s audience would have understood this; but what about us as a contemporary audience? What ideas in the text find resonance in our world today?

Module A

Be sure to consider not only how the contexts of each composer have given rise to the ideas of the core texts but also why they are studied side by side. How might the concerns of previous historical and cultural contexts find relevance still today? For example:

  • Are any of Virginia Woolf’s concerns echoed in ‘The Hours’ (despite in the shifting contexts)? If so, why?
  • Are any of Shakespeare’s concerns echoed in ‘Looking for Richard’ (despite in the shifting contexts)? If so, why?

Module B

Consider the integrity of the text. This refers to the components, which have allowed the text to stand the test of time. Ideas, language features and other poetic, dramatic or literary devices are part of what allows the text to retain its integrity. The context of the composer and his or her audience informs on our understanding of the text.

Module C: The Craft of Writing

In this section of the exam, you’ll be asked to write on a creative discursive or persuasive piece of writing. Please refer to my blog entitled Module C: The Craft of Writing How to write a creative writing piece.

One of the harder aspects for many students is to reflect on the textual inspiration they have received from their set text. You may wish to consider how your set text expresses some of these features:

  • Register and tone
  • Intertextual referencing
  • Symbolism and figurative language
  • Stream of consciousness
  • Flashbacks

These features are some that you may wish to adopt in your own creative presentation.

Preparing for the HSC English Exams

Learn the ways you can express features of language and know how to identify them e.g. personification, sibilance, metaphor, simile etc.

Write several essays for the Common Module (human experience), Module A and Module B; consider writing on those topics that might otherwise confuse you.

Many students write notes and study quotes – but you still need to know how to formulate an essay. Look at as many questions as you can and, rather than simply making notes, write the essays.

Try and tackle difficult questions so as not to fall into the trap of writing generic essays, as you believe they can be better manipulated to the suit the question. The real exercise is whether you can apply your knowledge to any question, and if you don’t practice you won’t know.

Answering questions on any essay topic

Consider the following:

  1. How accurately does the question reflect the ideas at the core of the text?
  2. Is the question provocative in nature or does it simply require corroboration or a rejection of the thesis set down? For example: sometimes questions require your weighing up of the author’s intention, his or her ideas and the way they’re expressed.
  3. Questions that ask you to discuss are generally straightforward and, whilst requiring you to discuss the topic at hand, may still require that you negate the thesis postulated.
  4. Many questions ask your opinion. This is no different to any other question as your thesis is exactly what you think – do not answer the question with ‘I think’ as what you think is already assumed. The question is asked as many students rely too heavily on critical theorists without having determined their own opinion.
  5. The most important consideration in any essay (and the feature that separates an average response from a more advanced one) is why. Why has the composer explored the ideas at hand? Too many students focus on what the ideas are and how they are represented. Including why should yield a relationship between the writer’s world of imagination and their context.

The Essay structure for all modules

Your introduction should be concise but have a clear thesis (an argument) which sets out your response to the question and hopefully includes what, why and how the author/film director has imparted his or her ideas.

“What” would probably reflect the ideas at the core of the text. “Why” should most likely include the composer’s context, and “how” should refer to the features of language or cinematic techniques used. Each paragraph should aim to answer the question preferably in the opening of the paragraph as this is the initial impression formed by markers.

The topic sentence (opening sentence) should incorporate the theme or idea of your paragraph whilst at the same time answering the question at hand. The more often you link back to your thesis and to the question, the more comprehensive and succinct your essay will appear.

Pitfalls in exams

  • Do not story-tell – provide evidence! Too many students use the plot as a way to advance their arguments. We know the plot; you need to provide the purpose and evidence. Commence your sentence starters with verb of purpose. The writer: conveys, portrays, dismantles, questions or satirises. In this way, you will be forced to advance an opinion rather than a rehashing of the plot.
  • Many students forget to watch the time. You cannot afford to go over the set time. Forty minutes per question.
  • Underline the key parts of the question.
  • Sometimes a word may throw you off in an exam. Remember: you know more than you think from the context. You know if it’s a noun, verb or an adjective. All these skills should help you discern the meaning of the word.
  • Always consider the beginning and end of your text and the way it informs on the text as a whole.

More stumbling blocks

Terms that often confuse students

  • “Dramatic features” refers to soliloquies, dramatic irony, characterisation, plot, language and symbolism.
  • “Narrative style” refers to the way the text is composed.
  • “Consider the narrative stylerefers to how it reflects the ideas and often the context underscoring the text, e.g. Virginia Woolf’s text – witty, exploratory, and satiric. Her narrative style often shifts to a stream of consciousness, which challenges the conventional writing styles of her time.

Using critical theorists and material

All knowledge is useful but you must first determine your own understanding – always providing support from the text. Once you have determined your own opinion you may use critical theorists to either affirm your view or as a springboard to offer an alternate perspective. It is refreshing for examiners to read ideas which may be different – as long as they can be substantiated.

Textual referencing 

This is essential to any essay and the quotes chosen must enable you to not only cite an example, but convey the way meaning is shaped! Remember that in deconstructing meaning, you must not write about the linguistic or cinematic techniques as if they were in a vacuum – but instead as part of your ability to add to your understanding and the power of the text. Consider the following:

  1. Don’t just cite the technique as a metaphor or simile when deconstructing your evidence or if writing about a film, or writing about a long shot on screen; explain why and how it contributes to meaning.
  2. Consider why a particular aspect of your text moves you; the chances are, it is the way it is expressed.
  3. Draw from the whole text – don’t restrict your answers to the beginning or end of a text.

All Modules require an understanding of the correlation between representation and meaning. 

Put simply: how is the text represented (the techniques or images used) and what kind of meaning is imparted?

Students must understand that the English Syllabus has been influenced by postmodern understanding in its inception and so the relationship between representation and meaning has to be examined.

Representation refers to the way a writer or speaker represents a personality, event, or idea. This representation is clearly tied up with:

  1. The nuanced nature of language itself and the slippery nature of symbolism (slippery as symbolism may impart a myriad of interpretations).
  2. Our own cultural interpretation and the ‘signification’ we bring to language.
  3. The textual medium itself – (film, novel or autobiography) and its power of persuasion.

Meaning is difficult to establish, as it is largely dependent on how we interpret the representation of an event, personality, or concept (namely, our perspective).

Meaning will be influenced by:

  1. The credibility and authority of the perspective advanced
  2.  The bias and prejudice the composer brings to his or her representation
  3.  The bias and prejudice we bring to the perspective on offer
  4.  The cultural and normative values that not only consciously and unconsciously influence the speaker or composer but our own cultural points of reference.

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