Posts Tagged ‘essay’

Everything is a test

So says Tiffany Aching of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and it’s certainly true of the HSC. Most students, while realising this, fail to wonder what exactly it is they’re being tested on.

The main skill you’re asked to demonstrate in HSC English is your ability to argue a thesis, using evidence, in a logical and structured manner. Let’s break that down a little:

ARGUE means to give reasons in favour of an idea, particularly for the purpose of persuading someone to agree with you.

THESIS is the core of your argument, your main point, your one sentence answer to the question.

EVIDENCE is your proof from the texts: quotes, descriptions, techniques.

LOGICAL is based on your links, your explanations that make the connection between your evidence and your thesis.

STRUCTURED refers to not only your essay structure (sentences, paragraphs etc) but also the framework within which you’re writing: the module.

If you can get on top of these elements, you are on your way to success in the HSC.


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A marker will spend around six minutes reading your essay. More than half of that time, and of the marker’s attention, will be spent on the first page. I’ve heard teachers say that they can just about predict the eventual mark from the introduction alone. So what are the ingredients of a good introduction?

Establishing statement

The first sentence of your introduction should show the marker that you have engaged with the syllabus. The best thing about this statement is that you can use the same one for each essay you write in a given module. Here are some suggestions for how to go about developing establishing statements.

Area of Study: your personal (not a dictionary) definition of belonging; an interesting quote about belonging; or a statement about why belonging is a significant concept.

Module A: a statement about the value of a comparative study; a statement about the significance of context or values; or a statement about why some themes endure.

Module B: a statement about why some texts remain significant; a statement about the significance of a particular composer; or a statement about how texts are open to interpretation.

Module C: a personal definition of conflicting perspectives or history and memory; a statement about representation; or an interesting quote about conflicting perspectives or history and memory.

An establishing statement can and should be prepared in advance. The other benefit of this is that rather than staring at a blank exam booklet, you have something you can write straight away.


This is your one sentence answer to the question and cannot be prepared in advance. The good news is that it’s usually embedded in the question. If you’re given a quote or a statement to respond to, you can just repeat it, word for word, as your thesis. If you don’t agree with it wholly, you can modify it to fit your argument. NB: you should never outright disagree with a question; however, you can give a “yes, but” answer.


Introduce the texts you’ll be discussing in the essay. Be sure to include the title, composer, and text type. It is also important to format the title correctly: underlined for whole texts, single quote marks for texts that are part of a larger text; for example:

These ideas are explored in Raimond Gaita’s memoir Romulus My Father, and ‘Iron,’ a narrative essay by Primo Levi.

‘Iron’ is in single quote marks because it is one section of The Table of Elements. Treat most short stories, poems, episodes of television shows, short films, and articles the same way.

Main supporting points

Briefly outline your main supporting points. Each point outlined here in your introduction will get its own paragraph in the essay. If you’re really struggling with structure, just write out your topic sentences. You may or may not mention your texts here.

Reinforce thesis

Remind the marker that you’re answering the question by restating your thesis using different words or sentence structure.

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Essay planning in an exam situation can be tricky. You need to ensure that your essay answers the whole question; however, you’re also pretty pressed for time. In the HSC, taking five minutes to plan is worth it and the first part of your planning time should be spent breaking down the question. Here are some examples of how breaking down the question can give you an essay plan.

2009 Area of Study: Belonging, Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson and The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan

“Understanding nourishes belonging … a lack of understanding prevents it.”

Demonstrate how your prescribed text and ONE other related text of your own choosing represent this interpretation of belonging.

Break down

  • Understanding nourishes belonging.
    • The persona in ‘I died for beauty’ finds belonging through a shared understanding of art (shown through the metalepsis of truth and beauty).
    • The bilbies in The Rabbits understand and therefore belong within their landscape (shown through their shape, which echoes the natural swirls of the setting).
  • A lack of understanding prevents belonging
    • The persona in ‘What Mystery Pervades a Well!’ is alienated from her surroundings through a lack of understanding (alternative: gender distance due to mutual lack of understanding).
    • The bilbies and the rabbits are unable to co-exist harmoniously due to language and cultural differences that prevent understanding.
  • A lack of understanding can lead to a different type of belonging.
    • The persona in ‘I had been hungry all the years’ fails to grasp the attraction of belonging to a community but finds a different type of belonging with nature.
    • Rather than learning to belong in a landscape they don’t understand, the Rabbits reshape the landscape and commodify it to belong to them.

2010 Module A: Texts in Time, Frankenstein and Blade Runner

Analyse how Frankenstein and Blade Runner imaginatively portray individuals who challenge the established values of their time.

Break down:

  • What are the “established values” of the times?
    • Industrialisation (progress and ownership) and Enlightenment (rationality) versus Romanticism (spirituality and Nature) and Morality (compassion and kindness).
    •  Capitalism (commodification and profit) and Technological advancement (pushing boundaries) versus Environmentalism (nature and conservation) and Ethics (humaneness).
  • Which “individuals” are “challenging” them? How and why?
    • Victor Frankenstein challenges traditional morality by usurping the role of god as creator, he does this because of hubris.
    • Eldon Tyrell challenges ideas of conservation and ethics by creating disposable genetically engineered “replicant” slaves, he does this for profit.
  • What are the consequences of these challenges?
    • For Victor the consequences are personal, the death of his family, friends, and himself.
    • For Tyrell the consequences are global, the destruction of the natural world, as well as personal.

2010 Module B: Critical Study of Texts, Hamlet

‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet continues to engage audiences through its dramatic treatment of struggle and disillusionment.’

In the light of your critical study, does this statement resonate with your own interpretation of Hamlet?

Break down

  • Who struggles? What with?
    • Hamlet struggles with the task of revenge laid on him by the ghost because of the conflict between his duty and his personal ethics.
    • Ophelia also struggles with the conflict between her role as a daughter and a sister (and the contextual expectations of woman) and her feelings for Hamlet.
    • Modern audiences continue to relate to this struggle because the conflict between family obligation and personal beliefs is a universal human concern.
  • Who is disillusioned? What with?
    • Hamlet is disillusioned with what he sees as a corrupt world; the corrupt court of Denmark is a microcosm of this.
    • Political and moral corruption are ongoing concerns that resonate with a modern audience.
  • What is the ultimate consequence of this struggle and disillusionment?
    • Tragedy.

Asking a few brief questions to draw out the key ideas in the question is a worthwhile use of your precious exam time if it means answering the whole question with a sustained, structured response.


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The ingredients of a strong essay are:

An Establishing Statement. This allows you to demonstrate your personal understanding of the module, and because it focuses on the module rather than on the question (we’re getting to that) you can prepare it in advance. This gives you something to write so that you’re not staring at a blank exam booklet or computer screen for too long. This should be the very first sentence in your essay and it should include key words from the rubric but also have a personal twist to show that you’ve thought about the key ideas in the rubric and gone further with them. A pithy quote can often make a good establishing statement. For example,

“Part of the beauty of literature,” argued F. Scott Fitzgerald, is that “you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

I like this one because it’s about belonging through textual engagement, which, as an English teacher, is my favourite way to belong.

Thesis statement. This is your one-sentence answer to the question. A lot of essay questions will give you a thesis statement, others will give you more space to argue your specific interpretation. It should include key words from the question and appear early in your introduction. The thesis should be something arguable but it should be stated as if it is fact.

This question gives you a thesis statement:

‘An individual’s interaction with others and the world around them can enrich or limit their experience of belonging’

This one gives you space to write your own:

Explore how perceptions of belonging and not belonging can be influenced by connections to places.

Topic sentences. A topic sentence is a mini-thesis statement. It should support your thesis the same way that a beautiful corinthian column supports the pediment of a Greek temple: with elegance. It should be concept based rather than focused on a specific text or composer; this will allow you to write integrated paragraphs. Taking the above thesis here are some topic sentences:

1. An individual’s interaction with others can enrich their experience of belonging.

2. An individual’s interaction with the world around them may also enrich their experience of belonging.

3. However, negative interactions with the world and others can limit an individual’s experience of belonging.

These are obvious (and, to be honest, a little dull) however, they support the thesis, leave room for integration, and remind the marker that you’re answering the question. You may also notice that topic sentences 2 and 3 have linking words in them (also, however); this gives the essay flow and helps the argument to hang together. Without them, responses can sometimes read like three or four separate essays rather than a single sustained argument.

Concluding statements. Conclusions are the most difficult part of essay writing and, to make it even harder, they don’t just come at the end of a response. Each paragraph needs a concluding statement that explains how the evidence proffered supports the thesis. A popular way to begin is, “Thus it can be seen that…” however, I prefer something simpler such as a restatement, in different words, of the topic sentence. An example of a concluding statement for the first topic sentence above could be:

Through relationships, individuals find and nurture an enriched sense of identity.

Strong sentences make strong paragraphs, which make strong essays.

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Here is how I would approach Paper 2:

Tactic Time (mins) Count Down Clock
Reading Time
Read the questions for Modules A, B, and C. Make sure you check that you read the correct questionfor your elective/text. 5 2h
Writing Time
Annotate the question for Module A and plan your response, including a strong thesis statement and between two and four main supporting points. Remember the focus of this module is CONTEXT. 5 1h55m
Write your Module A essay. 35 1h20m
Annotate the question for Module B and plan your response, including a strong thesis statement and between two and four main supporting points. Remember the focus of this module is RECEPTION. 5 1h15m
Write your Module B essay. 35 40m
Annotate the question for Module C and plan your response, including a strong thesis statement and between two and four main supporting points. Remember the focus of this module is REPRESENTATION. 5 35m
Write your Module C essay. 35 0

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If you’re in Year 11, you can probably see the pre- and post-Trial HSC chaos around your school. If you’re in Year 11 and you’re smart, you might be thinking, “that’s going to be me in a year’s time.” If you’re in Year 11 and you’re really smart, you might be thinking, “what can I do to prepare and ensure that I’m less freaked out than the Year 12s are now?”

The answer to that last question is two-fold:

  1. READ
  2. WRITE

What you should read depends on the English course(s) you’re currently taking and what you intend to take in Year 12. Obviously the reading list for someone taking Extension 1 and 2 is going to be different from the one for someone taking Standard. Keeping this in mind, I will post separate suggestions for each course with particular ideas for different module/elective/text combinations.

The writing, though, is pretty much the same for everyone and it goes like this:

  1. Write notes in class
  2. Practise expanding and summarising your notes
  3. Write paragraphs whenever possible
  4. Write personal and analytical responses

One caveat:


I’ll say more about the value of a reading journal in a later post (or, as I often do, I’ll forget then someone will post a question, then I’ll write a post).

1. Write notes in class. Practise note taking from what you hear in class; not just what the teacher says, but interesting points that come up in discussion. Chances are you’ll have to do a listening task as part of the HSC and, in that type of assessment, to the successful note-taker go the spoils. Note taking is a skill that can be improved easily and quickly with practice. You also never know when an offhand comment by a classmate might become a kick-ass thesis for an essay.

2. Practise expanding and summarising your notes. Our Year 11s are gearing up (or should be gearing up) for their exams. One of the best ways to prepare is to make summaries of your notes. Of course, in order to make summaries, you need to have notes to begin with (see dot point 1). Before you hit the summarising stage, it is useful to go back through your notes and add to them. You can do this through annotating or rewriting. You can also work with a study buddy, filling in the gaps in each other’s notes. Summarising should pare your notes down to what you will actually use in an exam-style essay: themes/ideas, quotes, techniques, explanations. Check out earlier posts on how to summarise for specific modules to see what I mean.

3. Practise paragraphs whenever possible. A fairly typical English class may consist of a discussion followed by writing some short responses on a text. Rather than writing dot points or unconnected sentences, try writing short paragraphs. For example:

Question: What is the purpose of the prologue in Romeo and Juliet?

Answer 1:

  • outline the story
  • introduce the characters

Answer 2:

The prologue in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet acts as a Greek chorus. This dramatic technique would have been familiar to an Elizabethan audience. In the prologue the characters are introduced and their fate as “star cross’d lovers” is foreshadowed. The prologue also tells the audience the play’s message about the tragic consequences of continuing and “ancient feud.”

The second student has spent a few more minutes thinking about the question and may not have had time to check her text messages under the table when she was done. But she has also, with just a little time and effort, improved her essay writing skills. In fact, she has produced a short, but well structured, paragraph that would not be out of place in an essay on Romeo and Juliet. Every time you write a paragraph when everyone else is writing dot points, you get better at essay writing and they…well, you’re smart, you’re reading this, you work it out.

4. Write personal and analytical responses. I’ve gone over this in earlier post but writing personal responses is a really good way to start clarifying your ideas about a text. The analytical responses come next. My senior students are required to submit one extended response every two weeks, we start with personal responses and then ramp up to analytical. The students who do this consistently get feedback and get better at articulating their ideas as well as structuring their writing.

If your teacher doesn’t have a regular routine for writing and submitting extended responses, make one for yourself and ask your teacher for feedback. If your teacher can’t look at them regularly, ask a parent, a sibling, a tutor, or a study buddy for feedback, even if it’s just, “does this make sense?” Make sure you put the date on each response and file it away so when you’re freaking out this time next year you can look back and think, “yes, I am improving.”

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The HSC is an endurance event and the Trials are the last corner before the finish line. Most students probably have at least one internal assessment (my guess is for Module C) remaining but, for the other modules and the AoS, all that’s left is two exam responses: the Trials and the HSC. Studying at this stage should consist firstly, of making summaries and, secondly, of writing practice responses.

The first part of any summary should be an annotated copy of the module rubric. You can use key words from the rubric or the ETA’s aspects of belonging as subheadings. Choose the ones that are relevant to your texts, but make sure that you have a good range to work with. Under the subheadings, list quotes from your texts (both prescribed and related) with an analysis of the techniques and an explanation of how the quote/technique relate to the aspect of belonging.

For example:

belonging in historical contexts

“beauty” and “truth” in ‘I died for beauty’ by Emily Dickinson are literary allusions to the Romantic poet, John Keats. This connects the persona, who feels isolated from her own context, to a tradition of poets.

“the night of Europe” is Primo Levi’s metaphor for the spread of fascism in his own historical context. He feels isolated because he is Jewish but finds a sense of belonging through his “comradeship” with Sandro. This term is used specifically for its political connotations, as the communist Sandro is an antidote to the otherwise pervasive fascism.

A simpler way to approach this would be:

belonging in historical contexts

‘I died for beauty’ – ED. “beauty” “truth” – literary allusion to Keats. Belonging to poetic tradition.

‘Iron’ – Primo Levi. “night of Europe” – metaphor for fascism. “comradeship” – political connotations. Belonging through friendship.


belonging to place

‘I had been hungry all the years’ – ED. “Nature’s dining room” – personifiction – persona feels more at home with nature than in human society.

‘Iron’ – PL.  “a new communion with the earth and sky” – biblical allusion – similar to but also contrasting with ED. Primo and Sandro belong in the mountains, away from the politics.

Even thought the BOS seems to be moving towards specifying ONE related text in the Area of Study response, it is worthwhile having at least TWO thoroughly prepared. Your summary should be around three pages long. The real value of a summary lies in the making of it but it can also be a kind of security blanket, something for you to clutch onto the night before an exam.

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For Birthday Letters, the approach I have suggested is to find texts with perspectives on the same personalities and situations as the core text (Hughes, Plath, their marriage, her suicide). The Justice Game is a different type of text. Although Robertson is undeniably a strong personality and there are certainly texts with conflicting perspectives on the cases discussed, related material that explores a contemporary issue works well for this text.

The criteria I am using to select issues and texts is as follows:

1. The issue must reflect a conflict between differing attitudes or value systems.

2. One of the suggested resolutions for conflicting perspectives on the issue must be a change in the law.

3. Texts which represent the issue must acknowledge (if only to dismiss) perspectives that conflict with the composer’s own.


Issue: The wearing of Burqas

(thank you to the Year 12s whose argument in the computer lab yesterday inspired the inclusion of this issue)

Summary: The reasons for opposing the wearing of the burqa range from its perceived status as a symbol of female oppression to security fears. France has banned it and other European countries are considering following suit.

Memoir: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

News Report: Is Islam on Trial?

News Article: Muslim woman ‘right’ to question cops

News Article: Australia may use fingerprints to ID burqa wearers

Opinion Piece: Is that a feminist under your burqa?

There are many others, on both sides of this question. Use the Google News tab to get up to date articles and opinion pieces.

Issue: British Libel Laws

Summary: In 2008 author and journalist, Simon Singh, published an article in The Guardian, which criticised chiropractors. He was sued for libel by the British Chiropractors Association. This raised not only the question of free speech but also the out-dated nature of British libel laws.

Opinion piece: Beware the Spinal Trap (Singh’s original article)

Opinion piece: English Libel Law is a Vulture Circling the World

Press release: Update on BCA v Simon Singh

Blog post: Judgement: BCA v Singh (great legal perspective)

Issue: Boat People

Summary: Refugees sometimes come to Australia in boats (often small, unseaworthy, dangerous boats) looking for asylum. Due to popular and political pressure, these refugees are confined in remote detention centres or sent to nearby (or not so nearby in the case of Malaysia) countries as part of the so-called Pacific Solution. Some Australians feel that this treatment is inhumane.

Television series: Go Back To Where You Came From

Opinion piece: The lawful presence of ‘illegal arrivals’ on ‘illegal boat

Opinion column: You call this even-handed? Refugee series is strictly for the gullible.

Other issues worth exploring include: Julian Assange and Wikileaks; International Law and the War on Terror; Google Books and Copyright; Apple’s App Store and Censorship.

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Step Two: Write

The only way to get better at writing is to write. Preparatory writing for HSC English falls into four main categories: notes, personal responses, analytical responses, creative responses.

a. Notes. This includes annotations and notes on your texts (this should, ideally, be done during the second reading), summaries of chapters, poems, acts and brief records of class discussions and teacher talk. Notes can be in any form that works for you. Try lists, flow charts, mind maps, colour coding, illustrations etc.

b. Personal responses. Before you take detailed notes on the techniques in your texts or attempt an analytical response you need to clear up in your own mind what you think about the text. A personal responses is just that: personal. Try to compose personal responses in full sentences as I have often found some gems in my own personal responses which I have then been able to use in an analytical or creative response. If you’re having trouble getting started with a personal response consider the following prompts:

did you like the text? do you think you were the intended audience?

did anything in the text connect with your own life or experience?

were there any phrases or words that you found clever, funny, jarring…?

did you understand what the composer was trying to achieve?

c. Analytical responses. Practice questions abound and are easy to find online. Your teacher will no doubt also be plying you with questions to work on. If you do get stuck, google your module focus and quotes. eg. Belonging Quotes. The results can be used as inspiration for writing your own questions, theses and creative responses. They can also help you to clarify your own ideas about the focus of the module. Writing a practice analytical response doesn’t always mean sitting down and banging out a handwritten essay in a strictly timed forty minutes, although you should certainly do this as often as possible before the Trial HSC. Other useful exercises are:

write five thesis statements addressing five different questions in ten minutes.

write the introduction, making sure you attack the question explicitly, clearly state your thesis and introduce your texts in a meaningful way.

write a page in ten minutes.

write one body paragraph, attacking the question through one of your texts. Give yourself five to ten minutes to do this.

d. Creative responses. These don’t just have to be about Belonging. Composing a creative response for a module can help you to approach it from a different angle. For example, an exercise where you write a dialogue between Roy Batty from Blade Runner and Frankenstein’s Creature can help you to delve more deeply into the characters and develop empathy for them.

Some other ideas to try

put a quote about belonging (or history and memory, or conflicting perspectives) into the mouth of a character as a starting point.

recount an experience of your own that relates to one of the themes or scenes in your text.

use your shared knowledge of texts to engage the reader. eg. “No one would look at me, I felt just like Frankenstein’s creature.”

write a piece of fanfiction for one of your texts.

In the HSC your creative response needs a thesis so practice making a point in your creative writing. The best works make the reader think and reconsider their views.

When you have finished a piece of writing, creative or analytical, ask your teacher to look at it and give you some feedback, either written or during a short chat. If your teacher is swamped, ask a parent, older sibling or friend to read it. Then–now this is the hard part–take in the criticism and have another go. Your writing and your marks will love you for it.

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The Area of Study Response, also known as Section 3 of Paper 1, is a particularly strange type of essay. In it, you are asked to synthesise ideas from a range of texts with your own personal response, addressing a specific question or statement, under an umbrella concept: Belonging. It’s not an easy thing to do but here are some hints to help you:

  1. Know your texts. This knowledge is demonstrated through quotes and close references, not through vague or sweeping generalisations;
  2. Engage with the question and the concept. Don’t just talk about the texts, try to develop a personal response to the idea of Belonging. This can be done through having a two part intro, the first part addressing the question/concept/issues raised, the second part introducing the texts. Continue this engagement throughout your response, which brings me to the next point;
  3. Develop an argument. The AoS is not a persuasive piece but having an argument can help to keep your writing focussed and structured. What is your own concept of Belonging? How has this been influenced by the portrayal or Belonging in your texts?
  4. Use the magic circle. Quote – Technique – Effect. Every body paragraph should do this at least once. Make clear and distinct links between the text being discussed, the technique used in the text and how that portrays an aspect of Belonging;
  5. Write clearly. Yes, English teachers love big words and complex sentence structures, but not when they obscure meaning. You are not James Joyce. Clarity is more important than verve (if you can have both, however, go ahead). Read your work aloud to check that it makes sense.

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