Your approach to each essay will depend on what type of prompt is being asked. Be aware that not all essay prompts are the same, which means that sometimes your preferred essay structure simply won't suit the type of prompt asked. This month we look at 5 types of essay topics – what you should watch out for and how you could approach your essay writing. The topics used in this blog post have been gathered from the VCAA English past exams.
1. Character-based prompts :
'Cosi is more than an entertaining comedy. It reveals the sadness of the lives of the characters.' Discuss. - Cosi, Louis Nowra
These prompts focus on one or more characters. In this case, you would most likely structure your essay paragraphs based on particular characters or something in common with a set of characters. Essays can become quite repetitive if each paragraph is based around one character so try to add in discussion about themes or the character's relationships with other characters. Remember that minor characters can be just as important as major characters.
2. Theme-based prompts :
'To what extent is love an escape from the horrors of war in A Farewell to Arms?' – A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
Usually your paragraphs will be based around particular themes. For example in this case, paragraphs may be based on 'love', 'escape', 'horrors of war' etc. These paragraphs can have character discussions embedded within them in order to demonstrate how the characters represent each theme. Discussion of the author's choice of language such as symbols or imagery can be essential to the analysis of a theme.
3. Quote prompts :
'Terry says to Charley: "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum. Which is what I am". Does the film support Terry's judgment of himself?' - On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan
These prompts can be character- or theme-based. However, it differs from other essay topics because it includes a direct quote from the text. Remember that the quote is part of the prompt, so ensure that you address it. One of the best ways of doing so is to incoporate the quote into the essay itself.
4. Question prompts :
'To what extent does Pi's imagination help him in his quest to survive both physically and emotionally.' – Life of Pi, Yann Martel
These prompts are usually structured, 'how does the character do this.' Since it is often focused on one main character, your essay will be rather monotonous. Try to weave in the main character's interactions with other characters and how other characters influenced them.
5. Analysis prompts :
In her foreword to this collection of poems, Judith Wright states: "I think poetry should be treated…as a way of seeing and expressing not just the personal view, but the whole context of the writer's times". How does her own poetry reflect this? – A Human Pattern – Selected Poems, Judith Wright
Analysis prompts are the rarest of the 5 prompts but don't be suprised if you're asked one. They focus more on the language part of the text; rather than the plot, themes or characters. Your discussion will revolve around the author's use of language (metaphors, prose, syntax etc.). These discussions are typically viewed as 'harder' prompts because you need to think about how the author achieves a particular message about character or theme through their choice of words. Check out our blog post on metalanguage and what you need to look out for.
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"Analyse, either orally or in writing, how a selected text constructs meaning, conveys ideas and values, and is open to a range of interpretations." – VCAA
What is Text Response?
Remember all those novels and films you watched throughout high school? You should be familiar with watching films or reading novels and then participating in class discussions about themes and characters. Each year revising and improving on TEEL, incorporating quotes and formulating lengthy essays. Well, most of that learning can be pin-pointed towards VCE's Text Response, one out of the three parts of VCE English Coursework. Text Response, officially known as 'Reading and Responding', is the 1st Area of study that involves you studying texts just like you have in the past, but this time round with a few more requirements.
About Text Response
Like its name, Text Response is when you respond to a text. The most popular texts are novels and films; however plays, poetry and short stories are also common. Your response should be in the form of an essay, in which you discuss themes, ideas and characters. You might be thinking, 'I already know this!' Then great! Because these familiarities are only the basics, or the fundamentals for what you'll need to do in year 11 and 12. The key difference in VCE is that the study design insists on 'analysis of the ways in which structures and features are used by the authors of narrative texts to construct meaning'. This means that not only should you develop a thourough understanding of the plot, but the course is designed so that students can appreciate how and why we come to view the themes, ideas and characters in a particular ways. And how do we come to understand texts in certain ways? It all comes down to the author's writing style. The VCAA requirements for Reading and Responding are shown below:
- critically analyse texts and the ways in which authors construct meaning;
- Much of the 'meaning' in a novel/film comes instinctively to readers. Why is it that we can separate the protagonist from antagonist? Why is it that we know whether or not the author supports or denounces an idea? Why can we distinguish a setting in the 17th century compared with 20th century? This all comes from what design features the author used in their text. Here you need to start looking at point of view, symbolism, imagery, misc-en-scene and more. Back to the examples, we can identify the antagonist through the use of negative words used to describe them, we know if the author supports an idea if they represent it with hope and positivity and we know that in 17th century they used words like thou and thee, compared to 21th century slang, 'what's up'. All these features are important in developing a novel or film because it helps to send a particular message across to readers or audience. Having this key knowledge is intended to help you understand the texts on a more in-depth level.
- analyse the social, historical and/or cultural values embodied in texts;
- Society, history and culture all shape and influence us in our beliefs and opinions. Authors use much of what they've obtained from the world around them and employ this knowledge to their writing. Understanding their values embodied in texts can help us as readers, identity and appreciate theme and character representations.
- discuss and compare possible interpretations of texts using evidence from the text;
- Be open to the idea that many texts can be interpreted in many ways. Texts are rarely concrete and simple. Take The Bible, a book that is one of the most popular and famous books in history but is interpreted differently by every person. Acknowledging more than one perspective on a certain aspect of the text or acknowledging that perhaps the writer is intentionally ambiguous is a valuable skill that demonstrates you have developed a powerful insight into your text.
- use appropriate metalanguage to construct a supported analysis of a text;
- plan and revise written work for ﬂuency and coherence;
- use the conventions of spelling, punctuation and syntax of Standard Australian English.
- Note: The previous two points will be explored in more detail in individual blog posts in the future – stay tuned!
The following are specific for oral presentations:
- apply oral language conventions in a chosen oral text type;
- engage an audience through interested and varied language use;
- respond to audience interest and engagement.
School Assessed Coursework (SAC) and Allocated Marks
Reading and Responding is assessed both in Unit 3 and Unit 4. This means that you will study two texts for this outcome, one text for each unit. The number of allocated marks are:
- Unit 3 English – 30 marks
- Unit 3 ESL – 35 marks
- Unit 4 English/ESL – 50 marks
Exactly when Text Response is assessed within each unit is dependent on each school; some schools at the start of the unit, others at the end. The time allocated to your SAC is also school-based. Often schools use one or more periods combined, depending on how long each of your periods last. Teachers can ask you to write anywhere from 700 to 1200 words for your essay (keep in mind that it's about quality, not quantity!) Often, teachers will provide you with a list of prompts to practice before your SAC. Some teachers can be kind enough to hint you in the direction of a particular prompt that may be on the SAC. For your preparation, make sure you make use of the practice prompts! If your teacher hasn't distributed any, don't be afraid to ask. For more preparation ideas, check out 'How to prepare for a SAC – Part 1 – Text Response'.
Note: In Unit 3, VCAA provides two options for the SAC: either a written or oral response. Majority of schools produce written SACS, since a maximum of one oral presentation is possible in Unit 3 (which is often used for Australian Issues in the Media.) If you'd like to learn more about Reading and Responding, you can visit the VCAA website.
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I’ve decided to separate ‘How to prepare for a SAC’ in 3 parts (text response, context and language analysis). Preparation is a vital component in how you perform in your SACs so it’s always a good idea to find out what is your best way to approach assessments. In each of these I’ll give a few tips on what you can do to prepare for that particular type of SAC. Of course these are just tips, so there’s no need to go on a mission to complete all of them (though if you do, bravo!). This is just to get you thinking on the different study methods you can try before a SAC. So here’s some of my top tips for Text Response:
- Re-read your book (or film). After all the learning and discussion you’ve had with your teacher and peers, you should have now developed a solid foundation of knowledge. With this new knowledge, your second (or third…) read before a SAC can definitely help you stand out from others who have learnt the exact same information you have. This is because you can apply your understanding and discover important new passages and quotes that no one else has mentioned in class. It also allows you to further solidify your knowledge by revising what you’ve learnt, allowing you to have a greater insight into your texts.
- Write essays. Sad but it’s a fact. Writers only get better by actually writing. Even if you just tackle a couple of essays then at least you will have started to develop a thinking process that will help you to set out arguments logically, utilise important quotes and time yourself against the clock. It will help you write faster as well – something that is a major problem for many students.
- Investigate some prompts. Your teacher should have given you some practice prompts at this stage. If not, have a look online, including VCE Study Guides to find some handy prompts. I believe it’s best to write at least a couple of essays and for other prompts – brainstorm and write plans. Brainstorming will help you consolidate ideas and see which ones work best with particular prompts. Furthermore, there are only so many different prompts that can be written for a text, so it also gives you a good indication of what to expect in your SAC. Then go on to write plans. Plans will help with your essay structure – a vital component to a good essay. This is an extremely time-efficient way to approach SACs.
Remember that you need to want to prepare in the first place. Incorporate some of these into your study and their benefits and time efficiency will maximise your writing skills – yielding you a great result.
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