English & EAL

The Five Types of Text Response Prompts

Lisa Tran

June 4, 2012

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Last updated 20/10/19

Planning is an essential part of any successful text response essay. It helps you ensure that you’re answering the prompt, utilising enough quotes and writing the most unique and perceptive analysis possible! The hard part of this is that you only have about FIVE MINUTES to plan each essay in the Year 12 English exam… (more info on the best way to tackle that challenge in this video!)

So, I developed the FIVE TYPES of essay prompts to help students streamline their planning process and maximise every minute of their SACs and exams.

By identifying the type of prompt you’re being challenged with immediately, a number of parameters or guidelines are already set in place. For a specific type of prompt, you have specific criteria to meet – for example, in a metalanguage-based prompt, you immediately know that any evidence you brainstorm in your planning stage should be based around the literary techniques used in your given text.

If you’d like the full picture on our best FREE advice on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response here.


1. Theme-based prompt

‘Ambition in the play Macbeth leads to success.’ Discuss. (Macbeth)

When you’re presented with a theme-based prompt, you can automatically shift your brainstorming and planning towards the themes mentioned in the prompt along with any others that you can link to the core theme in some way.

In regard to this Macbeth prompt, for example, you could explore the different ways the theme of ambition is presented in the text. Additionally, the themes of guilt and power are intimately related to ambition in the text, so you can use those other ideas to aid your brainstorming and get you a step ahead of the rest of the state come exam day.


2. Character-based prompt

‘Frankenstein’s hubris is what punishes him.’ Discuss. (Frankenstein)

These prompts are pretty easy to spot – if you see a character’s name in the prompt, there you have it; you have a character-based prompt on your hands.

Once you know this, you can assume that each example you brainstorm has to be relevant to the specific character named in the prompt in some way. Also, you can explore how the actions of characters don’t occur in isolation – they’re almost always interrelated. Remember, however, that the actions of characters are always connected to the themes and ideas the author is trying to convey.

This type of prompt also grants you some freedoms that other types don’t give. For example, unlike a Theme-based prompt, a character-based prompt means that it’s perfectly fine to write about characters in the topic sentences of your body paragraphs.


3. How-based prompt

‘How does Grenville showcase Rooke’s inner conflict in The Lieutenant?’ (The Lieutenant)

Unlike other prompts, the ‘How’ positions you to focus more on the author’s writing intentions. This can be achieved by discussing metalanguage – language that describes language (read my blog post about it here). These prompts tell you immediately that you need to be thinking about the literary techniques explored in the text and explain how they affect the narrative.

Rather than using specific techniques to frame your specific arguments, it’s best to use them as evidence to support arguments that attack the main themes/ideas mentioned in the prompt.


4. Metalanguage or film-technique-based prompt

‘Hitchcock’s use of film techniques offers an unnerving viewing experience’. Discuss. (Rear Window)

This type of prompt is very similar to How-based prompts, specifically in the fact that the discussion of literary techniques is essential.

For this type of prompt specifically, however, the actual techniques used can form more of a basis for your arguments, unlike in How-based prompts.


5. Quote-based prompt

“Out, damned spot!” How does Shakespeare explore the burden of a guilty conscience in Macbeth? (Macbeth)

Countless students ask me every year, “What do I do when there’s a quote in the prompt?!” My reply to these questions is actually fairly straightforward!

There are two main things that you should do when presented with this type of prompt. Firstly, contextualise the quote in your essay and try to use it in your analysis in some way. Secondly, interpret the themes and issues addressed in the quote and implement these into your discussion. The best place to do both of these is in a body paragraph – it weaves in seamlessly and allows for a good amount of analysis, among other reasons!


When faced with unknown prompts in a SAC or your exam, it's reassuring to have a formulaic breakdown of the prompt so that your brain immediately starts categorising the prompt - which of the 5 types of prompts does this one in front of me fall into? To learn more about brainstorming, planning, essay structures for Text Response, read our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

Get our FREE VCE English Text Response mini-guide

Now quite sure how to nail your text response essays? Then download our free mini-guide, where we break down the art of writing the perfect text-response essay into three comprehensive steps.

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Struggling to answer the essay topic?

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