English Language

The Ultimate Guide to VCE English Language

Anusha Kumar

October 29, 2020

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  1. What Is English Language?
  2. VCE English Language Study Design
  3. What's Involved in the Exam?
  4. How To Study for English Language
  5. Metalanguage List
  6. Sample Essay
  7. Year 12 Essay Topic Categories

1. What Is English Language?

Study Design Stuff

English Language is 1 of the 4 different English subjects that are offered as part of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE). In this subject, you’ll explore how individuals and groups of various identities use different varieties of English, and how this ties in with reflecting their values and beliefs. English Language will provide you with a substantial understanding of the impact language has on societies, what it communicates about ourselves and the groups that we identify with, and how societies in turn can also influence language.

If you’re feeling uncertain about what exactly this subject entails, don’t worry! Let’s go through what’s involved in each unit, and what you’re expected to do in each.

2. VCE English Language Study Design 

Note: The study design contains a metalanguage list for Units 1 & 2 and for Units 3 & 4. They’re pretty similar, except the Units 3 & 4 list includes several new features, such as the addition of patterning (phonological, syntactic, and semantic), as well as a significant addition to the discourse subsystem (coherence, cohesion, features of spoken discourse, and strategies of spoken discourse).

Unit 1

Area of Study (AoS1) 

AoS1 is called ‘the nature and function of language’. You’ll learn about the functions of different types of texts, the differences between spoken and written texts, how situational and contextual factors can influence texts, and most importantly, you’ll learn about metalanguage as per the Units 1 & 2 metalanguage list. 

Area of Study (AoS2) 

AoS2 is called ‘language acquisition.’ Here, you’ll learn about theories various linguistics and sociologists have proposed regarding how children acquire languages. Furthermore, you’ll also cover how second languages are acquired. One of the most important skills you’ll pick up in this AoS is how to apply metalanguage in discussions and essays.

Unit 2


English Across Time’, will provide you with a historical context for how we have achieved the form of English that we use today. You’ll learn about the processes which led to the development of Modern English from Old English, the changes this had on all the subsystems (learn about the syntax subsystem here), and the various attitudes that are held towards linguistic change.


‘Englishes in contact’, you will learn about the processes which have led to the global spread of English, the intersections between culture and language, and the distinctive features of pidgins, creoles and English as a lingua franca. 

Unit 3 


‘Informal language’, will give you an understanding of the roles of informal language in the contemporary Australian context. You’ll learn about what makes texts informal, how this differs for spoken and written texts, and what social purposes can be achieved through informal language - such as maintaining or threatening face needs, building intimacy or solidarity, creating an in-group, or supporting linguistic innovation. 


‘Formal language,’ will provide you with a detailed insight of what makes texts formal, distinguishing features for spoken and written texts, and what social purposes can be achieved through formal language - such as reinforcing authority, establishing expertise, clarifying, obfuscating, or maintaining and challenging positive and negative face needs. 

In both of these AoS, you’ll be applying the Units 3 & 4 Metalanguage in your short answer responses and analytical commentaries. The additional metalanguage is typically taught in Term 1 of year 12, while you learn the content for Unit 3.

Unit 4


‘Language variation in Australian society,’ is a detailed study on how both standard and non-standard Australian English are used within contemporary society. You’ll learn about how identity is constructed through language, how varieties of English vary by culture (such as ethnolects or Australian Aboriginal English), and the attitudes that are held towards different varieties by different groups. 


In ‘Individual and group identities’, you’ll look at how language varies by different factors, such as age, gender, occupation, interests, aspirations, or education, and how these factors all contribute to our identities. You’ll learn more about in-groups and out-groups, and how they can be created and maintained through language. Furthermore, you’ll learn about the relationship between social attitudes with language, and how language can be shaped by, but also influence, social attitudes and community expectations. 

For more information, have a look at the study design

3. What's Involved in the Exam?

The Year 12 Exam involves 2 hours of writing time and 15 minutes of reading time. It has three sections:

  1. Section A: 15 marks (It is recommended that you spend approximately 20-25 mins in this section)
  2. Section B: 30 marks (It is recommended that you spend approximately 40-45 mins, and write 600-700 words)
  3. Section C: 30 marks (It is recommended that you spend approximately 45-50 mins, and write 700-800 words)

Make sure you have a read through of the assessment criteria for each section.

Section A

Section A is 15 marks of short answer questions. You are given a text, and you’re required to respond to questions about the stylistic and discourse features used in the text, while ensuring that you’re demonstrating a detailed knowledge of metalanguage through carefully selecting relevant examples from the text. 

A strong understanding of the metalanguage is really important, both in terms of knowing the meanings of each metalinguistic term, and also in knowing which category each term fits under (For example, knowing that inference is part of coherence and not cohesion). Therefore, it is important that you learn your metalanguage in terms of what each terminology means, and also in terms of which category each term fits into.

As a general guide:

  • 1 mark – one idea or one example or one explanation
  • 2 marks – one idea plus one or two examples with explanations
  • 3 marks – two ideas plus one or two examples of each with explanations
  • 4 marks – two or three ideas plus one or two examples of each with explanations
  • 5 marks – three ideas plus one or two examples of each with explanations

One of the biggest mistakes students make here is not reading the questions properly. Students sometimes miss how many examples the questions specifies to identify (this information is often given as ‘identify 2 examples’ or ‘identify the purposes’ as plural), forget to check how many marks a question is, or mix up certain metalanguage terms, such as confusing sentence types with sentence structures. So, be very careful in answering these questions.

Here are some examples of short answer questions that have come up in past VCAA exams:

[Question 2, 2017 VCAA] - Identify and comment on the use of two different prosodic features. (4 marks).

Here, you would identify 2 different prosodic features (pitch, stress, volume, intonation, or tempo), and discuss what effect they have on the text, taking contextual factors into consideration. For example, stress could be used to draw emphasis, or intonation could influence the emotion conveyed. 

[Question 1, 2015 VCAA] - What sentence types are used in lines 15 to 36? How do they reinforce the purposes of this text? (3 marks)

Here, you would identify the relevant sentence types (declaratives, imperatives, interrogatives, and exclamatives), and explain their role in the text. You would also want to ensure that your explanations are specific to the context of the text.

[Question 9, 2010 VCAA] - Discuss the function of two different non-fluency features between lines 70 and 96. (4 marks)

Here, you would identify two non fluency features (such as pauses, false starts, repairs, repetition) and give a 1 sentence explanation of its role or what it indicates.

[Question 1, 2012 VCAA] - Identify the register of the text. (1 mark)

This question is quite straightforward, and you could use terms such as formal, informal, predominantly formal/informal in your response.

[Question 4, 2012 VCAA] - How does the verb tense in lines 9–34 support the purpose of this section of the text? (2 marks)

Here you would identify whether the verb tense is in past, present, or future tense, and explain why it has been used in that way based on the contextual factors.

[Question 3, 2017 VCAA] - Using appropriate metalanguage, identify and explain two specific language features that reflect the speaker’s identity.(4 marks)

Here, you can pick examples from any subsystem that relate to the speaker’s identity, such as jargon, colloquialisms, semantics of certain jokes, expletives, or pejoratives.

Note: The exams prior to 2012 have 2 sets of short answer questions, because analytical commentaries weren’t a part of the exam back then. This leaves you with lots of practice questions! However, do keep in mind that the metalanguage lists differed and certain features were categorised in different ways. For example, Question 2 from the VCAA 2013 exam asks you to talk about prosodic features, however, in the examiner’s report, pauses are suggested as an option. We know that in the present study design, pauses are classified as features of spoken discourse, under the discourse subsystem, whereas prosodic features are classified under the subsystem of phonetics and phonology.

Check out How To Respond to Short Answer Questions in VCE English Language if you need more help tackling Section A of the exam.

Section B

Section B is an analytical commentary (AC) worth 30 marks. The introduction for an AC is an explanation of the contextual factors, the social purpose, and the register, of the text. In the body paragraphs (generally three), you group your examples from the text by themes, and explain their roles. 

There are two main approaches for body paragraphs; the sub-system approach, and the holistic approach. In the sub-system approach, you would organise your examples so that each paragraph is addressing a specific subsystem. For example, your AC could be composed of the introduction, and then a paragraph on lexicology, one on syntax, and one on discourse. This approach is easier for when you’re starting out with ACs, but one of the issues with it is that you end up limiting yourself to just one portion of the text for the one paragraph. In the holistic approach, you would typically do a paragraph on social purpose, register, and discourse. In this approach, you are able to group examples from multiple subsystems and talk about how they work together in achieving specific roles in the texts. 

Make sure you’re attempting a range of different types of texts, such as, opinion pieces, recipes, oaths, editorials, advertisements, eulogies, social media posts, public notices, television transcripts, radio transcripts, letters, speeches, legal contracts, conversations, narratives, and more.

For more information, have a look at this video:

Section C

Section C is an essay worth 30 marks. There are a range of topics that can potentially come up in the exam, and it is really important that you practice writing a variety of essays. 

In essays, it is really important to ensure that you set out a clear contention in your introduction. This will basically tell the assessor what point you’re making in your essay, and it’ll also help you remember which direction to take your essay. After your contention, you need to signpost your ideas. This means that you need to summarise what 3 points you are stating in your body paragraphs. 

Here’s an exercise which is really helpful in refining introductions - When you’re writing your contention, write “In this essay, I will argue that [Insert contention]. I will do this by stating the following points [Insert signposting].” When you’re happy with your introduction, you can remove the underlined parts. This will help you really understand how the roles for contentions and signposting differ. You’ll also thoroughly understand what position you’re taking in the essay.

The body paragraphs follow TEEL structure. You begin with your topic sentence, state your evidence, explain it, and then link it back to your contention. You have three options for the type of evidence that you’ll use (stimulus material, contemporary examples, and linguist quotes), and it's important to use a combination of them. According to the exam rubric, you have to be using at least 1 piece of stimulus material. Contemporary examples should ideally be from the current year and the previous. Linguist quotes don’t have time restrictions but it’s a good idea to try and find recent ones.

One of the most important things in body paragraphs is to make sure that you’re able to link your example back to your contention. If you’re unable to do this, it means that your examples aren't relevant to the points that you’re trying to make. 

In your conclusion, you need to ensure that you don’t introduce any new examples or points. The role of the conclusion is to summarise and reinforce your points and your overall contention. 

If you would like further clarification, have a look at this post on English Language Essays.

4. How To Study for English Language

Time Management and Organisation

Having a study timetable will make studying much less stressful than it needs to be. In your timetable, make sure you are allocating enough time for all of your subjects, as well as time for rest, extra-curricular activities, work, and socialising. A realistic time-table will also mean that you’re less likely to waste time trying to decide which subjects to study for. For example, every Sunday, you could spend 15 minutes planning out your week based on which assessments you have, and which subjects you would like to give time to. This becomes especially useful in SWOTVAC, where you’ll be responsible for ensuring you’re spending enough time on each subject whilst also balancing everything else outside of school. 

Here are some extra resources to help you with time management:

SWOTVAC: Planning Your Life

10 Hacks For Time Management

How to survive VCE - motivation and approach

Revising Metalanguage

Consistently revising metalanguage is one of the most important study methods for English Language. 

The basics of metalanguage are covered in Unit 1. Make sure you keep a clear set of notes for this content so that you’re able to look back on it to revise throughout the year. Before the year 12 year begins, you want to make sure that everything in the year 11 metalanguage list makes sense to you. Spending the summer holidays before year 12 begins in reinforcing the basics will help you throughout year 12, as you’ll be able to pick up on the new metalanguage much faster. One of the first things you'll cover is coherence and cohesion, so if you would like to get a head start, have a look at this post.

Throughout year 12, consistently revising metalanguage will be your responsibility. It is likely that you’ll be spending a greater proportion of class time in learning content, and writing short answer responses, analytical commentaries, or essays. Therefore, it’s really important to figure out a way that works best for you in being able to frequently revise metalanguage. Flashcards are pretty useful for revision, as well as making mind maps so that you’re able to visualise how everything is set out in the study design.

One issue students run into is that they’re able to define and give examples for metalanguage terms, however, they are unable to understand how it fits in in terms of the categories under each subsystem. For example, a student is able to remember what a metaphor is, but unable to recall that it fits under semantic patterning. Similarly, a student may know what a pause is, but not know if it’s part of prosodic features or discourse features. It’s important to know what all the categories are, because the short answer questions usually ask for you to identify features under a particular category. Therefore, spending time on just revising the definitions alone isn’t sufficient in learning metalanguage. You also need to be able to ensure that you can recall which category each term fits under.

Reading the News

For the essay, you’re required to use contemporary media examples as evidence (alongside stimulus material and linguist quotes). It’s really important for you to begin this process early so that you’re able to start using examples in essays as early as possible. For tips on how to find, analyse and store your examples, see our post on Building Essay Evidence Banks for English Language.

Having an awareness of Australia’s historical, political, and social context, will provide you with a more comprehensive perspective of the contemporary examples. So, if you don’t already do this, try to develop a habit of reading the news (The Conversation or The Guardian are a good place to start). Television programs like Q and A, The Drum, and Media Watch, will help you understand the Australian context, and often these programs will also discuss the roles of language, which directly links with what you're looking for as essay examples. It’s especially important to start early, and to build these skills over time, so that you are able to develop a holistic foundation. 

Extra Practice Pieces and Seeking Feedback

Doing extra practice pieces is a really effective way to develop and refine your analytical skills. Make sure you receive feedback for all your work from your teacher or tutor, as it’s the only way you'll know if you’re going in the right direction.

If you’re short on time, even writing up AC or essay plans, or just doing 1 paragraph, is an effective way to revise.

Learning Quotes and Examples

Memorising several pages full of linguist quotes and contemporary examples may seem daunting at first, but once you begin using them in essays, they’ll become much easier to remember. Right from the beginning of yr12, make sure you set up a document to compile your linguist quotes and examples into subheadings. For example subheadings such as ‘cultural identity,’ ‘jargon,’ ‘hate speech,’ ‘free speech,’ or ‘Australian values’ will make it easier for you to navigate your notes when you're planning your essays.

If you start early, you’ll be able to remember everything bit by bit as you progress through the year, which is definitely easier than trying to remember the evidence the night before the assessment. Additionally, you’ll be ready with quotes and examples as soon as you begin essays in class, so you’ll be able to use your examples earlier, hence learn them earlier, and therefore be able to memorise your quotes and examples in advance. If you’re in year 12 and you’re nearing the end of the year and still struggling to memorise your examples and quotes, try using flashcards to remember your evidence.  Make sure you’re doing a range of essays on different topics so that you’re able to apply and analyse your evidence. 

Learning From Your Mistakes

It can be pretty disheartening to make the same mistakes repeatedly and continue to lose marks. So, compiling the mistakes that you make throughout the year in a separate notebook or document is a fantastic way to keep track of the key things you need to remember. You’ll also be less likely to repeat those mistakes.

Group Studies

Studying in groups for English Language is a highly effective way to refine your understanding of the content, and see different perspectives in the way certain ideas can be applied. Revising metalanguage and testing your friends on their knowledge can be a light and engaging way to ensure you and your friends are on the right track. Sharing the ways you and your group have approached a specific AC is also an effective way to learn about different approaches. Discussing essay topics is a useful way in refining your arguments, as you’ll be exposed to different opinions and be able to work on ensuring that your arguments are relevant and strong.

See How To Extend Yourself in VCE English Language for more tips!

5. Metalanguage List

Please refer to pages 9-10 for the Year 11 list, and 17-18 for the Year 12 list!

6. Sample Essay


Language is fundamental to identity and consequently we draw on our linguistic repertoire to project different aspects of our identity according to context. Discuss this statement in the contemporary Australian context with reference to at least two subsystems in your response.

(This essay topic relates to Unit 4 - AoS1, ‘Language variation in Australian society.’) 


Language plays a pivotal role in establishing and communicating various facets of identity. As such, individuals can alter their linguistic repertoire to establish in-group membership. Teenspeak is an effective mechanism in expressing teenage identity, but can also be used by the older generation to appeal to young people. Code switching between ethnolects and standard Australian English further illustrates how individuals can manipulate their linguistic choices to suit their environment, whilst simultaneously reflecting ethnic identity . Furthermore, jargon plays a critical role in establishing professional identity and signifying expertise or authority. Consequently, linguistic choices are capable of expressing diverse and multifaceted identities.

Body Paragraph

Teenspeak is capable of expressing identity and establishing in group membership amongst teenages, however it can also be used by those in the out-group to appeal to teenagers. Professor Pam Peters asserts that “Teenagers use language as a kind of identity badge that has the effect of excluding adults." Consequently, teenagers are able to establish exclusivity and in-group membership. Bakery owner Morgan Hipworth, who largely has a teenage following and is a teenager himself, employs teenspeak in a video recipe, where he responds to the question ‘Can you make a 10 layer cheese toastie?’ with ‘Bet, let’s go.’ Through using the teenspeak term ‘bet,’ Hipworth is able to relate and connect with his young audience while further asserting his identity as a teenager. This demonstrates how teenspeak can be effective in both establishing in-group membership, and expressing identity. Similarly, Youtuber Ashley Mescia’s extensive use of teenspeak initialisms in Instagram captions, such as ‘ootd’ for ‘outfit of the day,’ ‘grwm’ for ‘get ready with me,’ and ‘ngl’ for ‘not gonna lie,’ allows her to connect with her predominantly teenage following, thus allowing her to establish solidarity and in-group membership. This further indicates that teenspeak is an effective mechanism in expressing identity and building in-group membership. In contrast, teenspeak can also be used by older people in an effort to appeal to teenages. For example, in 2019, ABC’s Q and A host Tony Jones ended a promotional video for an opportunity for high-school students to appear on the panel with ‘It’s gonna be lit fam.’ This was done in an effort to appeal to younger people by exploiting the notion that it is often seen as cringeworthy when older people use teenspeak. Linguist Kate Burridge asserts that “older people using contemporary teen slang often sounds insincere and phoney,” and Jones was aware of this, however his purpose was to appeal to this to be able to further promote the video. Therefore, teenspeak is effective in both establishing in-group membership and expressing identity, and also appealing to the in-group and a member of the out-group.  

7. Year 12 Essay Topic Categories

1: Australian English

  • Australian English differs from other national varieties – this theme looks at what makes Australian English unique and the factors that have contributed to its development over time. You can learn more by checking out our blog post on Australian Cultural Values
  • What makes this variety unique as a national variety
  • Broad, General, Cultivated accents
  • Ethnolects
  • Aboriginal English
  • Attitudes towards Australian language varieties
  • Standard Australian English and its prestige value
  • Non-standard varieties operating in Australia
  • Regional variation within Australia
  • The role of language in constructing national identity
  • Face needs (read blog)

2: Individual and Group Identity

  • Social and personal variation (age, gender, occupation, interests, education, background, aspiration)
  • Individual identity and group membership
  • Standard and non-standard English and prestige varieties
  • In-groups and exclusion
  • Social attitudes to non-standard accents and dialects
  • Face needs (read blog)

3: Register

  • Relationships between speaker/writer and interlocutors/audience
  • Physical setting, situational and cultural contexts
  • Subject matter/topic/domain/field
  • Mode (spoken, written, electronic)
  • Purpose/function of the interaction
  • Social attitudes and beliefs of participants

4: Social Purpose of Language

  • Inclusion and exclusion; in-groups and out-groups; social distance and intimacy
  • How language can be used to uphold or threaten positive or negative face needs (read blog)
  • Prestige forms of language
  • Political correctness (read blog)
  • Discrimination and hatespeech
  • Euphemism and dysphemism (watch video)
  • Taboo, pejoratives, and swearing
  • Jargon, and how language establishes expertise
  • Slang and colloquialisms
  • Manipulation of language (obfuscation, doublespeak, gobbledegook)
  • Politeness strategies and social harmony
  • Language in the public domain; public language
  • Linguistic innovation
  • How language represents or shapes social and cultural, values, beliefs, attitudes
  • How language can express identity 
  • Other functions of language, such as recording, clarifying, entertaining, promoting, persuading, commemorating, celebrating, instructing, informing

5: Attitudes to the Varieties

6: Language Change

Although language change features more heavily in Units 1 & 2, it is still important to be aware of how language is changing in everyday lives to reflect social needs, attitudes and values. Consider the following:

  • Australian English and its development and evolution over time
  • Taboo, swearing and dysphemism and the role of changing social values
  • Political correctness, non-discriminatory language and changing social values
  • Linguistic innovation and informal language
  • Technological advances and their impact on language - this includes emojis and text speak
  • Global contact and other social changes and their impact on contemporary Australian English
  • Migrant ethnolects and Aboriginal English

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