*Originally posted in 2017, this post has been updated for the latest English study design
- What is Comparative?
- What are you expected to cover? (Comparative criteria)
- School Assessed Coursework (SAC), exams and allocated marks
- How To Prepare For Your Comparative SAC and exam
- How to write a Comparative essay
1. What is a Comparative?
Comparative is also known as 'Reading and Comparing', 'Comparative essay' and less frequently, 'Compare and Contrast'. For our purposes, we'll just stick to 'Comparative'.
As its name may indicate, a Comparative is when you analyse and write on two texts, comparing their similarities and differences. In VCE, there are 8 pairs of texts Year 12s can choose from (or more accurately, your school chooses for you!). The most popular combination of texts include novels and films; however plays also make it into the list.
When you start doing Comparative at school, you will move through your texts just as you have for Text Response (except...instead of one text it's actually two) - from watching the film and/or reading the novel, participating in class discussions about similar and different themes and ideas, and finally, submitting one single essay based on the two texts. So yep, if you've only just gotten your head around Text Response, VCAA likes to throw in a spanner in the works to keep you on your toes!
But, don't worry. The good news is, all of your Text Response learning is applicable to VCE’s Comparative, and it's really not as hard as it might first appear. Here's a video I created introducing Comparative (I've time-stamped it to start at 0:55 - when the Comparative section starts - thank me later!).
2. What are you expected to cover? (Comparative criteria)
What are teachers and examiners expecting to see in your essays? Below are the VCE criteria for Comparative essays (sourced from the VCAA English examination page).
Note: Some schools may express the following points differently, however they should all boil down to the same points - what is necessary in a Comparative essay.
1. Knowledge and understanding of both texts, and the ideas and issues they present
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.
For example: Misogyny is widespread in both Photograph 51 and The Penelopiad, and both writers explore the ways in which females deal with such an environment. Photograph 51 is set in the 1950s when women begun to enter the workforce, whereas The Penelopiad is set in Ancient Greece, a period when women were less likely to speak out against discrimination.
2. Discussion of meaningful connections, similarities or differences between the texts, in response to the topic;
More about this later in How To Prepare For Your Comparative SAC and exam, point 2: Understand both your texts - as a pair.
3. Use of textual evidence to support the comparative analysis;
While you should absolutely know how to embed quotes in your essay like a boss, you want to have other types of evidence in your Comparative essay. You must discuss how the author uses the form that he/she is writing in to develop her discussion. This encompasses a huge breadth of things from metaphors to structure to language.
For example, "The personification of Achilles as ‘wolf, a violator of every law of men and gods', illustrates his descent from human to animal…." or "Malouf’s constant use of the present voice and the chapter divisions allow the metaphor of time to demonstrate the futility and omnipresence of war…’.
To learn more about metalanguage, read our 'What is metalanguage' post.
4. Control and effectiveness of language use, as appropriate to the task.
When examiners read essays, they are expected to get through about 12-15 essays in an hour! This results in approximately 5 minutes to read, get their head around, and grade your essay - not much time at all! It is so vital that you don’t give the examiner an opportunity to take away marks because they have to reread certain parts of your essay due to poor expression and grammar.
3. School Assessed Coursework (SAC), exams and allocated marks
Comparative is the 1st Area of study (AOS 1) in Unit 2 (Year 11) and Unit 4 (Year 12) - meaning that majority of students will tackle the Comparative SAC in Term 3. The number of allocated marks are:
- Unit 2 – dependant on school
- Unit 4 – 60 marks (whopper!)
The time allocated to your SAC is 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 900 to 1200 words for your essay (keep in mind that it’s about quality, not quantity!)
In your exam, you get a whopping total of 3 hours to write 3 essays (Text Response, Comparative, and Language Analysis). The general guide is 60 minutes on Comparative, however it is up to you exactly how much time you decide to dedicate to this section of the exam. Your Comparative essay will be graded out of 10 by two different examiners. Your two unique marks from these examiners will be combined, with 20 as the highest possible mark.
4. How To Prepare For Your Comparative SAC and exam
Preparation is a vital component in how you perform in your SACs and exam so it’s always a good idea to find out what is your best way to approach assessments. This is just to get you thinking on the different study methods you can try before a SAC. Here are my top strategies (ones I actually used in VCE) for Comparative preparation:
Step 1: Understand each text - individually
This doesn’t mean reading/watching your texts a specific amount of times (though twice is a usually a recommended minimum), but rather, coming to an understanding of your texts. Besides knowing important sections, quotes, themes and characters (which are still important and which you should definitely know), here are some other matters which are also necessary to consider:
- Why has it been chosen by VCAA (out of literally millions of other books)
- Why are you reading it (especially if it’s an old text, and how it’s still important throughout the ages)?
- Why did the author write it?
- What kind of social commentary exists within the text (especially on specific issues and themes)?
These kinds of questions are important because quite often in this area of study, you’ll be defending and interpreting your own ideas alongside the author’s. When you find a solid interpretation of the text as a whole, then no essay topic will really throw you off - because you’ll know already what you think about it. Moreover, because you’re comparing two texts in this section, understanding a text and being specific (e.g. both texts argue that equality is important vs while both texts A and B agree with the notion of equality, A focuses on ____ whereas B highlights ____ ) will help your writing improve in sophistication and depth.
Step 2: Understand both your texts - as a pair
Avoid simply drawing connections between the texts which are immediately obvious. When writing a Comparative, the key strategy that'll help you stand out from the crowd is the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy. I discuss this in more detail later in this guide under 'ebook'.
We'll use George Orwell's Animal Farm and Shakespeare's Macbeth as an example (don't worry if you haven't studied either of these texts, it's just to prove a point). The most obvious connection simply from reading the plot is that both Napoleon and Macbeth are powerful leaders. However, you want to starting asking yourself more questions to develop an insightful comparison between the two men:
For example: In Macbeth and Animal Farm a common theme is power
Q: How do they achieve power?
A: In Animal Farm, Napoleon is sly about his intentions and slowly secures his power with clever manipulation and propaganda. However, Shakespeare’s Macbeth adopts very different methods as he uses violence and abuse to secure his power.
Q: How do they maintain power?
A: Both Napoleon and Macbeth are tyrants who go to great length to protect their power. They believe in killing or chasing away anyone who undermines their power.
Q: What is the effect of power on the two characters?
A: While Macbeth concentrates on Macbeth’s growing guilty conscience and his gradual deterioration to insanity, Animal Farm offers no insight into Napoleon’s stream of consciousness. Instead, George Orwell focuses on the pain and suffering of the animals under Napoleon’s reign. This highlights Shakespeare’s desire to focus on the inner conflict of a man, whereas Orwell depicted the repercussions of a totalitarian regime on those under its ruling.
Step 3: Understand the construction of your texts
Besides comparing ideas and themes, and having an understanding of what the text says, it’s also imperative that you understand HOW the texts say it. This type of analysis focuses on metalanguage (also known as literary devices or literary techniques). When you get technical with this and focus metalanguage, it does bring up the depth of your writing. Check out more information on our What is metalanguage post.
You could start asking yourself:
- What kind of description is used?
- What kind of sentences are used?
- Are they long and winding or rather short and bare?
- Are they dripping with adjectives or snappy?
- What is the structure of the text?
- Does one begin with a prologue/end with an epilogue?
- Is the text continuous or divided e.g. through letters or days or parts?
- Does the text end at a climax or ends with a true finality?
- What reoccurs throughout the text? (specific lines, symbols or images)
This kind of understanding is important as they are evidentiary material for your arguments. What you say and believe the authors have said, as well as how you believe the texts differ, may rely heavily on these techniques. You'd then translate this analysis to develop your arguments further in your essay. For example:
His depiction of Chapel serves as a subversion of the conventional type of slave; he is “half a slave, half the master” and belongs to “another way of life.” His defiance and rebellion against the dictations of society is exemplified through his speech, which consists of rhythmic and poetic couplets, filled with flowery language; which ultimately challenges the idea of illiterate slaves.
Step 4: Read and watch Lisa's Study Guides' resources
Doing this study all by yourself can be rather daunting, so we've got your back. We specialise in supporting VCE English by creating helpful videos, study guides and ebooks. Here are some just to get your started:
We create general study advice videos like this:
We also create Comparative pair-specific videos:
If you prefer learning through videos, check out our entire YouTube channel (and don't forget to subscribe for regular new videos!).
Our awesome team of English high-achievers have written up study guides based on popular VCE texts. Here's a compilation of all the ones we've covered so far:
Tip: You can download and save the study guides for your own study use! How good is that?
And if that isn't enough, I'd highly recommend my 'How to write a killer Comparative' ebook. Comparative itself shouldn't be too challenging, but what is difficult is finding the right example and evidence to ensure that you're standing out against hundreds of other students studying VCE.
Unlike Text Response where there are over 30 texts for schools to choose from, Comparative only has 8 pairs of texts. This means that the likelihood of other students studying the same texts are you is much higher. And what does that mean?
It means that your competition is going to be even tougher. It's likely the character or quote you plan to use will also be used by other students. So, this means that there needs to be a way for you to differentiate yourself. Enter my golden CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy.
This strategy can be used for any example you wish to use, except by approaching your example with the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT mindset, you'll immediately be able to establish a unique perspective that should earn you some bonus marks.
If you've ever had a teacher tell you that you needed to ‘elaborate’, ‘go into more detail’, or ‘more analysis’ needed in your essays - this strategy will help eliminate all those criticisms. It will also show your teacher how you are comfortable writing an in-depth analysis using fewer examples, rather than trying to overload your essay with as many examples as possible because you barely have anything to say about each one.
To learn more about the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy, download my ebook sample on the Shop page or at the bottom of this blog.
Step 5: Brainstorm and write plans.
Once you've done some preliminary revision, it's time to write plans! Plans will help ensure you stick to your essay topic, and have a clear outline of what your essay will cover. This clarity is crucial to success in a Comparative essay.
Doing plans is also an extremely time-efficient way to approach SACs. Rather than slaving away hours upon hours over writing essays, writing plans can will save you the burnout, and get you feeling confident faster.
I've also curated essay topic breakdown videos based on specific VCE texts. In these videos, I explore keywords, ideas and how I'd plan an essay with corresponding examples/evidence.
Step 6: Get your hands on essay topics.
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. If your teacher hasn’t distributed any, don’t be afraid to ask.
We have a number of free essay topics curated by our team at LSG, check some of them out:
Step 7: Write essays.
Yes, 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. With that said, let's get into how to write a Comparative next.
5. How to write a Comparative essay
Comparative essay structure
Here're a couple of resources to get your Comparative essay structure sorted. Firstly a video (time-stamped at 1:38):
Secondly, jump over to Sarah's (English study score X) advice on Compare the pair: Structuring a Reading and Comparing Essay where she delves into two different types of Comparative essay structures.
Comparative essay example
In an introduction, you're expected to have the following:
- Context (or background)
- Both author's (or director's) name
- Both title of texts
- Main arguments
Here's an example from Mida (English study score 43), in her post A Comparative Essay Breakdown:
The hopes and dreams of oppressed individuals can be fulfilled to a certain extent. This degree of fulfilment, however, can ultimately become restricted by the entrenched beliefs and dictations of society; and thus, this process of fulfilment is presented to be difficult and rare to achieve. In Fred D’Aguiar’s novella, The Longest Memory, the hopes and dreams for equality and racial acceptance is revealed to coerce oppressed individuals to subvert social norms, all in an attempt to gain liberty and fairness. Similarly, Tom Wright’s play, Black Diggers, explores the collective yearning of oppressed Indigenous Australians who seek to gain a sense of belonging and recognition in society. Both D’Aguiar and Wright expose how the obstacles of social inequality, deep-rooted prejudice and beliefs can essentially restrict the fulfilment of such desires and dreams.
Try to keep your introduction to the point. There's no need to prolong an introduction just to make a set number of sentences. It's always better to be concise and succinct, and move into your main body paragraphs where the juicy contents of your essay resides.
Most of you will be familiar with TEEL learnt in Text Response. TEEL can stand for:
- Topic sentence
- Linking sentence
If your teacher or school teaches you something slightly different - that's ok too. At the end of the day the foundations are the same.
In Comparative, you can still use TEEL, except that you'll be making comparisons between the two texts throughout your paragraph.
The below example adopts the 'Alternate' Comparative essay structure where the first part of the body paragraph focuses on Text 1 (The Longest Memory) and the second half of the body paragraph focuses on Text 2 (Black Diggers).
The ambitions of the oppressed are achieved to a certain extent. However, they are not maintained and thus become restricted due to the beliefs and conventions entrenched in society. D’Aguiar asserts that a sense of liberation can indeed be achieved in the unjust system of slavery, and this is demonstrated through his characterisation of Chapel. His depiction of Chapel serves as a subversion of the conventional type of slave; he is “half a slave, half the master” and belongs to “another way of life.” His defiance and rebellion against the dictations of society is exemplified through his speech, which consists of rhythmic and poetic couplets, filled with flowery language; which ultimately challenges the idea of illiterate slaves. D’Aguiar also associates the allusion of the “two star-crossed lovers” in regards to the relationship between Lydia and Chapel; who were “forbidden” to “read together.” Despite this, the two characters take on a form of illicit, linguistic, sexual intercourse with each other, as they “touch each other’s bodies in the dark” and “memorise [their] lines throughout.” Here, D’Aguiar illustrates their close intimacy as a form of rebellion against the Eurocentric society, who believed such interrelation between blacks and whites was “heinous” and “wicked.” The individualistic nature of Chapel is also paralleled in Black Diggers, where Wright’s portrayal of Bertie expresses the yearning for a sense of belonging. Just like Chapel, Bertie desires free will, and he decides to “fight for the country.” This aspiration of his however, is restrained by both his Mum and Grandad; who in a similar manner as Whitechapel, represent the voice of reality and reason. Wright employs the metaphor of the Narrandera Show to depict the marginalisation and exclusion of Aboriginal people, as they will never be “allowed through the wire,” or essentially, ever be accepted in Australia. This notion of exclusion is further reinforced through Bertie’s gradual loss of voice and mentality throughout Wright’s short vignettes, as he soon becomes desensitised and is “unable to speak.” Here, Wright seems to suggest that the silenced voices of the Indigenous soldiers depict the eternal suffering they experienced; from both the horrors of war, but also the continual marginalisation and lack of recognition they faced back home. Consequently, D’Aguiar and Wright highlight how the ambitions of young individuals are limited by the truths and history of reality, and are essentially rarely achieved.
Conclusions should be short and sweet. Summarise your main points while comparing the two texts (just as you have throughout your entire essay).
D’Aguiar and Wright both illustrate oppressed individuals fighting against the beliefs and conventions of society; in order to gain their freedom and achieve their hopes and dreams. However, both reveal the harsh truths of reality that ultimately inhibit and restrict the capacity of people’s ambitions. D’Aguiar and Wright compel their readers to try and grasp an understanding of the past of slaves and Aboriginal soldiers, in order to seek remembrance and closure of this fundamental truth. They both convey the need for memories and the past to never be forgotten; and instead remembered and recognised in history.
For further detail from Sarah (English study score 45), read her advice on 5 Tips For A Mic-Drop Worthy Essay Conclusion.
While this guide is fantastic to get you started, there are certain strategies you can implement to ensure your Comparative essay wows your examiner and puts in in the A-grade ranking. These strategies have been adopted by high-achievers in the past few years and have resulted in student achieving study scores of 45+. Make sure you don't miss out on these strategies by clicking our free download below. In the meantime, good luck!