English & EAL

What teachers look for in VCE English students

Lisa Tran

June 19, 2011

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When Lisa suggested that I blog about what teachers want in their students my immediate response was “Don’t we all want the same things!” We want our students to exhibit the insight and dedication that signals a top class learner. Additionally, it is obvious that teachers want students who are interested in the subject. Interested students make interesting lessons.

However, in my pondering on this question I have realised that for me students who are willing to engage with the text and commit to the task are always preferable.

Especially in English your teachers are looking for your willingness to explore your own ideas rather than rehash what others think. Your fresh perspective is welcome in a world where it’s all been said before… (and again!)

Another thing I like to find in a student is a unique style. There’s something sincere and credible about writing that speaks with its own distinct timbre, its individual structure and its authentic voice. This is the sort of writing that has you wanting to read on rather than doggedly plodding along to the end wishing that they had stuck to the lower word limit.

I can be a touch (*ahem*) pedantic and traditional in my views. I mean I love a page that is neatly written in a legible well-formed hand. There’s no chance of missing your meaning when your teacher can see what you’re saying. And something I instil in my students if they have not come to me already equipped with it is the ability to write on alternate lines only – I need a place to comment. You need a place to edit and this layout guards against sensory overload for your marker. Being willing to pay attention to apparently trivial details like this is the difference between a good student and a top student.

10 popular questions from VCE students answered by a VCE teacher

1. My teacher says I have problems with my expression. What can I do to fix this?

Lisa has already posted one of the best ways to fix your expression: that is to read it aloud. The natural rhythms of your expression will be clearer to you and you will find that your ‘mouth’ often makes corrections as you articulate your prose.

Another excellent way to find your voice is to read quality writing. Make it a habit to read a few pages every day. You can use the books on the VCE reading lists, you can go to your local library, find classics online and look at the opinion columns in the city newspapers. The more you read the better you will be at phrasing your ideas succinctly.

2. Teachers often say, “you need to develop your essay more”. What does this really mean?

This means that you look beyond what the topic statement or prompt demands that you address and explore what it invites you to consider.

Too many students are content to skim along the surface of the text. Take a deep breath and dive right into the depths of the ideas and points of views that are proposed in each text.

Formulate your own ideas and then develop them: explain and elaborate. Pick a thematic concern in one of your texts and follow its progress through the text; that way you will understand it with greater awareness of the author’s intentions.

3. In regards to Text Response, should students be ready to write on both their texts for the exam?

I would encourage students to be prepared for both texts. Apart from the extra analysis practice you get by preparing for both texts, you can never be 100% sure that you have adequately covered all options for the type of reading and responding topic you may face.

However, if you know your text intimately, if you have explored its nuances thoroughly and are so familiar with its narrative that it’s like your best friend then, yes, going into the exam with the plan of responding to one text will be possible.

4. Is it important to make my essay ‘sound’ good by using ‘sophisticated’ language?

One of the criteria for a successful response and a regularly commented upon aspect of a successful essay is your ability to show “strong language skills”.

Having a broad vocabulary base – a word bank – will enable you to express your ideas fluently and with eloquence. Additionally, used appropriately (no Malapropisms please like the student who wrote that “parents these days pamper to their children’s every desire”) some sophisticated words will add gloss to your piece. Think of BIG words as the seasoning of your essay – there to enhance, to titillate your reader to continue, not to overpower her. This is definitely a case where  “less is more”. A little advanced vocabulary adds depth and interest; too much and meaning is sacrificed to effect.

5. In regards to Writing in Context, which is the easiest form to score well in? (for example: short story, essay, poem, speech etc.)

Note: This question is no longer relevant to the current English study design.

No one form is easier than another – it depends on the strength of the individual student. Find your strengths and cater to them. Perhaps you are skilled at taking a stance and validating that position with reasoned and logical rhetoric. If so then you should consider a form of the persuasive genre. If you are an adept storyteller with a flair for creating believable characters then opt for a type of creative response.

The way to excel is more about your authenticity as a writer rather than the type of text you produce. 

6.In regards to Writing in Context, would it be best to stick to a conventional essay structure or write  in the form of a hybrid? (for example, merging creative with expository writing.)

Note: This question is no longer relevant to the current English study design.

This reminds me of how subjective the marking process can be. I’m not a fan of hybrids, although according to the assessors’ comments there have been some successful results by students who choose to take this approach.

I think the hybrid type of response is better suited to the practiced, confident and polished writers amongst you.

Again, your score won’t depend on the form in which you decide to write your piece but on the degree to which you satisfy the criteria.

7. How should I prepare for the exam?

You should prepare for the exam by reading and rereading, watching and watching again, thinking and challenging those thoughts. You should do this until you come to a point where you know the text so thoroughly that you are equipped with enough knowledge about the text to enable you to respond to any topic with finesse.

You should discuss the texts with your friends, your fellow students, your teachers and your tutors.

You should look at study guides and compare your ideas to those you find in the many guides available.

You should brainstorm topics and write some full-length essays under exam conditions.

8. During the exam, ideally which essays should be approached first, second and last, and why?

There’s no set way of doing the exam. Some students like to attack the part of the exam that they are most confident about first – that can save valuable time for the more challenging section. Do it the way that you feel more comfortable with.

Others find it more useful to do the hardest first and get it out of the way. One successful student I know wrote half of each essay in order and then went back and finished each. Only attempt this approach if you are super confident about your voice and your capability for each section.

9. How can I avoid ‘retelling the plot’?

Only tell the story when it is essential for explanation and elaboration. A great tip was passed on to me by a student who attends one of the bigger boys schools: to test if you are telling the story see how many of your sentences express an opinion – the key word here is opinion, obviously.

Assume that your teachers and markers know the text and use the events from your selected novels, plays or films to validate your ideas. You are required to make relevant textual reference in your discussion as a means of evidencing your thoughts, so you cannot omit all elements of the narrative – just be fussy about what you include.

10. How can I make my conclusions more interesting?

A conclusion should be just what its name implies – it should show the position that you have reached having explored the topic (question, statement, media text). One of the most tedious ways to conclude is the one in which you summarise what you have already written. Another no-no is the restatement of your introduction.

You should make your conclusion show what you have deduced after your exploration of the required task. It is appropriate and useful to comment on authorial message in the conclusion. Just this one amendment from the tired old approach will raise your score.

This guide was written by a past VCE teacher who wishes to remain anonymous. Thank you ‘VF’ for your expert advice!

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