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A high achiever's guide to VCE English

Hello,

I am a former student of Top Scope College. This is a brief guide to VCE English. By no means is this the only way to approach the subject, however, I hope you may choose to incorporate aspects of my advice to accommodate your own style and preferences.

Success in English is not determined by natural ability. Of course, that is not to dismiss the inherent advantage possessed by those whose strengths lie in writing. Rather, the effort you exert will take precedence over natural skill. You’ll be surprised by how much one’s writing skills can improve in the span of less than one year. I can personally attest to this notion, that is hard work will go a long way to developing and refining writing style.

Writing an English essay is comprised of three primary components: Reading, planning and writing. However, you will also have the support of Top Scope College and Mrs. Younes who will enhance all three components for you, as they did for me. Through them, your understanding will be enriched, and your writing elevated, but only if you are willing to reciprocate the time and effort they will invest in you.  


Reading

  • I recommend reading your texts at least twice. I read them three times. Once in the summer holidays, once before we started the text at school, and a final time whilst studying the texts. For the third time, I speedread but took note of some key themes.

  • As Ms. Younes will surely recommend, try to read books or articles throughout the year, perhaps as a substitute for using social media whilst travelling to school. In doing so, you will be developing an awareness of writing rhythm, grammar, language and structure.
  • You may buy study guides if you wish, these can be helpful and may contain some valuable insights. However, study guides are unlikely to go beyond the basics. A very important and perhaps indispensable resource would be critical readings/literary criticisms. You can often find these on the internet or free databases.

These are important because:

      • You will be exposed to a wider variety of richer ideas, which will distinguish your writing from others.
      • You will learn specific language and vocabulary that is relevant to your texts.

    How to read critical readings.

    1.       Read actively, not passively. Make sure you understand and are considering the ideas as you read. Simply ‘reading’ the words means you risk skimming over valuable ideas.

    2.       Annotate all the relevant ideas on the side (I strongly recommend printing out your readings). Use a ‘{‘ to mark the paragraph or section that is relevant, and then either make a brief note by summing up the idea in your own words, or copying the key words of the idea. Do not feel the need to annotate everything, only whatever you feel to be particularly insightful or relevant.

    3.       Store your critical readings, you will likely come back to them during the reading and writing stage. 

    For some texts, such as Rear Window, critical readings will be abundant. But for others, they may be scarce.

    If that is the case, then:

    o   Perseverance will be required when finding critical readings for certain texts. If some searches on the internet yield unproductive results, then try different combinations of search words.

    o   If you are still struggling, then for the few critical readings you do find, go to their references (often at the end). You will find further critical readings and you can check if they are available on the internet.

    o   This point is important and applicable to all texts, whether or not critical readings for them are readily available. Do not limit yourself to resources specific to your text, expand the scope of your ideas, but make sure they are still relevant to your text. 

    You can do so in two ways:

    •  Enlist the help of other texts. For example, if your chosen theme is ‘surveillance’, then you may know that Nineteen Eighty-Four (Having already read the text is not required) is well known for its ideas about surveillance. You can simply search for its critical readings related to surveillance, and select and incorporate key insights about the nature or types of surveillance (E.g. Panoptic surveillance) into your essays, but only if it is relevant to your text
    • You can further research about your theme on the internet, such as on Wikipedia or psychology websites, etc. For example, your theme may be on ‘conformity’. Search the reasons for and nature of conformity on the internet, and then choose whatever ideas you feel to be insightful. You can then work backwards, that is from the initial idea, then test to see whether there is evidence in your text that supports it. The possibilities for this are endless, for example, I read articles about Kapos and how guilt and complicity ensured their compliance whilst researching for my comparative essay.

    Planning

    •      Often overlooked is the planning stage. It would be unwise to collect a huge amount of material in the previous step and try to weave it all in when writing your essay.

    • I went through my text and gathered all pertinent quotes and evidence from the text which were relevant to a theme or prompt and made an extensive list.
    • ·     For a particular theme or idea, I also gathered all the relevant ideas from my research and critical readings in a document. Here, the annotations I made for the readings were very useful for quick reference and location of ideas. If you intend to do the same, you can also add any relevant ideas from study guides. You may not use all of these ideas, but gather them all up anyway.

    o   I then divided all these ideas into paragraphs. Three paragraphs is advisable, but by no means a strict requirement.

    o   Interweaving and ordering all these ideas together may be very difficult. Do not be disheartened. Personally, this was nearly as time consuming and difficult as actually writing the essays. This is because during this stage, you are synthesising many ideas together to make a cohesive whole. 

    o   From all this chaos, however, you are most likely to develop and think of your own unique ideas. I myself made many connections between ideas, adjusted ideas to suit my purpose/texts and refined and fleshed out ideas that I gathered at this stage.

    o   Ms. Younes will be of great assistance at this stage by checking your ideas, improving upon them or giving you new ideas. 

    • ·      I must remind you that this is what I did, which was tailored to myself, and is most definitely not a prescribed method for planning an essay. Take and incorporate whatever suits you.


    Writing

    • ·     This method is used by many students. I have not seen a better alternative, so I strongly recommend you use it too. It involves writing thematic essays. This means that each essay will correspond broadly to each key theme in the text. It is important that you cover all main themes, and if possible, lesser themes that may still appear in essay questions. 

    o   Thematic essays are important as they will make it much easier to respond to essay topics that concern the same themes. Rather than having to think of new ideas every time you write an essay, you simply draw upon and recycle the ideas and language of your thematic essays. In some cases, you may virtually copy your thematic essay when responding to a prompt, with minor changes to properly answer the question. In most cases, however, you may need to draw upon various paragraphs of different themes to properly answer the topic. Do not limit yourself to your thematic essays, they are simply a foundation upon which you construct a tailored essay which may include newly developed ideas on the spot.

    o   Writing thematic essays will follow directly from the planning stage. I strongly suggest not cutting any corners when writing these thematic essays, which includes doing the planning stage thoroughly. The richer, deeper and more complex your discussion, then the better the foundation from which all your essays are derived.

    • ·      Aim to write one thematic essay a week, with each being around three paragraphs (as an essay topic will need three paragraphs). If you are having trouble thinking of a new paragraph, ask Ms. Younes, she’s there to help! Do not limit yourself to three paragraphs, as often times, the prominent themes may require more sub-ideas. Remember, the more effort you put into your thematic essays, the more richly you will be rewarded.
    • ·      Write consistently. This is non-negotiable and is not a recommendation. You must constantly write to improve; there is no alternative, hack or shortcut. One thematic essay a week is a good pace. Of course, there are certain times when you cannot write as much, these being SAC periods or the start of a new area of study, where you need a week or two to be acquainted with the texts. In these periods at least write a thematic paragraph per week- just keep writing!
    • ·      Get feedback from your teachers. In your case, you have Ms. Younes who is always willing to mark your work. Her advice will be invaluable, and make sure you edit and correct your work according to her feedback.
    • ·      I have neglected language analysis in this guide, largely because I did not have a particular approach. I mainly just wrote an essay every week. If you are struggling with vocabulary, refer to the booklets that Ms. Younes will provide you. Previous examination reports and the essays of former students are also useful resources. When looking for ways to improve expression, try to ensure that you are not solely finding different ways to express a single word (E.g. 15 different synonyms of ‘highlight’), although variety is nice. Rather, you may want to find different ways to express what an author is actually doing.
    • ·     A common mistake, although completely understandable, is the desire to use big and impressive words. These words should be used with caution, in moderation and only within an appropriate context. Failure to do so may result in awkward expression, and worse yet, a poorly conveyed idea. Of course, do not shy from experimenting with them, Ms. Younes will be there to help you. One way of achieving sophistication would be to vary sentence length and structure.

     

    Teachers

    • ·      Every teacher usually has their own specific requirements. Give at least one essay to your school teacher to ensure that you know his/her requirements, so that you may adjust your writing style according to his/her preferences.
    • ·      Ms. Younes will be there to help you throughout year 12. Come to class prepared, or at least with a purpose so that you can use your time effectively, and fully engage with Ms. Younes. Ensure that you also write every week, even if it is just a paragraph, so that she can correct it and provide feedback. A lack of feedback may hamper a student’s efforts to continually refine their style, so make sure you attempt to get feedback from Ms. Younes every week. And finally, take her advice seriously.

     

    SAC and exam preparation

    • ·     Depending on how many key themes there are, you should ideally be finished with your thematic essays a few weeks (this can greatly vary) before your SAC. Due to limited time, you may need to begin writing essay topics early for the thematic essays you have already completed in parallel with the creation of new thematic essays or paragraphs.
    • ·     I recommend handwriting essays in preparation for the SAC.
    • ·    I left aside the final week for fine-tuning.

    o   I may have written 1 or 2 essays during the final week, but definitely not during the last 3-4 days.

    o   During those last few days, if you still have essays topic left, then time yourself and plan each one in 5 minutes. You may wish to go back and add detail to each one and re-evaluate your ideas. Ensure you handwrite when planning under time conditions, but you can type when adding detail.

    o   I recommend going over your thematic essays, and difficult essay topics. At this stage, you should be familiar enough with your thematic essays that you can replicate key ideas in writing.

    §  You can annotate your thematic essays to further break each paragraph into key ideas, and remember those annotations for easy recall. If you have written a decent number of essays in addition to your thematic essays, you should be able to closely reproduce certain sections with ease.

    o   You do not have to necessarily rote learn a ‘quote bank’. If you complete your thematic essays thoroughly, and write a good number of essays, not only should you be able to recall quotes with ease, but you should find that there are certain quotes that are recycled within many different contexts. However, I recommend you type or write out all the quotes you have used in your essays again to refresh your memory. 

    • ·    For the exam, I would recommend just writing practice exams under timed conditions.
    • ·     Particularly relevant to the exam, although also relevant to your SACS, is making your writing more concise. Given the time conditions of the exam, this will be an important skill.  

    Although constantly writing throughout the year will naturally result in more succinct writing, another way to practice is to:

    o   Print out your thematic essays and start crossing out all the unnecessary sentences and words, which are not required to convey your ideas. You may also restructure your sentences/paragraphs by perhaps labelling them with numbers. In addition to helping you re-engage and familiarize yourself with your ideas, which will improve recall, this will also result in a more concise piece, which you can then edit on the computer and print out. You can use this new version for your exam preparation.