Unpacking the English Exam

Unpacking the English Exam

Tabassum Ishra

Unpacking the English Exam

English. You either love it or hate it, but there’s no denying that this subject is crucial to your high school life. Exam season is looming around, so here’s the ultimate guide to help you ace your English exam! The WACE English examination is divided into three sections: Comprehending, Responding and Composing. Each is designed to test your ability to demonstrate of English in a number of different ways- let’s take a deeper look at each one.


The comprehending section is one that most students are generally weaker at. This is because of many limitations- you will be given a number of unseen texts, usually three, and be asked to answer three questions. You will only have 60 minutes to read, analyse the texts, and construct your response. This means your answer needs to be succinct and to the point. The main issue with this section is that you only have a short time to read unseen texts, and under pressure, it’s hard to analyse the text. Some common questions include identifying a number of techniques/conventions and commenting on the perspective/voice employed by the author. This section of the exam is designed to test how quickly you are able to deconstruct unseen texts, identify generic conventions/techniques and the extent to which you can explain how these tools are used by an author to achieve a particular aim or to create a specific impact. Let’s look at a commonly asked comprehending question:

  • Identify and explain how three conventions are used by the author to position you to accept their perspective on a particular issue.

It seems a bit tough at first, but we can break it down further. The first part of the question asks you to identify three conventions- easy enough, but make sure you identify the conventions correctly. Remember, there are certain conventions exclusive to fiction and non-fiction. Fiction texts include short stories and narrative extracts. Non-fiction texts are often feature articles but can also include excerpts from memoirs and persuasive essays. For fiction, the most common conventions include setting, characterisation and language (which include descriptive/figurative language). For non-fiction, common conventions include tone, personal anecdotes and also language. Make sure not to mix up mood (fiction) and tone (non-fiction) with each other!

When expressing an idea, make sure you support your claim with evidence from the text. This generally involves quoting from the text itself. General statements and ideas are safer, but they are also at risk of not being detailed enough. Depending on how confident you are, you may choose to elaborate further on it. Always try to find at least one quote that can support your answer- there’s no point wasting time waffling on, trying to justify an answer that won’t get you marks.

Some conventions are rather general, and employ more specific conventions to achieve its purpose. An example of this is tone. You may say that the author conveys an optimistic, hopeful tone, but you need to ask yourself how? If the text uses first person point of view, you can mention how important the issue is to the author and use this to support your interpretation of the tone. Personal anecdotes also contribute to the tone of a text- by understanding the nature of personal anecdotes; it allows you to understand why the author mentions it in the first place, and to what effect. Humour, satire, irony and exaggeration also affect the tone of a text. So if you don’t have enough information to justify specifically talking about humour, then you can mention tone as a general umbrella term and develop your answer further.

The second part of the question asks you to respond on how the author positions you to accept their perspective on a particular issue. After reading the text, you need to think about how you feel about it. Does the author make you feel a certain way? And do you feel that it is aligned with the original intentions of the author? The question also mentions accepting their perspective on a particular issue. You need to understand that the text may challenge or confront any preordained values, beliefs or attitudes you may have towards this particular issue. The issue may be rather controversial or uncomfortable to talk about, but it is necessary that you evaluate your own opinion and the author’s, as well as being able to compare and contrast the two.

Remember to effectively manage your time. If you have three questions and 60 minutes, you should be aiming for around roughly 20 minutes per answer. During reading time, you should be reading the texts as well as deciding on what questions you will answer. In 20 minutes, you should be aiming for around one to two pages. Use a highlighter and underline any important key points! This includes conventions and techniques in the text, as well as key words and phrases in the question itself. Think like the exam marker, and dedicate your time on the points that will award you the most marks.

Good luck on the composing section, hope my tips have helped!


The responding section is usually a bit easier on you, because you often have had time to analyse the text you use to answer the text. Over the course of the year, you will have a studied a variety of texts, print and non-print. Print texts include novels and short stories whereas non-print texts include films and documentaries. It relies on you knowing your text inside out, understanding key themes and issues it explores, memorising important quotes, scenes and the conventions used by the author or director to position your response. You should spend 60 minutes planning and writing your response. What text you chose to write on is up to you, but I strongly recommend using a text you have studied during the year- you have spent valuable time on it, so why waste it? To demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of a text, you must be able to:

  • Name the title, author or director (please be able to do this)
  • Use at least one quote or textual example per paragraph to support your claims
  • Frequently use key words and concepts from the prompt to show that you are answering the question and staying on track. You can demonstrate a sophisticated vocabulary and a deeper understanding with appropriate synonyms.
  • Provide specific textual examples of techniques employed by the author/director
  • Offer a personal response to the themes and issues explored. You do not necessarily need to use first person point of view such as ‘I’, but rather use general terms such as ‘we’ and ‘us’. Use effective emotive language to convey how you personally respond to the text- ‘we are confronted with the shocking truth of...’, ‘the conventions employed position us to respond with…’

Let’s look at a few sample questions:

  • Discuss how a text constructs a particular version of reality

In this question, the key words are ‘how’, ‘constructs’ and ‘version of reality’. How refers to techniques and conventions whereas constructs and version of reality lends itself to you writing about a documentary or short story. If I were writing this, I would write a body paragraph on each prominent technique whilst also tying it back to the essay topic.

  • Comment on how cultural context influences your reception to a central theme or purpose with reference to at least one text you have studied.

In this question, it is important to note ‘cultural context’. Context refers to the time and place of the text, and you need to have a solid understanding of any contemporary or historical events that could influence how the text is written. For example, if you are reading a short story written in the 1940’s, you need to consider any major events occurring at the time i.e. World War II, and their impact on writing. As such, you need to consider both perspectives- the contemporary and historical. ‘Comment’ is pretty similar to discuss, however, it should in reference to the issue presented. Unless the question specifically asks you to talk about your own or personal context, do not make the whole essay about yourself. If you have a cultural background that enhances your understanding of the cultural context, as long it is relevant to the text and you have sufficient evidence to back up your claims.

  • Reflect on how a text you have studied has challenged or reinforced your values and attitudes.

This type of question invites you to reconsider your own viewpoint towards a certain issue, and asks you to evaluate how effective the conventions the author/director used were. A more personal response is acceptable; however, it should be related to the use of conventions and values/attitudes the author wants to convey. You can discuss how society as a whole may embodies these beliefs, but be careful not to generalise the issue too much. The ‘challenged’ or ‘reinforced’ keywords imply that you should share your opinion and whether you agree or disagree with the topic at hand. In doing so, you should mention if your stance has changed, and if or if not, why and how.

Whenever you make a large claim, you should be able to support your answer with a quote. This quote could be a snippet of dialogue, voice-over narration or written text. Find creative ways to incorporate the quote in your sentences- you could talk about your technique and then mention the quote. Quotes should be used in moderation- at least two is sufficient.

Well, that’s it for the responding section! Make sure to constantly revise your texts and know them like the back of your hand because you’ll definitely need it! Still with me? Let’s move on to the final section of the exam, composing.


To prepare for the composing section you must:

  • Revise fiction and non-fiction conventions
  • Practise writing persuasively and/or creatively using a written or visual prompt
  • Demonstrate a control over technical language (grammar, punctuation, spelling etc.)

The section of the exam can be hard for some, but others may be able to shine through and boost up their mark as it gives them the opportunity to showcase their impressive creative/persuasive writing skills. It is recommended that you choose one or the other- whatever you feel naturally inclined to- and practise, practise, practise! You have 60 minutes to plan and write your response to unseen written or visual prompts, however, these prompts are wide open to interpretation and you can glean a large variety of topics from them.

If you are going to write a narrative, you must:

  • Follow and obey instructions from the prompt you are given
  • Use sophisticated examples of fiction techniques in a meaningful way (figurative language, descriptive language, characterisation etc.)
  • Create a particular mood or atmosphere through your use of language and choice of words
  • Paragraph your response, unless there is a stylistic structural choice- make this obvious
  • Avoid clichés within reason- examiners will cringe at blatant misuse, however, by subverting these clichés expertly, you can offer your reader a unique insight.

For example, a visual prompt is an illustration of students drowning in a classroom. Due to this surrealistic nature, you can approach this in a number of ways. Will you take it literally and create the tension and suspense of impending doom? Or you could take it metaphorically and make a statement about our education system? The choice is yours.

If you are going to write a persuasive text, you must:

  • Follow and obey instructions from the prompt you are given
  • Have a clearly defined thesis (argument)
  • Have a clear sense of purpose and audience
  • Use sophisticated examples of non-fiction techniques in a meaningful way (emotive language, repetition, anecdotes etc.)
  • Create a particular tone through your use of language and choice of words
  • Structure your response with paragraphs

For example, a written prompt you could respond to is, ‘Strong is the new pretty.’ In speech format, could you discuss out-dated gender roles/stereotypes? What it means to be strong? Or what it means to be pretty? There are many ways you can approach this prompt.

So it’s nearing the end of the exam and you’re desperately trying to write down those last few sentences down. Before you go into overdrive, take a moment to breathe and review your work. Are there are any glaring issues you need to take care of first? It’s alright if you have less, after all, it’s quality over quantity and the examiner is looking for what you know, and not just how quickly you can write it.

And that’s a wrap you guys. If you’ve read all the way to the end, then I congratulate you. Hopefully my guide has helped you out in any shape or form, and is a step forward in achieving the best you can on your English exam. Thank you!