The HSC English syllabus was examined for the first time in 2019 – the first major change in a decade – but it’s still new territory for plenty of students and teachers. NESA tell us that the new syllabus is focused on ‘deep knowledge, understanding and skills’. But what does that mean exactly?
For starters, there are fewer prescribed texts than there were before: four extended prescribed texts, plus some shorter ones. There’s more emphasis on you responding individually and independently to texts: no more memorising essays! There’s also a completely new Module C, which emphasises the building blocks of good writing.
Let’s get one thing straight: gone are the days of rote learning, or only reading Sparknotes to brush up on your texts. You’ll need to work on your creative writing to make sure you can think on your feet, rather than going in with a pre-prepared plot. And practice papers will become all the more important – you’ll need to learn how to approach exam questions from new angles, and answer with sophistication and depth.
With that all in mind, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
Common Module: Text and Human Experience
This is the module that every single HSC student across the state will study, whether their compulsory English unit is English Advanced or Standard. Once upon a time (just a couple of years ago…), this was called the Area of Study, and everyone would read texts based around a common idea: for example, ‘discovery’ or ‘belonging’ or ‘the journey’.
These days, NESA is keeping things even more general, with a common module called ‘Text and Human Experience’. You will study one prescribed text (hot tip: head here if you’re studying Rosemary Dobson’s poetry). That idea of ‘human experience’ goes two ways: you’ll explore how human experiences influence the ways that texts are created, and how texts shape your own understanding of human experience.
Learn the lingo
There are quite a few key phrases in the rubric that you’ll need to understand to get your head around this module. (You might want to go here for a deep dive.) First, there’s the idea of individual and collective human experiences – so we’re looking at the ways that individual people interact with families, communities, societies and the world around them, and vice versa. Texts explore that interaction to investigate human qualities and emotions.
And here comes the trickiest part of the rubric: texts ‘give insights into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies’ of human experience. So the syllabus wants you to have a complex understanding of characters’ behaviour and motivations. We all act in unpredictable and erratic ways from time to time, and that’s what you’re being invited to focus on.
Enter you as the responder to your texts: now that you’re exploring this complex understanding of human experience, how have your assumptions been challenged, or how has the study ignited new ideas or invited you to reflect? A key part of the syllabus is on how you now see the world differently.
Module A: Textual Conversations
This is pretty similar to the old syllabus: a comparative study of two texts from different periods, which are related in some way – for example, the later texts are adaptations, or explore the life of the composer of the earlier text. You’ll evaluate how the composers’ contexts shaped the texts, as well as how the form, style and language shapes meaning and values. You’ll also examine how your own context has shaped your perspective on both texts.
Learn the lingo
The rubric has a fancy way of expressing that you’ll explore the similarities and differences between your two prescribed texts: it calls this the ‘resonances and dissonances’ within and between texts. When you’re thinking about the relationships between the two texts, the syllabus refers to their ‘reimagining or reframing’, which can lead to meanings that ‘mirror, align or collide’ with each other.
It’s also important to be specific about what we mean by context here, as the syllabus refers to three main types: social, cultural and historical context. How are these distinct from each other? How do these contexts shape the texts themselves, and your response to them? It’s worth thinking about how none of us is a perfect product of our contexts: composers often reject or criticise elements of their own context.
Key to this module is the idea of intertextuality: the ways that texts relate to each other. If you’re going to nail Module A, it’s important to get your head around the language of intertextuality: appropriation, adaptation, updating, critiquing, reconstructing, recycling, dismantling, and resistant readings.
Module B: Critical Study of Literature
Time to breathe a deep sigh of relief: there’s just one prescribed text to learn here, and not too much jargon. (This unit also remains unchanged from the previous syllabus, so clearly NESA liked it.) The hard part is that this module asks you engage most closely with your text, really drilling into its themes and its use of language – or as the syllabus describes it, building your ‘detailed analytical and critical knowledge’.
Learn the lingo
First step: read (or watch) your prescribed text, more than once. You definitely can’t bluff your way through this module! As you go through, think about the composer’s use of language and structure to explore themes: why did they use that metaphor? Why did they switch perspectives between characters? Why did they divide their play into those acts and scenes? Key to Module B is the idea of textual integrity, which basically refers to the way that the composer’s use of language and form builds meaning.
Then we arrive at the next major idea: textual significance. Think about the reputation of the text: for example, is it part of the literary canon? Is that position disputed? You might need to research the context: how it was initially received when it was first published or performed, and how it’s been received since.
Finally, the rubric is clear that in this module you’re expected to cultivate an informed and personal response about your prescribed text. What did you most connect with in the text? How did dissecting its textual integrity help you gain a deeper understanding of it? How did researching others’ views on the text help to strengthen or sharpen your own views?
Module C: The Craft of Writing
Listen up! This is potentially the trickiest of all four modules.
Some background: in recent years, the HSC English syllabus was criticised for putting too much emphasis on the analytical essay, the form that you’d be most familiar with. There was only one creative writing component in the exam, but you didn’t actually learn how to write different text types (for example, a story, speech or newspaper article) during your HSC year.
Enter Module C: the biggest change to the syllabus. The focus isn’t on learning lots of content like you do in other units: quotes, techniques, etc. Here it’s all about the ‘craft’, as the title suggests, so you’ll learn how to write for a range of audiences and purposes.
What does all of this mean for you? Helpfully, the syllabus breaks down the process. Before you even begin to write, you’ll study at least two short prescribed texts as well as texts from your own readings. (If you want to, you can even revisit prescribed texts from your other modules.) These will be used as models of good writing, to understand how and why writers have made their choices to craft effective pieces, and as stimulus for your own ideas.
Next, you draft and revise. This is the time to experiment with different text types – remember what we said about the importance of practice papers? The syllabus suggests some ways to experiment with language, including ‘figurative, rhetorical and linguistic devices’ like allusion, imagery, narrative voice, characterisation and tone.
Finally, you edit: make sure your spelling, punctuation and grammar is topnotch.
Learn the lingo
The syllabus refers to four main types of texts: imaginative, discursive, persuasive and informative. By now you’ll likely be familiar with imaginative texts: mostly this will be short stories. ‘Discursive’ is a new category in the syllabus, but basically it’s a form that provokes thoughts by exploring different ideas or perspectives (think of personal essays, blogs and creative non-fiction). ‘Persuasive’ texts, like speeches, aim to convince the responder. And ‘informative’ texts, like reports and descriptions, are factual and often use jargon – though rumour has it that these are not likely to be assessed in the HSC exam.
An important point: NESA is clear on the fact that the exam might ask for a hybrid of these forms, so make sure you experiment with your writing a lot, and that you’re agile if you need to be.
It’s also likely that you’ll be asked to present a piece of reflective writing about your piece, as the second part of the exam for Module C. This will probably take the form of a ‘rationale’ in which you explain your writing choices and reflect on the writing process.
As we said, Module C is a tough one. But let’s return to the basics: what your teachers and examiners really want from you is to develop your own original voice, to respond authentically to writing stimuli and to explore complex ideas through sophisticated language. Your writing should be clear, cohesive and sustained.
Your assessment will differ based on your school, of course, but let’s talk about the final exam. You’ll have two papers:
Paper 1: Texts and Human Experience
This is for the common module, so everyone in the state will sit this exam. There are two sections: in the first, you’ll provide short answers to questions about texts in your stimulus booklet, about how composers represent human experiences. In the second section, you’ll write an essay about your prescribed and related text.
So, that’s two sections worth 20 marks each = 40 marks total.
Paper 2: Modules
You’ll write two essays for Modules A and B, and for Module C you’ll craft a piece of writing and then reflect on it. So that’s three sections worth 20 marks each = 60 marks total. And that makes your final English Advanced mark out of an even, round 100.
Now for the really hard part: how do you even begin, with all of this content to learn and papers to practise? Why not start with a Schooling Online subscription? We’ll help you with the basics as you get your head around the syllabus and your texts. English study will never be boring again!