Over the next series of posts I’ll be exploring the upcoming changes to the VCE English Study Design for Units 1 and 2, which begins in 2023. These posts cover VCE English: with the expanded SD for EAL, English as an Additional Language now warrants a separate discussion which I’ll cover in a later post. For the previous post with an overview of comparisons to the current SD, click here.
Unit 1 and the Personal Response essay
Amidst the flurry of conversations around the new ‘Crafting Texts’ unit, this one has sort of dropped off the radar. The ‘personal response’ is the new outcome for Unit 1 Area of Study 1, and I think it’s both a fantastic opportunity for students and a great form to write in; but it’s not without its risks.
As before in Unit 1, students study texts in order to grapple with ideas, views and values. draw on personal experience and understanding in developing writing about a text, and work to shape their ideas and knowledge into formal essay structures. The difference in the new SD is the new emphasis on connecting these ideas to their own lives. Here is an extract from the new study design (emphasis mine):
[Students] contemplate the ways a text can present and reflect human experiences, and how stories or aspects of stories resonate with their own memories and lives. Students are encouraged to share their experience and understanding of the world, and make connections with key ideas, concerns and tensions presented in a text. They also explore the cultural, social and historical values embedded in the text, and can compare these values with their own. It is through these moments of connection that students engage more closely with the reading experience, and draw parallels with their own observations of the world. Through participation in discussions about their own experiences and the ways they make connections with a text, students develop their own thinking and engage with the ideas of others to extend their understanding of a text. They draw on personal experience and understanding in developing writing about a text, and work to shape their ideas and knowledge into formal essay structureshttps://www.vcaa.vic.edu.au/curriculum/vce/vce-study-designs/english-and-eal/Pages/index.aspx
A lot of attention has been paid in the new SD to the importance of students making connections between texts and their own lives. I’ve written before about Making Connections as a Reading Strategy, and stressed the importance of this as a starting point for more complex and sophisticated reading of texts.
This update to the Study Design is an acknowledgement of the difficulties students face when decoding complex texts, and the powerful role that personal connection plays in reading. Students who can draw personal connections are more engaged, can empathise with characters, better understand authorial intent, and ultimately produce better responses.
What is the personal response?
First of all, another quote from the SD: “On completion of this unit the student should be able to make personal connections with, and explore the vocabulary, text structures, language features and ideas in, a text.”
Note the similarities to the analytical writing outcome we’re all familiar with in the need to discuss vocabulary, text structures, language features and ideas.
The Key Skills also articulate that students must “plan and develop personal and analytical writing about a text…” and the assessment requirements stipulate a “personal response to a set text”.
Approaching the personal response
The method I’ve written about in Insight’s upcoming Year 11 textbook is to weave back and forth between personal experience and the standard approach to analytical writing.
This might mean alternating paragraphs of personal experience and text analysis, linked together by the ideas in the text. Or, it may be a more complex weave wherein students write of their personal experiences and the text within a single paragraph, united by an idea, issue, view or value.
There are many places I can see students making these connections:
- Between the characters, and the people in their lives
- Between the events of the text, and their lived experiences
- Between the settings, and the places they have been
- Between the views and values of the author, and their personal views and values
- Between the ideas and issues presented in the text, and their personal response to those ideas and issues
The essay can of course be written in the first person. I would suggest a balance of personal/analytical, but I would also recommend anchoring the analysis (of language, technique, structure, and ideas) to their personal experiences.
What are the risks?
Whenever a new SD is implemented, there are risks. Some come from the variance in the interpretation of the SD, others stem from confusion, and some are unavoidable parts of the change.
In this case, I see the biggest risk being students getting confused with the opportunity to use personal voice in this essay, but not those in Units 2-4 or the exam. Teachers and students must be very clear on the purpose and voice of this piece, and how it differs from the others.
Another risk is that this Area of Study will be treated as “less-than” because it is not examinable. I think that this would be a waste of an incredible opportunity to engage students with reading and writing, and I would advise schools to consider the benefits of the personal response over the expedience of teaching to the exam. We’ve seen that happen with the creative outcomes in the existing Study Design, and I wouldn’t want that to happen again.
In my next post I’ll talk about the biggest change to the Unit 1 and 2 SD, the new Crafting Texts Area of Study. To stay up to date on my posts about implementing the new study design, sign up to the mailing list: