Planning for Reading and Exploring Texts: The Personal Response

Now that we’re well and truly clear of the Year 12 exams, most schools in Victoria have turned their attention towards the new Study Design and preparing students for 2023. Whether your school has a head start or step up program or not, chances are you’ll be planning your approach to the new Personal Response outcome for Unit 1 Area of Study 1: Reading and Exploring Texts.

Since I’ve been doing a lot of work with the Study Design this year I’ve come across many questions about these new areas. A lot of the questions have centred on Crafting and Creating Texts, and I get the feeling that Reading and Exploring has slipped below the radar until now. But there are some significant changes to this outcome which make it quite different to the current Reading and Responding, so it’s worth taking another look. I wrote a post earlier in the year about the Personal Response, based on the writing I did for the Insight Publications Year 11 English text book. This post goes into more detail on some of the areas I’ve been questioned on.

What text to study?

This outcome requires one set text, which can be either a written text or a film. Many schools are choosing a film text for this Area of Study, and equally a lot of schools are choosing this outcome for their Australian text. Film studies can be great, but you have to be prepared to teach the metalanguage and techniques associated with film. I’ve seen many responses to Rear Window in the examination, and a good deal of them fail to discuss any aspect of the film beyond characterisation and plot. If you’re going to choose a film text for the Personal Response, make sure that you start right away with and analysis of film technique.

I think that choosing an Australian text for this Area of Study might be a great option. Given that students need to make personal connections with the text, it makes sense to choose a text with characters, settings, and events they can relate to. Equally if your school has a significant migrant or international cohort, you may wish to find a text which is contextually relevant.

Remember that this Area of Study is an introduction to the analytical skills required later on. The VCAA has recognised that not all students are prepared for writing detailed textual analyses at the start of Year 11, and made the point of entry more accessible. Because of that I’d recommend choosing a text which students are comfortable with, and saving the denser and more complex texts for later in the study if your students can handle them.

As an example, Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker – a long standing text on the Year 12 English text list which will drop off soon when the comparative ends – is a great example of a text that is set in a recognisable context, has relatable and instantly recognisable characters, and contains enough nuance and complexity to be worthy of analysis.

What’s the balance between analytical and personal?

As I mentioned above this Area of Study is a “way in” to the kind of analytical response required in Units 2-4 and the examination. It reflects some of the skills required for Section A of the exam, and introduces students to Key Skills such as inferential reading and viewing which reappear in Reading and Responding.

The personal connections are there to engage students and provide an entry-point to the text. We know both from experience and research that students can read and understand texts more fluently when they connect with them on a personal level. From the classic ‘Literature Circles’ style text-to-text, text-to-self, text-to-world connections through to activities which activate prior knowledge, these are skills which we embed into the English curriculum right the way through from the primary years.

The analytical skills required in this outcome include an appreciation of language, character, plot, ideas, and values. You can see much more clearly in this new Study Design how the analytical skills are developed over the course of study. From these basic skills in Unit 1, you will move up to much more complex ideas in Unit 3 such as character’s motivations, the conflicts and tensions in texts, and the role of point of view.

I would recommend explicitly teaching students how to identify the author/director’s techniques, ideas, and values through lots of guided annotation, think-alouds, and group work. Once students have annotated for the analytical elements, they can then be encouraged independently to draw connections to their own lives. You can of course so this in the reverse order, having students annotate a passage or scene to make connections, and then discussing the technical and thematic aspects of the text later.

I’ve been building a VCE Hub to house all of my resources on the new Study Design. It will go live on Wednesday the 16th of November. The Hub contains videos on each new Area of Study, how to build assessment tasks, FAQs, and advice for students and teachers. Join the mailing list to stay updated on the launch of the VCE Hub:

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What does the assessment look like?

I’ve made a few resources for the VCE Hub I’m putting together around assessing the personal response because it is one of the most common questions I’ve been asked. Essentially, there are many ways to assess this outcome. My preferred option comes from the VCAA Advice for Teachers section of the Study Design page and is based on a writing journal. As you study the text, have all students collate their annotations and reflections in an ongoing journal. At the end of the unit of work students should write a reflective response discussing their personal connections.

Note that at this stage in the study this does not need to be a full, formal essay. I would avoid putting an arbitrary structure (intro, three body paragraphs conclusion) or formulaic paragraph structure (TEEL) into this outcome – it isn’t necessary. Instead, students could write separate paragraphs on elements such as character, setting, plot, ideas, tensions, and so on. For EAL students, there is an option to assess this outcome on the basis of their annotations of the text.

In the VCE Hub I’ve made a set of performance descriptors which are similar in style to those produced by the VCAA for the Unit 3 and 4 SACs. It draws on the Key Skills from Area of Study 1 and provides an example of how you might develop your criteria for this task.

What else?

This new Area of Study seems quite different because of the possibility of the personal voice in the response (I, me, my) and the move away from the analytical essay structure. In reality, it’s the same skills as the old Reading and Responding AoS, but shifted to allow for a more diverse range of students. I think it’s a more accessible outcome, and a more engaging one. If you choose a text which is relevant to your cohort, you’ll find students make some interesting connections.

One risk of this Area of Study is that schools will undermine it by reducing the time spent on instruction or the value of the assessment task. We saw this in the past with the oral and the creative outcome, largely because they’re not on the exam. I’d advise against that for the personal response because these skills are examinable, and not only in Section A. The analytical, inferential, and technical skills required in this Area of Study underpin all three Sections of the Year 12 examination, and this outcome offers students a way to develop those skills at a more suitable pace than in the current Study Design.

Take the time to study your chosen text in detail through a variety of reading strategies including close reading, guided reading, and making connections. This is a much-needed departure from formulaic essay writing and the kind of “race to the finish” approach to analysis we’ve seen in the past.

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3 responses to “Planning for Reading and Exploring Texts: The Personal Response”

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