Preparing for VCE English and EAL Unit 3/4: Reading and Responding to Texts

This is the first post in a short series for VCE English teachers preparing for the new VCE English and EAL Study Design. This post covers Unit 3 and Unit 4 Area of Study 1.

Many of you will have spent this year grappling with the new Study Design for Units 1 and 2, and will be preparing for the new Year 12 curriculum this term. The good news is, like the previous SD, there is a huge overlap between Units 1/2, 3/4, and the examination. In this post, I’m going to go through some of the similarities and differences of the old and new Areas of Study, what to expect when moving into Unit 3/4, and how to approach the School Assessed Coursework.

At the end of this post I’ve also got a favour to ask: I’m looking for some feedback on a new idea to help English teachers, and also as a way to declutter your inboxes if you’re getting too many emails from me about my other passion: Generative AI in education. Chances are if you’re reading this post I’ve already connected with you in some way either through VATE, professional learning, or my books. I always appreciate the direct feedback from English teachers.

On with the VCE show…

Unit 3 and 4 Area of Study 1: Reading and Responding to Texts

The year kicks off, as always, with AOS 1: Reading and Responding to Texts. This is a direct extension of Unit 2 AOS 1, and is also related to Unit 1 AOS 1 (the personal response). It also aligns with Section A of the examination, where students can choose from their two studied texts (one from U3, the other U4) and respond to an analytical essay topic.

In basic terms, there’s not a lot of difference between these Areas of Study and the previous Study Design. We can expect Section A of the examination to look similar too, perhaps with a little nuance in the criteria. There are, however, a few points in the Key Knowledge and Skills worth pointing out which may make a difference to your focus in these AOSs.

The dynamics of a text

The first Key Knowledge in particular is worth pointing out:

the dynamics of a text including characters’ motivations, the tensions in relationships, the function of settings, the complexities of plot and the role of point of view

VCAA Study Design

Note the first point now focuses on dynamics. It’s an interesting choice of word (as opposed to features). To me, dynamic suggests something which moves the text forward. It’s a word that characterises action or progress, rather than simply describing a feature or convention. That’s reflected in the other language in that point: not just characters, but motivations; not just relationships, but the tensions in relationships. There’s a clear focus here on what creates the action and conflict in the story.

Similarly, the Key Knowledge focuses on the function of settings, not just the description. This means students are encouraged to explore what role the setting serves. Think of a castle or house in a Gothic novel, or the various Halls in Pride and Prejudice. They might reflect characters, elements of the conflict, or even be characterised themselves.

Finally the complexities of the plot and the role of point of view lift us further away from description and towards analysis. Why is the plot complex? What complicates it? What do character and setting contribute to the complexities of the plot, and how does point of view, perspective, narrative voice and so on convey these complexities?

Ideas, concerns and conflicts

The next aspect of Key Knowledge that’s noticeably changed is ideas, concerns and conflicts. This is a further shift from “themes” which disappeared a while ago, and also pushes past “issues” and again into the more dynamic concerns and conflicts. Typically, the topics in the examination will revolve around some kind of tension or conflict in the text, within a character, in a relationship, or with a set of values or ideas. Resolving the conflict in the topic is one of the goals of the student writing the analysis.

The other Key Knowledge

It’s pretty smooth sailing from hereon. The rest of the Key Knowledge should be familiar to anyone who has taught Unit 1 and 2 or the previous Study Design. There is a slightly stronger focus on historical, social, and cultural context and values which indicates students can write more about the “world around the text” as opposed to just the “world of the text”. Otherwise, you’re just looking at analytical features and conventions, discussion, debate, and the use of Standard Australian English.

This blog post accompanies resources in the VCE Hub. If you’re already a member, new video content will be added soon that covers each Area of Study in detail. If you haven’t yet joined the VCE Hub, then you can check it out here.

Assessing Reading and Responding

For this SAC, the VCAA provides three types of question that reflect the kinds of topic used in the examination:

Propositional: ‘No one really wins in In Cold Blood; there is only loss.’ How far do you agree?

Quotation based: Dick Hickock always maintained that “Perry Smith killed the Clutters”. Does In Cold Blood support Hickock’s view?

Direct: What role does family play in In Cold Blood?

I’d recommend writing some questions across these various kinds that suit your text, or adapting questions from study guides.

I’ve written about this at length in the past, but SACs are not exams, and there is no need to conduct the entire assessment of Area of Study 1 under examination conditions. You can give students seen questions, and do not need to limit to a choice of two. You also don’t need to have them write under examination conditions. The drafting and editing process is incredibly important for writing extended essays, and completing essays under unseen, timed conditions does not value that process.

Given the implications of generative AI like ChatGPT, you will need to work on authentication processes. There is still no need to complete everything under timed conditions. For example, you could collect any of the following work as part of authentication:

  • Brainstorms and concept maps created by the students, by hand
  • Annotations of physical books or paper copies of text extracts like those collected during a chalk talk or text walk
  • Draft work completed by hand without devices
  • Annotations and recordings of discussions, or transcripts of recordings
  • Your own observations of formal and informal orals, just as conversations, questioning, debates, and discussions

This isn’t the post to go into any more detail on generative AI, but trust me, if you have questions about AI, writing, and assessment, I’ve probably tried to answer them elsewhere on the blog.

English Matters

I’ve been an English teacher for over 15 years. I’m out of the classroom now, but my PhD research is working with English teachers and digital texts, and I’ve recently rejoined the VATE council to continue supporting teachers across the state.

Some of my work with Generative AI, like my PhD, overlaps with writing. Some, like the broader ethical concerns of GAI and my work on school and organisational policy extends beyond English.

I also work with great English teachers, leaders, and consultants and want to extend that beyond my own blog. With all that in mind, I’d love quick some feedback on an idea I’ve been sitting on for a while to spin off my English work into its own separate venture. Before I go any further I’m getting as much feedback as possible from the English teachers I’ve worked with, particularly this year in my first year of business outside of the classroom.

If you have a minute, please consider filling out this feedback form and letting me know what you think of these ideas.

If you’d like to get in touch about anything else, then let me know via the form below:

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