Top Tips from Past VCE English Language Students – LearnMate

Today I am proud to present my findings from three past VCE English Language students of 2015, who all scored in the late 40s with one scoring a raw 50! Two of these students attended my workshop in the Melbourne CBD this year, while another was a private student of mine. These three students should be commended for their amazing work this year, and so to help inspire more students, I requested that each of these graduates answer some simple questions about how they did so well.

I want to extend my thanks and gratitude to these three students for taking time out of their day to answer these questions. Now, this is a rather long post, so brace yourself, BUT I’d recommend reading the whole article (especially if you want to do well).

I know the English Language is not the easiest subject, but with the right guidance (and inspiration), you can no doubt do well. So without further ado, let’s begin…

The following answers below are from Tim, a graduate who scored a raw 50 in the English Language. Tim is currently a tutor on LearnMate and information about his services can be found here.


Why did you choose the English Language over mainstream English?

I chose the English Language because I was intrigued by the subject’s focus on linguistics and the structure and function of language.  I also studied Literature so I felt that a subject that was less about analysing books and other fiction texts and more about analysing language itself would not only compliment my study of Literature but contrast nicely with it so I wouldn’t get bored.  I am also very interested in the power of language in our lives and our society, so being able to study why and how we use language in particular contexts outside of a work of literature was appealing to me.

What were some factors that helped you attain your study score?

The most important factor in helping me to attain my study score was organisation.  This meant being on top of the work at all times and being fully prepared for SACs and the exam, and I achieved it through things such as recording and scheduling all homework/study for completion in a specific calendar that I could access from my computer and phone, ensuring that I knew when my assessments were and what they entailed so I could prepare for them in advance, and putting in that extra hour when I actually wanted to watch TV so I could complete a piece of work that I would otherwise fall behind on.

Another factor was my creation of a personalised set of notes, including a metalanguage, quotes, and examples table, which was key to helping me structure and organise the information that I needed to know for the SACs/exams.

A little bit of a flair for English also definitely played a role, but more importantly, a strong work ethic and a desire to succeed (which meant I was willing to sacrifice some of my recreation time etc. to do so) were crucial to achieving my study score.

What noticeable weaknesses did you have in English Language and how did you overcome them?

Probably my biggest weakness was my tendency to overwrite.  I had so much to say but nowhere near enough time to say it in SACs/exams.  To overcome this, I had to prioritise and write concisely – what was the most important information to convey and how could I do so in the minimum amount of words to achieve the marks for the question?  For example, if a question asked me to explain how a particular text was coherent (6 marks), in the beginning, I would write hundreds of words explaining all different features of the coherence of the text, and give well-beyond the necessary six marks worth of information, but then I would run out of time later on.  So I had to learn to choose, for example, the three strongest features of coherence in the text, and offer a concise example and explanation, to score the full six marks without compromising myself in terms of time.  The same applied for analytical commentaries and essays – as they say, often less is more and quality is more important than quantity – and although easier said than done, adhering to these two maxims was what helped me to score highly in the exam.

What were your noticeable strengths in English Language and how did you take advantage of them?

My greatest strength in the English Language was probably my writing ability.  It’s a common misconception that you don’t need to write essays in the English Language – in fact, the exam requires you to write 15 marks worth of short-answer question responses plus an analytical commentary and an essay!  Being able to write well from the get-go made it easier for me in SACs and exams because I could focus more on improving the content of the SAC/exam response rather than the actual quality of the writing itself.  To anyone who wants to improve their writing, there is only one way of doing so – practising writing!

Another strength was my ability to organise information in a logical and structured way.  Having a set of notes and a metalanguage table that is highly organised makes it really easy when it comes to exam time to study and prepare for the exam.  I would recommend to anyone wishing to receive a high mark to collate all the information you have from a variety of sources into one document, and use that as your one source of study for the exam, employing headings, sub-headings, graphic organisers, tables, and any other forms of organisation.

How did you organise your quotes list for the essay section in the exam? Where did you find quotes and examples?

I love tables, so I made up two tables – one containing all of my recent media examples, and one with quotes.  The subheadings I used for the former table included ‘Example’ (my name for the example), ‘Source’, ‘Notes (including key metalanguage)’, ‘Quotes’, ‘Possible essay topics’, and ‘Relevant subsystems’.  I found most of my examples in the Guardian and Age newspapers.  I especially recommend Gary Nunn’s regular Guardian article on language, published on the last Friday of each month.  However, examples can come from anywhere, not just news articles.  You can even use the latest slang term you hear your friends using!

As for quotes, I created a separate table where I used the subheadings ‘Source’, ‘Quote’, and ‘Possible topics’.  I made sure I had at least one quote for each possible topic.  Quotes need not be as recent as the examples and often come from linguists and other authorities on language.  My personal favourite is one written by George Orwell – “but if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

How did you study for the English Language before a SAC?

This varied on the basis of the SAC format.

For the analytical commentary SACs, I would follow the following steps:
– Read the text to be analysed twice.
– A few hours/days later, re-read the text.
– Begin annotating the text, focusing on picking out features on each line and matching them to a subsystem.
– Leave it for a few hours/days, and then come back and repeat this process, using a metalanguage table as a checklist to make sure I had covered every subsystem and picked up on every possible feature.
– ‘Zoom out’ by looking at what the function of these features are in the text as a whole, including their links to context and register.
– Group the features into paragraphs with a topic sentence for each.
– Plan the introduction, ensuring that I detailed the different sociolinguistic variables.
– Write a practice SAC so I knew exactly what the final product will look like.
– Edit and revise the practice SAC and either strip it down to dot points if a plan was allowed into the SAC, or commit its structure and key points to memory.

For essays, I would follow a similar process, but instead of reading/analysing the texts, I would scrutinise the stimulus material provided and the topic and determine how I would approach the essay.  I would gather all of the most relevant contemporary examples and quotes and decide how to integrate the best of them into the essay.  Then I would write a plan, and finally, write a practice essay.

Were they any SACs throughout the year that you weren’t happy with? How did you overcome that unhappiness?

I was quite satisfied with all my SAC results, except for my very last one, which I did not feel reflected my full capabilities in that area of study.  I overcame this unhappiness by promising myself that I would write a better essay on the exam!  This included focusing more on embedding recent examples of language use relevant to the area of study into the essay and drawing upon the stimulus material as inspiration, rather than simply inserting the stimuli into a pre-determined essay plan to satisfy the requirement of using it.

Is metalanguage important? If so, how did you study it?

Metalanguage is undoubtedly the most important aspect of the English Language course.  You will not succeed in this subject if you do not know the metalanguage!  I studied it by compiling a massive table of every piece of metalanguage I came across, including a definition, notes on its functions and uses, and an example.  I categorised all of the metalanguage under the subsystems and made sure that I knew every piece of metalanguage included in the study design.  Most importantly, however, I practised using that metalanguage repeatedly, using it in short answer questions, analytical commentaries, and essays, to the point where it had become like a second language to me!


The following answers below are from Alana, a graduate who scored a raw 47 in the English Language. Alana is currently a tutor on LearnMate and information about her services can be found here.

Why did you choose the English Language over mainstream English?

It’s a cliché reason, but I chose it because my course was a science-subject heavy course, and I had heard that the English Language was the more analytical and coursework-driven English out of the three choices.

What were some factors that helped you attain your study score?

Personal interest. I have a great interest in the subject of English Language, and how the language choices users make an effect and manipulate their relationships with others – intentionally or subconsciously. It’s this personal investment that kept me searching for contemporary examples in news outlets and linguistic blogs, and working through essay prompts.

Hard work. Again, it’s said over and over, but you can’t coast on a good essay-writing talent or an excellent ability to recollect facts. You need constant revision, in all three exam areas, to make yourself a well-rounded and high-scoring student. Neglecting a section – even if you’ve done well in it historically – isn’t a good way to go.

Getting feedback from teachers and tutors on your writing (even when it’s not what you want to hear) is also very important – it is their job to build up your knowledge and talent, and they can find areas for you to improve in and glean those extra few marks from the examiners.

Continuous research! If you end up leaving your contemporary examples research to the latter part of the year, you’ll likely end up with the same examples as the majority of the cohort. Sustained research and year-long examples tell the examiners that your ears are open and you have a definite interest in linguistic debates.

What noticeable weaknesses did you have in English Language and how did you overcome them?

Having come from a science-based background, I had a problem with writing too much – I would use large words and, for lack of a better word, waffled in my answers. The English Language is about being precise and concise – you pack in the metalanguage, but only the relevant metalanguage.

A technique I found very helpful, I would write essays and short answers (under timed conditions), and leave them for a day or two. On coming back to them and reading them again, I could see where my writing was not precise enough or could be shortened (e.g. changing passive voice to active!) in some way.

I also had trouble with motivating myself to write essays throughout the year – scary as they can be, they’re a necessary part of English Language. I overcame this by starting slow – I began planning out prompts I was given under timed conditions (5 minutes is the gold standard!) by writing a topic sentence and a basic summary for each paragraph’s contention. Then, I moved up to paragraphs. Then, full essays. If you build it up slowly, you’re less likely to overwhelm yourself.

What were your noticeable strengths in English Language and how did you take advantage of them?

In the English Language, my strengths lay in identifying features, revision, and research. I took advantage of my interest in many areas of the study to motivate myself to research contemporary examples and quotes – my investment in politics, for example, led to lots of examples of current and past politicians’ bureaucratese and doublespeak attempts. This gave my essays grounding in contemporary Australian society, as my concepts are linked back to current discussions and scandals.

This interest also made a revision of concepts easier, as learning about the topics was enjoyable for me. This ongoing interest and revision and allowed for the easier identification of features in a given transcript or text. Figuring out the genre rules for particular text types and domains – e.g. passive voice/modals/jargon for legalese – allowed me to take advantage of this skill and speed up the writing of commentaries and short answers.

How did you organise your quotes list for the essay section in the exam? Where did you find quotes and examples?

  • My quotes list was organized by areas of study, then sub-categories for different umbrella concepts within a larger AoS (for example, ones that often come up in essay prompts – politeness strategies, anyone?).
  • I found simply Googling quotes to be time-consuming and difficult – it’s better to keep your ears open through the year. Reading A+ standard essays published on the internet or passed to you by your teacher are great ways to find quotes. You can then research specific linguists from these essays to find more quotes from the linguist’s field of study.
  • Mainstream newspapers (online or otherwise) and the show Q&A are also great sources of quotable lines.

How did you study for the English Language before a SAC?

I had set up a glossary throughout the year, and I wrote concepts and examples from each area of study onto cue cards. Being a more language-based learner, I found revising the subject of the essay or commentary prior helped to focus my analysis on the relevant concepts.

I would also write practice essays or commentaries on a similar topic to the upcoming SAC (generally provided by our teacher) – for formal language, for example, I might write a commentary on terms and conditions or a book preface. I would then send these for review to my teacher, in order to address any lacking areas before the SAC.

Were they any SACs throughout the year that you weren’t happy with? How did you overcome that unhappiness?

My Australian English analytical commentary was the one mark I wasn’t happy with this year – due to the essay section of the overall SAC, the mark scaled to an A, but individually was closer to a C.

I overcame this disappointment by not focusing on what I could’ve done in that SAC, but on how I could avoid repeating the mistake in the future – here, I spent too long on coherence and cohesion and so didn’t write a full semantics paragraph in a commentary dealing with national identity. A tip; don’t do that. I turned my disappointment into motivation for the next identity SAC (and it paid off!).

Don’t let a bad mark bog you down. Focus on moving onwards and upwards, apply what you have learned and improve! The only way, after all, is up.

Is metalanguage important? If so, how did you study it?

Metalanguage is extremely important – it’s the jargon of Language! It allows you to communicate concepts precisely and shows that you know the score. Without a solid grasp of metalanguage, it would be very hard to achieve a high score.

I studied it, again, through my cue cards, constantly throughout the year. I kept revising Term 1 concepts even in Term 4 – don’t just revise the terms for your next SAC! It’s important, however, not to just learn the definition of a term; you should also teach yourself what it does within a transcript. For example, if you can identify the use of modal verbs in a legal text, that’s great! But why would a legal provider use “may” when referring to their own actions, and “must” when referring to the audience’s obligations? The goal of an AC is to comment, not just to identify, so you need to know both the feature and its effect in different contexts.


The following answers below are from Kate, a past student of mine in 2015. Kate was absolutely amazing during our lessons and was a very hard worker. Hats off to Kate!

Why did you choose the English Language over mainstream English?


I really enjoyed mainstream English, however, wanted a subject that would challenge me. When it came between picking between Literature and English Language I felt the English Language went with my other subjects better.

What were some factors that helped you attain your study score?


The biggest factor contributing to my study score was consistent practice pieces all year coincided with feedback from both my teacher and Dmitri. By doing this I just consistently improved and learnt metalanguage and examples throughout the year as I did practice essays. In addition, whenever I wasn’t sure on a concept, getting help and clarification from Dmitri really really helped me to understand it better.

What noticeable weaknesses did you have in English Language and how did you overcome them?


My biggest weakness in the English Language was a short answer. I overcame this by learning all my metalanguage as well as doing countless practice short answer tasks, both when I had SACS and before the exam. Dmitri would then give me feedback on how to further improve each practice short answer task.

What were your noticeable strengths in English Language and how did you take advantage of them?

My strength was definitely my essay writing in the English Language. I took advantage of this by continuously practising essays so that I was able to include a lot of media and linguistic examples in order to make my essays both long and concise.

How did you organise your quotes list for the essay section in the exam? Where did you find quotes and examples?

I organized my quotes using a table. This had the point, linguistic/media example and the quote headings. Closer to the exam I also just made a list of my linguist quotes to read over. I found these quotes from Dmitri who gave me articles, as well as wide reading my school gave to me and on Facebook.

How did you study for the English Language before a SAC?

Before a SAC I would do practice pieces leading up to it so I could gain feedback to know where to improve. Is the SAC was an essay I would also get my quote list/examples ready and rote learn so I knew them for the day of the SAC.

Were they any SACs throughout the year that you weren’t happy with? How did you overcome that unhappiness? 


Yes, I was unhappy with my last SAC, which was a commentary. I overcame that unhappiness as I realized it was just one SAC in the big scheme of things and it made me realize I had more work to do on commentaries before the exam.

Is metalanguage important? If so, how did you study it? 


Metalanguage is extremely important!! Particularly in answering short answer and adding detail to essays/commentaries. I studied for it by practising using metalanguage to describe examples within practice pieces as well as creating a metalanguage list, with a definition and example. I then read over it thoroughly in the weeks prior to the exam.


The following answers below are from Bridget, a past student from 2015. Bridget no doubt worked incredibly hard and managed to attain a study score of 47 (raw)! Well done Bridget.

Why did you choose the English Language over mainstream English?



I was interested in how something as complex as language is effortlessly built up and decoded by humans every day. Despite in the past having a passion for creative writing I decided to challenge myself with the English Language, and I felt that learning how to analyse language in depth would help not only my creative writing but be applicable to all aspects of communication. This has proven itself to be true since finishing Year 12 ☺

What were some factors that helped you attain your study score?



The determination to do well and genuine interest in the topics, as well as utilising every single resource I had around me, and finding my own resources if I felt the teacher was not providing me with enough!

What noticeable weaknesses did you have in English Language and how did you overcome them?



My main weakness in the English Language was the tendency to waffle on- I had to practice lots to condense my essays and construct short, sharp and insightful sentences that were easy to read and understand.
I also had difficulty identifying some of the trickier grammatical processes in the text. One on one time with my teacher throughout the year (after school, in lunch breaks and frees) really helped me to understand the mechanisms behind language in more depth than I was able to comprehend in a crowded class environment.

What were your noticeable strengths in English Language and how did you take advantage of them?


My expression was the skill that served me best in Eng Lang- despite being more important in the essay component of the exam, even the most insightful analytical commentary needs to flow and show your command of the language. 
I took advantage of this by reading lots of A+ essays and using the phrasing and expression I liked best from them as inspiration/starting points for a lot of the topic sentences I constructed.
How did you organise your quotes list for the essay section in the exam? Where did you find quotes and examples?



My class compiled quotes so we ended up with a resource that was very helpful but I knew far too large for me to memorise. I went through this list with my teacher and selected the quotes that I felt were most pertinent, relevant across a wide range of essay topics and/or easiest to remember.

Quotes and examples were drawn from online courses, newspaper stories compiled throughout the year in preparation for each SAC (keep all your SAC prep, it’s very useful before the exam!) and ATARnotes.com. Knowing a few well known and modern linguists helps as well, as you can research their work and draw original quotes from that- plus, reading through linguist essays only adds to your exposure to great writing and concepts.

How did you study for the English Language before a SAC?



Getting together in study groups of three or four really helped me- sharing ideas and practice questions or essays in a small group of friends is both more enjoyable than solo study and extraordinarily helpful!
 I also went through all my available resources and the study design meticulously and highlighted anything at all I felt I could steal/might be useful in the SAC.

Were they any SACs throughout the year that you weren’t happy with? How did you overcome that unhappiness? 



I was very well prepared for each SAC and luckily was happy with my result for all of them. Being well prepared is not only extremely likely to help your mark but also ensures you feel less stressed going into a SAC and hence have a better mental state doing the thing, which I know can affect performance greatly.

Is metalanguage important? If so, how did you study it? 



Absolutely. VCE is obsessed with metalanguage- in every subject I did it was key! Making sure you are aware of the exact metalanguage list is very important, as you can’t use synonyms or marks won’t be awarded. I studied it by printing out metalanguage lists and pasting them in prominent places around my room and house- that way, even just vacantly staring at the wall above my desk or sitting on the loo I was consolidating my knowledge.


I hope you liked today’s post! If you’re currently in need of an English Language tutor in Melbourne for both Year 11 and Year 12, then feel free to investigate all tutors here: https://www.learnmate.com.au/meet-our-tutors/

Alternatively, if you’d like to contact either Tim or Alana for tutoring, then please go here for Tim’s profile and here for Alana’s profile.


LearnMate is Australia’s leading tutoring agency offering private lessons in all primary & high school subjects including English, maths, science, humanities, foreign languages, and so much more. Our mission is simple: to provide professional, engaging and enthusiastic tutors to students, while also ensuring the student feels empowered and confident during their assessments! Ultimately, our goal is to empower students all over Australia to achieve amazing results and make their dreams come true!

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Top Tips from Past VCE English Language Students – LearnMate

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