It’s something we’ve heard teachers say for years now: make sure you always read and understand the question you’re being asked before you try to answer it.

But when it comes to understanding HSC English, it’s not quite as simple as reading the question – you have to interpret it as well.

In this article, I’m going to show exactly how to break down the different parts on an English question, understand them, and then put them back together to start writing and awesome response.

By the time you finish scrolling, you’ll know exactly how to understand and break down HSC English questions of even the trickiest kind!

Essay & Short Answer Questions

The most common are people struggle with is in the analytical section of the exam. Often the questions seem too wordy, with a lot being written but not much being said.

In order to understand HSC English questions, first and foremost read the question fully – this way you get an idea of what’s being asked and what you might need to do or include in your answer.

To take you through how to break down and analyse an essay or short answer question for HSC English, here’s an example we’ll use to take you through step-by-step!

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Step 1: Highlight Key Words and Sections

Then go through with a pen or highlighter and break the question apart!

If the questions has to parts or ‘sections’ use a different colour for each so that they’re easier to identify.

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Now we’re ready to start interpreting what the question is asking.

Step 2: Outline Each Key Word or Section

You do this by taking each outlined section individually and defining the key words and then write a short sentence about what this means in relation to the question or topic!

“Individual’s identity”

Individual = one person, identity = who a person is.

 

This means you’re going to be dealing with a single character’s identity and how they feel about themselves.

“They perceive”

They = the individual, perceive = interpret, understand or regard.

 

This means you’re going to be focusing on how the character understands, thinks or feels about something.

“Connections with others and the world”

Connections = relationships or links, others = other people, the world = nature, the environment, society, etc.

 

This means you’re looking at how the character relates to or feels about the people, places and society around them.

“How is this view represented”

How = in what way, view = the concept/idea above, represented = shown.

 

This means you’ll be writing about the ways in which the first section of the question (“An individual’s identity…”) is shown through different literary techniques, scenes, etc.

“Prescribed text and ONE related”

This simply means you should be referring to both the text you were prescribed in class and one text you studied yourself. Make sure to include quotes and specific references.

Step 3: Rewrite the Question Based on Your Outline

By joining these explained meanings together, we’re able to create a rewritten question that’s much easier to understand;

Who a character is, as an individual, is shaped by the way they understand their links to other people and nature, the environment and society.

 

In what way is the idea above shown in your prescribed text and your related text?

So what does it mean?

By looking at this in relation to the first section of the question we can then understand exactly what is being asked. Dot point the key ideas or ‘asks’ of each section and you have exactly what you need to do!

What to Write

  • Write about one specific character and who they are
  • Write about how they feel about their links to people/places/society
  • Write about how those feelings influence who the character is
  • Write about specific scenes, techniques, etc. that show this
  • Use quotes and examples from your prescribed and related texts

At the end you’ll have about five dot points – which may seem like a lot, but really it’s just breaking the question into smaller, easier to digest ideas!

Your turn!

Now you get to try breaking down a question! Using the example below, try to break down it into sections, then simplify the terms and put it back together for an understandable question. Dot point your ‘What to write’ section and you’re ready to go!

Creative Writing Questions

Creative writing tends not to be as major a panic point when it comes to understanding questions, mainly because you get to be creative with it!

Still, many people get confused about exactly what creative questions may want from them. You pretty much use the exact same ‘breakdown method’ for creative questions as you do for analytical, so let’s check out an example!

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Step 1: Highlight Key Words and Sections

Then go through and begin highlighting or outlining important terms. Make sure you also look for key ideas in any stimulus sentences, like those in the box.

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Now we’re ready to start interpreting!

Step 2: Outline Each Key Word or Section

Because it’s a creative question we can skip definitions and instead focus on key ideas.

“Individuals”

Your creative piece should be focused on developing character and a sense of who the person is. Because of time restraints it would be best to focus on one, maximum two characters.

“Place in a community”

The piece should look at a character’s place in their community, be it a community of friends, peers, co-workers, townspeople, society as a whole, etc. It should emphasise how the character does find or has found their place there.

“ONE of the sentences as the first sentence.”

This is very important! Your creative response needs to start with one of these sentences, but it’s more than just tacking it on the front. Make sure the sentence creates the tone of the story and is somehow important to the narrative.

Sentence 1 – “solitude” and “lonely”

These two words immediately tell you that your creative piece should deal with ideas of solitude and loneliness.

 

You can do this by having a character move from being alone to being part of a group, or by finding that being alone doesn’t mean they have to be lonely. Make sure these themes are at the centre of your story.

Sentence 2 – “little world” and “reveal”

This sentence looks at the ideas of someone’s own personal world (people and places around them) and revelation/discovery.

 

Your story could focus on a character discovering how they belong in their own community, or thinking about when they realised the people/places around them were their own “little world”.

Sentence 3 – “their” and “perfume of the town”

The use of “their” means that you’ll probably have to include more than one character in this story, while the rest of the sentence shows a focus on surroundings.

 

The language is also more descriptive, so your story should follow the ‘show not tell’ rule and look at people within a set environment.

Step 3: Rewrite the Question Based on Your Outline

This question is asking you to develop a creative piece that focuses on one or two characters and how they found a place in some form of community. It also wants you to use one of the stimulus sentences as your opening, so make sure you use it in a significant way.

You only have to choose one of the three sentences to begin your creative piece with, but you have to choose wisely! The sentence will introduce the key theme/ideas you look at in your response, and potentially the style (descriptive for the last sentence).

So what does it mean?

After breaking down what the question is asking and the different sentences you can use, it’s time to answer it!

Choose one of the sentences and begin dot pointing what you need to include in your creative piece.

What to write

  • Write about 1-2 characters and how they fit into a place/group/society
  • Write about how the found/are finding where they fit
  • Use one of the stimulus sentences as the first sentence
  • Write about the character’s own personal world (places, experiences)
  • Write about how it is revealed to them – through events, thoughts, etc.

These points are the key elements of the question and show you exactly what you’re being asked to do! This makes it way easier to write a kickass creative response.

Your Turn!

Now try your hand at breaking down a creative question! Using the example provided break down the question and the stimuli one by one. Then choose a stimulus and dot point your ‘What to write’ section!

What We’ve Learned

Even though English questions are tricky and can take some time to understand, it’s easy to break them down! By using both the analytical and creative breakdown methods you can turn even the trickiest of questions into something manageable.

Just remember to always:

  • Identify key words and sections
  • Outline each key word and section in your own words
  • Rewrite the question based on your outline
  • Write the key ideas or ‘asks’ of the question in dot points
  • Answer the question!

Do all this and you’ll be well on your way to an awesome English response – plus, you’ll always know that you’ve read your questions properly!

Looking for some extra help with HSC English?

We pride ourselves on our inspirational HSC English coaches and mentors!

We offer tutoring and mentoring for Years K-12 in a variety of subjects, with personalised lessons conducted one-on-one in your home or at our state of the art campus in Hornsby!

To find out more and get started with an inspirational tutor and mentor get in touch today!

Give us a ring on 1300 267 888, email us at info@artofsmart.com.au or check us out on Facebook!


Maddison Leach completed her HSC in 2014, achieving an ATAR of 98.00 and Band 6 in all her subjects. Having tutored privately for two years before joining Art of Smart, she enjoys helping students through the academic and other aspects of school life, even though it sometimes makes her feel old. Maddison has had a passion for writing since her early teens, having had several short stories published before joining the world of blogging. She’s currently studying a Bachelor of Design at the University of Technology Sydney and spends most of her time trying not to get caught sketching people on trains.