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What is VCE English Language Exam ?

(10 mins) What is the VCE English Language Exam? Learn all about the VCE English Language Exam - tips, tricks and much more - from our past student and high scorer (Raw 50 + Premier's Award) in VCE English Language, Tom Gallacher.

I was fortunate to graduate in 2023 with an ATAR of 99.90, as well as a raw 50 study score + dux of my cohort in English Language. In this blog I am sharing some tips that helped me to achieve Vce English language exam success, in addition to a 98 and 100 SAC scores in unit 3 and 4respectively. This post includes a comprehensive guide for each examination component (SAQ, AC and Essay), as well as some advice for the final exam.


(2023 Scotch College Graduate & former VCE Excel Education student, Tom Gallacher,
Raw 50 VCE English Language)


SAQ (Short Answer Questions) typically consists of 5-6 questions, with marks varying between 1-5. There are generally3 types of SAQ questions.

 1. Questions directed to the identification of a language feature using metalanguage (ML)

These questions are quite straightforward.They simply examine your understanding of the basics of metalanguage from various subsystems.

For example, 2021 VCAAQ2:

Identify one example of patterning between lines 6 and 9. Using appropriate metalanguage, state the subsystem and type of patterning. (2 marks)

This question is very straightforward: 1mark for identifying syntactic/lexical/semantic patterning etc. and 1 mark for accurate identification of the patterning, described in metalanguage.


2. Questions linking metalanguage with contextual factors

As the name suggests, these questions are often asking you to state the effect of a language feature (using metalanguage), and how that effect contributes to contextual factors (register, function, cultural context/identity/attitudes).

 For example: (2021 VCAAQ3)

 Using appropriate metalanguage, discuss how the variation in sentence types between lines 48 and 55 helps support one or more functions of the text. Provide at least two examples to support your discussion. Refer to line numbers in your response. (3 marks)

This question requires you to first identify the sentence types (note plural), then state the functions (note plural) of the text, and finally state how the effects of different sentence types contribute to the functions (link).


 3. Questions on discourse features and strategies (written or spoken)

These are generic questions assessing your understanding of various discourse features and strategies corresponding to the mode of the text.


For example, if the text is in written mode, a generic question could be:

(2019 VCAA Q4)

 Using appropriate metalanguage, analyse at least three stylistic and discourse features that contribute to the cohesion of this text. Refer to line numbers in your response. (5 marks)

Note how the question is a 5 marker, which means your response is marked holistically, rather than marked according to the point mentioned. The overall response must be engaging in both the example evidence you provide, as well as the depth and breadth of your elaboration.


Spoken mode:

Using appropriate metalanguage, analyse features of spoken discourse in relation to turn-taking in this text. (orin relation to cooperativeness, face needs, topic management, relationship, power dynamics, role)


How to use the marks allocated to frame your response?

Generally speaking, a rule of thumb I use is to provide ‘x number’ of examples where ‘x’ equals the marks allocated divided by 2 (rounded up).


For example, if there is a 2 marker, you would provide 1 (x = 1) example for 1 mark, and an explanation/elaboration of that example for the second mark.

 If there is a 3 marker, you would provide 2(x = 2 rounded up) examples/metalanguage for 2 language features for 2 marks, and an explanation/elaboration of both examples for the third mark.

 For a 5 marker, since the question is marked holistically, a rule of thumb is to fill up the lines provided with at least 4 distinct features/metalanguage with at least 3 or 4 distinct elaborations.




 Analytical Commentary (AC) GUIDE

Section B - AC

-       30 marks of total 75 for exam

-       Probably the most difficult section of the VCE English language exam- responses are not guided/directed (as in SAQ), and cannot be pre-written (as in essay).

-       As such, the AC requires judicious selection of most salient text features + concise and pertinent elaborations, with continuous connections to contextual factors.

-       The AC fundamentally requires you to locate and discuss textual elements which bolster your broader assertions regarding sociolinguistic features (function, purpose, register, context, discourse/stylistic). As such, it is a freestyle version of SAQ.

-       You will write an introduction and 3 body paragraphs, but do not write a conclusion.


-       Should aim to complete in 45-50 minutes.

-       No longer than 5-6 minutes for introduction.

-       Aim for 12-14 minutes for each (3) paragraph.



My personal experience with the AC


Like many students, I found the AC to be the most difficult of exam sections. However, this grants some solace in the form of dwarfing the SAQ by comparison, thus relieving the stress of at least 1exam component. I particularly struggled with AC time management, an issue owing to my ‘long-winded introductions’, which often left little time for my final (discourse) paragraph. It wasn’t until I dispensed with complicated, flowery language in the introduction that I managed to deliver a full AC in 40or so minutes.

 I would advise to focus on confident analysis before navigating time management during your VCE English language exam preparation. Do not feel rushed to cut 10 minutes from your AC time before you have developed a command over your own expression/voice. Stay reassured that by exam time, you will certainly be equipped to meet timing demands, as improbable as it may seem right now.



-   You must address all sociolinguistic variables in a timely and compendious manner.


This includes:


  1. Description of text’s mode and field/subject matter (situational context)
  2. Cultural context if applicable
  3. Signposting of various functions and social purposes
  4. Assertion of register


Useful acronym


-       Function

-       Field/semantic domain

-       Audience - be extremely specific + mention dynamics.

-       Register

-       Mode

-       Purpose/Intent

-       Setting

-       Cultural context

-       Tenor



STEP-BY-STEP EXAMPLE -  Westpac Advertisement


1.  introduce immediate setting, mode subject matter, date/time.

This is a written advertisement from Westpac’s promotional campaign, published in the Herald Sun newspaper.

2.   introduce function (1 or 2, depending) + audience.

The text has a primary conative function in persuading potential Australian customers to subscribe to Westpac’s financial services. The advert also functions to apprise Australians of Westpac’s enduring support in the upbringing of Australia as a nation.


3.   Introduce SP (1 or 2)

By extension, Westpac uplifts its positive face needs by presenting itself as genuine, reliable and uncomplicated, rather than a financial behemoth.Furthermore, the advert fosters national solidarity amongst Australians in recognising their deep-seated inclination to ‘have each others’ backs’.

4.   Introduce register + reason behind register (if informal, needs to have more informal discussion

Couched in a conversational tone, Westpac adopts a relatively informal register to humanise its face as a genuine ally in allaying financial burdens of everyday citizens.


All together


This is a written advertisement from Westpac’s promotional campaign, published in the Herald Sun newspaper. The text has a primary conative function in persuading potential Australian customers to subscribe to Westpac’s financial services. The advert also functions to apprise Australians of Westpac’s enduring support in the upbringing of Australia as a nation. By extension,Westpac uplifts its positive face needs by presenting itself as reliable and uncomplicated, rather than a financial behemoth. Furthermore, the advert fosters national solidarity amongst Australians in recognising their deep-seated inclination to ‘have each others’ backs’. Couched in a conversational tone, Westpac adopts a relatively informal register to humanise its face as a genuine ally in allaying financial burdens of everyday citizens.


Additional tips

●      Use additive or connective conjunctions for a cohesive introduction.Conjunctive phrases  ‘By extension’, ‘on a broader canvas’ or ‘on a deeper level’ are strong ways to transition from a ‘superficial’ function to a more ‘abstract’ or ‘philosophical’ social purpose. This shows examiners a more nuanced and dynamic understanding of an author’s intent.


●      Satisfy the examiner by simply ‘ticking the boxes’ in the introduction. Abstain from overly flowery/flashy expressions in the intro- these are bound to waste your precious time.


Body paragraph structure

-       BPs should be an organised meld of sociolinguistic variables and subsystems.

-       Contextual factors (situational and cultural) should be embedded within elaborations.


Example structure for register paragraph



Topic sentence

Evidence - ML in detail

Elaboration- stylistic effect

Link- connect to topic of para(register, function, SP) + adda passing link to an aspect of context



Use as much metalanguage as possible

-       Never load elaboration with ideas- complete step by step

-       Never combine figurative language examples- each deserves its own space for detailed discussion.



STEP-BY-STEP EXAMPLE- Register Paragraph


  1. Topic sentence


Numerous lexical and syntactic features coalesce to buttress the moderately formal register (expected of the lofty parliamentary setting) - bracketed section is optional.


  1. Provide first feature + ML descriptions + effect     + Link to context


Elevated lexis, apparent in polysyllabic adverb of manner ‘unreservedly’ (5), as well as premodifying adjective ‘anodyne’ (7) and Latinate noun ‘referendum’ (9), meld to manifest a dignified tone, augmenting the register while pointing toAndrews’ learned, ministerial identity.


  1. Provide another feature


This elevated register can be further attributed to nominalised nouns, such as ‘retribution’ (8), ‘suspension’ (11), ‘adulation’ (14), which eschew the use of subject-verb syntagm, injecting the speech with an air of depersonalised objectivity. Such impartial language enables Andrews to both cement his political authority amongst dissenting ministers, and to paint his averments with irrefutability- gaining audience credence.


●      Provide 4-6 features (depending on length) per paragraph


●      NB: The final feature or 2 should recognise register shift (if applicable).


●      Provide register features in bundles of 2-3 examples (unless examples are figurative language)




  1. In final sentence, discuss link between overall     register and contextual factors (one or 2 of either function, social     purpose, identity)


Hence, while tinctures of self-deprecating informality are designed to uphold Andrews’ positive face, the mostly formal register aids the social purpose of maintaining political





A note on the specificity of elaboration


Link closely to situational context. While it is handy to enter an assessment having memorised phrases for stylistic features, these must only be sentential backbones. In other words, use your practised elaborations as launch pads for more nuanced discussion. If you are recycling entire sentences across different texts, chances are, your analysis is too vague.




Black - memorised stylistic effect

Red-  pertinent link in an isolated text


-       Long pauses manifest a tentative, apprehensive tone, expected when carefully navigating the taboo subject matter of European colonisation.


-       Elongation evident in affirmative interjection ‘yeahhh’, a form of backchanneling, validates and indexes her captivation in X’s comedic narrative, thus addressing his positive face needs.


-       Proper nouns such as ‘XYZ’ invest the text with an official and authoritative tone, which thereby elevates the speaker’s credibility and reflects the gravity of the political domain.


-       Syntactic complexity evident in compound-complex sentences ‘XYZ’ creates sophistication through lexical density while enabling the conveyal of nuanced information regarding the time, circumstance and settings of workplace reforms.





Notes on the spoken AC



-       Goal of spoken AC: draw broad conclusions, then find evidence to support.


-       In addition to social purpose and register, through conversational strategies and features, explore the concepts of relationship, cooperativeness, power and role, tenor



-       Power and role are not analogous


●      Power: who is in control of conversation (conversational power)-topic manager, controlling the orientation of discourse + influenced by conventions/expectations of setting/context/text/type- e.g interviewer.

●      Role: supportive/ancillary/auxiliary role vs main (dominant speaker, longest turns, audience interest lies here- one who holds most valuable information)



2019 VCAA Spoken AC - Example discussion on Relationship


The relationship between D and H is one of close social distance, underlain by solidarity and a tremendous rapport. This is exemplified in K’s liberal employment of declarative ‘snacking is not a vice’, in which she repudiates H’s aforementioned assertion, devoid of hedging or politeness markers, trusting that their existent social propinquity will preclude H’s assumption of umbrage.Moreover, solidarity is indexed through H’s frequent echoing of K’s utterances, apparent in interjectory noun ‘friyay’ (10,11) and ‘declaratives ‘we’ve got a revelation’ (20) ‘gotta revelation’ (21) which signposts both concordance and validation of his comments. This solidarity is further consolidated by the self-inclusive hyperbolic compliment proclaiming mutual prowess in H’s declarative ‘Hughesy and Kate are linguistic geniuses’, (8) also comprising the hypocorism 'Hughesy’ to amplify an endearing attendance to his positive face.







The essay was my favourite section of the VCE English language exam, as unlike the uncertainty which shrouds SAQ and AC components, I found the essay to have a formulaic pathway to success that rewarded preparation.With polished media examples, one can enter an essay SAC and the exam with confidence. Essay preparation was also diverting, as it provided an avenue to explore various domains of Australian media, politics and social issues, a privilege scarcely afforded during the cloistered year 12. However, like many,I neglected my accumulation of media examples until rather late in the year, necessitating undue effort in semester 2 to equip myself for SACs/exams.


General advice

-       Read essay topics in reading time- decide which to write about + 3paras.

-       Try to complete the essay in under 55 minutes.

-       Should incorporate at least 2 linguist quotes in essay (can even have 1 per paragraph)

-       Must plan the essay before commencing- so as to avoid mind block/irrevocable mistake.

-       New study design 2024 word limit for essay- 700-900 words (slightly shorter than previously)

-       Must remember to implement stimulus material at least once.

-       I urge you to continue to collate examples even if an essay SAC isn’t looming.

-       Share media examples with friends or in a discussion space - the examples you gain will far outweigh the likelihood of your example diminishing in quality due to overuse.



How to prepare

-       CME (contemporary media example- should be within 12-14 months of the final VCE English language exam, but VCAA have only stipulated ‘examples must be recent’) folio.Should have close to 30 examples total- around 20-25 examples will constitute10 strong, exam-adequate paragraphs, with the remaining (lower quality) to be used as safety nets, in the case of curveball topic set. There is a general priority of topics, which should guide your choice of prompt on the day.

-       Quote bank- judiciously select quotes pertinent and pithy, to be used for each topic adaption- do not waste time memorising more than 9-10 (I have many quotes to provide). The best quotes are descriptive/flowery/metaphorical + unique. DO NOT overuse quotes, instead use your own voice- the quote should complement your discussion.

-       Memorise your best essay examples (roughly 9-10 paras) +elaborations rigorously, then gain a decent recall of those remaining.


Priority of topics.

  1. Social harmony/discriminatory language/ face needs
  2. PC language/taboo/excessive PC
  3. Standard vs non-standard topics.
  4. Formal/informal,Aboriginal English, ethnolects
  5. language change, spoken vs written, technology



More specific

-       I suggest 2 examples + thoroughly detailed elaboration per paragraph- 3 becomes problematic with timing, and tends to induce unnecessary overlap/repetition of ideas.

-       Each example within a paragraph ideally explains the contention from a unique perspective. A weak paragraph will have 2 examples on gender-neutral language, both bolstering a contention of PC language promoting inclusivity. A strong paragraph may include gender neutral language, as well as culturally accommodating language OR lexis surrounding disabilities.

-       700-900 words total, aim for around 250 per paragraph, 100-120intro, 50-80 conclusion- NOTE this is shorter than previously, hence VCAA desires the utmost brevity of expression- conciseness is imperative.



On selecting essay topics

Regardless of its difficulty, you should choose the topic that allows you to bring out your best examples with outstanding elaboration/analyses. There may be overlapping themes between all three topics so you need to choose which of the three could enable you to maximise the number of ‘quality’ examples.


Quality of media examples

-       Should be recent (roughly between nov 2023- nov 2024)

-       Must be Australian.

-       Must have the potential for metalanguage analysis.

-       Should be unique and interesting- avoid trite examples- for example the examiner’s are inundated every year with examples of medical/legal jargon

-       Example quotes should be self-condensed- avoid lengthy quotes.





Stimulus material engagement

VCAA stipulates reference to at least one stimulus provided. The stimulus is provided to provoke thought and give you some basic ideas as to what can be incorporated into the essay.

-       Without this material, students could simply regurgitate an entirely pre-written essay.

-       I advise to only use one- any more hints at a lack of examples at your disposal, and an over-reliance on stimulus material + you offer nothing novel/ of interest to examiners.

-       Easiest way is no doubt to implement one of the quotes given-

-       Stimulus material can also be paraphrased, and it is not required to cite ‘stimulus b’ for example.


e.g it may be a description of jargon, or a characterisation of non-standard English, or even tendentious epithets used in Australian slang.





Planning approach during VCE English language exam


After selecting the most fruitful essay prompt, it is important to carefully view the stimuli, to both gauge VCAA’s demands of you in analysing the topic AND validate your own preconceptions of the topic/intended pathways for discussion.

1. What does the question entail?

2.After viewing the stimulus material, do you have anymore to add on your original ideas/examples or do you need to change plans?

3.When planning (2 minutes in writing time), summarise the theme of each body paragraph in a few words and write these keywords down.

4.Under each theme, dot point 2-3 contemporary media examples that you have prepared OR the name of a full paragraph prepared.

Introduction Structure:

  1. You may begin with a linguist quote that broadly encompasses the essay theme, preferably a unique quote.
  2. Signpost 3 body paragraphs neatly and succinctly.
  3. State contention with clarity.



It is important to also consider the order of paragraphs

 That is, you should bundle concording perspectives together. Discordant views cannot be interweaved, as the essay would be convoluted, lacking cogency and harder for the examiner to follow.

 If you decide on two affirmative and one negative paragraph- then order is

  1. Affirmative
  2. Affirmative    
  3. Negative


Briefly summarise contention- nothing too fancy- time is scarce at this point.

Can close by offering a parting food for thought- more philosophical approach.


Exam-specific advice


- Develop a method to highlight/annotate features during the exam. After reading time, I would immediately circle/highlight the most important features that I could not afford to forget.

- Be discerning about which features you try to locate during reading time. DO NOT waste time scanning the text for ubiquitous and general features such as those supporting register and discourse. These features can be found during writing time with ease. Instead, during reading time, try to find features bolstering function and social purpose, as well as pertinent links to cultural context.


- Decide on the order in which you complete each section and stick with it. There is no ‘right order’, however some may work better for you than others. I personally completed the SAQ first, then the essay, then the AC.Here’s why:

●      The SAQ is easy in comparison to section 2 and 3, so treat it as a warmup.

●      If you run out of time at the end, an unfinished AC is far less noticeable than an unfinished essay

●      If you have spare time at the end, an AC may be added to further, whereas an essay (having a conclusion) is more or less complete.

●      The essay requires memorisation of quotes/examples, and as such I preferred completing it as soon as possible.

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