The ULTIMATE guide to Writing Short Responses - ATAR English
Comprehending and Short Responses
What is the comprehending section really about?
The comprehending section is designed to test your ability to analyse a short written, visual
and multimodal (mixture of written and visual) text quickly and your ability to articulate a short response about each one.
In about an hour, you are expected to read, understand and analyse 3 different, unseen texts.
Then you must demonstrate your understanding and analytical skills by answering a question about each text in a short response; it is recommended to write between 200 to 300 words.
This means that you have approximately 20 minutes to complete each question!
You may find this section difficult if you:
• Don’t have a clear understanding of what the question is asking
• Don’t have a plan of how to analyse and respond to each text
• Don’t know how to structure your response
• Don’t know how to get your thoughts down into words
• Have poor reading skills
• Don’t practise enough!
With so much to think about and complete, it is easy to be overwhelmed. So you need a plan.
Do you have a plan?
The Secret Strategy to Succeeding at Section 1
Mastering Section 1 (comprehending) requires you to master four different steps which are
1. Analysing the question
2. Analysing the text
3. Structure and planning
4. Writing your response
It is best to learn how these steps can be applied in an example.
Comprehending Text – 2018 WACE English Exam Example
This is a greyscale version of the book cover of the 2018 novel, A Taxonomy* of Love,
by Rachael Allen.
*Taxonomy: a classification of something into ordered categories
How does the multimodality of Text 3 influence your interpretation of it?
Step 1 – Analysing the Question
Before we do anything stupid, the first thing we have to do is read the question.
The reason why we do this is because the question tells us what we have to look out for. With the little time we have, we don’t want to waste our time “beating around the bush” analysing things that don’t matter.
The question here is:
“How does the multimodality of Text 3 influence your interpretation of it?”
Now the reason why you should find Section 1 easy is because they tell you exactly what you need in your response! So before I go into this particular question, let me tell you what I mean by this:
Since 2016, all questions in Section 1 follow a simple formula, asking for two different things:
1. Response or interpretation
2. Which techniques support your response and interpretation
Response & Interpretation
Your response simply means your emotions. How do you feel about this text and by extension – how do you think the audience feels (because you are an audience member yourself, right?).
Your interpretation is about the meaning you generate when you view this text. This ‘meaning’ could be an idea, a question, about values, attitudes and could be about the audience, the subject of the text, a character or even the text creator!
Sometimes, the question will not specifically use the terms response and interpretation, but it will be what they are looking for. It is up to you to use your brain and make that connection.
To support your response or interpretation, you need to provide evidence by referring to the
techniques that your text creator has used to evoke that response and/or interpretation from the audience.
They may specify the exact technique that they want you to examine (e.g. voice, tone, salience, lighting etc.) or they may allow you to use any technique present in the text to support your point.
Using common sense, look for written techniques in written texts, visual techniques in visual texts and a mix of written and visual techniques in multimodal texts.
So, back to the question:
“How does the multimodality of Text 3 influence your interpretation of it?”
In this question, examiners want you to state:
• Your interpretation
• Any written and visual evidence to support your interpretation (multimodal – more
than one mode. In print, that’s just written and visual).
Now, in terms of your interpretation, this is a very broad question so we will have to look at the text to gain a better understanding.
The question specifies that we should look at multimodal evidence, so keep an eye out for
written/visual techniques, especially how they work together to create meaning!
Step 2 – Analysing the Text
From reading the question, we understand what we need to identify. Too many students look at a text and immediately start annotating it like a monkey, writing down everything and anything they can analyse in the text. This is stupid! How is annotating 5, 10 or even 20 techniques in the text going to help you?
That’s why we read the question first! Because it narrows it down to just 3 things that we need to look for! Assuming a TEEEET structure paragraph with two pieces of evidence, all we need is:
• Our interpretation
• Evidence 1 to support our interpretation
• Evidence 2 to support out interpretation
So the secret is just to look out for three pieces of information in each text!
Then you’re done!
Step 2 is intertwined with Step 3 – Structure and planning. Let me show you how I would
approach this text in Step 3.
Step 3 – Structure and Planning (MOST IMPORTANT!!!)
So, let’s analyse our text and write down the key pieces of information we need to answer the question. This forms the basis of our plan:
That’s it! When starting your plan, the key is to just write something down, even if it very
simple. You can always improve it once you have written it down to perfect the terms and
phrases that you want to use in your final response.
Let’s plug in our three parts of our plan into a TEEEET response structure.
As you can see, I have also taken the liberty to fill in the explanation part of my topic sentence and my tie back.
Now there are a few points that I would like to make about the plan:
1. The plan is extremely detailed!
The purpose of the plan is to ensure you know exactly what you need to write before you start writing! Making a detailed plan ensures that you don’t come across issues such as writing something that doesn’t make sense and avoids the issue where you realise that what you’re writing is wrong, but you’ve already written too much to turn back so you have to commit to a terrible response. Making a plan allows you to check if your thoughts make sense instead of just making it up as you go.
A detailed plan essentially allows you to draft your response before you start writing. It doesn’t matter how much you scribble here – it isn’t marked! It’s just for you to prepare! Now because my plan is so detailed, I can essentially just “copy” it over. It doesn’t even take a Year 12 student 5 minutes to copy 250 words!
In section 1, I would recommend planning for around 10 minutes. Remember that
planning saves you time!
2. The explanation makes up the majority of the plan!
The explanation is where you demonstrate your understanding and is where you can be awarded the most marks. This is why I spend the majority of my time and focus ensuring that I am explaining my evidence properly.
I make sure that my explanation is in sufficient detail by pretending that I am teaching someone who has no idea about the text. By explaining it in a step-by-step manner, I can demonstrate the full extent of my understanding to the markers!
3. Use dot points!
Yes, your plan should be detailed. However, remember that it isn’t marked! Make sure
that you save time by using dot points and short sentences. Only the key words, phrases etc. that I would like to use in my response are stated. The plan is for you to understand. The actual short response is for the markers.
Step 4 – Writing your response
From my plan, I have written the following in response to the question and text provided (291 words):
Complimentary multimodal techniques have been used by Rachael Allen in Text 3 to create the idea that romantic love is an extremely complicated affair. Firstly, it is important to note that the term “taxonomy” used in the title is commonly associated with the classification of organisms in biology which is a vast and intricate field. This connotation has been used to create the perception that to fall in love is also an extremely complicated affair due to its multi-faceted nature. To compliment this connotation, a ‘web’ of words, phrases and images are sprawled out across the entire cover, introducing the audience to the vast spectrum of different emotions, processes and phases of love, again emphasising its complexity. Within this web, phrases such as “ANXIETY”, “TOO YOUNG TO BE IN LOVE”, and “FIREWORKS” draw attention to the specific emotions, experiences and difficulties of being in love such as being subject to the judgement of others. Accompanying images such as the butterfly and brain are also multifaceted symbols in the context of romance. For example, the butterfly is simultaneously a symbol of feeling beautiful, freedom and the proverb “butterflies in your stomach”. The brain is a symbol of the battle between rational and emotional, overthinking and the chemical processes in your brain responsible for positive and negative emotions. These images and phrases in the web have been selected to once again create the perception that love is extremely complicated by overwhelming
audiences with the vast spectrum of emotions, experiences and information that one is exposed to while in love. Through the use of these complimentary multimodal techniques, Allen manufactures the perception that love is an extremely complicated affair by overwhelming the audience with the emotions, experiences and difficulties one faces when in love.
*Secret Step 5 – Proofreading
Most students could instantly improve their marks by 5% to 10% if they bothered to proofread and correct their mistakes. As perfect as you think you are, always leave a few minutes at the end to proofread and edit your work.
The purpose of proofreading is not just to correct spelling and grammatical errors; it is a
chance to have a look at the whole response and to ask yourself questions such as:
• Does this make sense?
• Can I re-word this to make it sound clearer?
• Am I missing any key pieces of information?
Take your time to correct, re-write or modify the elements of your response to make it as clear and concise as possible. You do not want to leave anything to the marker’s imagination! You cannot be awarded marks for something that’s not there!
What are the features of a solid response?
One of the fastest ways to improve at English is to read other people’s responses and to study them. We have to ask two important questions:
Which aspects of this response did I think was done well? This is what you should practice applying to your writing.
Which aspects of this response did I think was done poorly? This is what you should attempt to fix or avoid when writing.
By asking these questions, we can copy how someone else has written and adopt it for our
own style or learn what mistakes to avoid. It is also a very important exercise to critique your own work by asking yourself these questions when reading your responses!
I would like to mention a few features that I think were done well in this response that you
should incorporate into your own writing.
Answering the question explicitly
Imagine if someone asks you, “What colour is that car?” and you reply with, “That car has a
colour.” Then you are stupid. Just because your reply contains the words from the question
does not mean that you are answering the question. If you answered instead with “Red”, then it shows that you understood the question even though you never mention the word “colour” at all because it implies that you understand what a colour is and what the question is actually asking for.
It is a common mistake for students to simply state that “multimodal evidence has been used” or that the text “provides an interpretation”. It is important to say exactly what this
interpretation is and what the evidence is! If you don’t then you haven’t answered the question and demonstrated any understanding.
Notice that my response answers every aspect of the question in a very direct way. When the question asks for my interpretation, I state that “it creates the idea that romantic love is an extremely complicated affair”. It is important to state this in the first sentence of your
paragraph; markers shouldn’t have to read your whole paragraph trying to figure out what it
When it asks for supporting multimodal evidence, I discuss how a combination of textual and visual techniques such as lexical choice and symbology has been used to support my interpretation.
Arguing the same point throughout
Another key point is to make sure that everything inside your paragraph has a purpose.
That purpose should be to support your thesis/topic sentence (answer to the question)! Markers often complain that students will start writing about a valid point but end up somewhere completely different by the end of their 250-word response. It is obvious that
these students have not planned and just started writing, as if the pen contained some
magical power that can take you to a special place?!
The reality of the situation is that these students end up writing a response that is not
cohesive; meaning that they are arguing different points throughout. The sentences don’t
work together, and the evidence does not support their initial thesis – it ends up supporting a different point altogether!
This is why planning is so important: It allows you to think about and see your response as a whole before you start writing it down. I’ve seen great students flush their hard work down the toilet because they refuse to plan or even proofread, creating a response that doesn’t answer the question and goes off on multiple different tangents. As they write, they generate better ideas, so they keep chasing different points from where they started off initially, ending with a response that doesn’t make much sense as a whole even if it would make a brilliant response if the whole paragraph supported that point!
Don’t be a hero! Just take a deep breath, calm down, and spend the first 10 minutes planning and thinking of your ideas before writing your response.
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Clear and concise explanation
Your ability to explain your thoughts (to articulate yourself) is the most important skill as it is where the majority of your marks will be awarded. To emphasise this point, have another look at the response below. I have highlighted the explanatory sections in yellow:
Notice how the majority of the paragraph has been used to explain how these techniques
have been used to support my interpretation. This is what you should also do! Too many students lose marks because they haven’t “explained in sufficient detail”. This means that you are missing sections of your explanation. The reason for this is either that you do not understand it yourself, or you think that your explanation is sufficient.
To prevent the latter case, I recommend trying to structure your explanation as if you are
explaining it to someone who is clueless about the topic. Go slow, in detail and in a step-bystep process. This will help you get over this hurdle of not explaining your evidence in
Structuring your writing is also extremely important which is why teachers always
recommend that you learn how to use the TEEL or TEET structure (there are many variations of this. Don’t worry if you use a different one – it probably still works).
The reason for this is to ensure that you include all aspects of your writing in a logical manner.
1. Topic sentence/Thesis – Tell me what your paragraph is about. What are you trying
2. Evidence – Where is the proof of what you’re trying to say? Tell me what techniques
the text creator has used to support your thesis.
3. Explanation – Please explain to me now how this evidence you have selected supports
what you are trying to say.
4. Tie back – Conclude your paragraph.
Once you have mastered this structure, then you can try structuring your paragraph in a
different way. However, it is not necessary – you can easily achieve extremely high marks (90%+) using this structure and you cannot go wrong if you use it properly.
One feature of a well written response is that you can go through it and identify each aspect
of the TEET structure within the response. See if you can identify all aspects of the TEET
structure within the response above!
How to achieve higher marks in the comprehending section?
Other than “writing good” and “using bigger words” and “sounding smarter”, there are two
main ways that you can improve your response.
• Increase the sophistication of your interpretation
• Increase the sophistication of analysed techniques
Even though it sounds fancy, my paragraph is actually quite basic. All I am arguing is that
“love is complicated”, which is a shallow and obvious interpretation. Now although there is
nothing wrong with this and it is possible to create a solid response to the question, it is
necessary to improve this to achieve 90%+ results.
To increase the sophistication of your interpretation is to “dig deeper” and extract complex
meaning from the text. There is no method I know of to teach you how to extract deep
meanings from a text. It is up to you to practice and develop this skill.
Other interpretations include:
• A young adult character is influenced by the dominant stereotypical understanding of
romantic love portrayed in pop culture
• Reader may relate heavily to the text based on their own personal experience and
empathise with the protagonist and/or subject of adolescent love.
• Human’s desire to categorise even the most complex phenomena (such as love).
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That’s it! I wish you all the best with your exams and just as a bonus – I’ve included sample
solutions to the 2018 English Exam at a variety of levels - aim for a level which you can