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Advanced English: How to maul module A

By Sergio Badilescu-Buga on 27 February 2018EnglishNSWblogHSCStudy tips

On your list of things that you consider fun, the words “Comparative Study” probably don’t come to mind. Among the many annoying things about Module A, is the completely not-helpful fact that on the surface, it’s just SUCH a confusing module. Deciphering the syllabus’ persistent use of words like “intertextual connections” ranks right up there as one of the great unspoken mysteries in the HSC English exam, and begs the question “Just what the heck am I meant to do in this essay?”

But as grim and spooky as that all sounds, I’ve got some good news: we’re all English nerds here at Atomi 🤓 and have done most of the heavy-lifting on this one. What follows is a guide to some of the key ideas underpinning Module A, and accordingly, the key ways to maul that essay.

So let’s figure out what all this comparative study nonsense is and how we can kill it.

WTF is a comparative study

As the old saying goes “it’s like comparing apples and oranges”...only this time, we’re comparing two texts that we know are actually kind of thematically similar because the syllabus tells us they are.

Module A invites us to compare two texts and to look at things called “intertextual connections” or “intertextual perspectives”. Basically, we’re asked to look at two texts, figure out the universal ideas that they agree on, and figure out the unique ideas that they each produce. Figuring out those similar and different ideas inevitably requires an exceptional emphasis on the effects of context on shaping meaning. To help you on your way with that, we’ve got plenty of videos on context and if we deal with your text, you’ll get plenty more then two, which is nice. This means that within the two paragraphs on each text, we should be contrasting and comparing to the other text, and talking about why those similarities and differences reflect contextual factors.

What this all means is that a Comparative Study isn’t as spooky as we first THINK it is when we read the syllabus. Really it’s just a more ‘focused’ version of what we have to do in our Area of Study essays and our Mod C essays.

What information should I be looking for?

I’m not going to unleash into a well-oiled spiel about how essays are structured and so on, because we’ve got plenty of videos and other blog posts on that. Right here and now, I’m just going to focus on the stuff that’s critical to Module A essays.

Know your context

  1. So firstly, make sure you are really on top of context 📚 Yeahp...the c-word again. But not like you’ve seen it before. There are essentially two types of context:
    • The first is authorial context, which looks at what views, beliefs and life the author led. We care about how that comes out in their work. J.R.R Tolkein for example, who for all you people living under rocks wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, frothed old and middle English literature. For example, as a pet project of his he tried to translate the old story ‘Beowulf’. A lot of similar themes and images appear in his writing as existed in Beowulf.
    • By contrast, societal context which looks at all the aspects of the world in which the author lived. Shakespeare, for example, lived in England during the reign of Elizabeth I - known rather unsurprisingly as Elizabethan England. Much of the religious and political debate that characterised Elizabethan England appears in one form or another in Shakespeare’s works.

  1. Secondly, make sure that you connect context to textual construction. What this means is … it’s no good to say “Tolkien backed Beowulf that’s why The Lord of the Rings is kind of like Beowulf” 🙅‍You need to explain what aspects of the Lord of the Rings can be attributed to Beowulf - the orcs of Mordor for example, are thought to be based largely upon the hideous Grendel and Grendel’s mother. Tolkien thought that evil “took physical shape” in the form of Grendel in Beowulf; much the same is thought of the hideous and evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil orcs in the Lord of the Rings. Without Tolkien’s fascination for Beowulf, the orcs and the nature of evil in the Lord of the Rings would be completely different. 🔍

  2. Thirdly, think about what makes the texts’ construction similar and what makes them different. The texts might share things like character-types, themes, setting similarities, power structures - even genre and form! We care about everything that’s similar and everything that’s different because we care about how the texts ‘talk’ to each other.

In the end you’re going to write four paragraphs that read almost like a normal essay - talking about the themes that the texts agree on. But within those paragraphs you’ll want to be doing some comparison with insightful comments that read something like “whereas X in text A reflected this really cool fancy contextual point, author of text B manipulates this to focus on blah. In essence they argue the same point but given they have different rationals this leads to slightly different conclusions”. Doozy.

Some of the more weapon students tend to get into attack mode for Mod A and make a bunch of tables with columns for ‘textual elements’ like themes or characters, ‘context’, and ‘effect’. That way they’re able to easily compare the two texts like it’s no biggie.

Remember though: we still need to do all our usual textual analysis, it’s just that we’re really digging our teeth into context to connect and differentiate our two texts.


Mod A is about how texts ‘talk’ with each other. In other words, we’re writing essays that try and eke out a universal idea which links an original text, with its newer counterpart. And all the way throughout we want to explain why there are subtle differences between the texts, which we’ll usually put down to context doing its thing.

Metropolis and 1984 might agree to an extent on the effects of absolute power, but they might disagree on the form that power takes and whether people are able to resist totalitarian governments. How much of the differences between the texts can we attribute to the context in which each text was written? As you’ll no doubt find out… the answer is “a lot”

So don’t wig out too much. Read up a little on context, draw up some fancy tables, figure out how the texts agree and disagree with each other, and all will be well.

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