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4 Tips for smashing English comprehension

By Lauren Condon on 19 February 2018NSWblogEnglishHSC

Ahh the dreaded Section 1 of English Paper I… aka comprehension... aka unseen texts... aka the section of your paper worth as much as your Discovery essay. Yeah, good stuff.

It is kind of easy to overlook this section because the essay and creative writing absorb a lot of our attention and we’re not always sure how to prepare 🤷‍ . But it’s worth just as much as the other sections and to be honest, it’s probably the easiest way to secure a solid bunch of marks in Paper 1.

You won’t freak out just because you haven’t even heard of the text before if you have a tried and tested strategy for approaching any comprehension section. Lucky for you… we have one! 🎉

So let’s go!

1. Don’t get caught up by the thought that you haven’t seen the texts

If it takes you a full term to properly analyse one of your prescribed texts for the Modules then it seems pretty rough that in your HSC exams you come up against poems, images and prose you’ve never seen before. And our best advice to that is basically to get over it #sorrynotsorry.

This section is probably more straightforward than essay writing. They’re not going to give you a 500 page novel, and you don’t need to analyse every single line of each text. You just need to understand the overall message of the text, what it says about discovery and be able to pinpoint a few techniques that convey that meaning. Keep this approach in mind when you walk into the exam room to conquer any nerves about the ‘unseen’ texts.

If you need any extra reassurance, remember that you have 10 minutes of reading time to look over the texts and it’s not a bad idea to read the questions before you read the text so you have a bit of guidance on how to interpret it. Beyond that, seriously just practising these comprehension sections (under exam conditions) is the best way to reassure yourself that you can apply the same strategy and tactics to every section 1, regardless of what the text is.

2. Have a good understanding of your techniques and their effect across different text types

So now you know what section 1 is all about, time to prepare. Your two best options to prepare for comprehension are 1) practice and 2) being super familiar with techniques used in pictures, prose and poems so you can find them in the texts you come up against.

The most important advice here is not to over complicate things and remember that simple techniques - like metaphors and different kinds of repetition - are going to be your best friend. Even something as simple as the technique of writing in first person is a really solid option. So if you haven’t already then it’s time to brush up on a range of techniques, making sure you know the actual name of the technique and what the intended effects of that technique actually are.

Ideally, you should remember key techniques for each text type; having a few useful poetic techniques like enjambment, and different techniques for the fiction and non-fiction extracts, which shows that you understand the form of the text that you’re answering a question for, on top of being useful for analysis in general. It’s also really important to remember that being able to identify different techniques in those unseen texts unfortunately doesn’t count as textual analysis… sorry 😕. You actually need to get the hang of connecting the effect of that technique - what is being said about discovery - to the technique itself.

Lucky for you, we’ve not only prepared a trusty guide CHOCK full of techniques, but we’ve also prepared a series of videos on analysing different text types to boot.

So that’s an ideal place to start. Other than that, just practice, practice, practice!

3. Pay attention to the mark allocation

Even though the texts change in every exam, we’re pretty lucky in that the setup of the questions stays fairly consistent. You would have seen it in every past paper: you’re going to get a few 1-4 mark questions and then a 5 or 6 marker that’s a little longer. These mark allocations are pretty important because they’re giving us a heads up about how we can structure our answers.

So, for the 1-4 mark questions, there’s this little n + 1 rule which lets you know how many sentences you need to be writing in each question. Basically, try to write one sentence for each mark of the question plus one. So for a 2 mark question, you’d write three sentences. For a 4 marks question, you’d write five. In each of these, the first sentence is basically your topic sentence where you answer the question, and all remaining sentences should deal with a different piece of evidence. Pretty straightforward 👍 .

The 5 - 6 marker is a little trickier because you want to convey a lot of meaning but also need to keep it pretty precise and structured. Try to think of it like a mini essay.

So you have an introduction, but you just do a one sentence thesis and then introduce the texts you’ll be talking about in one sentence.
You will probably have two body paragraphs but you can keep them to one topic sentence and two sentences that each have a technique and explanation of the effect.
Then have a conclusion but keep it to one sentence.

If you find a different method that works well for you then feel free to stick to that but this approach is pretty tried and tested.

4. Watch the clock

This isn’t so much about doing well in section 1 as it is about managing the whole paper. You’ve probably practiced your essay and creative over and over again so you know how long it will take you to write it out. That’s not as easy with your comprehension. So be mindful of the time and be sure not to go over the recommended 40 mins on the exam paper. Trust me, you don’t want to eat into your other sections.


The comprehension section is not too difficult if you take it for what it is: a few small questions, on a few different text types.

Just play it cool and you’ll smash it. 💪

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