It’s a phrase that’s repeated so often that it can become meaningless: “Answer the question”. But what do teachers really mean when they tell their students this time worn maxim?
To think about what ‘answering the question’ really means, it’s important to get into the mindset of a marker looking at hundreds or even thousands of English essays on the same question. In those many responses, many or even most will do the basics correctly – using textual evidence, writing a response that has a thesis, and making some attempt at getting into the details of the question.
But what sets top responses apart is what is generally referred to in marking rubrics as a ‘sophisticated’ approach to deconstructing the question and coming up with a meaningful thesis. What does this mean?
Well, firstly, you need to break down what makes the question you’re answering different to any other question on the topic.
Before you begin writing, it can be helpful to draw boxes around any key words in the question, to ensure that you don’t miss any critical points. For example, take the 2016 English Advanced HSC Paper question on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
How does Shakespeare use imagery to portray challenging ideas about truth and deceit in Hamlet?
You’ll notice the parts of the question that differentiate it are bolded. This is an important part of the process of forcing yourself to really address the question. We can now clearly see that there are many parts to be addressed, and markers will be expecting students to explicitly pay attention to each part. A good response would make imagery the central part of its textual analysis, and explore various kinds of imagery in Hamlet. It would also ensure to demonstrate why the ideas addressed in Hamlet are challenging or subversive, and address both truth and deceit separately and in relation to each other.
There’s a common misconception about HSC English that goes something like this: students want to believe that memorising a couple of solid essays, and then regurgitating them in the exam, is going to get them through. The reality is, you’re taking a gamble. Maybe what you’ve memorised is going to be relevant to the question – maybe it won’t.
The important skill to practice here is to become good at being flexible:
Adapting what you’ve written before the the task in front of you is imperative. Producing a brand-new essay from scratch is difficult; adapting your pre-developed ideas to be relevant to a given question is achievable.
The key to becoming a skillful writer in this sense is breaking down the question as described above, and then actually spending some time planning before you begin writing. While many students are tempted to dive straight into the writing process (and it can be very tempting, especially when confined to a mere 40-minute-per-essay window in Paper 2), the truth is, you can’t afford not to plan. To develop a cohesive and targeted approach to answering the question clearly, take 5 minutes to sketch out an outline of where you’re going to go with your essay.
So, to summarise, to answer the question clearly in English, you have to do 3 things really well:
- Break down the question.
- Identify how you can shape your ideas to the key terms in the question, and use and address each term as specifically and directly as possible.
- Never lose sight of the question throughout your essay, and don’t start ‘regurgitating’ pre-memorized material if you’re panicking as to what to write. Take time to plan, to ensure this doesn’t happen!