How To Respond To Short Answer Questions In VCE English Language

Want to learn how to write full mark SAQ responses? Keep reading to ace your VCE English Language exam and score full marks in short answer questions!

21 days ago   •   5 min read

By KIS Academics
Photo by Adolfo Félix / Unsplash

The VCE English Language exam is split into three sections, short answer questions (SAQ), an analytical commentary and an essay. The SAQs are the first section of the exam and worth 15 marks or 20% of the total score, so it’s pretty important!

This article will go through all the strategies you need to succeed in SAQs!!

Command Words

During your 15 minutes reading time read the SAQ questions before reading the text. Often this will help you formulate answers in your head before writing time even starts as you’re reading the text already knowing what they want you to talk about. However, don’t make the mistake of only reading sections of the text that the questions specify. You need to have a strong understanding of the whole text in order to link it to broader ideas.

Command words are words in the question that give you an idea of how they want you to respond to that specific question.

Here’s some popular command words and what they mean:

  • Identify - This command means you just have to state the example and metalanguage specific to the question.
  • Describe - This goes one step further. Follow the steps of “Identify” and then give some additional details such as, how it fits in the text, if it reveals context etc.
  • Analyse, Explain or Discuss - These are often higher weighted questions and require your own analysis. For these questions it's not enough to just say what's happening in the text you have to link it to broader ideas such as the full context of the text or how this would relate to specific purposes of the text etc.

Plan your time

The VCE English Language exam gives you only 2 hours of writing time to complete all three sections so having strict time limits is a must! Usually the SAQ section will be structured with a 1-2 mark question at the start and then gradually increase with around a 5-6 mark question at the end. These 5 mark questions require a lot more analysis and therefore you’ll need more time for them. Make sure not to over-write on the simpler questions. If it says “identify 1 feature” only write about 1. You won’t get extra marks for work that reaches beyond the question.

If you notice you frequently run out of time in your practices try starting from the highest mark question and leaving the lower mark questions till last. That way if you miss out on a question it's only worth 1 mark compared to 5. However, often the questions are structured to “flow on '' from each other so some students may find it easier tackling the harder questions after doing the easier ones. Try both ways and see what works best for you!

Knowledge of Metalanguage

In order to succeed in SAQ you need a strong understanding of your metalanguage. Questions will often ask for students to identify and explain specific features. Say you got a question that stated “Identify an example of syntactic patterning within the text” and you didn’t have a good understanding of what syntactic patterning even is - it’s going to be super difficult to write a high scoring response.

Some tips on mastering metalanguage:

  1. The study design is your best friend! The study design lists out everything that can be examined. Make sure you’re referring to it and making sure you haven’t missed anything
  2. Show off what you know! Try to include as much metalanguage as possible. Instead of “pronoun” say “first person singular pronoun”. Similarly, stick to what the study design says - say “declaratives and interrogatives” not “statements and questions”, talk about “lexemes” not “words”.
  3. Branch out from what you know. Sometimes students fall into a pattern where they’re always talking about the same features as they find them easier to write about. When doing practices try to write about new features. This will mean come exam time you’re comfortable writing about anything they ask of you!
  4. Create a metalanguage masterlist. Create a table where you list every piece of metalanguage you encounter. Provide an explanation, an example and how the feature usually fits into English Language.

For example:


The repeated recurrence of a phrase or word

Row row row your boat”

-Cohesion and Coherence

- usually for emphasis 

What to do in the exam

Everything stated above will help you prepare for your exam but how to actually handle it on the day?

Here’s an overview of how to approach the SAQ section:

  1. Read the questions and text in reading time - here’s where you start formulating your answers in your head - 15 minutes is a long time. Make the most of it!
  2. Set your time limits - ensure you have enough time to get to those high scoring questions and the other sections of the exam.
  3. Identify how much detail each question requires - this can be done by looking at the mark allocation and the command term.
  4. Be specific to the text - Having a generic answer that could be memorised and used for any text is really disliked by the examiners - Make sure you’re deeply engaging with the text and show this through your answers.


“A uses hedging within this text. Hedges are used to convey uncertainty and  this would help A to protect their claims from scrutiny as well as serving as a politeness feature”

“A uses hedging when discussing the proposed law changes. Hedges are used to convey uncertainty and  this would help A to protect their claims from scrutiny as well as serving as a politeness feature. A uses these in relation to the law changes as since they haven’t been confirmed yet and she wants to avoid stating it as fact so that she can save face if the deal falls through”

Both these answers are strong responses but the second would score higher because it has been specific to the text and added that extra level of analysis.

Want more personalised tips to drastically improve your English mark? A private tutor can make the biggest difference!

How to memorise English Essays effectively and adapt them to ANY question
Struggling to see how you’ll write a whole essay in only 40 minutes? Not sure whether you should memorise an essay or go in blind? We got you! Here’s our fool proof step-by-step guide to memorise essays that you can adapt to ANY question.

Written by KIS Academics Tutor for VCE English Language, Ally Donohue. Ally  is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Law/Arts at Monash University and has received stellar reviews from her past KIS Academics students. You can view Ally's profile here and request her as a tutor.

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