English Paper 1 Comprehension is one of the most ignored sections in the HSC for both English Standard and Advanced students. If you are looking for an introduction to Paper 1: what it is comprised of, what to expect, and how best to prepare for your first ever HSC exam read our Introduction to Discovery post which is a broad summary of the paper and a cursory look at its different sections, a primer if you will.  In this post, we look at the oft-ignored and much slighted Comprehension section, Section 1 of the HSC paper. This is the section usually completed first by students, however this need not be the case should you prefer to start with the short story or Discovery essay.


The standard attitude to the comprehension section is “you can’t study for it”. Of course this is true in a sense. No core texts have been assigned for it from which you are expected to fashion a thesis; furthermore, there is no central theme, no principal focus of investigation and study, as is the case with your Modules in Paper 2. So chill out and que sera, sera right? Up to you, but we’ve got some pointers on breezing through this section and earning some easy marks where others might miss out.


The English Paper 1 Comprehension section tests students on their ability to think and write analytically off the cuff. Unlike the various essays you’ll be tasked with completing, students must process data intuitively and respond with substantive analytical points spontaneously. Whereas students can work and rework essays composed of ideas sourced from online, or past essays etc., to a level where they are satisfied the marking criteria are met, there is no such luxury in the comprehension section: You are as good as you are on the day, not when you completed and memorised the essay you and your friends wrote months ago.


Beware of winging it as well. False confidence, viewed as the flaw of hubris in Greek drama, is a stumbling block. So how to avoid these pitfalls of being blaze and full of conceit?


The best way is to hone your confidence in discussing and critiquing cultural works over time, incrementally, over and above the texts set by the English syllabus. Much like studying a language where cramming won’t help, the best way to do this is to expose yourself to as much critical work in a piece-meal way over the course of the year, to stimulate discussion and spontaneous thought. This doesn’t have to be laborious: set aside some time to watch and then discuss a film at the theatre with your friends. Even blockbusters like Avengers, which otherwise might be dismissed as illegitimate texts in English, have technical devices that convey themes and content: sub-plots, dialogue, character flaws, non-diegetic music, close ups, CGI and quick editing. What was your response to the work – did you enjoy it or not? But more importantly, why is that your reaction? You must learn to justify your positions, to move beyond this otherwise wholly subjective discourse.


Besides this, read the critical work of others paid to do so. There is no better resource for students than the Sydney Morning Herald’s culture section: SPECTRUM. Read the work of Bernard Zuel, the music critic, and the usually reliable Paul Byrnes, the movie critic. Judge how their language is both similar and different to essay writing. Generally speaking, theirs will be more subjective, and for the purposes of eliciting interest in potential consumers, will spend more time on context and plot than students are advised.


Read any other critical work. Interested in Tame Impala’s new tune? What’s the opinion of the online music press? How do they support their opinions?


Attend any other events that might foster such discussions. The Opera House sometimes does cheap student tickets for their programs, as does the Sydney Theatre. Why was Andrew Upton and Hugo Weaving’s production of Beckett’s Endgame so universally lauded amongst critics? Was it performances, delivery of dialogue, lighting, stage design?


It is these sorts of questions, and this kind of thinking, that will be required to respond to the disparate stimuli in the comprehension section. Improve your literacy and culture IQ with the aforementioned sources, and back yourself when you put pen to paper for the first time in your first ever HSC exam. If you are still struggle after all of this, enlist the help of a tutor.