HSC 2019 English Standard – how would we answer?

We asked our Head of English, Josephine Sarvaas, to show us how she would have tackled Section I of the Common Module HSC English Standard Exam.


We asked our Head of English, Josephine Sarvaas, to show us how she would have tackled Section I of the Common Module HSC English Standard Exam.

Section I of the Common Module required you to read four unseen texts and a range of short answer questions including:

  1. An image
  2. Two poems
  3. A prose fiction extract

In order to gain maximum marks in this section it is important to demonstrate several key skills:

  1. Accurately comprehending and articulating what ideas about the ‘human experience’ each text explores.
  2. Identifying visual and language devices that construct these ideas.
  3. Being able to write a concise analysis that brings all these ideas together.

Here are some sample answers that demonstrate how you might approach each question!




Question 1 (3 marks)

Text 1 – Magazine Cover

Explain how this visual text represents diverse experiences.

  • Your response to this question should identify what is “diverse” about the experiences depicted in this image.
  • You should then succinctly analyse two different visual elements of the image.


The cover of The New Yorker imagines the diverse lives of occupants sharing an apartment building, emphasising their wide range of values, behaviours, and activities. The variation in human responses to the same experience is encompassed by the contrasting behaviour of the occupants of the lowest apartment. While the two inside are responding angrily to the noise above, as seen through their furious facial expressions, the man outside is peacefully continuing to do yoga, symbolising his inner peace and calm. Vector lines also draw the viewer’s attention to the disparate experiences of the residents; the broom held by the man draws the viewers’ eye to the party above, revealing that while some of the occupants find joy in tranquillity and quiet reflection (as symbolised by the yoga mats and Buddha statue), others are fulfilled by activities such as music, dance and others’ company.

Other answers may include:

  • The representation of a diverse range of cultures and identities living in a single apartment building, a commentary on the increasingly multicultural nature of big cities.
  •  The depiction of the diverse lives and activities of many different humans at a single point in time.
  • The diverse ways that humans find joy and fulfilment such as meditation, caring for plants, or social events.

Question 2 (4 marks)

Text 2 – Poem (The Red Sweater)

How does the poet invite the reader to share in the experiences represented in the poem? Make reference to the text in your response.

  • Your response should identify what type of experience is being represented in the poem. This might be an emotional experience, a particular relationship, or a particular occupation or identity.
  • You should then succinctly analyse three different examples from the poem.


The Red Sweater’s vivid depiction of the persona’s thoughts and memories immerses readers in their bittersweet response to a mother’s sacrifice for her child. The poem invites audiences to imagine both the tactile experience of the “soft lambs wool” jumper, a symbol of a mother’s love, as well as the contrastingly harsh conditions endured by the mother in order for her child to have this luxury. This is conveyed through the sensory and olfactory images of “pressing heat” and the smell of “mashed beans and cooked ground beef,” which absorb audiences in the unpleasant experience of a fast-food environment.  The persona’s feelings of guilt and uncertainty about their mother’s sacrifice are conveyed through the list of rhetorical questions, such as “how many burritos can one make in a continuous day?…how do her wrists sustain the scraping, lifting and flipping…?” The experience of wearing the sweater is hence complex; while it causes the persona to “see” and remember their mother’s self-sacrifice, it also “fits like a lover,” with the simile revealing its ability to provide comfort and the positive motivations behind the mother’s actions.

Other answers may include:

  • The sense of stagnation felt by the persona, who despite gaining the jumper is conscious of the ongoing entrapment of her mother in a cycle of poverty.
  • The divide between the experiences of two generations, and the sacrifices made in order that their children might have a more positive experience.

Question 3 (5 Marks)

Text 1 and Text 3 – Magazine Cover and Poem (Boomerangs in a Thunderstorm)

To what extent do the cover of The New Yorker and Boomerangs in a Thunderstorm convey ideas about connection?

  • As the question asks ‘to what extent,’ your response should clearly establish exactly what importance the theme of ‘connection’ plays in each text.
  • Your response should identify exactly what each text is saying about the nature of connection.
  • You should then succinctly analyse two examples from each text.
  • A ‘mini essay’ structure may be used for this response.


Both The New Yorker and Boomerangs in a Thunderstorm create a complex depiction of the powerful connections humans can forge, however while The New Yorker is focused on the connections between individual lives, Boomerangs in a Thunderstorm instead addresses the spiritual connection between humans and the natural world.

The composition of The New Yorker cover reveals the interconnected nature of individual lives when in a shared environment such as an apartment building. While the separate apartments are stacked upon one another, vector lines draw the audience’s attention to the impact one human life can have on another. For example, the rising smoke from the barbecue results in both shock and annoyance from the residents in apartments above, while the falling stream of water from the watering can is about to physically impact the woman below. Similarly, Boomerangs in a Thunderstorm addresses the shared experience of uncle and nephew as they throw boomerangs, with the line “like it should be” emphasising the natural connection between these two relatives and the sense of peace and comfort they find in one another’s company and a shared cultural tradition.

While The New Yorker is focused on the connection between humans, Boomerangs in a Thunderstorm emphasises the importance of the spiritual connection between humans and nature. The personification of the natural world in lines such as “whooping shapes dance across the overcast sky” and the imagery of the clouds as a “puffy hand, reaching out” reveal the persona’s perception of their environment as a fellow living being. By contrast, The New Yorker instead focuses on communal experiences such as dancing, sharing a meal and playing games to symbolically represent the traditional ways that humans connect with one another through shared activities.

Both texts emphasise the importance of connection to humans, but focus on different elements of it.

Question 4 (3 marks)

Text 3 – Poem (Boomerangs in a Thunderstorm)

Explain how Boomerangs in a Thunderstorm represents an intense moment.

  • Your response should identify what the nature of the “intense” moment is.
  • You should then succinctly analyse two examples from the poem.


Boomerangs in a Thunderstorm depicts the emotional impact of an intense moment through highlighting the excitement and adrenaline felt by the persona. The onomatopoeia of “thunder cracking” and “whooping shapes” alongside the sensory imagery of being “soaked” with “lungs full of the spirits of rain” immerses readers in the exhilarating experience of the storm. The persona’s glee is represented through the uplifting connotations of boomerangs that “scale” the breeze, reinforced by the simile “like a sail.” This creates a buoyant image that suggests the storm is not an impediment to the persona’s enjoyment of their activity, but rather adds to their excitement.

Other answers may include:

  • The spiritual intensity and cultural significance of the experience described in this poem.
  • The emotional intensity of this experience, as indicated by the final line of the poem, “rain disguised tears.”

Question 5 (5 marks)

Text 4 – Prose fiction extract

Analyse how the experience of returning home has been shaped by the writer.

Extract by Thea Astley from A Kindness Cup.

  • Your response should clearly articulate what ideas about ‘returning home’ are conveyed in the extract – including what might be complicated or inconsistent about them.
  • Your analysis should explore the different ways the writer has established this experience in her work.
  • Refer to four examples from the text.


Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup explores the conflicted emotions generated by the experience of returning to a home beset with negative memories.

Dorahy’s inner conflict at his return to his hometown is evident throughout the extract. The vivid, emotive term “nauseating nostalgia” encompasses the way his sense of longing and homesickness war with his fear at the notion of returning. Similarly, the emotive language used throughout the extract demonstrates the range of inconsistent emotions Dorahy experiences as he returns to the town, from “excitement and chatter” to “grief,” “rage” and later “uncertainty.” His self-doubt about his decision is apparent through the internal dialogue when he reflects that “One should never go back… one should forgive places as much as people.” The anaphoric statement “one should” as well as the contrasting statements of the value of returning to sites of negative experiences emphasises his lack of resolve about the decision he has made and the impact it will have on him. As such, it is clear that Dorahy is torn between his desire to “forgive” his home and potentially gain closure, and his fear of the negative experiences he has had there.

Throughout the extract, the writer also explores the important role memory plays in an individual’s experience of their home. Dorahy’s prior experiences have resulted in him “knowing (the hotel’s) drabness… the bar-stink… its spotted mirror.” The listing of grotesque images creates a repellant description of the town that makes understandable Dorahy’s reluctance to return. There is a sense of entrapment associated with the setting, as seen through the Biblical connotations of another resident “doing penance” as she work there. This suggests the town is a site of suffering, further reinforcing the idea that Dorahy’s previous negative experiences have contributed to his unease and inner conflict. Upon returning he is also confronted with the changes that have occurred in the last twenty years. As he thinks, “(Where are the banners, the bunting…)” the parentheses suggest the intrusive nature of his memories as he is unable to help feeling a lack of familiarity due to the changes. Despite his reluctance to return, it is clear he still has some form of emotional connection to his memories of the place.

A Kindness Cup depicts the complexity of returning home by revealing the conflicted emotions experienced by a character who is torn between their negative memories of a place, and their nostalgia and need for closure.

Other answers may include:

  • The inherent connection with one’s home, and the inevitability of being drawn back, as indicated by the “pull of fate” in the opening line.
  • The physical and emotional challenges involved in a taxing journey home.
  • The differing perceptions one may have of their hometown, and how these change over time or may differ from the perceptions of others.
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