Responding to the topic and writing the text response essay
The study of a text remains central to secondary English.
While the types of texts read in English classrooms have diversified over time, the dominant way that students respond to these texts continues to be in the form of an analytical text response essay.
The text response essay requires students to respond to a topic on a set text, and largely follows a structure whereby students need to write the following:
- body paragraphs
The scaffolding that was undertaken during the process of analysing the set text should also be repeated in the writing up of the text response essay. To achieve this, explicit instruction about what and how students should be writing in each section is foundational.
Suggested techniques for each stage in the Learning and Teaching Cycle (Love, Baker & Quinn, 2008) are outlined below.
Where relevant, links to strategies explained elsewhere are also included, demonstrating how the strategies in the toolkit can be used in a number of ways across a number of lessons.
It is important to provide students with some sample topics and ways to approach them, before they move onto the unpacking of the specific topic for assessment.
Often students find it challenging to differentiate between the types of topics and questions posed about texts, and the ways that they can respond to them.
In the initial phase of preparation for the writing of the text response essay, students need to be drawn back into the key themes and issues within the set text, and shown the ways that a topic can be unpacked (HITS Strategy 2).
The brainstorming technique may be used to establish what students can identify as the key themes and issues in the set text. Students may then use these words as prompts to predict the kinds of questions they may be asked about the text. Following this, teachers might get students to predict the kinds of questions that they might be asked about the set text. (See strategy:
Activating prior knowledge).
This opening strategy provides teachers with an opportunity to excite and motivate the students about the learning, but it also allows for teachers to establish what the students know and do not know about responding to topics and writing text response essays.
- may have extensive prior knowledge. Use the brainstorming activity to assess what curriculum can be compacted. This involves removing instruction related to the steps of the writing process where students already have mastery.
- can also brainstorm in groups with like-ability peers. This will allow them to delve deeper into the themes of the text.
When students are presented with an essay topic, they will need some explicit teaching (HITS Strategy 3) around the ways to unpack the topic, as well as how to plan for the writing of the essay.
One way that this can be approached by the teacher is to have students work closely with the styles of questions and topics that may be set.
Students must be aware of the different styles of text response topics that may be set:
a statement about the text followed by a prompt
a statement about the text followed by a prompt question
Example: ‘In Chinese Cinderella, Adeline is a difficult character to like.’ Do you agree.
a direct question about the text
Example: ‘How does The Sapphires, challenge narrow-minded attitudes to gender and race?’
a quotation from the set text followed by a question
Example:“If you go out to find life, you lose other things,” says Mrs Wilkinson. How is this demonstrated in Billy Elliot?
Text response essay topics in English generally contain topic prompts. The prompt is the word, statement or short question that completes the topic, and in many ways determines the direction of the response.
Common prompts include:
- Do you agree?
- To what extent…?
- What does…?
Sorting and matching strategy
One way to build knowledge about text response topics is to provide students with an opportunity to engage with the components of a topic by sorting and matching them. This activity can be completed individually, in pairs or groups.
Example: sorting and matching
Students must sort out and match the prompt with the most appropriate definition.
Discuss/Provide points and evidence that explain the ways that the text shows something.
How...?/Explain the causes and reasons behind something.
Why...?/Argue your own position or interpretation. Set up a premise and defend it.
Do you agree…?/Deal with the issues in the topic in a balanced way. Reveal your position at the end.
Before students can begin writing their own text responses, they will need to be able to unpack the topic, and then plan their work. This can be achieved through the modelling of how to annotate a topic (HITS Strategy 4,
HITS Strategy 6).
Following the annotation of the topic, teachers will need to go through how to plan the essay and how to write the response. (See strategies:
Identifying key vocabulary and
Example: Annotating or colour-coding a topic
The Sapphires directed by Wayne Blair
Topic: "To what extent is
Daveresponsible for the 'Sapphires’
- To what
degree is Dave the one who creates the success?
Solely? Mostly? Partly?
- How does
Dave do this?
Who else helps the women to accomplish their dreams?
- What are the
other factors that support the women in their quest for success?
Providing students with model sample paragraphs for the text response is important.
Teachers can use these paragraphs in a variety of ways including:
- reading them aloud with the class
- annotating the key components with students
- comparing them with the expected qualities of effective paragraphs
- asking students to collaborate to write another paragraph or writing practice introductions and conclusions. (See strategy:
Using model texts to teach genre).
High-ability students may benefit from being provided with sophisticated exemplars that are beyond the expected level for the class. For higher year levels these could include critical readings and literary journal articles. They also can:
- be grouped together to complete the annotating tasks
- be asked to come up with their own topics
- collaborate to write a paragraph or practice writing introductions and conclusions
- be provided with criteria with which they can evaluate their own practice pieces, and the practice pieces of other high-ability students.
Example: Modelling the text response
Topic: “To what extent is Dave responsible for ‘The Sapphires’ success?”
unpacks and addresses all parts of the topic
defines key terms (where necessary)
presents the main contention or position to be argued
briefly mentions key points in the text that relate to the topic.
Sample student introduction
Directed by Wayne Blair, “The Sapphires” follows four Aboriginal women on the road to success as a talented female vocal group. While Dave their manager, is one of the main reasons behind their success, he is only partly responsible for the group’s fame. At a time when sexism and racism are powerful forces in Australia and abroad, there are other factors that contribute to the overall achievements of the group.
explore a key point to be argued about the topic
need a topic sentence
require some discussion about way the key point relates to the topic
require some evidence to support the points being raised.
Sample student body paragraph
Throughout the film the audience learns how much Dave contributes to the success of the Sapphires. He does this through his management of the group and his development of the behind-the-scenes production elements. By convincing Julie, Gail and Cynthia’s parents to allow them to perform in Vietnam, he shows how much he is prepared to risk when he tells their father, “I would lay down my life before I let any harm befall those girls.” Dave also teaches the girls to “loosen up” on stage by telling them to “Just feel the music!” He shows his dedication to the group by putting so much of his own time and effort into making sure that the group reaches its potential.
draws together the discussion
restates the original position on the topic
summarises the main supporting points
reveals what has been discovered about the topic through the analysis
Sample student conclusion
By the end of the film, it is clear that there are many factors that contribute to the success of the Sapphires, and that Dave is one of these factors. He is one of the driving forces behind their achievements, but he is not the only one.Blair shows the audience that the success of the group is a collective effort that is a combination of good management and promotion, talent, resilience and self-belief. The viewer is left to reflect on the way these Aboriginal women defy the odds in a time when so much is working against them.
Depending on the stage in the process of writing the text response, the presentation of student work can take many forms.
Generally, the completed essay is a summative task, but this learning sequence also allows for formative work as students may present some of their sample paragraphs to the teacher or to the class as a whole.
These shared paragraphs could be used as further examples for annotation and modelling (HITS Strategy 4,
HITS Strategy 5).
- could develop their essay into a journal style article
- produce a portfolio of practice paragraphs to show how they have responded to feedback
- might publish their text to a wider audience
Refer to strategies:
The reflection stage of the learning sequence can take place upon the submission of the completed text response or after the student has received feedback on their piece of writing (HITS Strategy 8).
A useful strategy to employ so that students think carefully about their learning in relation to the process of writing the text response is to provide them with a set of reflective questions.
These questions can be tailored to elicit responses from students that the teacher is particularly interested in, as well as being a source of data to inform how to approach the text response in future teaching.
Example: set of reflective questions
- What is the main thing you learnt about how to unpack a topic?
- How did you plan your essay?
- What did you find challenging about writing your text response?
- What would you like me (teacher) to help you with next time?
learning sequence for Level 7 in English, demonstrates how literacy teaching strategies can be used in a sequence.
learning sequence tool is also available to assist in the planning of science and literacy across a series of lessons.
- can be provided with more sophisticated reflection questions.
- could compose their own reflection questions linked to their specific learning goals.
- could complete this reflection as a peer-evaluation activity.
Love, K., Baker, G. & Quinn, M. (2008). LASS: Literacy Across the School Subjects.