What Happened In the English HSC 2020?

On the 20th of October, over 66,000 NSW students sat their first HSC exam. Despite the many setbacks imposed by COVID-19, the gears of education did not grind to a halt; most students entered the exam halls and applied their year-long studies into action. A nerve wrecking and daunting experience for most, the surprises and sighs of reliefs from the English exams were captured.

See the HSC Papers for 2020 here

English Standard & Advanced

Common Module: Human Experiences 

The first HSC exam is always the most dreaded one. After learning a number of subjects all year long, the majority of the state walks into the exam hall, ready to sit the English Common Modules paper. The built-up nerves and anxiety can feel crippling as this is the official first HSC exam for most students.


Despite the worries in the lead up, the first paper seemed fair to most, except the stimuli being quite absurd to some. There is a general consensus of confusion as to why there were so many fish or ocean related images used for this year’s paper. Then again, a couple years back in 2016, the HSC English paper had plenty of deserted sceneries used. It may have been tricky to decipher the meaning behind some of them.

An interpretation of the most debated stimulus from Section I was a man rowing a boat named ‘the pencil’ with a pencil named ‘dory’. While the irony was lost due to the obscure definition of a dory (being a small boat), most students correctly interpreted the symbolism of the pencil as the means of creative writing. Further, the pencil as a paddle highlights the journey sparked by creative writing which allows for self-expression, where one can channel feelings of wonder, curiosity, fear, anxiety, disappointment and longing. To be able to communicate one’s experiences, a sense of freedom and empowerment can be felt. As a result, the man in the image is able to explore his world, travelling through a sea and sky full of new words. Perhaps these words are symbolic of one enriching their mind beyond their horizon.

Section II: Essay

This year’s common module essay question was very broad, with no strange stimuli or difficult key words. The key words from this question were taken straight from the NESA rubric, allowing for students to be quite familiar with them already. Since this question includes a “how”, specific language techniques and aspects of textual form must be stated and analysed for its effectiveness. Further, students are expected to ponder on the meaning behind “personal” and “shared” experiences, as well as the purpose behind telling “stories”. A popular interpretation is that personal is the inner mind, where shared is the collective mind (society) and the stories are the key lessons and questions of values raised throughout texts. For instance, for those studying Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ would emphasise Prospero’s story for revenge as one that reveals personal yearning for peace of mind, love and contentment and a shared desire to forgive others for the betterment of our human nature.


 English Standard & advanced 

English Paper 2 – Module A, C

Standard Module A: Language, Identity & Culture

Standard English students were faced with little challenges in Paper 2, this included a very reasonable Module A question which threw little curveballs. 

Module A, similar to the common module focus on themes and ideas that shape our world and our societies. The three key words – language, identity & culture are treated as intertwined concepts, where shifts in one can greatly impact the others.

Or more easily thought of as: language acts as the vehicle in which we can observe identity and culture in any society – vice versa. With this in mind, students were lucky this year – it was very well anticipated the question would have asked a specific literary device or element like the exploration of a certain technique like rhetoric, imagery, etc.

Responses needed to focus on the adjective ‘disrupt’ which invites students to consider how the prevalent key themes and values within their prescribed text offered new perspectives particularly towards ‘culture’. This meant, students needed to state the how a shared social behaviour or norm was challenged and brought to question within the text studied. 

Students would still be required to include literary analysis as usual, but the key differentiator would be the insightful discussions students could raise to the ‘To what extent’ component. It is crucial that in their responses that they provide evaluation on how successfully their texts disrupted assumptions towards culture.

Band 6 responses would recognise that identity plays a key role in the question, despite not being mentioned. Students have the opportunity to state how ideas surrounding identity can challenge culture, for example, wanting to be unique, disagreeing with others, etc.

Advanced Module A: Textual Conversations

Module A requires students to question how relevant texts from the past are, to the modern adaptations.

In the past, Module A essay questions tended to be quite consistent in their expectations of what students are to write; usually most statements are slanted towards being generally agreeable. However, this year, the question is a bit more provocative than usual, inviting critical engagement from students. The question was perhaps hoping students would disagree and justify themselves.

This question particularly hones in on the ‘dissonances and resonances’ idea in the rubric, looking at the relationship between texts. However, it adds the additional twist of requiring students to do so in terms of the textual integrity of the texts, incorporating multiple elements of the rubric into a single statement.

The best way to prepare for these curveball kinds of questions is to genuinely know your text and be clear about your own thoughts and opinions about the text. This question will separate the students who have actually deeply engaged with their text, and the followers who are only engaged on the surface and get along through regurgitating sophisticated sounding phrases from their teachers and peers.

This question also demonstrates the importance in paying attention to the rubric when studying your text. In this case for Mod A, making it very clear you understand the differences between your texts, and how these relate to its textual integrity. If you agree, you need to be specific about how the later text lacks the originality and power of the earlier. It is not enough to sprinkle in these keywords in your introduction and conclusion, but you need to be able to integrate it into your argument throughout your essay. Similarly, if you take the position of disagreeing, you also need to be specific about how the text is still powerful despite being based off of a previous text.

English Standard & Advanced

Module C: The Craft Of Writing

Credit: Hugh H. (Facebook HSC Discussion Group 2020)

This year, both the standard and advanced paper 2 exams did not have a reflection component for Module C.

The syllabus before 2019 required that an imaginative piece meant a creative writing response. The new syllabus, however, places emphasis on diversifying the text types studied, with students spending many hours practicing various types of writing. The tension was that in practice papers Module C questions are typically non-specific, however, for the 2020 paper, students were asked to specifically write an imaginative piece. Thus, the debate with this key word was that many students reasonably interpreted ‘imaginative’ text to mean a creative piece, however, it is arguable that a ‘discursive’ and ‘persuasive and ‘informative’ text also qualifies as an ‘imaginative’ text. Many students fell victim to throwing away their practiced discursive pieces and writing a fresh unrefined creative in the exam.

In Standard English, students were asked to focus on a ‘significant place’ and incorporate this as a key feature in their imaginative texts. Fortunately, for Standard English the question has quite a generic requirement with significant place meaning any location that carries purpose and meaning, which can be easily worked into a piece with minor tweaks. The main difficulty would be in naturally adapting the stimulus quote that the question asked students to start their piece with. This question demonstrates the wide variety of possible questions that NESA may ask, highlighting certain parts of the rubric. In this case, it narrowly focused on the imaginative writing aspect of the rubric. 

With the lack of a reflection, students may have been disadvantaged by their lack of preparation. In their preparation, students may have only practiced shorter creative responses and this would have disadvantaged those who couldn’t produce the length necessary for a 20 mark question.

Due to the dynamic nature of Module C, the best foot forward is to practice under exam settings. There should not be a huge focus on memorizing a piece, rather, it should be the continual development in the skill of writing creatively. This HSC question shows that Module C is definitely living up to its reputation, it separates students who are skilled in writing and gives less advantage to those who memorise responses.

For Advanced English students the Module C question was also an ‘imaginative’ task based on the stimulus:

“Some things are unknowable. A person’s secrets may be revealed by the things they leave behind; but what are they, those supposedly uncovered secrets? They are words, ideas … dry and dead as dust”

– An interpretation of the stimulus could have been to incorporate symbolism of the past into one’s imaginative writing piece. This could have been used to reveal a character’s inner bitterness or a deceased character’s dying wish, for instance. Or the concept of lost words could have been explored along with the frustrations of dealing with uncertainty.

Overall, the 2020 HSC English exams had its fair share of consistent and pleasantly unexpected questions. It was not necessarily more difficult or easier in comparison to the 2019 paper. However, as this is only the second year of the new syllabus, it was quite difficult to predict the range in ways NESA could have posed the questions. Despite the many setbacks imposed by the pandemic, NSW students definitely adapted well to play with their strengths and finish their final English exams.

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