In this guide, we'll explain the process for reading and analysing your English texts. Learn how to translate your reading of texts into critical analysis and collate them into practical and effective notes.
Do you know how to read English texts for textual analysis? Reading a text is an essential part of studying English. Obviously, you can’t write essays without reading and analysing your texts. But where should you start with textual analysis?
In this Part of our Beginner’s Guide to Acing HSC English, we will give you a thorough explanation of textual analysis and how to read your texts and walk you through a step-by-step process for creating flawless and insightful notes.
You, like many students, might feel that textual analysis sounds ominously overwhelming, broad, and vague. But it shouldn’t be. Why?
There is a process for reading and analysing your English texts.
It’s mainly due to students not adopting the right process for reading and analysing English texts. Consequently, many students experience the following problems:
When we discuss “reading” we mean the process of engaging with a text. This can include viewing a film or reading novel or looking at a picture. As we engage with it, we try to understand the meaning it contains. This is a process of analysis that we generally refer to as “reading.”
Keeping thorough and accessible study notes is a very important part of reading a text. After you have read the text, you need to note down your findings. You will use these notes as the basis for your responses. Does this sound familiar?
The process of making and keeping notes for English is similar to noting down the results of an experiment.
Similarly, when we speak of “texts” for English, we mean a wide variety of text types (what NESA sometimes refers to as the medium of production) including (but not limited to): novels, novellas, non-fiction writing, short stories, graphic novels, comics, images, plays, poems, films, television series, and websites. Each text type will require a particular approach to reading it, as things like plot, characters, and ideas are rendered differently in different mediums of production.
The process of reading and analysing texts is something that often gets taken for granted in the school classroom. You need to read, or view, your texts in order to understand them. Then you have to translate your reading into critical analysis of the texts’ meaning. Then you need to collate this insightful analysis into practical and effective notes.
At Matrix, we teach our students the following process:
Let’s discuss each step of the process in detail.
Reading a text for study is a multi-step process. To extract the most information out of a text in the shortest amount of time, students should follow a logical process. Let’s take a look at the process involved:
So, what does this entail? Let’s have a look at the specifics of reading a text:
1. Read the text for the first time – This may mean reading the book or watching the film set for study. The first time you engage with a text should be to enjoy it and understand what is happening in it. You want to understand what the plot is about and who the characters are.
2. Write down your initial observations and feelings about the text – Jot down whether you liked the text. Note down what you think it is about and how it relates to your Module.
3. Read the text a second time – This is when you should begin making notes. Underline and highlight important sentences and phrases in poems, plays, non-fiction texts, and novels. Make notes about scenes in films. This step is very important because it is where you start unpicking how the composer has developed meaning.
4. Make notes – Now you’ve read the text twice, you should be able to start identifying the themes in the text.
The notes you make are very important, you’ll use these to write your essays and responses.
Write down answers to the following questions:
5. Read the text a third time – This reading is where you develop your understanding of the text. You must go through the text looking for where an idea is best represented. While you may have underlined or highlighted large swathe of your text on the second reading, the third reading is where you will be able to see what is really relevant to your study of the text. When you find an example that conveys the detailed meaning that is relevant to your study of the text, you should write it down and make note of the technique.
What if my text isn’t a film or novel?
Some text types may require a slightly different approach.
Do you need specific help with analysing poetry?
You should read our blog post, How To Analyse A Poem In 6 Steps!
Has reading Shakespeare left you stumped?
You should read our step-by-step blog post on How to Analyse Shakespeare.
Now that we’ve discussed reading texts, we need to look at making notes. A student’s notes will develop with each successive reading of the text. For example,
Understanding the plot and following what happens to the characters in the text is one thing, but understanding the ideas that these convey is an altogether different one.
When we refer to “themes” we really mean the key ideas in the text.
Often we refer to ideas as themes because they are common to a number of texts, but also whole genres or selections of art and literature. Knowing the genre of the text you are studying will give you hints as to what sort of themes you should look for. For example, a Gothic text will have themes of death, decay, and secrets. Even if you know roughly what themes will be in a text, you still need to identify them.
Here are some practical approaches you can take:
1. Consider the plot – Ask yourself what the key ideas in the plot are. For example, is it about two people who are in love? Then love is a theme.
Does the plot involve people trying to find things? Discovery is a theme.
Do characters have trouble knowing if they are being told the truth or manipulated? The rift between appearance and reality is a theme.
2. Look at the characters’ positive and negative qualities – The characters’ flaws are often the substance of the ideas the composer is trying to convey. We can look to a characters’ narrative arc to see what ideas are in a text.
For example, In Othello, the main characters are very proud and jealous. Pride and jealousy are key ideas in the play. We see these qualities reflected in the characteristics of other characters in the play, too.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston, and his lover, Julia rebel against the government. We can say resistance is a key idea in the text.
3. Look for recurring symbols in the text – A recurring symbol, or motif, can embody a key idea in a text.
For example, In Black Swan, Nina’s character has to perform the roles of the Black and White Swan from Swan Lake. She has to be two opposing characters – pure and innocent and powerful and provocative – at the same time. We can say that dualism is a key theme in the text.
Similarly, In The Great Gatsby, many characters are bad drivers. This is symbolic of how out of control society is. We can say that personal responsibility is a key theme.
4. Consider the ideas that are explicitly stated in a text – Sometimes composers are very direct with the ideas they feel are important in a text. They might discuss these ideas at length in the text – either directly or in the conversations that characters have. For example,
Now that we’ve identified some themes, we need to think about gathering evidence. Let’s look at some strategies for identifying evidence.
Essays for Stage 6 must be evidence-based. This means that students must provide examples from the text to support their arguments. They must then discuss how the techniques in those examples develop a certain meaning or reinforce a theme.
One of the difficulties students face is identifying examples and the techniques in them. Unfortunately, this is a skill that must be learned and practised rather than solved with a quick tip or fix.
To be effective at identifying techniques, students must be aware of a wide range of literary/ dramatic/ poetic/ filmic techniques and their various applications.
That method looks like this:
1. Familiarise yourself with the specific techniques the texts medium of production uses. You can find a list of literary techniques and their effects here and here. You can find a list of filmic techniques here. Information on analysing poetry can be found here.
2. Read or view your text, focusing on places where the thematic ideas you are interest seem most prominent and visible.
3. Look for quotations, scenes, or images that seem to embody the idea that you are concerned with. These will be the parts of the text that you have highlighted in your text or made notes about.
4. Try to rate the value of the technique that the quotations are using. Not all techniques are equal. If you have a pair of adjacent quotations and one uses alliteration (3 words in a row beginning with the same letter – “she studies solidly and scored an A on her physics exam”) and the other is a metaphor (it makes something into something else – “she was a gun in the physics exam and got an A”), then the metaphor is going to convey the idea with more strength and clarity.
Similarly, in film, a two-shot (a shot that places two characters in the same shot to show a relationship) will be less effective than a selective focus shot (where a two-shot switches the focus from character to another without panning or moving the camera to demonstrate a change in the relationship between the characters). A general rule to follow is:
The more complex the process of representing, the more effective the technique is for your argument.
5. Make note of the example and its technique in your table. You must ensure that you can relate the examples you have chosen to the concerns you need to discuss. The more detailed you can be in your notes, the more you will be able to elaborate on your points in an essay.
6. Gather as many examples as you can. You will use these to populate your table with. It is worth remembering that some examples will be suitable for several themes or ideas in your text.
For some units such as Module A or Module B, analysing and identifying techniques will not be enough. You will also need to discuss context or critical views. this means you will need to engage in some research. Let’s have a look at how to go about this.
Making tables is the most efficient way to produce study notes for English. The principle behind making tables is to extract all of the relevant information from a text and place it in an easy to access document.
When you prepare for exams or write practice essays, you don’t want to be fishing through novels for quotations or skipping through films for the appropriate scene. Instead, you want to be able to find the example you need as quickly and simply as possible. This is what tables are for.
Let’s look at an example of a study table:
|A Sample Study Table For English Notes|
|What to do||Organise your notes by theme or character||Provide a quotation or example from the text.||Note and describe the technique used.||Explain how the technique affects or shapes your understanding of the meaning in the example.||Look for what others say about this theme or example from the text? Try to look for scholarly articles.
Wikipedia is a good place to begin research, but it is not always reliable or accurate. After reading a Wikipedia article, you should look at its sources and read those articles.
Often Wikipedia articles included suggested further reading, these are ideal places to further continue your research. We discuss Wikipedia and other research resources in Chapter 3 of this guide.
Make note of your findings and keep track of the references.
|Example||“The Difficulty of Year 11”||Year 11 English is like scaling Mount Everest.||The use of “like” signifies this is a simile.||This simile compares Year 11 English to climbing a large mountain. This argues that Year 11 is hard and requires a lot of careful preparation.||25th June: Lots or people agree that Year 11 English is hard. Some say that universities require to study specific units of English and achieve specific marks. I should look into why that is to develop my notes further.
26th June: The Matrix blog states that “The English Advanced Modules are more complex and demanding than the English Standard Modules.” (https://www.matrix.edu.au/english-studies-vs-english-standard-vs-english-advanced)
|Example From Othello||Iago’s Villainy||Iago: And what’s he then that says I play the villain? / When this advice is free I give and honest (2.3. 330-331)||Rhetorical Question (hypophora – asks a question and immediately answers it).||Iago is giving them logical and helpful advice. The use of hypophora is a manipulative technique. Answering the question he’s asked immediately means that Iago’s listeners aren’t given time to formulate an answer against it.||24th June: Not sure why Iago is evil?
26th June: Found a quote by R.Berry: “This is of the same order as the grotesquely exaggerated hell-imagery in his speeches, which we should not take at face-value. Iago, in truth, likes to think of himself as evil, as the villain: he plays the role in capital letters.” Berry argues that Iago revels in his villainy and his concealment of it. (R. Berry 1972. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2868648)
The above table has 5 important columns:
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