Part 2: How to Research Your English Texts

In this part of our Guide, we explain a 7 step process for getting the contextual detail on your texts that you'll need for those Band 6 results!
how to research context for the HSC

Introduction to researching context for HSC English texts

Do you know how to research context for the HSC and Year 11? Researching texts can be overwhelming. There are many sources out there, so it can be difficult figuring out where to start. How do you know which sources to trust, and which ones not to? Where should you start with research?

In this part of our Beginner’s Guide to Acing HSC English, we’ll explain the process for researching your English texts the right way.

In this article we discuss:

Why do I need to research my English texts?

Researching is an essential part of some of the English Modules in Years 11 and 12.

  • In Year 11 Module A: Narratives that Shaped Our World, you’ll need to research the context of a few texts to try and understand how context has shaped the composer’s ideas.
  • In Year 12 Module A: Textual Conversations, you’ll need to go a step further and compare two texts from different contexts and discuss contextual differences.
  • In Module B: Critical Study of Literature for both year 11 and 12, you will need to learn biographical and contextual information about a text’s composer. You’ll also need to investigate what other people have thought about the text over a long period of time, sometimes hundreds of years!

Regrettably, so many students either don’t do the research or struggle with researching their text.

Why do so many students struggle with researching?

You, like others, might not know where to start. The internet is an amazing resource, but finding useful information can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

What’s worse, sometimes you might find a resource that looks great, only to be told by a teacher that it’s wrong. This can be disheartening. That’s why we wrote this guide, to help you research your texts with an easy to follow method.

Preparing for your research

Get organised first.

Research is only really effective if you are organised and have set the time aside to do it properly. Researching isn’t something that takes five minutes. To do it properly you should set aside the appropriate amount of time:

  • For online research, put aside an hour, or perhaps two. You’ll want to have time to pursue interesting leads and track down useful articles.
  • For physical research, you’ll want to set aside an afternoon at the library (go to the State library, rather than a local one, if you can).

When you research things, you need to be systematic and take notes throughout. Get a notebook, and use that to record your research. Written notes are useful because it is quick and easy to note down article titles, URLs, and other leads.

You can always transcribe these to something like Evernote, OneNote, or Notes later. It is always a good idea, too, to have a hard copy of research notes in case the unthinkable happens and you lose your online notes.

Read your text so that you know what you are researching about.

Before you start your online research, you must make sure that you have read your text at least twice and made notes. There is no point in beginning to research a text unless you have developed your own interpretation of it.

Make a list of the things you need to research:

  • Do you need to learn about an author or a period where the text was produced?
  • Do you need to learn about the country where the text was composed? These are contextual research questions.
  • Do you need to find critical perspectives of others?
  • Do you need to know what other people think of a text? This is researching literary criticism and perspectives.
    You will need to approach these in different ways.

Now that you have done these things, let’s discuss the 7 step research process we teach our students at Matrix.


How to research your texts in 7 steps

Once you’ve got all of your textual analysis finished and figured out what you need to research, you’re ready to start. But before we do, we need to show you the process you will follow. Let’s see what it looks like:

Flowchart: The 7 steps for researching an English text

Step 1: Work out your search terms

Before you can begin online research, you need to know what you’re searching for. It is important that you search for terms relevant to your research and text for study.

For example, if you are searching for information on The Crucible, you would need to search for:

  • “The Crucible” – the name of the text
  • Arthur Miller – the author of the text
  • The McCarthy Witch-Trials – an event that was occurring when Miller composed the play.
  • The USA in the 1950s – the period when the text was produced.

You want to keep your initial research focused and branch out more as you go along. FIll in the broad background information of the text, composer, and context, before you hone in on specific things.

This process will mean you can then follow leads to the more specific pieces of the puzzle that emerge as you get a sense of the information pertinent to your study of the text.

Step 2: Go to Wikipedia

Go to Wikipedia.

Image: The Wikipedia Homepage

Remember, Wikipedia is not a source in itself. As Wikipedia is run by community contributors, you can’t guarantee the accuracy of the content you find there. However, it is improving as it becomes more and more of a source of information. Rather, you should use it to find a more accurate source of information.

Wikipedia is a good place to start researching, but it is not a completely reliable source.


Step 3: Search for your main terms

You have a list of key terms, search Wikipedia for them. You need to read the whole article to get a holistic understanding of the issue you are researching. Make notes of the key figures, events, and dates from each of the pages that you read. This will be the basis for your research notes on the text.

Image: Using the Wikipedia Search Bar. Notice how it prompts you with common options.

Step 4: Build your research field

Wikipedia is the beginning of your research, not the end. After you’ve read the article to get a feel for things, you need to drill down into each relevant Wikipedia page for the sources its writers have used.

Every Wikipedia article has a list of footnotes, sources, and recommended reading. This is part of the academic system of citation. Research needs to be methodical, thorough, and repeatable. This is why there is an extensive series of links and references at the end of each article.

You should methodically check the footnotes. Footnotes are the superscript numbers at the end of a sentence that are cited at the bottom of the Wikipedia page (see the two images below). Every point should be referenced with a link to an article, or a citation of a hardcopy text. If the point made is of interest to you, check the footnote and check the reference.

This is a typical Wikipedia page:

A typical Wikipedia page. We’re interested in the bibliographical section.


Every Wikipedia page has a list of sources. This selection of sources is divided up as footnotes, sources, and a bibliography.

Always read the bibliography!

There is often a list of external links relevant to the article, too.

You want to analyse the references section of the page for more sources. These will likely be more reliable than the Wikipedia entry itself.

A bibliography is the list of texts and other sources cited by the composer of the article. They list their sources so that other scholars can see where they developed their ideas from. This concept is embodied in Sir Isaac Newton’s assertion that he was merely “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Make note of these and follow the links to the articles that seem relevant. Whenever you research a subject, make sure that you keep detailed notes.

Don’t just copy down the quotations. Document your research!

Make sure that you record: author name, book title/ article title/ URL, date of publication, publisher, place of publication, editor and translator where necessary, and the page number. This is so you can find the exact edition of the text again.

You should also make a bibliography of your research in case a teacher asks where you found the quotation or where you came across interesting ideas.

Step 5: Evaluate your sources

When considering sources, you should try to use academic resources. A personal blog is not going to be authoritative in the same way as an academic site such as JSTOR or SAGE. You should exercise caution in using information found in non-peer-reviewed sources.

In addition, remember that you can’t read everything. Academic articles come with summaries called abstracts. Read the abstracts carefully before you invest time in reading an article. You don’t want to waste time on an article that is not relevant to your research.

Below are some screenshots of JSTOR and Google Scholar to help you navigate the online research process.


This is the JSTOR search page:

The JSTOR search results are different to Google and Wikipedia


Each JSTOR page has a category checklist for searches:

You can refine the categories of your search in JSTOR


Google Scholar appears much like a standard Google Page: it has a search window, but also has checkboxes to narrow the search type:

The Google Scholar Search Page is a configurable version of the usual Google Search page


The Search Results page is different to a regular search results page. This will include a list of hardcopy and softcopy results. There is a menu bar on the left that will allow you to filter results by date, type or relevance. You can also create alerts for search terms so you are contacted when new sources appear.

Google Scholar Search Results are more detailed and comprehensive like the ones you would retrieve at your local library.


Not all research can be done online, though. So, you will need to research somethings offline, at libraries.

Step 6: Research offline

Sometimes your research will lead you offline.

Your research will often take you to libraries. Libraries may be daunting at first but are amazing resources.

You may need to go to the library. Sometimes you might need to find a hard-copy resource to learn more about context. It always pays to have a membership to the State Library of New South Wales, they have excellent e-Resources.

Membership to The State Library of NSW is free and you can sign-up here. Your local library will be a good resource, too. When trying to find sources in a library, ask the librarians to show you how to search the collection efficiently. Obviously, make sure you are kind and courteous!

Step 7: Remember to cite your sources

Always cite the source of your ideas and quotations. If you stumble on a great interpretation of a text or an important idea about a time period you must disclose the origin of this.

Not citing your sources is plagiarism – taking credit for the work of others.

This is academic dishonesty and there are severe penalties for plagiarism for high school and the HSC. If you have questions about plagiarism you can read more about it and the penalties involved on the NESA website.

If you’re concerned that you may have plagiarised something but aren’t sure, you can always check. For example, SmallSEOtools has a free plagiarism detector. Because it lacks access to as many journals it’s not as accurate as something like Turnitin (which many teachers and schools use) or Grammarly (which requires a paid subscription). However, using it will give you an idea of how easy it is to spot plagiarism now and also show you what you need to cite if you don’t already know.

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Important things to bear in mind

Researching critical perspectives may require a different approach. Wikipedia doesn’t often include detailed critical perspectives on texts.

Some articles might cite critical perspectives. In these cases, you should follow the links to the footnotes and see what the source is.

You might need to search specifically for ideas in online repositories and journals. Sites like Google Scholar, JSTOR, Thompson Reuters, SAGE, etc. link to academic articles that contain critical perspectives on composers and texts.

Google Scholar is free, but you might not be able to access the articles without a subscription. Similarly, sites like SAGE and JSTOR require subscriptions. Some schools have subscriptions, you should ask your school librarian if your does. If yours doesn’t, then you should take a visit to the State Library (or the University of Sydney Library) and search their e-Resources.

Research is an important process. Learning how to do it effectively during Year 11 and high school will prepare you for the future. Research is a significant part of university study, and so it is important to have strong research skills. Students of Matrix English courses learn from teachers and tutors who have proven backgrounds in research and can advise students of effective practices and point them towards useful sources.

Now you know how to read a text, take and compile notes, and research your text, it’s time to get writing.


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