Throughout your studies of VCE English, you will be writing a lot of text response essays. When writing such essays, most students fall into the trap of not answering the given prompt correctly.

There are lots of different types of prompts that you will encounter – it is not necessarily obvious how each type should be addressed! Therefore, this article will take you through some of the main types of prompts you may get, and key task words to look out for.

Addressing Task Words

Firstly, let’s look at some of the most common task words that you will find in your essay prompts. These are word/phrases that tell you what to do.

In some cases, your essay prompts are going to involve some sort of verb – this is a word used to describe an action. When your marker reads your essays, it needs to be clear to them that you have done what the verb has asked you to do.

1. Discuss

Example: ‘The Golden Age is about trying to live with change and uncertainty. Discuss.’

This is probably the most common type of prompt that you will encounter. When dealing with such prompts, it is important that you discuss as many aspects of it as possible. One way to improve your discussion here is to include a paragraph that rebuts the prompt, like what you do in your persuasive essays. However, since it is a discuss prompt, you do not need to make the two sides of your argument extremely distinct.

Don’t overcomplicate a discuss prompt – the marker just needs to see that you have analysed the prompt with enough depth.

2. Compare/Contrast

Example: Compare the ways that the characters in Nine Days deal with grief.

When writing about prompts that start with compare or contrast, it is important that some sort of comparison is evident in every one of your body paragraphs. Otherwise, your marker will mark you down for not addressing the prompt appropriately. Remember, a comparison means to show the similarities and differences between two or more things. You can’t just discuss only similarities or only differences – you must discuss both.

Each one of your topic sentences should also use comparative words. The following are some sentence/word ideas you may find useful to use:

  • While X did this………. Y approached the issue by……
  • Similar/Dissimilarly…….
  •  Likewise….
  • Although X does this…….
  • This is in contrast to….....

 You will also encounter essay prompts that don’t have an explicit verb in them, but they come in the form of a question. Oftentimes, these can be a bit more confusing to approach.

3. Do you agree?

Example: ‘Capote leaves the reader feeling that justice has been done. Do you agree?’

When a prompt ends with ‘do you agree,’ you should ensure that you construct an appropriate contention for the prompt – you need to provide your opinion. As soon as the marker reads the contention, they should understand whether or not you agree or disagree. You can still add counterarguments in your essay though. However, with these prompts, it may not be suitable to dedicate an entire paragraph to argue the other side.

Since you’re writing a formal essay, you cannot directly state whether you agree. Don’t write ‘yes I agree,’ anywhere! The best way to make your contention clear is to re-write the prompt with the correct stance.

 For example, using the above prompt:

If you agree: Capote leaves the reader feeling as though justice has been done, through his portrayal of……..

If you disagree: Capote does not leave the reader feeling as though justice has been done, due to……..

Don’t forget to back up your claim with lots of textual evidence. Evidence is vital for this type of prompt!

4. To what extent to you agree?

Example: ‘The world of Shelley’s novel is characterised by “injustice and ingratitude”. To what extent do you agree?’

This phrase is also a very common one found in prompts and is very similar to the ‘do you agree’ one. This prompt is asking you to explain how far something is true. Once again, it is important that your stance is clear through your contention. However, since these prompts are asking ‘to what extent,’ you agree with something, you should ensure that you have a counterargument.  

5. How?

Example: How does Stories We Tell show the far-reaching impact of family secrets?

With a ‘how’ prompt, you are expected to discuss the different ways that the writer explores the theme. Usually, this means analysing any significant structural devices. Everything that an author does in their writing is done on purpose, and this is the type of topic that expects you to flesh out all their intentions. It is best to avoid counter arguments as you need to specifically answer the ‘how’ question given. 

You should be considering things like:

  • Textual structure
  • Writing techniques
  • Literary devices/metalanguage

It is important to realise that the task word present in the prompt should not change the way you approach the essay too much. Your ideas can stay the same regardless! It just helps you frame your arguments better, and it is worth considering them when you write your contention and topic sentences.

Type of Prompts

It is important to be aware of the types of prompts you will encounter – these form the main stem of the prompt and will be coupled with a task word.

Theme based

Example: ‘Twelve Angry Men shows that prejudice is a factor in every conflict.’ Discuss.

 Theme-based prompts are centred around an important theme in the text. They can get quite broad, as you are free to discuss any characters and events.

 When faced with these prompts, don’t be afraid to introduce other themes. Usually, all themes are interrelated, some more than others.

Character based

Example: ‘The Golden Age explores Frank’s gradual realisation that he can rely only on himself.’  

A character based prompt will always be based around a character that was present in the text. When approaching such a prompt, don’t exclusively discuss that one character! They never exist on their own – each character is influenced by others in one way or another. You should also discuss the themes that are most relevant to them.

Quote based

Example: ‘“Bad people are dangerous but forgiving them is too.” What role does forgiveness play in the text?’

Quote based prompts are usually the most challenging to write about. A common misconception that students have is thinking that the quote needs to be mentioned in each paragraph. This is not the case – it is important to discuss the themes and context surrounding the quote, and how it relates to various events that happened in the text.

As you can see in the above example, the prompt is also mentioning a specific theme. It is important that you mention and analyse the quote at least once and its relevance to the theme.

Want to learn more? This video summarises the different types of prompts you might encounter, with more information on how to approach them: 

 Hopefully this article helped you understand the different prompts you may encounter when writing text response essays. At the end of the day, it is more important that you write a sound essay, filled with textual evidence and rich discussions, rather than stressing about whether your essay fits the task word correctly. There is really no structure that is set in stone, so don’t be afraid to be creative!