What level of English should I do? ESL, Standard, Advanced, Extension?

In high school, I did Advanced English, English Extension 1 and English Extension 2. The decision to do all the way up to 4 Unit English was rather easy to make – I enjoyed English, I got decent marks, and I wanted to write my own major work.

But, as recently asked on the BOS forums, what are the pros and cons of doing each level of English.

There are essentially 4 levels of English:

  1. English as a Second Language (ESL)
  2. Standard English
  3. Advanced English
  4. English Extension 1
  5. English Extension 2

English as a Second Language (ESL)


This course is for any student, who has been in an overseas school or been in an Australian school (where English was the teaching language) for 5 years or less.

What it involves?

You do the Area of Study, but the exam is different to the Standard/Advanced English AOS. Namely, you only have unseen and an essay response (no creative). You also study TWO prescribed texts (not one) for the AOS.

You then do TWO Modules (A and B) which are specific to the ESL syllabus:

  • Module A: you study Australian voices/visions in texts
  • Module B: you study texts in real-life situations, such as reports, letters, applications

Why do it?

Most ESL students don’t really have a “choice” to do ESL – in that, their English level is not high enough for them to consider Standard/Advanced English. However, for some students, their English is actually better than most Standard and some Advanced English students! I have tutored a student like this and wondered why they didn’t just do Advanced English. However, they excelled in ESL and attained a high ATAR. So, really, there is no incentive to join Advanced English (particularly as they were ranking 1st in their school for ESL).

ESL also suits students, who are not interested in the “literature” style studies of English. In particular, Module B is an example of the practicality of the ESL syllabus which focuses more on English as used in life rather than in prose and poems.

Standard English


This course is for “students to become proficient in English to enhance their personal, social and vocational lives. These courses provide students with the opportunity to become confident and effective communicators and to enjoy the breadth and variety of English texts.”

What it involves?

You do the Area of Study, which is the same exam for Advanced English. Then you do THREE Modules (A, B and C) which are specific to the Standard English syllabus.

  • Mod A: you study how composers create unique voices or visions in their texts
  • Mod B: you study 1 text in detail, focusing on its unique features
  • Mod C: you study texts in relation to a particular topic (similar to the AOS)

In total, you study 4 prescribed texts ( 1 for AOS, 1 for Mod A, 1 for Mod B, 1 for Mod C). You need related texts for AOS, Mod A and Mod C.

Why do it?

Whilst I recommend doing Advanced English over Standard English (see below), I have had some students who clearly can only do Standard English. This may be you if:

  • You hate English
  • You have trouble with spelling and sentence construction
  • You have no idea how to write an essay

Advanced English


This course is for “students to become critical and sophisticated users of English in order to enhance their personal, social and vocational lives. These courses provide students who have a particular interest and ability in the subject with challenging learning experiences and opportunities to enjoy the breadth and variety of English texts…”

What it involves?

You do the Area of Study, which is the same exam for Standard English. Then you do THREE Modules (A, B and C) which are specific to the Advanced English syllabus.

  • Mod A: you compare 2 texts
  • Mod B: you study 1 text in detail and critically, focusing on your own interpretation
  • Mod C: you study how representation affects meaning

In total, you study 5 prescribed texts ( 1 for AOS, 2 for Mod A, 1 for Mod B, 1 for Mod C). You need related texts for AOS and Mod C.

Why do it?

If you are given the choice between Standard English and Advanced English, choose Advanced. Usually, your teacher will be able to tell you whether you are good enough to do Advanced and if given the opportunity, I strongly recommend that you take it for the following reasons:

  • Advanced English takes the same amount of time/work as Standard English (it is not necessarily harder)
  • In Advanced English, you are more likely to get better through simply osmosis (surrounded by other, smarter Advanced English)
  • In Advanced English, teachers tend to push and challenge you to get better marks (rather than catering to the lowest denominator)

English Extension 1


This course is for – “students who are accomplished, analytical and imaginative in their use of English to refine their understanding and appreciation of the cultural roles and significance of texts. The courses are designed for students with a desire to pursue a specialised study of English.”

What it involves?

You choose to study 1 Module (A, B, or C) and within that only 1 Elective. Unlike ESL, Standard and Advanced, there is only ONE exam. The exam requires you to write 1 creative and 1 essay response (25 marks each) for that 1 Module-Elective.

This is of course in addition to the Advanced English content and exams (ie, you will do 3 English exams: AOS, Advanced Modules, Extension 1).

You study 3 prescribed texts. You ultimately choose 2 prescribed texts and 2 related texts for your essay response.

Why do it?

In comparison to 2 Unit English (Standard or Advanced), Extension 1 isn’t actually that much harder. In fact, I found it easier! You only have ONE Module-Elective (compared to the AOS and Modules A, B and C in 2 Unit). Essentially, you only have to prepare/study ONE creative and ONE essay (compared to ONE creative, FOUR essays in 2 Unit). So, no, I would not say it is particularly time consuming or difficult. With the whole year spent on the same Module-Elective, you actually understand it in a lot more depth and have the opportunity to improve.

You should do Extension 1, if you are good at Advanced English and are interested in doing a bit more of the same (except a bit more challenging/interesting).

An added benefit is that doing Extension 1 is likely to improve your Advanced English marks – simply by further practising your English skills.

English Extension 2


This course lets “students develop a sustained composition, and document and reflect on this process“.

What it involves?

You independently develop a Major Work in a particular area that you are interested in. This can be creative, critical, personal etc. You can use any medium, such as prose, poetry, web, essay etc.

You document your progress in a journal, which is submitted with your Major Work.

This is again, all in addition to Advanced English and Extension 1 (ie, you will have 3 English exams and 1 Major Work due in total).

Why do it?

Only do Extension 2 if you are interested in creating a Major Work. Although only 1 Unit, this subject takes a lot of time and effort – you really need the interest and passion to keep going. You need to be interested in writing and creating an English Major Work, and be able to do the necessary research to support it.

From my personal experiences, it can be difficult to manage more than 1 major work (I also did Visual Arts) and you really need to manage your time well. Given the 1 Unit worth and the average marks I was getting, Extension 2 wasn’t really “worth” it in terms of pushing up my UAI (now ATAR) or anything, but it was an amazing experience which I would not trade. I loved writing my own work, but the hours and work required was crazy. I wrote so many words (8+ essays), did so much research, developed a website to showcase the work… and it was only 1 Unit! And I didn’t need to do it either – I was already doing 12 units! But it was a lot of fun and that’s the key to approaching this subject.

6 comments for “What level of English should I do? ESL, Standard, Advanced, Extension?

  1. December 23, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Some interesting ideas here. Back when I did HSC there was no extension and 3 unit had only just been introduced. I would have relished the opportunity to do extension II!
    While I agree with most of your points, I do think that it is important for students in the average range to appreciate that Advanced is actually more work and the expectations are much higher – the questions are more challenging and the assessments more complex. For some students this can lead to an overwhelmingly unproductive and alienating esperience. My advice is that if a student struggles at all in English then they should think twice about doing Advanced simply because they will be competing against those Extension II students for whom English is a passion and a joy. I think that for these types of students scaling of marks does not actually make any difference. I had a student who really sruggled but was going to do Advanced because that was what his peers were doing. I advised him to switch to Standard. He did this and instead of struggling throughout the year he actually learned an enormous amount, including how to structure responses and analyze texts and he found the texts themselves so straight forward that he had much more time to focus on his expression and language, rather than concentrating on analyzing texts. He scored a Band Six, I bleieve and in fact surpassed those peers that stayed in Advanced.
    Sorry, I have ranted, but I find it so disconcerting that there is this trend to encourage students to do Advanced Engish when really it is beyond them and they learn nothing except how to regurgitate someone else’s ideas in a presentable manner!

    • tutortales
      January 14, 2011 at 9:58 pm

      Thanks for your insights Justine! I’m glad your student ended up excelling in Standard rather than struggling in Advanced. I guess my opinion is really only based on my 2010 tutoring, where I tutored both Standard and Advanced. Comparing my students, I found that the Standard/Advanced students weren’t that different in terms of English ability; yet, I found that they were marked significantly differently (the Standard student achieved low-mid range marks whilst the Advanced student who achieved in the top half), even though they were relatively similar. Perhaps what I would suggest to students who are borderline Standard/Advanced – is to have a go at Advanced in Yr 11 and then, if they struggle, they can always moves down into Standard in Yr 12. TT

      By the way – I read The Household Guide to Dying on your recommendation! Although interesting, I didn’t find myself moved by it very much… but it was good to read something of my old tutor’s anyway.

  2. Vanny
    April 29, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Hello! I am really struggling in choosing my english course and i am hoping to get some help from you. So I went to an american international school in china where we all spoke english and all the teachers are americans and students from various countries. I was born in australia and i am an australian citizen. Now i am back in sydney as a year 11 student. So my school offers advanced and ESL only, and i really want to know whether i should pick advanced or ESL since they do make a huge difference in terms of the level of difficulty and work. I don’t think i am poor in english but i know i am not that good comparing to my peers and classmates. So I would like to know the answers to these following questions: 1. Am i considered an international student if i take ESL? 2. I heard that the scale for advanced and ESL is exactly the same. Is it true? 3. Which one is better? Almost failing advanced or doing okay in ESL? Which one is less miserable? (I think i will do well in ESL) To be honest, i actually failed my first advanced english assessment in term 1 because i totally ran out of time so i didn’t finish my creative writing because i am just a slow writer who needs time to bring all my thoughts together to create a nice piece of writing. By the way, i suck at analyzing texts since i don’t know where to start and how. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE help here!!! It will affect my ATAR in the future for sure! Thank you tons!!

  3. seerat
    November 28, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    i am moving in to year 11 and i have chosen advance english. But i think i shoudnt have taken advance because since the last semester i have been getting low or satisfactory results (i think i have been getting low results becasue my teacher wasnt good, he justed wasted time and my whole class had been getting low results). so i dont know if i made the righty decision. and can you please tell me the diffrence between advanced and standard english. and does advance english scale you up or not.

  4. seerat
    November 28, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    another question – i have picked advance english so if i struggle at it, does that mean i cannot move down to standard

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