An Exam Reader's Advice on Writing

by Conni Shelnut
Lakeland High School
Lakeland, Florida

I have been involved in some way with the Advanced Placement Program since 1981. Having first taught pre-AP sophomores for 10
years, I took over AP English Literature at Lakeland High School in 1990. In 1997, I also began teaching AP English Language and devised a feeder course for 4x4 block scheduling. I have read for the AP English Literature Exam in Daytona for four years and am an endorsed College Board consultant for the Southern Region. Obviously, I am totally immersed in all things AP-related! The creative challenges and student interactions provide unbelievable stimulation and professional rejuvenation.

During my experience as an Exam Reader, I have learned a few things about writing that I would like to share with other teachers. I hope you'll find my observations helpful as you think about encouraging your students to do their best on the writing section of the AP English Literature Exam.

Make a plan. Students should not begin writing until they fully comprehend the prompt and/or the passage. Mere parroting of the prompt often leads to floundering around instead of developing a clear direction. I recommend that you advise your students to write directly on the passage and make quick notes and outlines in the margins. This planning step enables most writers to organize their ideas more efficiently.

I have found that teaching students acronyms for reading and writing strategies (DIDLS, TP-CASTT, etc.) can work wonders. (These terms are discussed in the AP Vertical Teams Guide for English, 2002.) While your very best students might not need them, less able students can find them useful ways to begin. I often suggest that my own students not only mark up the passage, but also use the margins to fill in some of the acronym steps. Although this active planning takes an extra five minutes or so, I've found that it is well worth the time. Students who fail to read closely frequently wind up paraphrasing rather than analyzing the passages. Planning helps them to stay focused.

Begin quickly and directly. Although AP Readers are instructed to read the entire essay and not to be prejudiced by a weak introduction, a strong opening paragraph can be a real asset to a student's paper. When answering the free-response part of the AP English Exams, writers should answer the question quickly and avoid beginning with ideas that do not relate directly to the prompt. The following hypothetical introduction for Question One on the 2002 AP English Literature Exam provides an example of what not to do:

"All people at some point in time have encountered a great deal of trouble in their lives. I know of so many people who have been embarrassed by parents that will wave at you from across a room. I have a friend who told me that her parents did this very same thing."

Such generalities often signal a writer's inability to respond in a thoughtful manner, suggesting that the rest of the paper also may be incoherent or rambling. The Reader might begin to suspect that the student is just trying to bluff his or her way through the question.

One-sentence perfunctory introductions -- especially ones that repeat the wording of the prompt -- also work poorly, suggesting to the Reader that the student isn't particularly interested or doesn't care.

I recommend that teachers tell students to create an introduction strong enough to earn a grade of 3 all by itself. That means that students should learn ways to answer the entire prompt -- answer the prompt, not simply repeat it -- in the introduction. This indicates to the Reader that the paper could be heading into the upper-half zone. One way to help students improve their beginning is by providing them with several introductory paragraphs from papers that have earned a wide range of scores and asking them to identify stronger and weaker openings. Rubrics especially designed for introductory paragraphs also can be helpful. After having students collect examples of several strong openings, you may want to ask them to develop their own rubric for introductory paragraphs.

Use paragraphs and topic sentences. Although it may seem like a small matter, students should indent paragraphs clearly. A paper without indentation or with unclear indentation often confuses a Reader. Paragraphs create the fundamental structure of the essay, and without them good ideas can get muddled. Most essays I've seen that do not use paragraphs tend to be full of confused and rambling thoughts.

Many writers find topic sentences a useful tool both for organizing paragraphs and also for helping Readers navigate through the essay.

Use quotations and explain them.To score at least a 3, students would be wise to make use of pertinent references from the text. Encourage them to use specific quotations to back up their assertions. However, remind them that they must explain their quotes clearly and demonstrate how they are relevant to the question. It is important for young writers to realize that offering long quotes without explanation bogs down the essay and can give the undesirable impression that the student is trying to fill up space rather than answer the prompt!

Create variety. Short, choppy sentences without variety indicate a student who has little background in grammar and style, perhaps someone who has read and written minimally. Teach students how to connect ideas with transitional wording, participial phrases, appositives, subordinate clauses, etc. I ask my students to imagine children making the same tower or castle each time they played with blocks. They soon would become bored. Likewise, both writers and readers get bored when everything is formulaic, lacking some individual pizzazz! I suggest asking them to experiment with different sorts of syntactical devices to help them develop a sense of style.

Find the right word.
An arsenal of appropriate vocabulary and analytical wording reveals a brilliant mind at work, but writers should make certain that the words fit. Some students stick in big words just to sound scholarly. Ironically, some of their papers score only a 2 because they lack clarity and sometimes say nothing of relevance to the prompt.

I advise my students to use the active voice as much as possible as one remedy for repetition and other superfluous wording. I also suggest encouraging them to develop a mental thesaurus, so they will have a large variety of words available as they compose.

Scoring Essays

From: “Similar Literary Quality”: Demystifying the AP English Literature and Composition Open Question by Miller and SlifkinMiller and Josh M. Slifkin

How Essays Are Scored

Readers are coached to understand that they are not graders, but readers, which coaxes them to adjust their thinking so as to align with a predetermined scoring guide that is distributed at the reading site. There are three separate scoring guides, one per question, each of which is developed by a select pool of readers prior to the exam. Essays are scored on a— (dash) to 9 scale each score has a well-articulated criteria that explains why a paper should be assigned a specific score (papers in the 5–9 range are considered upper-half or passing papers that have successfully answered the prompt with varying degrees of analysis, while dash to 4 are considered lower half papers and tend to rely on plot summary and lack the development of upper-half papers). Readers and table leaders carefully review the scoring guide a number of times and revisit it throughout the week. Student sample essays are chosen by a select pool of readers prior to the reading. This pool of readers searches out what is called an “anchor set.” The anchor sets are then used to train table leaders and readers. Table leaders need to be able to understand and clearly articulate and help their readers see papers through the criteria of the scoring guide. Should any discrepancies arise—and they always do—table leaders are responsible for redirecting any misreadings and for answering questions. Question 3, the open question, has some particular elements that make it unique unto itself. Unlike questions 1 and 2, which each have text provided in the exam and are textually driven, question 3 asks students to tap into their memories and recall a text that is most suitable to the prompt. A common criticism of the essays shared at the exam is that students retell the plot of the text rather than carefully address the prompt itself. Unlike the other two questions, this question always asks, in one way or another, how some element of the text contributes or illuminates the text as a whole. The prompt also admonishes students to avoid plot summary and to select a novel or play of “similar literary merit.”

General Suggestions

AP students agonize over essay writing, knowing that their essays account for a major portion of their score on the exam. Understandably, there is concern. They want to do well. I wish there were a magic formula to essay success, but there isn't. I have tried to come up with a essay planner that works, but the trouble with something like that is that it cannot possibly account for all the variables that exist when a particular student reads and responds to a passage. Therefore, this little essay is an attempt to steer my AP students towards a philosophy of essay writing instead of trying to have an approach or a system.
Where to begin?
A few thoughts on beginning any essay

Before all else, as writers we must have something to say. And if it's not important or significant, then it is not generally worth saying. From what I can tell, all passages used on AP tests have something to reveal to readers. Before we write one single word about imagery or diction, we MUST figure out what that something is. What does this author have to say to us about being human, about our shared experiences, about our fears, our sorrows, our victories? Find this and you will have something to say. This something is what I call the "So What" and without it, your essay will be meaningless.
So, if there is a step one, it is this: read and understand the passage given. This understanding of the meaningful, of the So What, is what will allow you to write an insightful essay. When you have something to say, your voice will be heard in your writing and you will have a place to go. When you have something to say, all else falls into line to fit that purpose. When you realize, for example, that the passage from Obasan is about (for one thing) heroism in small acts of kindness, then you can write about the images that helped you see that. When you realize what the author wanted you to know, it suddenly becomes easier to see how she/he crafted the work to reveal the truth to you. You will see, almost as a revelation, that the structure of the passage gives us the universal contrasted with the individual. The hopelessness of the whole is contrasted with the hopefulness of the one. But until you see the human purpose in the writing, you won't have anything to say.
It seems the hardest thing for AP students to do is write literary analysis. Okay, then lets not call it that. Let's just say we're writing our ideas about a particular piece of writing. Why is it that when I supply thought-provoking questions about a novel or other work that the answers (small little essays, really) are often well-developed, thoughtful, empathetic responses that are, essentially, literary analysis, but when I present students with an essay prompt designed to effect the same result, the results are dismal and disappointing, not only for me but also for the writer. I am disappointed because I know what you can do. You are disappointed because you don't understand why you can't write.
You can write. You have simply fallen into the trap of trying to be a writer. Let's see, how do I explain this. When you just write what you think and know, you can write. When you try to write what you think I want (or worse, what the invisible omnipotent AP readers want), you can't write. Hmmm. Interesting. So it is a matter of your perception of the outcome and the pressure to perform that results in, perhaps, a negative emotional connection to the task, making it therefore, impossible!!!! I do understand your frustrations. I do. If I could change how you feel, I would. I guess this essay is my attempt to try to get you to think differently about how you approach writing in this class.
What if you begin each essay, this is step two now, thinking, "I am going to write what I think and what I know. These are my ideas about this work and I have something to say about it." Don't necessarily think about your audience (I can't believe I'm saying this). Write what you believe, not what you think I want you to say. When you remove the feeling that you have to be a writer and simply write, your prose will be more natural, more coherent and will be a vehicle for your voice. This is, after all, what we (I and those AP readers) want.
The typical AP essay (one that gets a big shiny 9 star) will have the following qualities:
  • insightful analysis of the passage (define the effect of the passage and demonstrate how the author conveys the effect (through literary elements)
  • control of rhetoric (you can argue a point: state a claim, support it and explain it; make specific references to the text)
  • control of conventions (no comma splices or egregious errors in agreement, etc.)
  • control of structure (you will be expected to have an introduction and a conclusion)
Does this list sound scary? Why? It's not asking for anything you cannot do. Very few 12th grade AP students have trouble with conventions. Whatever specific problems you have we will try to make right, so cross that one off your list of concerns. You also don't have to trouble yourself too much about structure: think essay, not paragraph, not answer to a question--think essay! That's two down. You have been learning to support your claims for years now, so why would you suddenly forget how to do that? Whenever you state something is true, you must show how or why with textual evidence and you must make your thinking evident to your reader, so you have to explain. Your thoughts are self evident to you (that's why they're self evident), but you MUST explain to your reader. But this is nothing new.
What is new in that list is this: define the effect of the passage and demonstrate how the author conveys the effect. We're back to the beginning now. This is step one: read the passage and figure out the So What. What is it this author has to say to us? This is absolutely the most important thing you must do. Without this there is no reason to write an essay at all. Without this insight, I will give your essay back and say, "So What?" To point out that the author has created an extended metaphor is meaningless unless you can explain the value of that metaphor in his/her overall purpose.
So let's start from here. Think about your writing as the opportunity to voice your ideas about engaging pieces of writing in an intelligent way. If you ever wonder why we read the kind of literature we do, the depressing stuff about human beings in situations that make them think about all the important questions, it is precisely so that you can think about all the important questions and from those great plays, novels, stories and poems and from our discussions, your ideas, your beliefs will further evolve. Then, when you get a little nugget (a prose passage or a poem) on an AP test and have to think about what it means, you will surely have a pretty good idea. Go with that. Write what you think. It is as simple and as difficult as that.
© Dawn Hogue, 2004