This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
With the AP® Language and Composition exam around the corner, most of us are now heading into review mode and looking for strategies to help our students approach the exam with confidence.
At this point in the Language course, I like to boil down the skills we have practiced over the year into some memorable structures for each type of essay, which students can then readily apply without spending precious time wondering how to start. If students remember how to unpack these structures in the exam, then at the very least they can avoid launching into an unstructured response to the prompts. The structures for students are as follows.
Every analysis prompt boils down to What is the author trying to accomplish, and how is he or she doing it? Answer this question as precisely as you can, and you have the rudiments of your thesis. Jot down the three appeals as a reminder that every writer establishes voice and authority (ethos), lays out a message and develops it with reasoning and illustration (logos), and injects the language of the piece with something to arouse feeling in the audience (pathos). Once you have read and annotated the text, taking some summary notes for each of those appeal headings gives you a means of organizing the various observations. By constantly asking “How does this help accomplish the goal of the text,” you can move from these notes to an essay plan and then to the essay itself.
The basic structure of an argument is a claim that is explained by a reason, a set of reasons, or a chain of reasoning, and illustrated with supporting examples. There are, of course, all kinds of variations, named and delineated by rhetoricians from Aristotle to Toulmin, but if you have this structure, you can lay out a quick argument as a foundation.
The claim is the basic reaction to the problem. If offered a proposition (e.g. “Entertainment has the ability to ruin society”), you may be invited to defend, challenge, or qualify, in which case your claim is “I agree,” “I disagree,” or “I agree in part.” Other argument types ask you to argue the extent of a proposition, in which case the wording of the question is a bit different, but ultimately the claim types are the same: “yes,” “no,” and “perhaps, if….”
The reason follows the claim and is introduced with because: “Entertainment has the ability to ruin society because it encourages mass consumption and a dissatisfaction with ordinary life that keeps people searching for ever-more sensationalistic experiences at the expense of genuine interaction.” Usually one very solid reason or two complementary ones are a good way to structure this planning. Notice how this feeds nicely into a basic thesis for the essay!
Then, of course, you need examples. I encourage students to draw on self, school, and society when brainstorming: what has happened in your own experience; what have you learned in any of your school subjects that’s applicable; what have you observed in current or historical events? You may not decide to use all of your brainstormed points, but you should choose the best two or three—the ones that are the most applicable and, ideally, complement each other in developing the reasons outlined in the thesis.
Argument boiled down: I believe (CLAIM), because (REASONS), as illustrated by (EXAMPLES from self, school, or society).
The synthesis question is usually broken down into clear parts, with an informational introduction, the actual assignment that contains the writing prompt, and the source material. I remind students that although there is a lot to process, that breakdown should help them approach the prompt methodically and avoid distraction.
The informational intro helps provide context and ensures that even if you know absolutely nothing about the topic at hand, you have a few starting points that provide a bit of background knowledge, perhaps some terminology, and a basic understanding of how the people who usually think about this issue might themselves approach it. I direct students to parse the meaning of that segment to quickly determine by its end what they now know about the topic because of it.
The focal section of the prompt, the assignment, directs you to which argument you need to construct. You will need to address all aspects of the prompt to be successful, and so you should read through it looking for the instruction words, such as “explain,” “evaluate,” “offer a suggestion,” “develop a position,” and so on. You should then mark those words down as focal points for your planning.
You may wish to jot down a gut reaction to those instructions before you go on to read the sources. As you read and annotate the provided materials, be asking yourselves, “How does this source affirm or challenge my initial position, and how might I use it?” Taking notes about the sources in this way helps you to consider each source as a potential contribution to the essay, whether by supporting or providing points for concession or refutation. There’s also always a chance that you will change your initial gut reaction, seeing a new potential position or a more nuanced version of what you started out with.
When you have read all the sources, go back to your initial reaction, decide if you will keep it or refine it, and then decide how the notes you've made about the sources fit into the argument, choosing the best ones to address the minimum requirements. Besides the incorporation of the provided material, the approach to the synthesis is exactly the same as the approach to the argument question: claim, reason(s), illustration.
Synthesis boiled down: What do I know now? What do I do? What do I believe (see argument)? What do I use?
Many teachers like to do some variation on the “speed-dating” activity, where students, individually or in small groups, rotate between a series of prompts at five-minute intervals and prepare plans for how they would address those prompts, following up with a sharing session to discuss the kinds of responses that came up. Going over the strategies above and then preparing a quick cheat-sheet of the “boiled-down” instructions is one way to approach such an exercise.
The next time, tell students that you won’t be providing the cheat sheet but that they should spend the first two minutes of the activity recalling it themselves and writing it down as a reminder. This is, of course, what they will do on the exam.
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