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Teaching Conundrum: Writing Skills

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

As any teacher knows, student writing skills vary widely in every class, and we incorporate this broad spectrum into our instruction. But what do we do when students enter upper-level classes without the skills necessary to be able to keep up with the fast-paced curriculum?  Specifically, what do we do when a student enters AP® Literature without strong analytical writing skills? What tools and resources can we introduce to these students so that we don’t have to drop everything and reteach writing?

These are tough questions, and there’s obviously no one right answer. So I’ll address a few strategies:

AP® Sample Responses and Commentary

As an AP® teacher, you have the best tool there is at your disposal: AP® Central. From there, retrieve any and all practice exams and sample responses and commentary (AP® Lit, AP® Lang). Read through the sample responses with your class, starting with the lowest-scoring essays and working up to the highest. Before revealing the AP® score and feedback, have students guess the score. Then reveal the score and the commentary. This gives students a glimpse of the differences between low- and high-scoring essays so that they can work toward a higher score in their own responses.

Once students have a sense of what a high score encompasses, have them try their hand by responding to a different AP® prompt. Then go over the sample responses from that prompt, have students score each other’s responses based on the AP® rubric, and have them compare their essays to the sample responses. To take it further:

  • Students can anonymously grade, and give written feedback on, each other’s essays.
  • Students can choose the best essay in each group to read aloud.
  • Students can discuss why that particular essay is a good example.

In addition to the sample responses and commentary, teachers can also find several writing resources on the AP® English Language and Composition Course Home Page, including “Resources for Writers and Writing Instructors” by Jack Lynch, and on the AP® English Literature and Composition Course Home Page, including “The Language of Literary Analysis” by Carol Jago.

Grammar Glossing

Grammar glossing is not a new concept, but it remains an effective way to address the varying writing weaknesses of students without having to reteach grammar. Essentially, instructors give written feedback on the grammar in student essays. For each weakness, students must refer to various grammar instructional texts to find the rule addressing it. They write out the applicable rule and revise their writing accordingly. If students need additional practice, you might have them do exercises on their own time, for instance on a free site like Exercise Central.


Annotation is an essential reading strategy, but it can also be used to improve writing. It facilitates analysis of not only the content but the rhetorical and stylistic strategies writers use. Urge students to mark what they like about the piece they’re reading, and to then use those strategies in their own writing. Using their annotated text as a reference, students can also participate in a Socratic Seminar to further examine and discuss the writing strategies used in the text (and hopefully in their future writing).

Literary Criticism

Many AP® English students are still uncertain about writing literary criticism. They have never really examined a text’s context and syntax and have no idea how to read with a critical eye, much less write with one. One useful strategy is to share various published literary criticisms (along with the work being criticized) with the class, then have them break the work down for its analytical properties. Some classes already read George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” which is a great place to start since many real-world literary criticisms can be found on line, and even papers that aren’t from reputable sources can be useful examples both for what to do and what not to do. You might also choose to use past students’ essays or the many high-scoring essays from AP® Central.

Once students’ confidence is boosted, give them a new, shorter text to analyze on their own (using a similar technique and syntax to that of the previous critique). This urges students to incorporate the high-level analytical strategies of the literary critic into their own writing. Have students share these with the class and use them as the basis for their longer essays. You can also conduct this strategy in groups, pairing the higher-level students with those still struggling to grasp the analytical concepts of writing.

What resources and strategies do you use to “up the writing ante” in your classrooms?

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.