Students in AP English Language often start to panic as the spring semester starts because most of their class time is spent working on improving their writing. In fact,the idea of being unprepared for the multiple choice section of the exam causes them so much anxiety that they would prefer to drown in a sea of red ink than take the exam!
Well, not really, but the anxiety is real—and it doesn’t have to be! There are plenty of ways outside the classroom to ensure success on the spring exam. Here are a few tips and tricks to keep worries at bay and maximize achievement in May:
1) READ, READ, READ!
The English Language and Composition AP uses writing excerpts come from a variety of time periods, so it is crucial that you feel as comfortable navigating a 19th century essay on travel as you would a 21st century piece on healthcare legislation. Yes, that’s over 200 hundred years of reading material, but make it easier on yourself by creating a reading list encompassing writers in this time period that you have studied (AND that your teacher recommends). . The English AP does not have a required reading list, but yours should include both fiction and non-fiction prose as well as a concentration of that ever-elusive format: the essay.
Start simple with your list. For works from the pre-20th century period, include such well-known writers as Oscar Wilde, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Charles Darwin. Then begin to branch out based on your own interests and course studies (don’t forget people you’ve studied in history). If you prefer political works, head in the direction of Thomas Jefferson and Niccolo Machiavelli. However, if The Prince puts you to sleep, try the more creative writings of George Bernard Shaw and Mary Wollstonecraft.
As you move into the 20th century, remember to read broadly: politics, adult award-winning fiction, women’s studies—anything is game. Consider everyone from Maureen Dowd to Malcolm X, Edward Said to David Sedaris, Maxine Hong Kingston to David Brooks and Barack Obama. Try to challenge yourself with difficult authors such as Judith Butler and Simone de Beauvoir. If their work feels overwrought and convoluted, slow down and concentrate on identifying the main ideas.
2) Practice Close Reading
Once you have a working reading list, dive on in! But use each piece to practice the skill of close reading—you aren’t reading for memorization, you are reading for practicing the art of retention. As you read, ask yourself a series of questions:
-Who is the audience for this piece?
-What is the author’s main purpose in writing this passage/essay?
-What are the elements of rhetoric at work in their argument? (don’t panic: we’ll get to rhetoric very soon!)
As you answer these questions, underline sentences or phrases that support your conclusions and note important content ideas in the margin with one or two summary words. Each of these passages should have a distinct point of view, so be vigilant in noting how that manifests (other than through content). Is it through vocabulary choice (adverbs and adjectives especially), essay structure, or tone? Try to read with one eye to the content and one eye to the author’s purpose; this dual focus will help you recognize the many strategic decisions that an author must make.
3) Make rhetoric your friend!
Learning to identify rhetoric in other writers’ work and employing it in your own are skills the AP wants you to master. The basic elements of rhetoric include: writing with a distinct purpose; using an appropriate writing style; addressing and appealing to an audience and constructing effective text structures. You CAN do this! Just break it down:
First, become familiar with identifying these elements in the writings of others through the close reading practice described above. Then, give it a shot and develop your own rhetorical skills by taking a position on an issue and writing about it. Imagine you are writing to someone who holds an opinion which contrasts yours and try to be as convincing as possible using a variety of tactics. Try to hear what they might say to defeat your arguments and respond to those objections.
If writing feels too daunting at this point, try by arguing your point with a friend or family member. Notice and ask for feedback about when you made your point through word choice or specific approaches.. Then, simply transfer these methods into your own writing practice. We use rhetoric all the time without even realizing it, so don’t be afraid of it!