WHAT AP READERS LONG TO SEE
This list was compiled during
the 1994 AP English reading at Trinity University in San
Antonio, Texas. Although its participants read essays that answered
only one prompt, their suggestions apply to other parts of the exam as well.
The prompt, which generated
the essays being scored, was from a language exam. The one used for our purpose stated, “The passage below is a series
of excerpts from an essay about England’s
King Charles II(1639-1685) by Sir George Savile, a member of Charles Privy Council. Many in Savile’s audience thought
of Charles mainly as a lover of pleasure. Read the passage carefully. Then write an essay in which you decide the attitude
toward Charles II that Savile would like his readers to adopt and analyze the rhetorical strategies Savile employs to promote
I. Read the prompt:
It hurts to give a low score to someone who misread the prompt but wrote a good essay.
While readers do try to reward students for what they do well, the student must address the prompt.
2. Do everything that
the prompt suggests: This one suggested that the student “define the attitude toward Charles II and analyze the
rhetorical strategies Savile employs to promote that attitude.” Most writers
focused on discussing strategies and never truly discussed aspects of attitude.
3. Think before you write:
Which strategies are employed by the author, and how do they evoke the attitude Savile wishes the reader to adopt.
4. Plan your response: You needn’t have a formal outline, but a little organization will help you avoid
extensive editing, such as crossing out lines or, in some cases, whole paragraphs. It is not fin for the reader to pick over
the remains and attempt to decipher sentences crammed into margins.
5. Make a strong first
impression: Build your opening response artistically. Don’t parrot
the prompt word for word. The reader knows it from memory.
6. Begin your response
immediately: Do not take the circuitous route with generalizations such as,
“The passage discusses Charles II and his habits during his lifetime and tries to convince those congregated at his
funeral that he was a good man.”
7. Be thorough and specific: Do not simply “point out” strategies. Explain how they are used, give
examples, and show how they establish attitude. ANALYZE!
8. Use clear transitions
that help the reader to follow the flow of your essay: Keep your paragraphs
organized; do not digress.
9. Resist putting in “canned”
quotations or critics’ comments that may not fit: You will get a response
from your reader, but it may not be the one you want.
10. Write to express,
not to impress: Keep vocabulary and syntax within your zone of competence. Students who inflate their writing often inadvertently
entertain but seldom explain.
11. Demonstrate that you
understand style: Show the reader how the author has developed the selection
to create the desired effect. This indicates that you understand the intricacies of the creative process.
12. Maintain the economy
of language, saying much with few words: The best student writers say much
but say it in the fewest possible words.
13. Let your writing shine
with idea and insights: You can receive a 6 or 7 with a lockstep approach,
but the essays that earn 8’s or 9’s expand to a wider perspective.
14. Write legibly:
If a reader cannot read half the words (especially at 5:30 PM. on the sixth day
of reading) you will not get a fair reading—even if your essay is passed on to a reader with keener eyesight. Patience
decreases as the reading progresses.
15. Let your work stand
on its own merit: Avoid penning “pity me” notes (”I was
up all night.” “I have a cold,” etc.) to the reader.
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 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.
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 (Sample papers are available in the “Exams”
area of AP Central). 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
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.