Lutz 11AP - From, 2012 From “The Question of

Lutz 11AP - From, 2012
From “The Question of the Question”
by Renee Shea
Bowie State University
Understanding Cues and Expectations
The essay questions on the AP English Language & Composition and English Literature &
Composition Exams challenge students to respond to both explicit and implicit cues.
Understanding those cues and expectations can result in a higher score and can actually help
structure…essay responses.
Setting Context
Nearly every essay question on both exams begins by setting some context for the passage. This
might be a somewhat lengthy statement to set a historical context for the passage. For instance,
Question 1* on the English Language Exam asked:
In his Second Inaugural Address, given one month before the end of the Civil War, United States
President Abraham Lincoln surprised his audience -- which expected a lengthy speech on
politics, slavery, and states' rights -- with a short speech in which he contemplated the effects of
the Civil War and offered his vision for the future of the nation.
Question 2 on the language exam indicates that the passage is from the memoirs of Virginia
Woolf and that she is reflecting upon a particular time in her childhood.
Other examples where context is minimal might be found on either the language or literature
exam, such as Question 3 from the language exam:
Carefully read the following passage from Testaments Betrayed, by the Czech writer Milan
The important point…to remember is that the sentences that establish a context for the question
are meant to offer a framework for the directions that follow. They provide important cues that
can help students succeed.
The Choice of the Matter
In the past several years, wording on the close reading questions has become broader, no longer
identifying specific literary or rhetorical techniques the student might discuss. Students are less
likely to find directions that read "You might consider such devices as diction, syntax, figurative
language, and tone in your analysis." Instead, they are more likely to encounter a prompt that
requires them to:
"Analyze the rhetorical strategies President Lincoln used..."
"Analyze how Woolf uses language to convey the lasting significance..."
"Analyze how the author produces a comic effect..."
"Analyze how the poetic devices convey the speaker's attitude..."
Instead of a list of specific techniques, directions may include a phrase as general as "resources
of language" or "elements of argument." Students certainly may (and probably should) discuss
diction, syntax, etc., but without a prepared list in the instructions it is essential that students
develop their own repertoire of choices.
Students should have an understanding of a range of techniques that they can write about on the
exam. This will allow them to structure their essay around specific elements of literary and
rhetorical analysis in the text, whether it is poetry or prose. They should know exactly what
"rhetorical strategies" are on both the level of structure (e.g., comparison/contrast organization,
listing of reasons, opening with the counterargument) and the level of language (e.g., irony,
interrogative sentences, figurative language).
Text Analysis Questions
All text analysis questions, whether on the language or literature exam, require students to (1)
identify devices and techniques of language, and (2) explain their effect. Usually (though not
always), the effect is stated in one question and left to the student on the other. For example, the
first text analysis question on the literature exam indicates that the effect of the prose passage is
"comic;" students are asked to write an essay analyzing how the author produces that effect.
Then, on the second text analysis question, a poem, the instructions read:
...taking into consideration the title of the poem, analyze how the poetic devices convey the
speaker's attitude toward the sinking of the ship.
In this case, the student must determine and describe what the speaker's "attitude" is and then
identify specific "poetic devices" that convey that attitude.
Similarly, Question 1 of the language exam instructs,
"...write an essay in which you analyze the rhetorical strategies President Lincoln used to
achieve his purpose."
The first step is to explain what that purpose is, then which strategies he employs to achieve it.
On Question 2, the effect is stated:
Woolf conveys "the lasting significance of these moments from her past;" the student's task is to
"analyze how Woolf uses language" to convey this purpose or significance.
The instructions on all of these essay questions emphasize that simply listing techniques,
devices, or elements of language is only half the task, just as describing the effect or attitude is
only half. The focus is on the interaction of language and meaning, form and content. Students
must explain how the author achieves a specific effect or purpose. Students must develop that
focus as they write their essays with specific references to the text, regardless of whether that
instruction is stated explicitly in the essay question.
"Open" Questions
The open question on the language exam asks students to develop their own argument on an
issue or idea expressed in an excerpt or, occasionally, in a shorter quotation. The essential point
for students to recognize is that they are not being asked to analyze the language or devices in the
passage, but to explain the point that the author of the passage is making and develop their own
position on that point.
For example, Question 3 instructs, "...write an essay in which you support, qualify, or dispute
Kundera's claim." Before beginning to develop their own positions, students must articulate what
Kundera's position is. Indeed, while most responses follow an argumentative essay format with a
thesis and developmental paragraphs focused on reasons, some students successfully develop
more narrative responses to this question.
The language in the instructions may vary from "support" to "agree," "qualify" to "modify,"
"dispute" to "challenge;" however, the task remains the same -- agree, disagree, or a little of
both. (On some exams, instructions read "support" or "challenge" with "qualify" being implicit
since one way to challenge is to agree partially.) The key is to take a stand on the issue in
question, whether that stand is to agree or disagree categorically or to disagree except in certain
circumstances or under certain conditions, which are explained in the body of the argument.
On Question 3 of the language exam students were instructed to "support your argument with
appropriate evidence." On previous exams, the wording was more specific, such as to support the
argument with "evidence from your experience, observation, or reading" or "from your
experience or knowledge." Essentially, students can draw from a wide range of examples and
illustrations from what they have actually experienced, what they have observed in a personal or
public context, or what they have learned from books. Although some might expect that using
examples from literature would be preferable -- a kind of extra credit -- that's not true. A wellwritten argument drawing on purely personal experience can receive as high a score as one that
cites King Lear and the Russian Revolution!
In a Nutshell
Should students repeat the instructions in their essays? It's a common question, and the answer is
probably no, but formulating a thesis in direct response to the instructions is an excellent
strategy. If the instructions ask what rhetorical strategies President Lincoln uses to convey his
purpose, then a solid thesis would state that purpose and indicate several appropriate strategies.
In essence, it's well worth students' time to start by analyzing the question -- precisely what is
being asked of them. Although the stems of the essay questions have a certain predictability of
form, the few minutes it takes to consider each individually pays off in a more effective, clearly
focused, richly detailed response.
* Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all examples are from the 2002 AP English Literature and English Language Exams.