I became extremely passionate about the value of Advanced Placement courses when I started college English courses at a local university. I realized how well my high school AP English courses positioned students to succeed in college. Of course, the academic goals align since AP is designed to be an introductory English college course. But, from experience in the college classroom, I found it was so much more than that. It was more about learning the skills to succeed in any task that required higher-order thinking. Fortunately, these skills aren’t unique to AP courses. In fact, they can be introduced and nurtured in any course! In this post, I’m going to share four AP Lit skills that all students should learn.
This blog post is written in collaboration with Amanda Cardena who has written her post on this same topic, but with a focus on preparing students for AP English Language and Composition. Between our two posts, you’ll have your students more than ready to embark on their AP journey in their English courses!
1. Literary Analysis
Literary analysis is one of the most valuable skills that students can learn in literature-based English courses. While we know that students can read and interpret literature, we also likely know that it’s much harder to teach students to analyze literature formally. In fact, many literary analysis essays end up being reports that identify literary devices without analyzing how they relate to the whole work of literature.
So, how do we fix this?
Well, I always start by explaining what literary analysis actually means. In terms for my students, I explain that we identify literary parts of a work of literature that help understand the work as a whole, something thematic for example.
Tip: Use Pictures Books to Teach Literary Analysis
My favorite way to apply this definition is with a lesson starring picture books. Picture books work so well as a scaffolded approach to more challenging literature because the themes are easier to identify. Once they understand the overall theme, they can easily identify literary elements (parts of the work) that help us understand the whole (theme).
Many picture books will work for this lesson. I personally love using the Pig the Pug series by Aaron Blabey. This series features a pug, Pig, who learns his lesson usually with trial by error. I give each student a book from the series. Then, I ask them to identify the theme and the literary elements that illuminate the theme. Finally, I ask them how those elements make the theme more obvious. For example, each book has a distinct tonal shift at the climax that illuminates how Pig learns his lesson. This element helps the reader identify the change in the character’s behavior.
For more information on using picture books in the classroom, you can read my blog post here.
2. Understanding a Line of Reasoning
One of the most challenging concepts for students to understand is how to create an argument based on a line of reasoning. For starters, this concept is one of the most important concepts in argumentation in the real world. It’s the difference between effective and ineffective arguments.
In AP Lit, a line of reasoning starts will write a well-defined thesis statement. I usually start with a loose formula that students can follow as they’re learning:
In (author’s name story), (what you’re analyzing from the prompt) is developed through (specific literary element 1) and (specific literary element 2) to convey (something thematic).
Here’s an example from an old AP Lit prompt:
In William Dean Howell’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, a complex family situation is developed through detailed character contrast and an objective, yet honest tone to convey the challenge of balancing family life with societal pressures.
Now, I certainly don’t expect students to follow this guideline perfectly. However, it does help them understand the line of reasoning because we can use it as a method to track a line of reasoning in each body paragraph.
Here’s how a line of reasoning could look in a body paragraph:
- Topic Sentence
- Evidence 1
- Analysis connecting evidence to topic sentence
- Evidence 2
- Analysis connecting evidence to topic sentence
- Analysis connecting ALL of this to the thesis statement
To create a line of reasoning, they will write a topic sentence for body paragraph 1 that relates to what they’re analyzing from the prompt in relation to specific literary element 1. Then, to prove the line of reasoning, they’ll need a minimum of two pieces of evidence and analysis that connects to the topic sentence. Finally, to complete the line of reasoning of the analysis, they’ll need to connect the entire paragraph back to the “something thematic” from the thesis. This method creates a line of reasoning from and to the thesis statement argument.
I don’t expect students to follow this method directly in their writing, but providing this example really helps them understand what a line of reasoning is and how to apply it to their own writing.
3. Using Evidence for Literary Analysis
Now that we’ve established a line of reasoning, let’s talk about finding and using evidence. Before taking AP Lit, many of my students feel more comfortable using evidence in nonfiction research writing contexts. In Amanda’s post with an AP Lang perspective, she talked about the importance of using and finding evidence. Students definitely need to learn to find credible sources. However, in terms of AP Lit skills, we’re less concerned with finding evidence and more concerned with using it effectively. In fact, for most literary analysis essays, students will only use evidence from one source: the novel they’re reading, the short story you’ve reviewed, or a poem you’ve discussed.
For this reason, using evidence effectively is the key. Since they likely won’t need to worry about balancing a number of sources, bibliographies, and citations, they can focus on the most effective ways to use their evidence from their one literary source. Here are some key points that we discuss:
- Introduce quotations with transition words or phrases.
- Use in-text citations, such as the Howell writes, to make great transitions.
- Balance summary, paraphrase, and quotations.
If you’re interested in how I create a writing unit to support student success and manage the grading load that comes with teaching writing intensive courses, check out Grade School, my professional development writing course.
4. Close Reading for a Purpose
One of the first lessons of the year in my AP Lit class is close reading for a purpose. Students generally know and understand the skills associated with close reading, such as annotation. However, they often lack the focus or purpose for doing so. The result? A bunch of underlined words and phrases with no cohesion.
Therefore, we start by connecting what students close read in their daily lives. Next, we connect the strategies they use to their purpose. For example, I close read a recipe because I want to make sure I have all of the ingredients. Then, we move on to academic purposes for close reading. This involves reviewing literary analysis prompts and short passages that go along with them. I model how I close read a passage to find evidence for the prompt. Then, I let students try on their own with a new prompt. You can find all of the released AP prompts from College Board’s website. Even if you don’t teach AP, this is a great way to practice this skill with any student.
You can read more about how I teach close reading and annotation here.
For more tips and ideas, be sure to check out Amanda Cardenas’s post. This post is part of our collaboration between AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition.