Course Perspective: English Language and Composition

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Authored by

  • Sylvia Sarrett
    Hillsborough High School
    Tampa, Florida

A Focus on Rhetoric

What makes AP English Language and Composition different from other high school English courses is its focus on rhetoric. While promoting writing in many contexts for a variety of purposes, nonfiction texts and contexts take center stage. Students think deeply about language as a persuasive tool and about the dynamic relationship of writer, context, audience, and argument.

A Nonfiction Perspective

Those of us used to teaching literature need to adjust our perspective and revise our teaching techniques when we take on the AP English Language course, and refocus our materials to the real world of nonfiction. When we talk about familiar techniques of diction, syntax, imagery, and tone, we need to help students see how persuasive writers marshal these devices in service of argument. When we talk about audience, we need to get students thinking about particular audiences and specific contexts for writing, rather than presuming a general audience as we usually do for literature.

The works chosen for the questions on the essay section of the examination help us see the difference between the two courses. With few exceptions, the sample passages printed in the 2003-2004 AP English Course Description come from nonfiction: a speech by Queen Elizabeth I, a selection from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, correspondence between staff at the Coca-Cola company and Grove Press, an encyclopedia entry on the Okefenokee Swamp, and essays by Kincaid and Postman. Although the open-ended question model is based on an excerpt from Antigone, the student is asked to perform a rhetorical task: to “think about the implications of the quotation” and to “explore the validity of the assertion.”

Some Ideas for Teaching the Course

AP English Language can be organized in a variety of ways: by rhetorical modes and aims, by chronology, even by theme. Be sure to provide subject matter that is wide and varied, giving students the opportunity to explore a rich variety of texts. Have students read prose from different periods, prose that has been written for a variety of purposes, and that uses a variety of conventions. I also suggest you give students a wide range of writing tasks to help them learn to write for different audiences and for different purposes.

This “finding the argument” and “making their own arguments” is often new for students, so give them time for reading, thinking, and writing. Reading time allows them to begin to recognize the various shapes and parts of an argument. Thinking time helps them explore issues, think about logical reasoning, and begin to understand appeals and rhetorical modes. Writing time provides them with the opportunity to work through the process of creating an argument. Most importantly, introduce your students to rhetorical terms and tasks: make sure they have a working vocabulary in rhetoric. Invite them to internalize Aristotle’s three modes of logos, ethos, and pathos as elements that control persuasion. Ask them to refute, defend, or challenge.

Learning More About Teaching AP English Language

I strongly recommend attending at least one College Board workshop during the school year. One-day and weekend workshops are offered throughout the country and can provide a wonderful way to learn more about teaching the English Language course. During the workshops, experienced teachers clarify the difference between the English Literature and English Language courses, guide you through the process of developing your course, explain the exam and how it is scored, and much more. Many teachers say they not only learn valuable information about the course and the exam, but that they also appreciate the chance to meet and work with other AP teachers in their field. During the summer, you may want to attend a weeklong AP Summer Institute for more intensive training. Search Institutes and Workshops on AP Central to find dates and locations for professional development in your area. If you haven’t done so already, I also suggest you join the AP English Teacher Community, where you can join a daily discussion with AP English teachers from around the globe. It is a wonderful forum for sharing ideas, materials, and experiences.