Linking AP United States History and AP English Language and Composition

Linking Curricula to Improve Analysis and Writing Skills

In an effort to better prepare students for the demands and challenges of AP, a colleague and I at Floral Park Memorial High School in New York have linked AP English Language and Composition and AP United States History. To develop an interdisciplinary curriculum, we coordinate lessons that give students an opportunity to complete detailed analyses of historical documents studied in both courses. Although the emphasis in one is rhetorical analysis and in the other is historical understanding, we share goals of improving students’ ability to analyze documents and write effective essays using appropriate and persuasive evidence. The new synthesis question on the AP English Language and Composition Exam has also given us the opportunity to link our course work. Similar to the Document-Based Question (DBQ) on the AP U.S. History Exam, the synthesis question requires students to develop a thesis and support that thesis through the integration of sources.

This year I attempted to illustrate the similar objectives of the synthesis essay and the DBQ in a classroom activity. I asked a student to leave the room. While she was in the hallway, I gave the class a controversial issue to discuss: capital punishment. The students began to engage in the discussion, speaking without raising their hands and with little guidance or direction from me. After several minutes, I asked the student in the hallway to reenter the room, listen to the conversation, and join in whenever she felt compelled. In this attempt to clarify the role of the student writer of the synthesis essay, I was emphasizing an essential similarity between the DBQ and the synthesis essay: to be successful on both tasks, students must “enter a conversation” with the authors of the documents and sources. In the DBQ on the AP U.S. History Exam, the students must understand that a debate exists over the historical issue in the prompt, and they enter that conversation just as they enter the conversation in the synthesis essay.

Similar to the synthesis essay question, the DBQ requires the student to formulate a thesis about a certain time period in history and support the thesis with the documents provided, along with his or her own knowledge of the period. The student should assume multiple perspectives, just as David Joliffe advises to do with the synthesis essay: “...the student needs to create an imaginary conversation between himself or herself and the author/creator of the source. Would the author/creator agree with the writer’s position? Why? Disagree? Why? Want to qualify it in some way? Why and how?”

The similarities between the two essay questions are myriad. Reading comprehension is essential to success on both exams. The student must first read and understand the sources/documents, and must understand the claim that each author makes. In addition, the student must cite the sources/documents in support of a thesis. The exam developers have done the research as an author would gather research before writing a book. The student must use this research to support a thesis statement in the same way that student would use research materials gathered in preparation for a research paper. The AP U.S. History Exam does not provide the thesis and presents the prompt as a question or statement; this is also true of the AP English Language Exam, in which the student reads a statement and several questions that serve as an introduction to the topic of the synthesis essay. For example, the second sample synthesis prompt in the Sample Synthesis Essays begins with these directions:

The following question is based on the accompanying seven sources. This question requires you to synthesize a variety of sources into a coherent, well-written essay. When you synthesize sources you refer to them to develop your position and cite them accurately. Your argument should be central; the sources should support this argument. Avoid merely summarizing sources. Remember to attribute both direct and indirect citations.

An introduction follows the directions:

Invasive species are nonnative plants and animals that thrive outside of their natural range and may harm or endanger native plants and animals. As producers and consumers in our global society, we affect and are affected by species introduced accidentally or intentionally to a region. Currently, some people argue for stricter regulations of imported species to avoid the possibility of unintended negative consequences. Others, however, claim that the economies and basic resources of poorer nations could be improved by selective importation of nonnative species.

The 2003 AP U.S. History (.pdf/380KB) DBQ prompt asks the student:

Analyze the responses of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to the problems of the Great Depression. How effective were these responses? How did they change the role of the federal government? Use the documents and your knowledge of the period 1929-1941 to construct your essay.

Clearly, the student must bring prior knowledge of the historical period to the DBQ essay, but both prompts require the student to integrate and synthesize the documents provided and use those documents in support of the thesis statement.

The Similarities of Both Exam Questions

Students of both AP English Language and AP U.S. History must avoid a “laundry list” of details: organization and structure are critical. In both essays the students must engage the reader, present a coherent and logical thesis statement, and provide support that integrates the sources, weaving the documents into the students’ participation in the “conversation.” Consideration of the author’s or creator’s purpose, audience, and point of view are essential for success. For example, with regard to the noninvasive species synthesis prompt, if an environmentalist is the author of one source and a corporate executive of a business that profits from imported species is the author of another source, the students must recognize how each author’s point of view is influenced by his or her position and/or political concerns. The students may need to qualify a position based on recognition that the author may have a political or social agenda. Students are not required to recognize bias on the AP English Language synthesis question or the AP U.S. History DBQ. However, on the AP World History Exam, recognizing bias is part of the scoring guidelines.

For both the AP U.S. History Exam and AP English Language Exam students should read each source carefully and determine which sources support their position, challenge their position, or serve as a qualification of their position. Students may use symbols to distinguish among the sources, such as “+” for a source in support of their position, “–” for sources that challenge their position, and “+/–” for sources that serve as a qualification of their position.

Both exams assess fundamentally similar skills. Students must analyze, integrate, and synthesize. They must write a cogent, well-organized essay, with a clear, articulate thesis statement bolstered by relevant and appropriate support from the “participants” in the conversation – the authors/creators of the documents and sources. In both the synthesis essay and the DBQ, the student must combine sources and documents with his or her “voice.”

The Differences Between the Exam Questions

Although there are obvious links between the two essay questions, students and their teachers must be clear about the differences, which are more logistical than philosophical. The DBQ evaluates content knowledge, whereas the synthesis question requires several skills: evaluation of sources, integration of sources, and written expression. The synthesis question is not designed to assess a content-driven body of knowledge.

The more pedagogical differences are evident in the language of the two exams. The AP U.S. History Exam refers to the sources as documents, while the AP English Language Exam refers to them as sources: primary and secondary sources may appear on the AP English Language Exam, whereas only primary documents appear on the AP U.S. History Exam. Primary sources and documents are records of events described or recorded by someone who either participated in or witnessed the events or who got their information from others who did. The student must assume the role of historian on the AP U.S. History Exam; therefore, he or she is expected to use only primary documents, as a professional historian would. In fact, the expectation is that the student assumes a “historical voice” rather than voicing an opinion.

The AP English Language synthesis question does not require such rigidity. As a result, the student reads primary and secondary sources on the exam. Secondary sources include those that record words of someone who did not actually witness or participate in an event but rather investigated the primary sources.

Outside information is mandatory for success on the AP U.S. History DBQ. Although it is suggested and encouraged, outside information is not required on the AP English Language and Composition Exam, since the curriculum is driven more by skill and less by content. The students are expected to use more than half of the documents (not specifically stated in the directions) when writing the DBQ; they are required to use a minimum of three sources when writing the synthesis essay. On the AP English Language Exam, the synthesis prompt is in three parts: directions, introduction, and assignment. The DBQ contains directions and a question or statement about a particular period in American history.

Understanding the Course Goals and Scoring Guidelines

In the area of writing, the goal of both courses is that students become proficient in constructing a clear, articulate argument in which they “enter a conversation” or a historical debate for which they are prepared. This involves knowledge of content and the ability to craft an argument through the use of rhetorical devices, all of which is critical to the student’s success on both exams as well as in college. The scoring of the synthesis essay is similar to the scoring of the DBQ. A student who writes a well-developed thesis statement and supports it through effective synthesis of the sources and documents will earn a high score.

One difference on the scoring guidelines pertains to the composition of the essays. Whereas the DBQ scoring guidelines indicate that a high-scoring essay be clearly organized and well-written but may contain minor errors, the synthesis essay scoring guidelines indicate that the student’s prose should demonstrate an ability to control a wide range of the elements of effective writing but does not have to be not flawless. The ability to write a rhetorically effective composition is important on the AP U.S. History Exam; however, it is a requirement for a high-scoring synthesis essay on the AP English Language Exam. Once again, this may be the result of a curriculum that is less content-driven and more skills-driven.

My colleague in the Social Studies Department and I have developed ways to connect the learning experiences in the two disciplines. Our exploration of the link between the synthesis question and the DBQ has motivated us to write several synthesis units as well as document-based units that encourage the students to write coherent, well-supported arguments and to recognize the similarities and differences between the two questions. The goal of both the English teacher and the social studies teacher should be to prepare students for the challenges that they will face in college. We believe that the new synthesis question and the DBQ help us provide the necessary preparation for our students.


The following is a summary of the major points addressed in this article:

Synthesis Essay Document-Based Question
1. Use sources to support a thesis 1. Use documents to support a thesis
2. Must cite sources 2. Must cite sources
3. Do not simply paraphrase — no “laundry list” 3. Do not simply paraphrase — no “laundry list”
4. Must “enter into a conversation” Must understand the complexity of the historical issue to “enter into a conversation”
5. Consider the author’s purpose, audience, and point of view 5. Consider the author’s purpose, audience, and point of view
6. Must develop a clear, organized argument 6. Must develop a clear, organized argument
1. Sources provided 1. Documents provided
2. Primary and secondary sources used 2. Only primary sources used
3. Outside information not required 3. Outside information required
4. Must use a minimum of three sources 4. Expected to use more than half of the documents (not specifically stated in the directions)
5. Prompt in three parts: directions, introduction, and assignment 5. Directions with statement or question


Jolliffe, David. “Preparing for the AP English Language Synthesis Question.”

Authored by

Denise Hayden
Floral Park Memorial High School
Floral Park, New York