The Question of the Question

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Understanding Cues and Expectations

Every teacher has heard a student ask, "But just what do you want?" While many of us might feel frustrated with this question, it also provides a good opportunity to point out to students that 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 students structure their 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."


On the AP English Literature Exam, the prose passage is usually an excerpt from a novel, so the opening sentence might explain the situation. A good example is Question 1 from the AP English Literature Exam, which describes the action and introduces the characters in the passage:


"In the following excerpt from a recent British novel, the narrator, a young man in his early twenties, is attending a play with his new girlfriend Isabel when she unexpectedly discovers that her parents are in the theater."


An open question on the literature exam (as in Question 3) generally begins with a statement that identifies a theme or larger issue students will address:


"Morally ambiguous characters—characters whose behavior discourages readers from identifying them as purely evil or purely good—are at the heart of many works of literature."


In some instances, a short sentence simply establishes time and place. 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 Kundera."


The important point for students 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 well-written argument drawing on purely personal experience can receive as high a score as one that cites King Lear and the Russian Revolution!

The open question on the literature exam requires recollection and analysis of a literary work, and, like the close reading questions, asks students to balance two elements: (1) identification of a specific theme (e.g., moral ambiguity) or technique (e.g., social protest, minor characters) in one literary work, and (2) explanation of how that theme or technique contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. A student who identifies Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, for example, as a morally ambiguous character but fails to discuss her importance to the work as a whole is likely to receive a middling score, just as one that discusses moral ambiguity in general without analyzing a particular character. The essay response must balance both "how the character can be viewed as morally ambiguous" and "why his or her moral ambiguity is significant to the work as a whole."

A last word about choice on the type of question that includes a list of literary works: Students are instructed to select one of those or "another novel or play of comparable literary merit." "Literary merit" may in some circles be a highly subjective term, and nothing in the scoring guide indicates that choosing a popular novel, for instance, will necessarily result in a low score. The point is that most popular fiction lacks the substance needed for the analysis required in this question; if the student can make the case, his or her essay will be read and evaluated thoughtfully and fairly.

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. If the question asks about a character who is morally ambiguous, then a thesis might well indicate that Toni Morrison questions the nature and effect of traditional relationships through the morally ambiguous character of Sula in her novel of the same name.

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.

Renee Shea has been involved with the AP Program for over 25 years as a Reader and Question Leader for both English exams, and has led AP and AP Vertical Team® workshops. Currently a professor of English at Bowie State University in Maryland, she has served as director of freshman composition and teaches courses in composition and rhetoric, the modern European novel, and world masterpieces. She has written on numerous contemporary authors, including Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Edwidge Danticat, Rita Dove, and Grace Paley, and for such publications as Poets and Writers, Women in the Arts, and Callaloo.

Authored by

  • Renee Shea
    Bowie State University
    Bowie, Maryland