Course Perspective: English Literature and Composition

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Authored by

  • Nancy Potter
    Associate Director of School Outreach, The College Board
    Bellevue, Washington

Engaging with Literature

What makes so many students credit AP English Literature as the course that best prepares them for college? Why do so many teachers dedicate an entire summer week or a winter weekend exclusively to studying new ways to teach it?

Among the most popular AP courses, AP English Literature challenges students to read and interpret a wide range of imaginative works. The course invites students to explore a variety of genres and literary periods and to write clearly about the literature they encounter. On a daily basis, it asks them to read critically, think clearly, and write concisely. By the end of the course, students have cultivated a rich understanding of literary works and acquired a set of analytical skills they will use throughout their lives.

Teachers enjoy this course because it gives them an enormous amount of freedom and the chance to engage deeply with the literature they love. There is neither a required reading list nor a required textbook for AP English Literature. Teachers are encouraged to select works of literary merit culled from a variety of genres and periods from the 16th century to the present. While students should have exposure to a variety of works, it is also important to make sure they get to know several works of literary merit in depth. I recommend at least 12. I also advise teachers to devote a substantial portion of the class to poetry. Not only can it be wonderfully rewarding to both teacher and students, but it can also be very useful test preparation: nearly half of the AP Exam includes questions about verse!

Student Writing

The most successful courses offer students frequent practice interpreting and writing about literature. By the end of the course, students should feel comfortable analyzing the structure of a poem or story, the themes of a drama, or the style of an essay. They should also be able to identify various literary devices, such as figurative language or imagery, and to explain how those devices help to create meaning in a particular text. Students should write at least once a week, although the assignments might vary considerably. Some might be informal and exploratory; others might include research or work with literary criticism; still others might be timed, so students can practice writing under conditions similar to those of the AP Exam.

Who Should Take AP Literature, and Why?

While some schools limit admission to AP classes to their strongest students, many teachers recognize the power of an AP class to challenge a wide range of students. For that reason, many schools embrace an open admission policy that requires only a strong motivation and the desire to work hard. All students who want to strengthen their analytical thinking, reading, and writing skills belong in AP English Literature.

Learning More About Teaching the Course

Many valuable resources exist to help teachers prepare for the challenge of teaching AP English Literature. Among the most valuable are weekend workshops and weeklong Summer Institutes. At workshops and institutes, teachers who are new to AP can learn the basics, and teachers with experience can refine their skills and share ideas. The workshops also offer a good opportunity to learn AP holistic scoring, which is an excellent evaluative tool. Search Institutes and Workshops on AP Central for workshops and institutes in your area. If you haven’t done so already, join the AP English Teacher Community, where you can find ideas, materials, and share experiences with AP English teachers from around the globe.

AP English Literature may be one of the most challenging courses you will ever teach. In my experience, it is also the most rewarding.