AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Diction

AP* Lit skill 5.B, explain the function of words and phrases in a text, seems to function as a bit of a catch-all. When looking at the subordinate questions related to the skill, it mentions ambiguity, connotations, alliteration, hyperbole, antecedents, and plenty more. If I had to bottle this skill up in a single word, I’d call it diction. Now, I’m going to acknowledge that AP® readers hate the word diction, mostly because it’s misused and over-analyzed. However, analysis of diction is important and encompasses many important AP® Lit analytical skills, so we press on.

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Teaching Ambiguity through The Sopranos

Trust me, this makes sense. The key to analyzing diction is discussing the associations and ambiguity of a writer’s chosen words. When looking at the skill 5.B, the word that struck me most was ambiguity. I started thinking of ambiguous scenes in movies, and I considered the endings of Birdman, Intersteller, Inception, and The Shining. Ultimately, I chose the series finale to the hit show The Sopranos, which puzzled and ultimately enraged viewers when it aired in 2007.

To introduce the idea of ambiguity, let your students watch the last five minutes of the finale. Little context is needed–it’s just Tony Soprano, infamous mob boss, waiting in a diner to meet his family, who arrives one by one.

We Finally Know What Happened To Tony Soprano In That Final Diner Scene
This is the final 5 minutes of the show, The Sopranos. It’s known as one of the most ambiguous endings in television history.

After watching, ask your students what happened after the blackout. The obvious answer seems to be that Tony’s daughter, Meadow, walks in through the front door. However, the whole season, and in fact the series, has built up tension that a rival mobster will take Tony out. What people or actions in the clip are ambiguous, and could support this possibility? Watch the clip again, if time allows, this time looking for ambiguous events that support this theory.

Focus Poem & Questions

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It was hard to select a poem for this skill, mostly because it encompasses so many different literary elements without highlighting a specific one. I got some ideas on Facebook but none of the poems suggested were in my “wheelhouse,” or I’d earmarked them for different skills later on. In desperation, I looked to the AP® Lit CED (or, more accurately, I opened the binder) and looked up the skill and its suggested instructional activities. College Board paired this skill with Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B.”

In-class Analysis of Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B”

Rather than offering up a set of discussion questions as I usually do, I’m going to lean into the ambiguity of the skill (did you see what I did there?). Ask your class these two questions:

  1. What literary elements are present in this poem?
  2. What is the function or impact of each literary element?

Analysis of Function

Something I’ve learned since embracing the CED and all of its changes is the effect of the word “function.” Recently in our study of Frankenstein, I embraced this on a quiz. Rather than ask students to describe Henry Clerval, Elizabeth, Justine, and Victor’s mother, I asked them to describe their function in the story. Their answers were insightful and filled with analysis. Clerval, rather than being just Victor’s best friend, became his foil. Elizabeth was Victor’s link to home and his moral compass. Justine represented the consequence of Victor’s actions and a symbol of guilt. And Victor’s mother was the catalyst for Victor’s endeavors at reanimation of life. For the first time, my students were thinking in terms of scope and purpose, rather than simply plot and character. This is why I encourage the analysis of a word’s function.

In studying “Theme for English B,” I’d prefer to hand the reins to the students. The issue with diction as a skill is that every poem contains diction by default. But if we ask them to look for any kind of literary element, we essentially will study diction. This poem is filled with literary elements. Ask them what they identified? More importantly, which elements are important and why? What function did they offer in enhancing the poem’s message? What specific words or phrases are connected to these literary terms, and to the crucial message of the poem?

I don’t have much of a teacher’s guide for you this time, because this activity is so open-ended. If this strategy doesn’t work for you, you can always fall back on the CED activity, which is to ask students to highlight the ambiguous phrases from the poem and ask them how the phrases are both literal and figurative.

Suggested Poems for Studying FIG 5.B

  • “Pathedy of Manners” by Ellen Kay
  • “Mushrooms” or “The Bee Meeting” by Sylvia Plath
  • “Salute” by Oliver Pitcher
  • “Anyone Who Lived in a Pretty How Town” by ee cummings
  • “To the Mercy Killers” by Dudley Randall
  • “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • Sonnet 12 by William Shakespeare
  • “A Lady” by Amy Lowell
  • “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
  • “Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath
  • “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
  • “Lenore” by Edgar Allan Poe
  • “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth
AP Skill Spotlights
Looking for other lessons to help with AP® Lit skills? Check out the rest of them here.

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