Tips and Advice from the 2020 AP Lit Online Scoring

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Confession: I did not participate in the 2020 AP Lit Scoring. It was a combination of screen fatigue, lack of childcare, and skepticism towards my ability to learn the new online scoring methods. Now that the reading has ended I am happy I abstained, simply because I know I would never have gotten through the allotted 5 hour work day requirement.

That being said, I still want to be a vessel of help for AP Lit teachers, especially those new to the game. For that reason I’ve interviewed several people who did participate in the scoring who can give you some focused feedback on the writing process and the new rubric. Please use their tips going forward in your own classroom, sharing with your students as needed. Make sure you read to the end, where I share a few other nuggets of wisdom I got from the readers on Facebook.

The Interviewees:

Susan – 18 years in education, 8 years teaching AP Lit, 5 years as an AP Reader, 2020 Pilot Reading participant.

Donna – 17 years in education, 16 years teaching AP Lit, 11 years of AP Reading, 3 years as a table leader, 1 year on the selection team.

Eric – 15 years in education, 7 years teaching AP Lit, 6 years of AP Reading, 2020 Pilot Reading participant.

Angela – 14 years teaching AP Lit, first year reader.

Sarah – 19 years in education, 12 years teaching AP Lit, first year reader.

Dionne – 22 years in education, 11 years teaching AP Lit, 2nd year reading.

Q1: What advice do you have regarding the thesis point?


ANSWER THE PROMPT. I’m amazed at how many students do say why a character or relationship or whatever the prompt specifies is complex but rather just lists a couple of devices the author uses and starts writing. Strong essays answer the prompt up front then spend the rest of the essay defending that answer. 


In general, I’d say about 90-95% of the essays I read received the point.  A significant number of them didn’t place the thesis at the beginning of the essay, which is not a requirement, but the development of the argument can be much harder to follow if the thesis comes at the end. I would strongly encourage students to try to place their thesis in the first paragraph for their own benefit. If the student isn’t sure what their thesis is, I tell them to leave 1-2 blank lines and go back at the end.  Essays that did not receive the thesis point generally were wildly off topic or simply restated the prompt without ever presenting any further information about the devices or techniques used in the prompt.


Students should be sure that their thesis goes beyond merely restating the prompt or parroting the words in the prompt. It needs to expand beyond a list of devices and answer the HOW by connecting author’s choices to a bigger idea about the character or setting.


Move beyond the prompt to an assertion. Make a claim, make an assertion. Answer the prompt. It seems to have become cliché to say that. Listing devices and techniques does not constitute as a thesis statement. Too many turn the prompt question to a statement listing devices and do not answer the prompt with an assertion.


The essays with a clearly written thesis in the intro, either as a stand alone intro or incorporated into a broader paragraph tended to be the higher scoring essays.  However, I was diligent about accepting a thesis as long as it was somewhere in the essay.  Many students, however, wrote what they thought was a clear thesis but did not actually address the prompt.  For example, “The author used imagery, characterization , and tone to describe the relationship between Maggie and Tom.”  No mention of what relationship or how it is a COMPLEX relationship.

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q2: What advice do you have on the line of reasoning points?


I taught my kids to ‘come full circle every paragraph.’ Tie in their explanations and proof with their main idea and assertion from the thesis statement.


Connections: Move from one point that connects to another point. Think about connections and flow. Now, this may be quite hard to accomplish in 45 minutes- Practice, practice, practice. This will reveal the line of reasoning.


In general, essays that scored 4 points on evidence and commentary discussed two (or more) literary techniques/devices and that discussion was part of a larger, developed argument (LINE OF REASONING) that connected to the thesis without difficulty.  Essays that scored 3 in this category generally focused on one device/technique or left out key elements or evidence, but still offered good analysis that supported the LINE OF REASONING.  Papers that scored 2 would use specific and relevant evidence from the text but often left out any analysis: mentioning that there was a use of onomatopoeia in the passage without explaining the purpose or effect of that use (with little more support) would often fall in the range of a 2.  Essays that scored a 1 would make casual reference to the text and/or literary techniques/devices without much analysis, or would engage in mostly plot summary with little analysis. 


Make sure each topic sentence and commentary supports and ties back to the thesis. 


Be sure that the elements discussed in the line of reasoning are ones that can be explained fully and that can connect back to the character’s complexity and WHY the author chose to include them. For example, many students chose point of view as a literary device yet did not really address how it impacted the portrayal of the character’s complexity. Simply mentioning it is not sufficient to develop the argument. Choose the devices that you can use to build the most meaningful argument (Other choices that yielded weak results were alliteration and onomatopoeia.) Often, essays lacked supportive details to sustain an argument about the character.

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q3: For students who scored well in the line of reasoning, what were the best strategies?


Addressing the nuances and details in the passage instead of just the obvious tended to “deepen” the line of reasoning.The better essays were those that could discuss elements like irony, sarcasm, and humor in a way that supported the character’s complexity. These essays went beyond the obvious literary elements and showed the student’s ability to think critically about a character whom they just met.


Students consistently showed a progression of ideas or how points built upon or extended prior points as opposed to stating the same argument over and over. 


The students who organized their essay chronologically were the easiest to score. There were some who organized by devices, which was effective if they actually saw how the author uses the devises to illustrate the relationship’s complexity (and say what they think the complexity actually is, because so many just used the word complex without ever saying what they see as the complexity).


Students whose lines of reasoning (arguments) were the most coherent had a clear thesis and connected the author’s use of literary devices/techniques to that thesis. Students need to analyze and not just identify the techniques/devices: mentioning that there is a humorous tone will not be enough-a good essay discusses specific examples of humor (diction, imagery, details) and explains how they create that tone. To get 4/4, the student needed to analyze two or more devices.


The really good papers didn’t just list what techniques they saw and why, they went into how those techniques came back to the main idea.

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q4: What advice do you have on the complexity point?


This was by far the biggest glaring issue that came out of my scoring is that so, so many of the students did not see any complexity in the passage.  Many just repeated in various ways that the siblings were loving, kind, etc.  They missed all the subtleties or just completely misread the relationship. They either do not have enough practice with 19th century texts and their language and customs, or the students just haven’t had enough practice writing thesis that articulate explicitly these subtleties. The ones who did get it wrote beautiful essays tying in the Victorian norms of gender, but those were so few and far between.  The middle ones saw that there was something beneath the surface and tried to discuss that dynamic, but maybe didn’t quite get the depth. 


Students who were able to analyze their interpretation within a broader context throughout the essay typically earned the sophistication point. I think this is the easiest way to earn the sophistication point. 


In class I hit this hard, and after seeing the essays my kids wrote, I know I need to keep hitting it hard. I explain this as “opposing adjectives.” I use the example that my son, who is 10, finished elementary school. On one hand, I am so excited for him to start middle school this coming year! But, at the same time, he’s my baby boy – it kind of breaks my heart that he’s growing up. THAT is complexity. I am both happy and sad. So, I use that as an example and I ask my kids to address that constantly throughout the year. Many of the papers I saw were NOT addressing the complexity.


“Complex” it is an abstract word that must be made concrete for the reader. What is it about the character that is complex, (different parts that can be connected)?  Be very specific and connect one point to the other in character study.


Students should delve beneath the surface. For example, if the author provided physical descriptions of a character, then determine WHY the author would do so. What do those physical descriptions have to do with the character’s internal psychological conflict or conflict with the world at large? Students should ask themselves…what makes this character complex? These are not one-dimensional, flat characters. Seek to identify what is confusing or unpredictable in the passage and then tie that to the character’s persona. Consider the interaction (or lack thereof) with the setting or with other characters. What does this reveal?


The most common avenue for getting the sophistication point that I saw was to analyze in the broader social context. Students who did this often used tools from other course, most notably psychology, to offer a psychoanalytic framework to analyze the character. To get the point, this analysis needs to be pervasive and run throughout the essay.  A casually passed-off reference to psychology isn’t sufficient for the sophistication point. The other avenues of the point were less common, most notably the “alternative interpretations” aspect. Identifying or exploring tensions in the passage was more common. The fourth avenue, being “stylistically vivid and persuasive throughout the essay”, is a higher bar than it may seem to be.  I think many classroom teachers will want to give their students this point because they are generally strong writers, but essays that receive the sophistication point need to be truly breathtaking in their prose

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q5: What other advice do you have for students writing their essays?


Take time to read and annotate the passage before you write.  Have a plan (pre-write or outline) before you begin.  Develop a thesis and muster evidence to support that thesis.  If you are not sure what your thesis is, leave 1-2 blank lines and go back as soon as you can figure it out.


Every essay is an argument. Take a position about the character (or setting or whatever the focus of the prompt is). Then PROVE your argument with support from the passage that you lay out in a logical manner. Planning ahead is essential. Row B of the rubric is the “pot of gold”—use it as an opportunity to create and sustain a supportable argument.


When I first begin to teach the Q2, I have my students break down the prompts into the minute questions and we talk about how many questions they have to answer. After reading 2 years in a row, my plan is to have them address the question of the prompt first – write out a list of evidence for their relationship and how it is complex. THEN go back and look for the literary elements. Again, the more sophisticated essays did not list and apply the literary elements; instead, they discussed the relationship and merely tied in the literary elements as they appeared. Those essays were much more smooth, their ideas and transitions having solid ground.


Do not worry about listing the devices you plan to discuss, instead address the complexity (i.e. a shift) and tie to a deeper theme.  


Study character complexity–make it a standard in character development analysis. Make it real for them. This practice helps with narrative writing and college essay writing. Exercises where the students do character analysis on people they know and/or themselves are beneficial.


This is not just a writing test; it’s a thinking test. Take your time reading, thinking about, and outline the passage before jumping into writing. 

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q6: What advice do you have for AP Lit teachers preparing to teach their students this fall?


Every year when I start stressing about all I need to cover during the year, I remind myself that if my students are reading and writing on a consistent basis, they are moving forward. This year will probably be crazier than most so I’m keeping my plans simple; less is more. 


I know that some teachers choose to set aside the rubric for later in the year, but I think it’s important for students to understand the expectations of the rubric early on. The sooner they can provide a solid thesis, the sooner they will be able to “design” a line of reasoning. It benefits students if they can see the elements of the rubric fall into place earlier rather than later. Teaching and giving students feedback on their thesis statements early in the year will help them to deepen them through continued practice. Teach students to look for the nuances in a passage. Those understated details or images often reveal the most telling aspects of a character or setting. They should not be glossed over or ignored.


1) Be flexible.  So much is unknown, so have some broad plans ready, but be ready also to change them if you have to switch to a new method of instruction. 2) Don’t teach to the test, specifically.  Work on skills that the will help students do well on the AP test, but are also useful for the transition to college.  Writing, in general, is always a high value skill.  Discussion (whether in person or online) is crucial.  The ability to analyze a text, image, film, or speech is endlessly fruitful. 3) Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect to be perfect. It takes several years before you can really comfortably teach any class competently, and to do it expertly takes more than that. 4) Take time for yourself.  Don’t spend every waking hour grading, planning, working. If you can’t give yourself a break, you will risk burning out.


Begin early with small repetition. You want the students to resort to rote memory in terms of how to begin with a solid thesis. Widen your horizons however possible. I try to ensure there is a wide variety of time periods as well as cultures represented. And practice. Overwrite. Have them do 2-3 timed writings, then go through a workshop together in class, then choose their most successful essay to hand in for a score. And, I know I am alone in this, but DO NOT give full grades for the timed writings. This is practice and the kids panic over it. There is no need to make their timed writings a quiz grade. Reduce the panic and they’ll focus on the practice.


Show them the difference between paraphrase versus analysis. Guiding students to recognizing and pondering juxtapositions is time well spent. Conflict often reveals some elements of complexity. Literary devices were named and listed- too often generalizations were made on the effect. Tone is not “used.” It is not a device or tool that the author uses. Tone is created. The question should be, how is the tone created?


From day one introduce the word “complexity” with the texts you are reading. Reinforce complexity throughout by focusing on how authors use devices to shift the narrative (in a poem, in a short story, in a novel).  Tie this into assignments from the beginning: read the poem/ chapter/ passage, locate at least one shift in tone, ID the tone before the shift and after the shift, what causes the shift, etc. And continue to sprinkle in the 19th and 18th century text passages (for example A Doll House would be a good one to discuss gender). But I think even taking Clint Smith’s poetry or Natasha Trethewey can yield the same practice if the teacher really pushes the close reading and identifying shifts/complexity. 

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q7: How did you find the 2020 AP Lit scoring process since it was online?


Scoring online was fine – slightly stressful since we were implementing a new rubric and didn’t have the ability to talk face to face about it. I read so much slower – almost half less than I would at the in-person reading. Part of this had to do with the new rubric and not being fully confident applying it, part was probably due to focus issues from working online, and part was because I was working in isolation. Unlike many readers I’ve spoken with, while communication was frustrating at times, I would score online again (but definitely prefer in person). 


The online scoring process went well technically since they had system checks in place. Our table leader was accessible through chat, email, and we had their phone number. Aids and tools in reading responses were accessible as well. For me, it all went smoothly. The only issue I had was on Monday. I was told it was because they had more raters online than anticipated so they were received odd error codes. It was remedied quickly though.


Readers were given a lot of feedback on their scoring—probably more than is feasible in a physical setting. Also, essays were guaranteed two readers and in many cases, three readers. My process of ”internalizing” (learning to apply) the rubric and assessing student writing was equally as meaningful as it would have been in Salt Lake City. Of course, I missed seeing old friends and meeting new ones in person but given the circumstances, I am grateful to have been a part of this year’s Reading and will definitely participate again if invited.


This was my first time as a Reader, so I do not have the in-person experience with which to compare.  But overall, it was a smooth process.  The hardest part for me was just sitting in a my house alone for five days staring at the computer screen.  Also, because I am a mom to twin 9-year-olds, I had help keeping them all week and the first weekend while I scored. 


My personal experience with the “distributed Reading” was generally good.  My reading pace was considerably slower than at the in-person Reading. Part of this was adjusting to the new rubric, although I had graded Q1 essays using the new rubric at the 2020 Pilot Reading.  Another reason for the slower pace was technological- I found it harder to read essays on my computer screen.  Part of it was situational: I was at home, surrounded by distractions.  And part of it was at the advice of my Table Leader, who recommended a slower pace after the first day.  We were told to work between 5-8 hours per day, so I settled in at around 5.5 per day. My only complaint about the Reading was the lack of feedback and information in the training.  We were not really given a clear explanation about the “star system” that measured our performance.


I went into this knowing there was a rush to determine how best to handle things. And that there was no “good” way to do it completely (as we see now with our schools trying to determine how to open in the fall). I did find it much harder than I anticipated. This is a result of the domino effect of the new changes not being ready on time in the fall. With the new rubric, no one to really talk it through with or get multiple explanations from table mates, etc., I found it isolating, frustrating, and I truly began to doubt abilities. I started with 100% calibration, and then Sunday, nothing I did was correct and I got shut out and had to recalibrate. If I had been sitting with my own peers, I would have had the checks and balances, verbal explanations, visual references, etc.

Additional tips from the online reading (gathered from Facebook)


  • Above all, complexity was the topic most discussed. Define it, practice it, perfect it.
  • Establish the text’s complexity before listing literary devices or elements.
  • Complexity means more than one. It can be found all over, especially when it’s subtle. Even a conflicted character is complex.


  • Analysis of complexity, relationships, or other tasks from the prompt are more important than literary devices.
  • Thesis and line of reasoning go hand in hand. Connect the two and you’ll have a strong essay.
  • You need to respond to the prompt. Restating the prompt is not a thesis.

Approaching Your Essay

  • Do not jump around in your analysis of the text. Organize your essay chronologically.
  • Don’t organize your essay by literary element.
  • Each paragraph needs at least one example. Examples should be direct quotes, not paraphrases.


  • The bottom line to analysis is “so what.” Always answer the “so what” to move further into complexity.
  • “Paraphrasing a quote is not analysis.”
  • To score in the 3-4 range of the middle row, you need to answer more than HOW? You need to answer SO WHAT?
  • While the complexity point is desired, it should be the least important in instruction. Focus on Rows A and B first.

Things to Avoid

  • Avoid sentences that begin with “this shows that…”
  • Avoid analyzing imagery unless you’re actually talking about an image.
  • Never mention diction without an adjective in front. A TEXT OBVIOUSLY HAS DICTION.
  • Try to avoid “used.” Ex: The author used ____ to show…


  • Don’t write unless you have something to say. Better to spend a few minute brainstorming than write useless or baseless sentences while you’re getting to your point.
  • Practice caution when analyzing diction and imagery, which are often thrown around and not properly analyzed. Pair them with “so what.”

For more feedback and reflections on the 2020 AP Lit Scoring, check out Susan Barber’s blog posts on the site AP Lit Help. You can access Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Or, if interested in making a comparison, you can read my own reflections on the 2018 AP Scoring.

Your Questions Answered: FAQs About Teaching AP Lit

It’s the end of July and teachers are preparing to move back into their classrooms. A good portion of these teachers are first timers, which could mean several things. Some are bright-eyed twenty-two-year-old grads, eager to step into their first job. Some are new to the teaching field after making a career shift. And others have been teaching for years but are approaching a new grade level or subject for the first time. Teachers who are new to AP Lit often feel intense pressure to meet high standards and produce high-scoring students in their first year. Furthermore, there are countless ways to structure an AP Lit class and no standardized reading list, so many new teachers feel completely lost.

For this post I’ve teamed up with another AP Lit teacher, Ashlee Tripp, to provide two different perspectives. We asked new AP Lit teachers for some burning questions they had as they readied for the new school year, and we actually got so many that we created two blog posts to answer them all! I’ll cover half of them here, and make sure you click here to access the other half of the material on Ashlee’s blog!

Q: How many books do I teach, and which ones?

This blog post provides answers to common questions about teaching AP Lit from two experienced AP teachers.

Gina: These are the top two questions I see in the AP Lit Facebook groups. I think the number of texts we teach, an achievement that used to be competed about among AP Lit teachers, is becoming arbitrary. A teacher could teach 15 books but if her students never write then what’s the point? I say, teach as many books as it takes to do it well. For the upcoming school year, I’ll be teaching six texts (two plays, two novels, a novella, and How to Read Literature Like a Professor). I did eliminate two from last year’s list to make room for short fiction units. As for which books to pick, the College Board answer would be to find books that are complex, diverse, and engaging. However, I think it’s equally important to teach books you love. Students can sense when you’re teaching a book because you have to, making them less likely to read it. I would encourage new AP Lit teachers to stick to some “safe” texts, but don’t be afraid to take risks. If there’s a new book that you think would be perfect for AP Lit but you don’t know if it’s “AP approved,” take a leap and try it out! And also, don’t forget to let us know how it went! AP Lit teachers are always looking for books to add to our must-read list.

Ashlee: I think you have 3 camps on this—those who read more than 10, those who read 5-10, and those who read 3-4, and you just have to decide which camp you would excel in as a teacher! I give a summer survey, and consistently over 80% of my kids identify themselves as readers. It just makes sense to me to push my kids to read a wide range of texts. I constantly get e-mails from graduates thanking me for making them read more because it helps them manage the reading load of college. We’ll be doing nine novels (three choice, two book club, and four whole class) and two plays this upcoming year. That’s cutting three books from last year to include even more poetry and short fiction than I have ever done! My first year teaching AP Lit, we did all whole class reading chronologically: Oedipus Rex, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, King Lear, Paradise Lost, Candide, Frankenstein, Crime and Punishment, Heart of Darkness, The Handmaid’s Tale, and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Last year, I let the kids choose their whole class texts; out of a list of ten, they chose eight, had one book club, and three choice books. This year, I’m still thinking about it, but there have been major curriculum changes in our lower grade levels, so I’ll be adjusting for that and the new standards. As of now, I’m thinking we’ll move thematically and do dystopian book clubs (previously summer reading) followed by a whole class read of 1984, a Shakespeare play (I’ll probably let them choose), Frankenstein, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, The Importance of Being Earnest, and a Contemporary option in book clubs. I may end up cutting Invisible Man in favor of something shorter depending on how the year is going, but I like to have them read a longer text if time allows. My kids have never had a year where they took the exam and didn’t have at least five of the texts we read listed for Q3 (though I don’t think it’s that big of a deal if you don’t cover the listed books).

Q: How much do my students’ scores matter?

Gina: It depends on your school and your administrator. Most administrators will look at your scores and possibly discuss them, but from a data standpoint. I think you should always look at your scores and learn from them, but never define your teaching ability or your students by their scores. Keep them tucked away in a file or file cabinet, make any necessary changes to the following year, and move on. 

Ashlee: My admin looks at our AP scores, but I don’t think they matter as much as we sometimes think they do. My principal sends congratulatory texts to anyone over the national averages in July, and we get our essay exams back, but that’s about it. I think it depends on your school and your state. I use the scores to plan and set goals for the following year… last year I wanted to improve Q2 responses and multiple choice averages, and we drastically improved on each because I was more intentional on planning for those things! I also let kids talk me into doing a poetry standalone unit instead of weekly poems last year, and our Q1 responses went down by 0.2 points. Never again! LOL Just remember you can always do more poetry, and poems are short and sweet and oh so complex.

Q: How much of my time should be devoted to test prep?

Gina: The answer to this question depends on how much of your course is driven by the exam. If your test double duties as a dual enrollment or Brit Lit course, the exam may not be the best assessment for the work you do. But if you teach the AP Lit course at your school and the exam is the ultimate end goal for the course, I’d recommend at least 20% of class time be spent on test-prep activities and assessments. My class is strictly an AP class so we do multiple choice practice tests at least every quarter and timed writings each month. With the new AP Classroom resources being posted, I am hoping to do shorter multiple choice activities each week if possible. My literature units are also driven by the new AP Lit standards and many of our activities are filled with close reading and analysis activities. Some of my units, like my prose analysis unit and my test prep unit, are purely driven by the exam, but could apply to SAT and ACT preparation as well.

Ashlee: We spend April specifically on test prep, but I do go over the format of the exam and the expectations at the beginning of the year, and the kids do a mock exam in August, in December, and again in April. Otherwise, we’re just a college-level English class, and I treat it as such. If you’re teaching your kids how to think critically as they read and write, then you’re preparing them for the test the entire year.

Q: How often should students practice timed writing?

Gina: My students complete a timed writing about every two weeks. I’d actually like to do it weekly but I can’t handle the grading load. One way to incorporate more on-demand writing is to scale it down. Sometimes I just ask students to produce a thesis statement or a short outline for a text we’re studying. I give them a few minutes and we share in class. This only takes about 10 minutes in total, rather than spending an entire class period on a timed essay.

Ashlee: I do a full timed write about as often as Gina, maybe a little less. And we do tons of thesis statements, outlines, paragraphs or discussions of released prompts throughout the year. I’d rather get through more texts than spend an entire class period every week doing a full essay. That said, they read, write, and discuss at least one text every single day in class. 

Q: Can I see a sample syllabus?

Here’s an example of the first page of my visual syllabus, a version I switched to last year.

We got so many requests for this! I recently moved from a written syllabus to a visual one, and Ashlee has explored this as well. The links to all four examples are included below:

Q: What does a typical class period look like?

Gina: My lessons vary depending on what we’re studying and what day of the week it is. Our school is on a modified block, so once a week I get them for a block period. On these days we start with a vocabulary quiz and a poem study. This takes up about half of the class period, so most of my classes are structured to last about 45 minutes. I’m not nearly as structured as Ashlee, and my lessons vary by what we are reading. Sometimes we spend almost an entire period in small and whole group discussion, other times we move from lecture to discussion to independent reading. I’m usually pretty amped up to start each lesson so I prefer to begin with bell-ringers or introductory activities and conclude lessons with independent reading. 

Ashlee: I wish I was more structured! I’d love to model my class after Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days, but that’s still goals for me. I do start with 10 minutes of reading every day, and then from there it depends on the day! I use the same strategies in AP that I use in all of my classes: learning stations, gallery walks, Socratic seminars/discussions, think pair share, silent discussions, speed dating, circles, etc. I have 50-minute classes three days a week and an 80-minute block once a week. Ideally? It would probably look something like this (though it doesn’t always):
10 min. free reading 
10-15 min. text study/mini-lesson (longer on block days)
20-25 min. writing/discussing/practicing (longer on block days)
5 min. sharing/closure

Q: How do you vary your teaching patterns to avoid monotony, but encompass recurrent practice of the same skills?

Gina: I pick different summative assessments for each long fiction unit we complete. They vary between a test, Socratic Seminar, long essay, project, and more. Each one has a timed writing, but everything else varies. I have also begun pairing literature lessons with mini-lessons on certain skills or materials pertaining to the text. For example, in Frankenstein we explore Paradise Lost and foils, whereas in Things Fall Apart we study proverbs and folk tales. Honestly, every unit seems pretty different in my AP class! The things that do become a routine are our weekly vocab quizzes and poem studies. Those are ever present, no matter what unit we’re in. 

Ashlee: One way is through the volume of texts we read and study, but I also try to change up how we’re interacting with a text from day to day, how we’re responding, how we’re learning… and I’m always trying new strategies and adjusting! 

Q: What’s the best wine to pair with essays?

Gina: I’m not an avid wine drinker, so I’m going to defer to a fellow Facebook member for my answer. She said:
Persuasive Essays: Merlot or rosé
Narrative Essays: Sauvignon blanc or pinot noir
Expository Essays: Chardonnay or cabernet

Ashlee: Where’s the moscato? Actually, Hemingway said to write drunk and edit sober, so I don’t tend to pair grading essays with wine. Maybe that’s why I despise grading so much!

Want to see more questions answered? Head over to Ashlee’s blog to read the rest!

Gina Kortuem has a Masters in education from Bethel University and is going into her 14th year of teaching AP English Lit. She works in a parochial K-12 school in St. Paul, MN where she teaches AP Lit, Brit Lit, Shakespearean Lit, and the sophomore English 10 classes. In addition to teaching the class she has worked as an AP Reader five times and has scored for each essay type. She teaches full time and also runs the Teachers Pay Teachers store AP Lit & More.

Ashlee Tripp is a high school English teacher in Douglas County School District, just south of Denver, CO. She has an MAT English and BA in psychology with a focus in neuroscience. She currently teaches AP Lit (seniors), College Composition I and II (juniors and seniors), and Young Adult Literature elective (juniors and seniors). This is her fourth year teaching AP Lit, but she’s been teaching for a decade, two years at the college level and eight years at the high school level. In all of her spare time she enjoys reading every genre of literature and writing for her blog. You can find her blog, Life’s a Tripp, at and purchase AP Lit and other teaching resources from her TpT store that she recently started.

The Hidden Power of the AP Open Question

One of the most common questions asked among new and veteran AP Lit teachers alike is, “What titles should I teach?” It is not an easy question to answer, as the list of titles listed on the AP Lit exam numbers over 400 now. Plus there are other considerations, such as length, authorship, genre, diversity, difficulty, and many more. When considering a change in titles, one overlooked tool is the history of the exam itself, namely in Question 3: The Open Question.

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A free download of this list is available on TpT, since it’s getting hard to find online!

The first way to use Question 3 is by studying the questions. For example, I noticed over in 2016 that many of the questions being used for the Open Essay were geared toward gothic novels. I switched from reading just Frankenstein to studying gothic novels in a book club unit, just in time for the the 2018 exam, which was geared perfectly for gothic novels. In fact, Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Picture of Dorian Gray were all suggested titles to study. After that, I began looking closer at the types of questions included on Q3 and making adjustments as needed. A document with all of the open questions can be downloaded for free from my Teachers Pay Teachers store here.

Another way to study the Open Question is to examine the titles included in the suggestions. Remember that students aren’t required to choose from that list, so I don’t suggest requiring them to do so. However, the list does inform AP Lit readers the types of titles that the College Board is reading…and recommending. I recently studied suggestions from the 2019 exam and there were three new titles never mentioned on an AP Lit exam before. They were:

Now I’ve got some titles to add to my never-ending “To-Read” list! This list also emphasizes some of the most popular and treasured titles among the College Board. The titles that have been listed more than ten times are:

This compiled list of AP Lit titles is also a free download from TpT!

While AP Lit teachers do not need to choose from this list, these could be looked to as reliable choices. The whole list of AP Lit titles from the Open Question can be downloaded for free from Teachers Pay Teachers here.

One last way I study the Open Question is by looking at what titles are “trending.” I use this term to describe titles that have been included on the exam in just the past 10 years. Titles such as Don Quixote, The Bluest Eye, and The Mill on the Floss were suggested for the first time in over ten years. The most suggested titles in the last ten years are:

Studying trending titles can be enlightening in finding popularity among more recent works. For example, Oryx and Crake was only published in 2003, and yet it’s been suggested on the exam four times already. If one were looking for a strong modern contender, that would be an excellent choice. A document listing “trending” titles is available on my TpT store as well, but is not available online anywhere else! Click here to access it!

I hope this helps explain how studying former exams, particularly the Open Question, can help you make course decisions. Please feel free to download the resources linked here. They are available for free! They are linked below for your convenience.

AP Lit Open Response Titles List

Open Response Question Prompts for AP Lit

AP Lit “Trending” List

Q3 Study Guides: A Meaningful AP Test Prep Assignment

When April rolls around my AP Lit students begin preparing for the exam, a process which looks different for each teacher. Many students get the most anxiety when it comes to the free response question, an open-ended prompt asking students to analyze any novel or play. I’ve found success in having each student prepare a study guide for five different texts.


First of all, students should reflect back on all of the books they have read in preparation for the AP Lit exam, both in class and outside of it. This includes both novels and plays, as well as some memoirs, short stories, essays, epics, and other kinds of texts. Each student needs to create a list of five titles to know, inside and out. Here are some of the rules I implement for choosing titles:

  1. They must include at least one Shakespearean play.
    1. They must include at least one play (which may be by Shakespeare)
    1. They must include at least one gothic novel.
    1. They must attempt to include at least two diverse authors, meaning women and minorities.
    1. No author should be repeated more than twice.
    1. Use titles on the range of accessibility, aiming for more obscure books if possible.
This is a PowerPoint side I show in class to explain the concept of accessibility.

The range of accessibility is a continuum that I designed showing how some works are considered “too accessible” by some readers, meaning that they may be too short, too simple, or frankly too popular. Wonderful but accessible books include To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Animal Farm. Students should avoid having titles that all rank low on the continuum and try to put at least one more obscure title on their list. This doesn’t mean a student can’t write about To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a wonderful novel and contains strong symbols and themes. They should just avoid having multiple titles that are low on the continuum. The same goes likewise for having too many titles from a similar time period or genre.

Here are some examples of one-side title lists, either too simple or too similar. Encourage students to vary their choices and choose a range of accessible to obscure texts.

While it is impossible to hit all of these categories, encourage students to choose title combinations that are:

  • Written by both male and female authors
  • Representing world literature, or works from outside of America or Great Britain
  • Including works by minority authors, including writers of color and Native American authors
  • representing plays, especially those not taught in 9th or 10th grade
  • A mixture of short and longer texts
  • A balance of old and newer books, including classics and those published in just the past 10 years.
Here is an example of a strong list of titles for an AP Lit Exam study guide. As you can see, it is intentionally diverse in several ways.

The Assignment

Once students have chosen their titles, I give them a week or two to prepare their study guides. These study guides need to include the following for each title:

  1. The title, author, and year published
  2. The setting (both time and place)*
  3. A list of characters*
  4. A short plot summary*
  5. An overview of themes and symbols, each explained in several sentences

*If time is a factor, or students are being crushed under a weight of other work right before AP exams, I sometimes allow these items to be taken from an online study website such as SparkNotes or Shmoop. I’d prefer their themes and symbols be written in their own words, but the rest of the information is really for short review right before the exam. If it speeds up the preparation process this is an accommodation that can be made.

In my classes, the study guides are due the Monday of our AP Exam week. I look them over and score them quickly, returning them to the students so they can review them. I also make sure that the week of the exam they have no homework from me. I only ask that they read over their five study guides for 5-10 minutes each day, especially right before they go to bed. They usually bring them to school on the day of the AP Exam as well, cramming from them right before the doors open.


This study guide assignment has several benefits:

  • It clears up a common problem, when students have to write about a book they’ve read before, but they have forgotten character names or important plot events. By engraining these five stories into their heads, they are readily able to write about them at the drop of a hat.
  • In the five years of doing this assignment, only once has a student had to write about a book that was not on their study guide. Therefore, it takes away much of the panic that students can feel going into Question 3 when they are unsure of what to write.
  • It adds a formative grade into my gradebook during exam time, showing assessment for a practical and meaningful assignment that is not busywork.

Looking for more AP Lit test prep materials? Check out my AP Lit Test Prep Bundle, or my AP Lit Test Prep Super Bundle!

College Board & Common Core: A Look at the Future of AP Lit

Yesterday I read a tweet that made me gasp so loud my husband came running. When I read the aforementioned tweet, he was markedly less excited, but even he (a non-teacher) understood its implications.

Trevor Packer, College Board’s senior vice president for Advanced Placement Program and Instruction, began a series of tweets informing educators on the performance results of each AP exam. When he got to AP Lit, he didn’t pull any punches.

Packer’s first tweet said: “The 2018 AP English Literature scores: 5: 5.6%; 4: 14.6%; 3: 27.2%; 2: 36.1%; 1: 16.5%. This is bad news: after last year’s record low, this is a further significant decline in student performance, the lowest proportion of AP Lit scores of 3,4,5 ever, I believe.”

Ouch. Several teachers replied their sassy retorts, all beautifully worded of course, but that one didn’t hurt my feelings. Getting students to read anything, let alone a classic piece of literature is like trying to convince them to delete SnapChat, so I’m not surprised the scores declined a little. But more on that later.

It was Packer’s second tweet that made me gasp.

“What’s the reason for the continued drop in AP English Lit scores? Exam difficulty = constant; teaching ability has not declined; participation did not grow. A hypothesis: has increased focus on non-fiction texts in earlier years reduced student readiness for literary analysis?”

When my husband came running, I read the tweet, then said, “I think the College Board just challenged the Common Core!”

Now I’m aware that taking shots at the Common Core is no new development. People have been insulting it since its inception, and it hasn’t really slowed down much. But this was an international testing service pointing fingers at the standards in the Common Core for actually lowering test scores.

It certainly isn’t a new concept, just from a different voice. English teachers have been expressing their dismay at losing face-time with literature ever since CCSS began its enforcement. Several Twitter users agreed with Packer, saying:

“I said the same thing to my department! I truly believe that the non fiction focus has left the students with the inability to deeply read these pieces not to mention lacking the basic knowledge of terms.” @sonnimarie

“More and more nonfiction in earlier grades’ state testing is increasing focus on that area; lit analysis is becoming seen as a ‘luxury’ skill to teach. AP English Lit needs a pipeline in each school to function successfully for students en-masse.” @JasonProff

“This is exactly what I was thinking. Schools focus so much on non-fiction and argumentative writing now, including in elementary, that our students are lacking the ability to see things abstractly or layered with meaning.” @maestraJOLLY

“It was told to me years ago that it used to be 70% fiction, 30% nonfiction in most ELA classes. Now, it’s flipped. Shakespeare doesn’t matter. Novels are read as a class. Poems are cute little activities. But manuals, articles, maps, etc…those are Bible.” @theteachingcurc

Several educators agreed with him, noting that Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction reading, called informational text in their language, was designed to speak to a student’s entire school day, not just their time in ELA. When it was rolled out, many districts and administrators (and textbook companies) interpreted this to mean that ELA teachers must teach no more than 50% fiction and the rest should be devoted to studying informational text, starting a growing trend of analyzing nonfiction texts. While this movement has resulted in some great lesson plans, (and high scores for AP English Language students), it has also significantly cut into the time devoted to teach fictional texts, aka literature and poetry. Apparently CCSS has had a lot of confusion and backlash over this miscommunication, since they have a portion of their website devoted to explaining themselves more clearly:

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 10.09.20 PM
Taken from the Common Core’s FAQ page

Not all of Packer’s readers agreed with him–casting blame on other trends they’ve seen. Some blamed the lack of reading in today’s students, saying:

“I think these results shed some light on the issue. Kids are reading less overall, which affects their reading stamina, prior knowledge, and desire to dig into a work of literature.” @MeganPank

“If an athlete doesn’t practice free throws, he/she will probably go 2 for 6 in a game. If an actress doesn’t practice her lines, she probably won’t remember them for the play. If a student never reads anything…you can probably finish this statement.” @theteachingcurc

Others claimed that a lack of motivation interferes with these tests, especially since the AP tests occur in the first two weeks of May (I myself can attest to the partial truth of this, since our seniors had to come back after their finals to finish AP testing. Some even missed graduation practice for an exam):

“Speaking from my high school’s perspective: AP Lit is offered as a senior class…so senioritis and a blatant disregard for the course should be considered at least a minor factor for low scores.” @StefanLuts

Others blamed the rising trend in dual enrollment, where high school students can take college courses through their local school and earn college credit. This earns them more guaranteed credits, as opposed to AP tests which are score-based, and still dependent on the acceptance policies at each university.

“Dual enrollment opportunities have to have decreased the number of capable kids taking AP. College credit is easier to get that way, sadly.” @coopercoach

While Packer’s incriminating remarks against CCSS made some waves, I was equally intrigued by a tweet that followed it.

“Part of the issue w/ AP Eng Lit performance: the exam only has one question focused on a novel/play, but much class time is spent on long texts rather than close reading/analysis of short fiction/poetry. Top advice: reduce the # of novels/plays; focus on frequent short analyses.”

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 10.12.50 PM
Trevor Packer’s series of tweets about the 2018 AP Lit results–and their implications

Yes. The VP of CollegeBoard actually advocated for fewer books in AP Lit. As can be expected, there was the expected outrage:

“By all means, let’s read fewer books. After all, reducing the number of books students have read prior to taking AP Lit has worked so well. *sarcasm*” @gmfunk

“I have to disagree with you here. Students can still be taught close reading skills AND full length tests. The MC and prose passage FRQ are chosen from full texts. Teachers can use full texts to teach test skills and still value the literary experience.” @TeachAPE

“Man, that sounds like a TERRIBLE idea. Are you seriously advocating for deemphasizing significant works? And that’s a better plan than revisiting the exam? Wow. Just, wow.” @mtownsel

I’ve given myself several days to think it over and have formed my final opinion: I agree with Trevor Packer.

Put down your torches and lower your pitchforks, I’m not going to stop teaching novels and plays. But I think I understand Mr. Packer’s advice here. In the days back before Twitter (yes, I taught AP Lit back then, cringe) and when AP testing was still growing, AP Lit teachers heavily emphasized classics. Most syllabi contained the same kinds of books, all at least fifty years old, and almost all written by white men. Some of these oldies-but-goodies include:

Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (430 pages)
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (968 pages)
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (368 pages)
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1488 pages)
Tess of d”Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (592 pages)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (544 pages)
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (848 pages)
Absolam! Absolam! by William Faulkner (which also contains the longest sentence in literature at a whopping 1288 words!) (378 pages)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (464 pages)
(I’ve used Amazon’s top-selling paperback versions to compile page numbers, to attempt an equal approach to all titles)

Seeing a trend here? Now mind you, there are other books on that list that were shorter and/or by female or minority authors. But these classic behemoths have held on somehow and still remain on many AP Lit teachers’ reading lists. And it’s not that these books are bad, not at all. But they are long. And, yes, I’ll say it, sometimes they are needlessly long. I mean, my goodness, Dickens and Hugo were paid by the word! You don’t think they got a little verbose in hopes for a higher payday?

We obviously need to be reading novels and plays. But when forming a reading list, my game plan is to diversify my options and cover as many novels and plays as I reasonably can.

I still teach a long book by a white guy (All the King’s Men) and another longer book (Frankenstein). But the rest of my novels are shorter, being less than 250 pages long. They are also more diverse, both in writers and time period (Things Fall Apart and Beloved). I even teach a novella (The Metamorphosis), so scandalous! Let’s not forget the plays, which include A Raisin in the Sun, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Shakespeare’s King Lear and Twelfth Night. Add to that over 60 different poems plus two individual novels (which is where you can encourage your stronger readers to take on the longer texts), and I feel my students are fairly prepared by the time they get to the AP exam. Would classical AP teachers consider them “well-read”? Probably not. But each year, they have many different titles to choose from when the dreaded open question rolls around. And I don’t assign more than 30 pages of reading each night, allowing time for other homework, after-school jobs, extra-curricular activities, and sometimes even a social life.

This is turning out to be longer than I expected, so I’ll try to sum up. Trevor Packer isn’t necessarily saying we should teach fewer books. He’s just asking if we could, and still get decent test scores. If I tried to teach 20 “classic” novels to my AP students I’d burn out (and frankly, I’d be bored). Furthermore, my students wouldn’t read them. Instead I’ve chosen a handful of diverse texts, which I love, and I teach them enthusiastically. When you make a book sound so exciting it’s harder for a student to ignore the readings; they want to know what they are missing! Since my AP scores haven’t come out yet I may change my tune by next week, but this strategy has worked in my favor over the past 10 years, so I feel like I’m on pretty solid ground.

Please subscribe to my email list or follow my blog for further notifications on future blog posts. If you’re interested in any of my teaching materials for the novels listed, please visit my TpT store for more information. If you teach AP Lit and do not currently incorporate an independent reading project, I’d strongly encourage you to begin using one immediately. I have a model for sale on TpT, called an Independent Novel Project, for a discounted price right now.