ap literature essay

ap literature essay

Analyzing the Use of Literary Devices in AP Literature Essays

1. Introduction

While there is research documenting how teachers can scaffold the teaching of literary devices, not much attention has been given to how students can apply that knowledge to the assessment tasks that would allow them to show their understanding. In this study of literary devices, eight AP English teachers and forty of their students took part in answering the following research question: How can examining literary devices in student essays and focusing on the teachers’ responses to these devices contribute to further training in the application of literary devices by students? By describing that study and, further, examining reading comprehension, literary devices, and other creations, researchers can then find which literary devices students do and do not struggle with. These answers can, in turn, assist in understanding how teachers should approach the teaching of literary devices.

Although “literary devices” is a broad term, students taking a high-stakes exam like the AP Literature and Composition exam need to know specific devices that authors use to convey precise, literary meaning. They need to know how authors use similes, motifs, imagery, metaphors, and so forth. Furthermore, students should be able to recognize, interpret, and express these devices in their essays. Unfortunately, students sometimes struggle to do so. The different devices can be confused with one another, overlooked, or considered unimportant. For some students, the confusion and oversight stems from the fact that they don’t see why authors use those devices. What is the purpose of using motifs or similes? How do similes help readers understand the meaning behind the author’s text?

2. Importance of Literary Devices

To prepare for a high level of college reading and writing, students need to know what any AP course expects of them; as a result, students become shortsighted and only aim to write what the score will dictate. For example, according to Siddell and Greenspan in their study done around this subject, “The rhetorical method is backward-looking in that, before starting an essay, a student considers what is necessary to obtain a high score, often using the 9-point scale’s rubric-like guidelines available through the AP Central website, rather than what they know about a novel’s plot or characters or any literary elements”. The best way a student knows how to adequately discuss a work’s plot, characters, or literary elements is to use formal analysis, which encompasses close reading and analyzing textual details and evidence.

In high school, most English classes follow the curriculum of a specific AP English course out of either five offered at most high schools. These courses have a standardized curriculum through College Board and are commonly used to measure a student’s ability in various components of writing, including a student’s understanding of a novel’s plot and characters and any defined literary elements. The most important of these elements are in fact literary devices, alongside composer choice. AP English courses specifically are condensed English elective courses that are meant to mirror the upper-level English classes common in college. Becoming proficient in utilizing literary devices and effective writing fundamentals is already difficult, but teaching these in a condensed format can quickly grow overwhelming for both the teacher and the students. Teaching the importance and function of literary devices seems to get lost in the curriculum shuffle as both students and teachers look toward their grades and the individual AP exam score as their true measure of progress and understanding.

3. Commonly Used Literary Devices

According to the CollegeBoard scoring guidelines for literary analyses of fiction and poetry, in AP Literature essays exam scorers look for the “sophistication of thesis, the quality and coherence of evidence, and the evidence’s relevance to the writer’s analysis.” However, the analysis of the effectiveness of the literary devices is graded relative to the sophistication of the writer’s argument in the second scoring category: “analysis of how the author’s [literary] techniques are used to attempt to create meaning.” While it is important to have a sophisticated argument, the writer needs to be drawing attention to a number of literary devices within the passage. The evidence does not require detailed explanation or deep critical thought on a single point, so students may feel pressured to indicate as many literary devices within the passage.

The results indicate that the exam does not favor an in-depth analysis of a few literary devices but instead requires that students be able to comment on almost any device used to construct meaning within a poem, play, or narrative passage. In the chart above, the most commonly mentioned device in any context is character, followed closely by personification and symbolism. The top three devices in essays summarizing a passage are the same, just in a slightly different order (personification also switched places with symbolism). The top two devices in fictional works were also still character traits and, only switching places, imagery and symbolism. The character and contrast between devices seems to be less consistent in the fourth category essays and nonexistent in the fifth category essays.

4. Analyzing Literary Devices in Sample Essays

Two of the essays in this section show a wealth of AP skills. In the latter, Araceli makes a sharp contrast between Ralph and Jack stated concisely, emphasizing one of the central conflicts in the novel: “While Jack’s emerging recklessness underscores his descent into savagery, Ralph’s humanization underscores his struggle to assert civilization.” The first essay in this section discusses an important symbol, which is the novel’s conch, and several students in this response as well as in all of the novel question-response sets and individual essays, compare Ralph’s and Jack’s struggle for dominance. This essay is a bit more general, with one exception. Mahek stands out here, as he does in another response, but he uses his sophistication and utilization of literary and rhetorical analysis devices to illuminate the novel’s rhetorical strategies. He sees and examines how the novel’s rhetorical stance compels readers to consider the treatment of the island.

In the third essay in this section, students are reminded of the importance of Jack’s saying, “All I can do is give you this Bible,” and many students examine the ways in which Jack’s dependence on his physical strength prevent his acting on that message. Abrina and Nabilah, for example, discuss how “the scar begins to develop into a robust, cragged shell that shields the savage, instinctual core inside from intrusion or transformation” which eventually “becomes an emblem of Jack’s attachment and commitment to the state of savagery.” This attitude is refined further by recognizing what he is protecting, his “savage life into which he funnels his fear, [is] one he is more frightened of losing, as if this feral crown, a proof of his kingship, is the only control he has over life itself.” Overall, the novel does not explicitly rely on literary or rhetorical devices, so the student responses show a range of analysis in identifying the literary strategies, devices, or elements most effectively used in the novel.

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, I learned during my research that the AP Literature exam does foster and promote students’ language abilities, but there is indeed a lack of precision and a preference for verbosity. Instead of providing room for exploration and discussion of different thematic layers within the literary prompts, it ends up promoting formulaic structures and expository essays. I believe that both the AP Literature exam and the SAT Essay promote highly specialized literacy abilities that are connected with the writing the students are expected to carry out throughout the whole college curriculum. Explicit instruction toward the requirements of the Literary Analysis Test will then have a deep impact on future academic writing regardless of the students’ future area of studies.

I wanted to carry out a diachronic data analysis to examine the evolution of the use of literary devices in AP Literature essays; the results are positive with a higher diversity in essays from 2014 to 2020, but I cannot ensure nor deny that this improvement correlates with equally higher scores. The most significant contribution I can offer with my line of research is the value of the qualitative data analysis of a highly specialized task in the ESL context; this metalinguistic knowledge is far more valuable than the result itself. If you are a university applicant and are able to see this document in the future, I can tell you that you will make progress if you thoroughly analyze how you are writing. Take a look at the first parts to have a better understanding of the outcomes presented here.

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