Last year after AP scores were released, Trevor Packer made a shocking observation: the AP Literature and Composition scores nationwide in 2018 were the lowest they’ve ever been.
What had led to this cataclysmic decline? Mr. Packer offered a variety of theories: It was the result of too much nonfiction in the earlier grades, too little student reading, too much of a focus on novels rather than short excerpts of text, etc.
Finally, Trevor Packer noted that close reading (the primary skill tested on the AP Exam) had declined and – while I disagreed with his assertions that we should teach less novels (blasphemy to a lit-loving English teacher) – I realized the way that I was teaching novels had to change. I needed to equip my students with better reading strategies in order to build their reading comprehension and their understanding of the nuance of specific passages of text.
Thus began my quest to revolutionize the way I dealt with close reading, comprehension, and reading strategies in my AP Literature and Composition classroom.
Approach #1: Leverage Syntax as a Comprehension Tool (specifically in regards to poetry)
The first strategy I tried was using grammar as a tool to enhance reading comprehension. I remembered when I encountered Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in college. For some reason, the king’s syntax just did not mesh with my brain and I knew I had to take an active approach to my reading comprehension, so I circled the subject of each sentence and underlined all “describing words” referring to the subject an it helped.
With my AP students, we did the same thing. We read some complex Shakespearean poems and boxed in the subject and predicate, which helped, but didn’t go far enough. My students struggled to identify where Shakespeare’s ideas began and ended, so I had them go through and place a box around the entirety of the sentence. As simple as it was, this really helped and my students began to ask for more, similar strategies to comprehend complex texts.
Approach #2: Model strong comprehension strategies using a model and then give students the opportunity to lead.
I had never heard of the “Reciprocal Teaching” comprehension strategy until recently, but it has already made such a big influence on my teaching this year and has already really helped my students.
First, you introduce students to the method by modeling the process: I began by handing my students an excerpt of To the Lighthouse with a fake AP Prose Analysis prompt and then had them predict what the passage would be about. This primed them to consider what was significant in the passage and what they should be looking for. They realized they were looking for information about a complex relationship and some hypothesized that the relationship might be related to the lighthouse itself.
After this, students read the text and prepare to paraphrase the text. I have the students do this section out loud and use it as a lead in for them to make observations about the text, then guiding them through the analysis process, asking them to consider structure, selection of detail, figurative language, and tone. As students made observations, like “she uses a simile to compare Mrs. Ramsay to nature,” I asked them deepening questions, like how the connotations of the word choice impacted meaning and why Woolf would choose to include such a comparison.
Then, once we’ve debriefed on the passage, comes the exciting part. I ask students to “teach” their peers a passage like I did, through asking guided questions to help their peers comprehend the text. Students study their assigned passage in groups, research and anticipate possible areas of confusion, and formulate questions that will guide their peers to meaningful answers. It’s metacognitive magic and it does wonders for their comprehension!
Approach #3: Still in progress…
Beyond these strategies, I’m continuing to research and come up with ideas on how to meet my students where they are. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, leave them in the comments below. I would love to hear what you do?