National Writing Project

Building Bridges: Supporting English Language Learners in AP English Literature and Composition

By: Jennifer Pust
Publication: California English
Date: Summer 2006

Summary: When enrollment in an AP English program doubles, how does a teacher help those students succeed? These strategies proved successful for one.


Three years ago, my high school decided to make AP English Literature more accessible and open to students: we removed the essay prerequisite and summer assignment, and allowed any student who wished to enroll in AP English, regardless of his or her previous English classes. I spoke with sophomore and junior students in their English classes and encouraged anyone who was motivated to sign up for AP. Our program doubled. With the exciting opportunity of increased enrollment and a more diverse group of students came new challenges how could I support English language learners and build bridges to both AP and college success?

My first year was rocky. In my class of 37, more than half were new to AP, and all but five of my students would be the first in their families to attend college. Many had trouble understanding what I thought were "straightforward" passages. Their essays revealed little of the academic language students should employ in formal writing, and contained many of the errors in grammar and syntax one might expect. I tried to stay positive, and reminded myself of what the College Board describes as "the power of the 2"-trusting that even if students could not achieve a passing score on the examination, they would be better prepared for future college composition courses.

I attended AP institutes and realized that many of the strategies I had used in courses for struggling readers and writers could be adapted to meet the needs of my new AP students. I demonstrated "think-alouds," modeled my own pieces of writing in response to a prompt, used color-marking strategies, and set up reading and writing workshops to guide students through the process of responding to literature, focusing on just a few essential skills each class period. It hasn't been easy. It has been rewarding-last year, we had a slightly higher pass rate than we did back when AP Literature was "exclusive."

Now in my third year of teaching AP Literature, I have more English language learners than ever-and even those who have been redesignated as "proficient" by the CELDT and other measurements are not necessarily prepared for the demands of a college-level English course. Since most of my students are the first in their families to be college-bound, I incorporate college admissions essays as the first major writing project and make sure my students have completed the requisite entrance exams. Part of my Open House presentation to parents involves explaining not only the AP course and exams, but also the differences between SAT reasoning tests and subject tests, and when to take what, and how to apply for financial aid. Counselors share this information, too, but I have found that parents and students tend to gloss over this information until the deadlines are upon them in the fall.

What follows is a collection of the most successful strategies I have used to support English language learners in AP Literature and Composition:

Expand the canon. I began this year by teaching Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. This accessible, engaging book helped all of my students build confidence while practicing the analytical skills they need all year. Students looked to their classmates for help deciphering the untranslated Spanish; students who were nervous about tackling the AP challenge suddenly found themselves leading discussions on why McCarthy chose particular words and the shades of meaning associated with some of his Spanish word choices. Including poems and novels from other cultures, particularly those with untranslated words, helped my students develop confidence and learn to learn from each other. Of course, teaching texts from other cultural perspectives requires sensitivity: we must help dispel stereotypes and caution students to resist making cultural assumptions based on exposure to one text. But a balanced canon, with works that reflect students' linguistic and cultural heritages, can help English language learners succeed in AP literature courses.

Use the walls. On my classroom walls, I post all of the literary terms as we study them-color-coded by genre. Students know that drama terms are on the green chart, poetry terms are on the orange bulletin board, and fiction/prose terms are blue. I post charts that record class notes and learning, and change them frequently. Students share in this process, often creating charts themselves-I may pass out a reference article on comedy, or a critical essay on Hamlet as a tragic figure, and ask student groups to chart the work's essential ideas.

Let students discover new material. As part of a recent lesson on poetic form, we took an inquiry approach: I passed out three examples of Shakespearean sonnets, and three sonnets in Italian (Petrarchan) form, and announced, "These are English sonnets. These are Italian sonnets. Here's some chart paper. Each group needs to figure out what the similarities and differences are between these two types of sonnets and chart your results. Go." Students learned sonnet form, and discussed how form contributes to each poem's meaning, far better than if I had lectured about rhyme schemes and couplets and sestets. As students work, I circulate, and give them the terminology to name what they find: "Hmm, eight rhyming lines…we call that an 'octave.'" In doing so, students take ownership of the learning, and English language learners can find the patterns-students can describe what they see, and we as teachers can capitalize on the moment-providing them with the academic terms.

Encourage thoughtful discussion. I use Kate Kinsella's "Language for Reporting in Groups," and "Ways of Responding to Your Classmates' Comments about Readings," and share these sentence starters with all of my students at the beginning of the year, reviewing periodically (Kinsella 33, 141). At first, students giggle when I explain that they get extra discussion points for connecting to the previous comment and using the student's name, but after a month or two, students will naturally say, "I agree with Ricardo-I also think that…" or, "My point of view was different from Ana's, I interpreted this poem as…" In AP Lit, I use a variety of participation structures-and ask students to talk in pairs or at tables before reporting out to the large group. Even when some of my English language learners are not confident sharing their own ideas, I can call on a student and ask him to share what his partner thought, or to report what his group discussed. My students also know to fear the "Bag of Destiny," which originally started out as a brown paper lunch sack containing index cards with each of their names, that I use to call on students. If "Fate" pulls their cards, students can share a comment, a question, or read from a previously written response. This builds a sense of camaraderie among the students as they collectively cross their fingers and hope to avoid "Fate," and ensures that I do not call on the same students every time. I conduct whole-class "Fishbowl" discussions at least twice during the study of every major work (with 40 students in each section of AP Literature I cannot facilitate the whole group to talk deeply about a work at once; instead, we place twelve chairs in the inner circle and rotate through three groups of speakers, while the rest of us take notes and jot questions or thoughts for the next round). After each discussion, I praise students not only for insights about content, but also for excellent demonstration of process-recognizing students who used other classmates' names or connected their thoughts together using academic language.

Celebrate doubt and confusion. Sheridan Blau's The Literature Workshop and Writing Analytically by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen have both inspired me to find new ways to demystify analysis and help students think critically about challenging texts. Both books assert that students must learn to tolerate, and even embrace, confusion and doubt as signs of developing understanding (Blau 21). I use the activity Blau describes in having students first read, then rank, their developing understandings of challenging poems or passages (Blau 36), and introduced my students to the "Notice and Focus" activity from Writing Analytically to help students begin to "search for meaningful patterns" (Rosenwasser 23-24). English language learners often choose not to participate because they are afraid of being "wrong" or sounding "stupid." Encouraging students to raise questions and discuss the sources of their confusion helps build a more comfortable environment and increase the depth of class discussions.

Be concrete and specific. English language learners, like many students, know that they are supposed to revise but often are not sure what "revision" means. I charge my students to circle every instance of "is" or "are" or "by" (indicators of passive voice), and to revise three of those sentences. Or I may ask them to circle "heavy Latin nouns," for sometimes my students go overboard with their fancy new vocabularies, and I find myself reading piles of dressed-up nouns ending in -tion or -sion instead of more active verbs (McBride 2002). I may ask them to add one semicolon, or two interrupted sentences using dashes, or create a telegraphic sentence-to find the most essential idea in their papers and express it in fewer than six words. By giving specific, concrete guidance for revising papers, we can help our English language learners acquire mental checklists they can use in college and beyond to improve their writing.

Show, don't tell. I model every major assignment, and most daily assignments, for my students, and save exemplary papers for future years. Writing the same essays and completing the same projects I ask my students to do enables me to see where students will be confused, and share how I get through each obstacle. The time spent upfront to prepare a model actually saves time later, as I can refer students back to it and ask what they see in the model, rather than explaining it hypothetically ten times over, hoping that my students will magically arrive at the project or essay I envisioned.

When nothing else works, risk being silly. I pantomime new vocabulary and tone words, do "dramatic readings" of plays and poems (sometimes even with accents), and read great parts of the texts aloud, using different voices for each character. I often refer to myself as "a big nerd," and praise others for the intelligent observations they share. I'm willing to risk being talked about at lunchtime for making silly ghost noises if it means that the lunch conversation is about Hamlet.

It hasn't been easy, but each year I have had greater success supporting English language learners and traditionally underrepresented students in AP Literature. Students enjoy the challenges the course presents, and believe that they can sharpen their reading and writing skills. I try to provide a safe environment for students to explore literature, and ensure that by the end of the year, students can read and write more effectively, and articulate their new understandings about reading, writing, and themselves. We prepare for the test, but more importantly, we prepare for the world after the test: helping all students, including English language learners, to be successful in college and beyond.

This article was first published in the summer 2006 issue of California English, journal of the California Association of Teachers of English.


Blau, Sheridan. The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2003.

Kinsella, Kate. "Literacy and Writing: Making the Connection." 2002 California League of Middle Schools, California League of High Schools, and National High School Association Conference. Rancho Mirage, California. 6 August 2002.

McBride, William. "Strategies for Revision." 2002 Promising Practices XVI Conference. California Association of Teachers of English. Mission Valley Marriott Hotel, San Diego. 10 December 2002.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. Boston: Wadsworth, 2003.

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