Top Reading Techniques for the AP English Language and Composition Exam

April 3, 2024
Top Reading Techniques for the AP English Language and Composition Exam

By this time in your school career you’ve probably taken numerous tests like the SATs or ACTs for which you have read passages like those on the AP English exam and answered multiple-choice questions. No doubt you’ve developed certain techniques of test taking and have observed that there is no technique that serves everyone equally. What works for others may not work for you, and vice versa. 

Nevertheless, it’s helpful to know which techniques help you do your best. Prepare for the exam by trying the alternatives described below. Experiment with each one as you prepare for the AP English Language and Composition exam. Gradually, you’ll discover which technique, or combination of techniques, you can count on. Lean on them and ignore the others.

AP English Language and Composition Reading Technique #1:

Read the passage in its entirety.

Keep in mind that the AP exam is not solely a test of reading comprehension. You need to know what the passages say, of course, but the questions pertain more to the whys and hows of the text than to its whats. For example, you may be asked to figure out why the author began a paragraph with a series of questions or with a particular quotation. Other questions may ask you how the author built an argument supporting, say, the value of social conformity. During your first reading of the passage, then, don’t slow down to figure out nuances of meaning that in the end may be irrelevant to the questions. Rather, read for the big picture—an overall sense of the piece. Having an overview of the whole passage in mind when you start to answer the questions may ultimately be a time saver because you won’t be starting from scratch. Familiarity with the passage, however slight or superficial, is apt to work in your favor. 

Rhetoric passages have numbered lines. Because the questions invariably refer to those line numbers, use the questions as a kind of roadmap to identify the places in the text that you’ll definitely need to read and analyze. Although you mustn’t ignore the rest of the passage, concentrating on the question-related lines could serve you well. 

The same applies to the writing passages, in which each sentence is numbered. As you proceed through each passage, circle the numbers of those that relate to questions. To answer many of the writing questions, you’ll most likely have to consider the context in which a sentence appears, but not always. You may also find sections of the passage with no questions at all relating to them. A quick glance at them may be all that’s necessary. Later, however, as you search for correct answers, knowing the details may become indispensable.

AP English Language and Composition Reading Technique #2:

Skim the passage.

To get the general idea of the passage, read faster than you normally would. Try only to identify the general topic and the approach used by the author: Is the passage formal or informal? Personal or objective? Is it mainly a narrative? A description? An argument for or against some issue? The answers to these questions will be fairly apparent during a quick read-through. Make a mental note of any unusual words and phrases. Read intently enough to get an impression of the content and writing style of the passage, but don’t dawdle. Then, as you answer the questions, refer to the passage.

AP English Language and Composition Reading Technique #3:

Read twice.

Skim the passage for a general impression; then go back and read it more thoroughly, using your pencil to mark the passage and take notes. Two readings, one fast and one slow, allow you to pick out features of language and rhetoric that you might overlook during a single reading. Why? Because during the first reading you’ll be discovering what the passage is about, and during the second you’ll be able to focus on the features that contribute to its overall meaning and effect. After your second reading, proceed to the questions and then refer to the passage to check your answers.

AP English Language and Composition Reading Technique #4:

Read only the questions.

Do not look at the answer choices. Because it’s virtually impossible to remember 8, 9, or more questions about material you haven’t read, go through the questions quickly—only to become acquainted with the kinds of information you are expected to draw out of the pas- sage. Label each question with a notation: “MI” (main idea), “T” (tone), “POV” (point of view), “SS” (sentence structure), and so on. (Or you can devise your own system.) When you are tuned into the questions beforehand, you’ll read the passage more purposefully. 

Some students methodically read one question, then scour the passage in search of the answer before moving on to the next question. Before they know it, time has run out, and they are far from finishing. Moreover, such a fragmented approach reduces the likelihood of grasping the overall point of the passage.

How to Increase Your Reading Power

Strong readers often get that way by habitually analyzing what they read word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. They recognize that good authors carefully select every syllable they write, leaving nothing to chance—not the words, the sentences, the punctuation, the footnotes, the order and content of paragraphs, nor the overall structure of their work. Every bit of their prose has a point and purpose. 

Your job on the AP exam is to read the passages and analyze how they were written and how they might be revised. The good news is that you can train yourself to make insightful analyses by dissecting whatever you read. Practice with a pencil in hand, and as you read almost any respectable piece of prose, jot down reasons why the author chose particular words and details. Examine sentence structure and the sequence of ideas. Identify how the author creates a tone and develops a main idea. 

Like every other worthwhile skill, annotating a passage in this manner takes time, and to do it well takes even more time, especially at the start. It can be burdensome, frustrating, and even discouraging, but just a single reasonably astute insight can beget another and another after that. With regular practice, close reading can become almost addictive. Laying bare an author’s creative process has whet the appetite of many students who now do it all the time. Even better, a heightened awareness of the reasons behind every choice that an author has made will lift your score on the AP exam. And perhaps even more important in the long run, it’s likely to raise the level and maturity of your own writing. Considering all these potential rewards, how can you not try it?

Here’s how to get started as an annotator: 

  • Condense the main idea of whatever you read into a pithy sentence or two. (You might even jot down a brief summary.) If you can clearly and accurately identify the thesis, you’ve come a long way. Sometimes the thesis will be stated outright. In that case, underline or highlight it in some way. If the thesis is only implied by content, however, put it into your own words. Writing it down on paper or on a computer screen is a sure sign that you’re serious about finding the essence of a passage. 
  • Look for clues to the author’s attitude, purpose, and intent. Is the passage meant largely to entertain? To inform? To provoke controversy? To inspire or to enlighten the reader? Does the author have a bias, an ax to grind, an ulterior motive? It’s hard to conceive of a piece of writing in which the author’s attitude is totally hidden. 
  • Analyze structure. Which ideas come first? Second? Third? Is there a reason for the sequence of ideas? How are ideas linked to each other? Does the end contain echoes of earlier ideas? 
  • Examine how the author creates an effect on the reader. Study word choice, sentence structure and length, the order of ideas, figures of speech, the use of rhythm and sound. How does the author keep you interested? Is the writing formal or informal? Is the author friendly or stand-offish, enthusiastic or cool? 
  • Think about the author’s qualifications to write on a topic. Details usually reveal the authority of the writer. Authors who don’t know what they are talking about often hide behind prose top-heavy with generalities. Study the footnotes, if any. Do they refer to sources that are reliable and up-to-date? 
  • Become an annotator. Mark up passages profusely, writing in margins and underlining noteworthy ideas and features.