What’s the difference between AP® English Language and English Literature?

When deciding on which AP® classes you should take, you might find yourself wondering:

What’s REALLY the difference between AP® English Language and English Literature anyway?

Great question! While the two share a lot of similarities, there are some crucial differences between the two courses. Knowing which one you want to take will determine the knowledge you’ll gain in the months before going to college. In turn, this can help you decide:

  • Whether you prefer fiction or nonfiction writing
  • Which classes you take in college
  • Your skills as a reader and writer

That’s why we want to take some time now to give you a brief overview of both courses and compare them to each other.

Let’s get started.

Overview of AP® English Language and Composition

In an AP® English Language and Composition course, you will learn the rhetorical and writing skills necessary to interpret all kinds of texts.

The exam course is comprehensive when it comes to rhetoric and writing, covering topics such as:

  • Rhetorical analysis of prose
  • Reading comprehension
  • Written argumentation
  • MLA, APA, and Chicago-style citation
  • Reputable sourcing
  • Synthesis of information from multiple texts

When it comes time to take the exam, you can expect the same format and structure. You’ll have three hours and 15 minutes to complete the exam. There are two sections to it. The first is a multiple-choice section comprised of excerpts from nonfiction texts. The second is a free-response section made up of three prompts you must answer in handwritten essays.

The three prompts cover three different skills:

  1. Synthesis. You will read multiple sources and craft an argument that cites at least three of the sources to support your argument.
  2. Rhetorical analysis. You will need to read a passage of text and then craft an analysis of the author’s intention as well as how the author’s choices in the text support that intent.
  3. Argument. You will need to craft an argument about a specific topic and support that argument with evidence.

That’s AP® English Language and Composition—but what about AP® English Literature and Composition?

Overview of AP® English Literature and Composition

The AP® English Literature and Composition course teaches the basics of college-level literary analysis and close reading. You will dive deep into texts and be challenged to think about literature deeply and critically. In the course, you will learn topics such as:

  • Close reading
  • Textual analysis
  • Literary devices
  • Language and vocabulary
  • Stylistic maturity in writing
  • Written organizational skills

The exam itself is fairly straightforward: you will have two sections to complete. The first is a one-hour multiple-choice section with 55 questions. The second is a two-hour free-response section with three essay questions. In total, you will have three hours to complete the entire exam.

There are two types of essays you are expected to write:

  1. Literary passage analysis. The first two essays in the free-response section cover literary passage analysis in which you will read two pieces of text—a poem and a work of prose fiction—and then analyze the texts’ themes or literary devices.
  2. Thematic analysis. In the third essay, you will write about a specific theme in reference to a work that you get to choose. We’ll say that again: the theme itself is given to you in the exam, but you can choose which work of fiction you want to write your essay about. For example, the exam might require you to discuss the topic of “unrequited love” and then suggest a list of different books and plays for you to analyze that theme. You can still choose a work from beyond that list, so you have a lot of control over this section.

Now that you have a good understanding of what to expect from both the AP® English Language and the AP® English Literature courses and exams, let’s take a look at their similarities.

AP® English Language vs AP® English Literature: What’s the same?

The AP® English Language and AP® English Literature courses and exams share several strong similarities. However, if we were to distill it down to the three most important, they’d be:

  1. The writing
  2. The analysis
  3. The test format

Let’s take a look at each now.

Similarity #1: The writing

Both AP® English Language and Composition and AP® English Literature and Composition share “composition” in their titles and subject matter. This means that both courses will cover the art and craft of writing extensively, and teach skills such as:

  • Sentence structure
  • Organizational flow
  • Textual analysis
  • Rhetorical skills
  • Reputable sourcing

In all, both courses will show you how to develop a strong writing style and lay the foundation for mature writing skills for their college career and beyond. Many college students say that they really learned to write well in their AP® English courses.

Similarity #2: The analysis

Both courses teach how to approach texts critically—whether it’s nonfiction or fiction. When you’re reading, you aren’t just trying to figure out who the protagonist and antagonist are. You’re asking fundamental questions about the author’s purpose. You’re learning about the context in which the piece was written.

Both the AP® English Language and the AP® English Literature courses teach you so much more than just reading and summarizing. They teach you to actively engage with the work you’re reading and analyze it on a much deeper level.

Similarity #3: The exam format

The exams for both AP® English Language and AP® English literature are very similar.

They both test for reading comprehension as well as textual analysis. And they both require you to read complex texts and get an understanding of them quickly.

Not only that, but both exams require you to write quickly as well. Since the second part of each test is dedicated to free-response essays, you will need to know how to read, think critically, outline, write, and edit their essays all in a little over two hours.

This requires strong writing skills coupled with reading comprehension skills—a challenge for any student, but with hard work and dedication, you can do it.

AP® English Language vs AP® English Literature: What’s different?

While both courses contain a lot of similarities, they do differ in a few key areas. Those areas are:

  1. The reading
  2. The goals
  3. The depth

Let’s take a look at all three now.

Difference #1: The reading

In AP® English Language, the reading you will be tasked to read and analyze is primarily nonfiction. This includes things like:

  • Journals
  • Letters
  • News articles
  • Biographies
  • Memoirs
  • Speeches
  • Criticism

As such, the texts that you will analyze in AP® Language are much more applicable to the things you might encounter in everyday life. That isn’t to say that AP® English Literature is irrelevant. The skills you learn in the class will give you a strong basis in close reading and textual analysis—all skills you will use frequently in college.

The kinds of texts you read in AP® English Language will be different though, with a heavy emphasis in fiction and poetry. As such, the things you will read in AP® English Literature are much more narrow in scope.

This includes texts such as:

  • English literature
  • American literature
  • Plays
  • Poetry
  • Satire

The benefits of reading literary fiction are numerous. In fact, studies have shown everything from creativity to a person’s sense of empathy can be better developed by reading and studying literary fiction.

Difference #2: The goals

The courses are designed to achieve different goals.

AP® English Language seeks to provide students with an “introductory college-level rhetoric and writing curriculum which requires students to develop evidence-based analytic and argumentative essays that proceed through several stages or drafts.” In other words, the AP® English Language course is much more focused on developing skills in writing and rhetoric, which pertain to the type of essays you will be writing in college.”

In layman’s terms, this means that the AP® English Language course is much more focused on developing skills in writing and rhetoric, which is reflective of the type of essays you will be writing in college.

AP® English Literature, on the other hand, is much more focused on literary analysis. This course seeks to “deepen their understanding of the ways writers use language to provide both meaning and pleasure.” This means that the AP® English Literature course will give you an understanding and appreciation for reading and analyzing literature. This skill is important in order to understand the context for the world around you. The course will give you the tools to approach topics thoughtfully and deeply—which brings us to …”

Difference #3: The depth

If we could sum up AP® English Language versus AP® English Literature, we’d say that it is a difference of breadth versus depth.

AP® English Language is a course that covers a wide range of texts and skills. In the synthesis essay, you will take short excerpts of texts and analyze them broadly for rhetoric and comprehension. You’ll be tasked with reading a passage of text or analyzing an image and then forming arguments about those sources.

AP® English Literature, on the other hand, goes deep on the texts. For the third free-response question, you will need to analyze an entire book-length work of fiction that you have read and prepared in advance. You will have to explore the hidden themes involved, the context in which the book was written, the tone of the piece, and more. You aren’t simply reading brief texts to connect them to each other. You’re reading long texts to understand them deeply.

Think of it like this: AP® English Language requires you to travel across an ocean. AP® English Literature requires you to explore that ocean’s depths.

AP® English Language versus AP® English Literature: Which is harder?

When it comes to which one is harder, there’s no clear consensus.

However, one thing that is clear is the fact that both the AP® English Language and the AP® English Literature Exams are two of the hardest exams you can take.

Data from the 2018 AP® Exams showed that both exams ranked in the top 10 hardest exams of the 38 total AP® exams.

AP® English Language showed just 57.2% of students who took the class attained a “passing” score of 3 or higher. Whereas, the AP® English Literature Exam had just 47.3% of students attain a 3 or higher.

Looking at the point distribution for both classes, you can see that many students struggled to achieve a top score:


5 4 3 2 1
AP® ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND COMPOSITION 10.6% 17.7% 28.8% 29.3% 13.5%

For more information on the scoring distribution, here is the College Board data from 2018.

As the old adage goes, “The map is not the territory.” Though the data can tell us a lot, it doesn’t provide the full picture. There are a few reasons that students might have a tougher time with these two exams in comparison to other AP® Exams.

For example, both exams are incredibly popular. In 2018, 580,043 students took the AP® English Language Exam, and 404,014 took the AP® English Literature Exam. That is a LOT of people. With a sample size that big, there are going to be more chances for lower scores, because there are more students who did not properly study and prepare for the test. Another factor is that the AP® English Language Exam is much more popular with juniors, while the AP® English Literature Exam is more popular with seniors. It’s possible that juniors are more committed to preparing for the exam than were seniors.

We can conclude using both the scoring data, as well as what we know of the content of each test, that neither one is necessarily harder than the other.

Choose your own adventure

Bottom line: It doesn’t really matter which course you choose to take as long as you choose what is best for you. What really matters most is that you choose the one that both interests you and gives you a better advantage when going to college. You also need to make sure you are ready for the demands and rigors of AP® classes. Most AP® classes assign harder readings and require more homework every night. Make sure you are ready to make that kind of academic commitment.

Both courses can give you an educational advantage, help you earn credit in college, and prepare you for the type of reading and writing you’ll do in college.

You’ll also have a deeper understanding and grasp of textual analysis as well as strong writing skills—all very necessary in your college careers and beyond.

No matter which course you choose, be sure to use Marco Learning’s resources to help you out. We have the very best tools to give you a firm grasp on a wide variety of subjects, help you nail your exams and position yourself for a successful college career.

Happy studying!

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