Introducing Question 3 in AP® English Literature

by Michelle Lindsey

I love teaching Question 3, the Literary Argument Essay, of the AP English Literature Exam. I thoroughly enjoy seeing one beautifully written novel wrapped into a pretty little package that is the essay. My students always tell me my enthusiasm is nauseating, but to be able to eloquently condense a rich novel into such a narrow lens, is an art form.

I never want to wait until an entire novel is read before introducing this prompt. Sure, the students read novels in AP English Language so I could always pull from last year’s texts to introduce this question, but sometimes I get new kids that didn’t take AP English Language… or who haven’t read a novel recently enough to remember it.

Because of this, I turn to movies so that I can jump into question 3 early in the year and satisfy my hopes and dreams.

Here’s why:

  1. Context  My go-to is Jurassic Park. Although now, with all the remakes, the students get very upset when I don’t pinpoint one particular film title. Or I let them choose. Either way, the students have enough context to write this essay. One person I know (and by “know” I mean me) has watched, “The Greatest Showman” more than 14 times and can recite every line. Quiz me, it’s an addiction. The soundtrack is in my CD player in my car. I can honestly say I have not read any novel 14 times, not even 4 times. Ok, I have probably read Life of Pi 4 times. But I don’t need to rely on students reading an entire novel, I can offer them a list of movies (like the suggested list on the AP Exam) or, they can pull from their brain. It’s fast and easy and the students enjoy debating which movie would be best for the given prompt.
  2. Memory  I always spring this activity on them. I don’t want them to study a film in order to do this activity. Instead, I want to see how well they remember the nuances within these films from their memories. I want to see how well they remember the complex relationship like that between Dory and Marlin in “Finding Nemo.” Do they remember that Dory teaches Marlin to enjoy life just a little more even though he is on this frantic hunt to find his son? And, if they can manage to remember that, can they remember specific enough details within the plot to prove their point?
  3. Scaffolding  Movies are great scaffolding tools. Some of my students say (more like complain rather loudly) that tackling an entire novel in an essay sounds daunting. I suppose it is why movies are an excellent stepping stone. It offers them solid practice without the burden of adding rich literature to it. When I ask my students to recall a character from a book with a complicated family life, they just stare at me. If I ask them to recall a character with a complicated family life within a movie and I can’t get them to stop providing examples, it’s beautiful chaos that I embrace.
  4. Analysis vs. Summary This is one of the biggest reasons why I start with movies. This rationale paired with the scaffolding technique is key. Writing about movies is an excellent way to move those kids beyond summary. I always tell them, “Don’t you dare explain the plotline of ‘The Greatest Showman’ to me. I know that plot better than anyone.” That’s when I direct them to teach me something. Teach me a perspective or interpretation or significant theme that I may have missed.

Introducing the Literary Argument Essay to AP English Literature students can be challenging. Using movies helps them to practice a new skill with a medium they may be more comfortable with.

For more advice on creative ways of teaching AP English Literature, check out this article about great digital tools for teaching this course.

Michelle Lindsey

Michelle Lindsey has been a high school teacher in Florida for nine years, and currently teaches AP® Capstone as well as literature and writing courses.

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