Selecting Texts for Your AP® English Literature Course

Written by Heather Garcia

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AP English Literature teachers have rare flexibility in choosing their curriculum that doesn’t necessarily exist in other AP courses such as Chemistry, Macroeconomics, or European History. The AP sciences, maths, and histories have course objectives that are honed in on specific, content-based knowledge students must master. For instance, in chemistry, one College Board objective from Unit 3 reads: “Explain the properties of an absorbed or emitted photon in relationship to an electronic transition in an atom or molecule”. The College Board is quite unwavering in its expectation, and there doesn’t seem to be opportunity for much creativity (although, admittedly, I am not an AP Chemistry teacher). 

In comparison, one College Board object from AP English Literature’s Unit 3 reads: “Explain the function of conflict in a text”. Now, THIS we literature-lovers can work with. Sure, the chemistry teacher gets to choose HOW they teach their particular course objectives, but that isn’t the same as the freedom AP English Literature teachers have in choosing their curriculum, because in AP English Literature, our objectives are broader and the exam is application-based. 

Essentially, according to College Board, if students learn this skill well, they can do it with anything (and they are likely to throw students, quite literally, any bit of literature they have never seen before).  This objective is quite different from that of a history test. AP Literature teachers aren’t being told to teach a specific conflict. We aren’t told to pull from a specific historical period, specific genre, or even a specific author. College Board keeps our options quite broad. In fact, College Board even removed the requirement that the work be “of literary merit” because they found it to be too limiting. 

Where does this leave AP English Literature teachers as we choose what texts we want to teach throughout the year? The answer: wherever we want. A text for analysis can be a novel, a play, a poem, a short story, or a cereal box. As long as there is a narrative, we can analyze it. We can teach “Clap When You Land”, “Hamlet”, “Where the Crawdads Sing”, “Beloved” or even a text that was just newly released. We get to choose which worlds we want to immerse our students in as they explore the function of conflict in a text. 

As we choose which texts to read with our students, we would be wise NOT to just choose our favorite texts from high school, or, even from college.  We should also branch beyond the anthologies that come in pre-packaged textbooks. Our students’ needs should drive our decisions, and there are some important considerations we will want to keep in mind as we determine which texts we ask our students to read.

Consideration #1: Diversity

Our kids deserve to read widely, learn about the world, and see themselves represented in the literature we put in front of them. For far too long the publishing world was dominated by white men, but modern publishing has created a vibrant intellectual space where authors of diverse backgrounds, experiences, races, and ethnicities can all share their stories. Our kiddos might not find those stories without our help. 

We get to broaden their worlds, to help expand the sometimes-narrow view of the world our kids hold, and we can do that with amazing, diverse literature. We also get to show students that literature can reflect their own lives and they can find themselves in stories, often written by people whose experiences more closely match their own. 

Consideration #2: Complexity

College Board’s test creators are OBSESSED with complexity. It was mentioned in every free-response question on the paper-based test in 2021. We need to ensure that whatever books we are putting in front of kids, be they modern or classic, have complexities in the characterization, the structure, the narration, the conflict somewhere. How do you know if a text is complex? Students need to be able to grapple with an issue. If they cannot disagree about that book in some way, through some interpretation, then that book may not be complex enough to use for the AP Literature exam — it won’t warrant enough material to write about. 

Consideration #3: Male/Female Balance

Early in my AP Lit teaching career, I fell into a trap of teaching my FAVORITES. Every novel we read was one that I had fallen in love with in college. It was the best! The kids were engaged, I was in love with my choices. But then, we got to the end of the year and a young man said, “this class was great, for a chick class”. I immediately bristled, because CLEARLY, literature isn’t just for “chicks”. He then elaborated that every single novel was written by a woman. Diverse women, I will amend, but women, nonetheless. I had PLENTY of poems, short stories, and plays written by men, many of the protagonists in the novels written by women were men, but that wasn’t the point. He remembered that the novels were all written by women. 

That lesson stuck with me, and so ever since that year, my guidance is always this: when listing out the texts you teach (the poems, short stories, plays, and novels), ask yourself, am I leaning a direction with the male/female balance, or is it a genuine balance? 

Consideration #4: Award Winners

SO many great texts, texts that are diverse and complex and breaking the mold of literature, aren’t taught because they are either new or teachers aren’t familiar with them. One way to combat this (and to shake up your novel list each year) is to consider teaching texts that were award winners (preview them first for age-appropriate content, of course). Some award lists to consider perusing include the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, The PEN America Literary Awards, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Consideration #5: Thematic Variety

As you choose your texts for the year, try to ensure that you don’t have an entire year where the literature is about the bleakness of death or the quest for survival, or really ANY single predominant theme. Having a few pieces follow the same thematic topics is great because it provides students a springboard for discussion when they can compare works, but spending an entire year on one theme might be a bit much for some kids, especially if the theme is heavy or just one they didn’t connect to. Consider mixing it up.

Consideration #6: Branching Away from the Classics

Yes, the classics can be complex, and yes, they are classics for a reason, but we are teaching 17–18-year-olds, and not all of them are as academically accomplished as one might hope, therefore, throwing in more modern literature is a way to engage students and help them find books and stories they connect with and can read without needing a thesaurus or reaching a frustration saturation point. Sprinkling in some classic texts is important, especially as we prepare students for the multiple-choice section of the exam which still brings in some complex pieces of literature, but everything we read in class does not need to come from a dead author, and the classic texts we choose do not need to be novels. They can be the short stories and poems that punctuate our curriculum.  

Consideration #7: Student Choice 

In the quest to engage your students, you might consider allowing students to choose the novels, short stories, or poems they read and analyze as they prepare for the AP English Literature Exam. This could be in the form of book clubs where students in a small group all agree to read the same text, or it could be one independent read a semester, or it could be a poetry project where each student chooses a poet whose work they want to focus on. There is still value in whole-class reads as it allows for so many opportunities for modeling literary analysis, but when students have the ability to choose what text they read, they feel ownership of their learning, which can be a strong motivator for students.

As you begin looking ahead to the new school year and start mapping out your texts, perhaps consider making a chart like the one below. Include all the poems, short stories, and novels you plan to teach and fill in the columns that apply. If one column has a few too many checks or too many similarities, then students may benefit from a shake-up in the text selections. If College Board is giving us permission to break the mold and to apply literary analysis skills to any text in the entire world, we owe it to both our students and to ourselves to take advantage of that permission. 

Text Title Author Country of Origin Author Ethnicity Author Race  Author’s Gender Complex text? Awards won? Predominant theme Classic?

 

Looking for helpful AP English Literature resources? Check out our AP Teacher Support, where you can download FREE AP Lit study guides!


Heather GarciaHeather Garcia is an English teacher at Charlotte High School, Florida, where she teaches AP® English Literature and AP® English Language. She is a professional development leader in her district, running annual new-teacher trainings and is now the Curriculum and Instructional Specialist for her district for grades 6-12. After 16 years of hands-on experience, Heather has developed a series of strategies to help her students navigate challenging texts. Her favorite book is the Steinbeck classic, East of Eden.