Syntax and the Sophistication Point in AP® English Literature and AP® English Language

by Heather Garcia

The new AP® English Literature rubric, updated most recently in September of 2019, awards students a point if they write an arguable thesis, up to four points if they write an effective essay using evidence and commentary, and a single point if they produce writing that demonstrates sophistication.

An arguable thesis is easily teachable, as is teaching students to write well-developed paragraphs that explore and analyze elements of literature—be it in prose or poetry. What is driving my students crazy is the elusive sophistication point. They want it. Badly! They are willing to work for it, and I am more than willing to let them.

The language on the rubric for earning the sophistication point declares that the essay must “demonstrate[s] sophistication of thought and/or develop[s] a complex literary argument.” This is the same statement for all three essay types on the exam: the Poetry Analysis, the Prose Fiction Analysis, and the Literary Argument.

According to the rubric, essays will not earn this sophistication point if they “use complicated or complex sentences or language that are ineffective because they do not enhance the student’s argument.” So students can’t be unnecessarily wordy. Got it.

College Board then advises that the essays that earn the sophistication point should employ “a style that is consistently vivid and persuasive.” So this means that one way students could earn the sophistication point is to write complex and complicated sentences that actually enhance their argument rather than run the readers through circuits of memorized SAT words and convoluted ideas. Or, students can practice with their syntax and write more than endless strings of back-to-back simple sentences. That may seem like an easy feat for college-bound students—except that my students, and perhaps many others, are seriously lacking in their grammar background. I am not sure if it is a generational problem, or a localized problem, or a result of standardized testing driving educational goals—but my kids need some grammar help. I am certain that my kids are not the only ones. I have a feeling many of us are in this together.

One way that we are working to make their writing more sophisticated is to work on employing intentional syntax choices. Students can usually analyze the function of syntax in a piece that we are studying, and they can write beautiful, fluid sentences when we study specific sentence structures in isolation, but in a timed setting, a transformation happens.

When we practice timed writing—the students transform into a panicked mess. They resort to their old ways: streams of simple sentences—one after another after another—and it feels like I am reading an old “Dick and Jane” primer. Or, they ramble off long convoluted sentences that make little sense.

My kids practice their timed essays with ink and paper, just like the actual test. And immediately after we finish writing, we type. Each student types up his or her essay error for error, mistake for mistake, and they learn so much.

By forcing this in-depth reflection so quickly after they write, they see the problems they want to fix, and are frustrated when I don’t let them (yet). I have them type a one-paragraph reflection on their writing at the end of the essay, but not before I instruct them to chart their sentences. All of them.

Charting sentences seems tedious, and it can be, but it is worth it. Students don’t always think about sentence lengths or notice that their sentence lengths follow similar patterns until they chart them. Students who write predominantly simple sentences don’t realize it until they chart their sentence lengths, and then they realize that they need to work on combining strategies to make their sentences more complex. And on the converse side, students who write wordy sentences with little content payoff can see that they need variety in their writing as well, that compound and even simple sentences can be effective too.

Students need to have a lesson on simple sentence structures before this will make sense to them. They need to know the difference between a staccato sentence, a telegraphic sentence, a simple sentence, a compound sentence, a complex sentence, and a compound-complex sentence.

Here is a quick reference:

  • Staccato (1-2 words—used sparingly for emphasis)
  • Telegraphic (5 or fewer words—again, usually for emphasis)
  • Simple (one independent clause—subject and verb)
  • Compound (two independent clauses connected by a conjunction)
  • Complex (one independent cause with one or more dependent clauses)
  • Compound Complex (two or more independent clauses with one or more dependent clauses)

The chart that I have students put at the bottom of their essays looks like this:

Sentence # (and paragraph)

Word count

Sentence type

1 (intro)

2 (intro)

3 (intro)

4 (intro)

5 (body #1)

Each student’s chart will be of varying lengths because they all write different amounts in a timed setting, but having them take the time to examine their sentences to determine which kind they are writing helps them realize so many mistakes they are making during their timed drafts. It’s fabulous as a reflection tool, and they catch fragments long before I ever even glance at their essays.

When I grade I don’t need to comment on their constant strings of simple sentences, fragments, or wordy messes. They already know they exist, which saves me time. When I see their reflections (which I read first), I don’t need to comment on what they already notice. I get to focus on what they missed, which is usually content-based. This speeds up my grading time and it gives students focused, content-based feedback that they can use to enhance their arguments. Each student’s chart will be of varying lengths because they all write different amounts in a timed setting, but having them take the time to examine their sentences to determine which kind they are writing helps them realize so many mistakes they are making during their timed drafts. It’s fabulous as a reflection tool, and they catch fragments long before I ever even glance at their essays.

It isn’t until I hand back graded essays that the students get a chance to revise. In their revisions they work to combine sentences, to clean up sloppy draft writing, and to work that initial timed draft to a place of sophistication. Will the students be able to chart their sentences and go back and revise on test day? Absolutely not. Will they learn to yield syntax to their will as we practice? I can only hope.

Here is a chart for the last paragraph:

Sentence # (and paragraph)

Word count

Sentence type

1 (Closing)

16 Simple sentence

2 (Closing)

26 Complex sentence

3 (Closing)

17 Simple sentence

4 (Closing)

2 Staccato sentence

5 (Closing)

11 Simple sentence

6 (Closing)

4 Telegraphic sentence

Learn more about our NEW AP® Teacher Support for English Language and Composition HERE.


Heather Garcia The Magic of Excerpts in the AP ClassroomHeather Garcia is an English teacher at Charlotte High School, Florida, where she teaches AP English Literature and AP® English Language. 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.