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AP English Language and Composition dcq example

Most teachers have encountered the paradox that students are ferocious when it comes to having opinions but less confident when trying to express them as written arguments.

Many of them turn to the five-paragraph formula, stringing together a series of examples.
Photography has accomplished the task of manipulation to the point where images do not exhibit the honesty. In general photography is used to trick the audience’s eyes. For example, ads are displayed every day in our lives distorting the honesty portrayed. Long ago when a cigarette commercial came on they had enhanced the color, and edited all the little details that appeals to our emotions, making cigarettes look good. The only problem is cigarette isn’t good for anyone, but the viewers wouldn’t get that message due to the changes the photographers have made. Following this further Sontag infers that nothing that comes from a photo can really be understood. The reason for that is because photography shows everything but context. Photography gives people a small glimpse of reality, but the realities have been manipulated to the photographer’s idealism.

What other options do they know that they have? To explore this topic, I studied a group of sample essays from the following 2003 argument question:

The Prompt: Free-Response Question 1, 2003 AP English Language and Composition Examination

In his 1998 book Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, Neal Gabler wrote the following:

One does not necessarily have to cluck in disapproval to admit that entertainment is all the things its detractors say it is: fun, effortless, sensational, mindless, formulaic, predictable, and subversive.

In fact, one might argue that those are the very reasons so many people love it.

At the same time, it is not hard to see why cultural aristocrats in the nineteenth century and intellectuals in the twentieth hated entertainment and why they predicted, as one typical nineteenth century critic railed, that its eventual effect would be “to overturn all morality, to poison the springs of domestic happiness, to dissolve the ties of our social order, and to involve our country in ruin.

Write a thoughtful and carefully constructed essay in which you use specific evidence to defend, challenge, or qualify the assertion that entertainment has the capacity to “ruin” society.

I chose samples that received a score of 8, which, according to the scoring guide, “recognize the complexity of the claim that entertainment has the capacity to ‘ruin’ society and successfully establish and support their own position by using appropriate evidence to develop their argument.

” The “8” papers don’t have the sophistication or fluency of the “9” papers, but they are excellent models of argument.*

The One-Point Essay

Accumulation of evidence is by far the most common approach, a kind of reverse induction: the writer agrees or disagrees and cites examples to support that categorical position. It’s typical for a student to write “Gabler’s theory.

Photography shows us the world, but only the world the photographer creates. According to Sontag, photos show that we understand through a photo in the way we see the picture. Seeing photos can limit our understanding because we only see the picture not whats going on around it. In other words the viewer only sees what’s within the frame. Images allowed us to see situations that occurred; however, it is extremely limited in what the audience can see. I qualify Sontag’s claim that photography limits our understanding of the world because nothing is picture perfect. A picture is just a snapshot or quick image of something distorted.

.. has been proven true by historical falls of empires, literature, and modern-day society.” What follows are three rather lengthy paragraphs, each developed with an example on one of the specified topics: the fall of Rome, Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and computer video games: a four-page essay with five paragraphs.

Another student challenges Gabler with this thesis: “ most instances of ‘risky’ books, movies, and plays, entertainment... has something to offer beyond the cover that most people are not willing to look for.” The writer then develops an essay with a paragraph about Broadway plays, specifically The Full Monty; another on books, specifically Huck Finn; and another on movies, with reference to John Wayne westerns, Psycho, and A Beautiful Mind. Perhaps somewhat more subtle than the previous response, this one is also a five-paragraph essay driven by examples.

To an extent, yes, photography does limit us in the view of the world like Sontag refers to. Pictures are taken by photographers who chose what they wish to express and how they wish life to appear to be. By doing this, reality has changed, becoming manipulated into something that it truly is not. It is now a reality created from the human mind, influenced by its wants, desires and emotions. Photography also fails to give us background, or deeper knowledge about the photo. Pictures lack the emotion experienced by the person taking the picture (how hard it may have been to get the picture the photographer wanted). Yet pictures can sometimes invoke an emotional response (a gruesome death, a spectacular sunset). Pictures lend to a greater understanding of what is happening around the world.

Of course we tell students to support their arguments with examples, emphasizing that the most effective essays are concrete and specific, developed with relevant details. But the responses that follow this pattern are essentially one-point essays - the same point, “I agree or I don’t,” supported by three different examples or types of examples.

Qualifying Sontag, a single photograph of an event, place, time or whatever will only give you a limited perspective of that event, place or whatever. However it does not limit our understanding of something. It simply gives a single viewpoint or snapshot for us to base an overall understanding. Susan Sontag claims in her passage, “On Photography”, that photography limits our understanding of the world. However, the truth is that photography enhanced our understanding of the world. It allows us to see things that would be otherwise impossible to see. Sontag argues that photography does not allow people to truly understand things and that it does not teach any ethical or political knowledge. The truth is that it deepens our understanding and expands our knowledge of the world around us. Without photography, people would have no idea of what surrounded them and what happened before their time. Photography produces a visual history of the world, thus producing a greater appreciation for it.

I often tell my students that I think this kind of essay is the verbal equivalent of raising one’s voice: with each example, the volume goes up, yet the same point is repeated. Given the scores, however, it’s clear that this approach can work well.
However, did the photograph show them what was going on around him? The building he jumped off of? A hijacked commercial airlines plane crashed into it leaving the building to go up in flames and ready to collapse with smoke pouring out the windows. Leaving him and at least 1,000 other people trapped on the high floors of the tower. This man, this falling man, was surrounded by absolute chaos, destruction, death, a living hell, but they would never know. He looks so calm, so serene even though he is more than well aware that his life is about to end in a matter of seconds. To the person looking at the photo they only see it as Sontag says they do. Through what they see in the picture, not what is really occurring.

It’s a safe one, though the essays lack nuance.

Form and Substance

I noted three other patterns as I studied this pool of samples, though none as prevalent as the example-driven form: (Re)Definition, Consequence, and Yes... But... In each of these approaches, the writers subordinate their supporting examples to subassertions or claims.

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The pattern then becomes agree/disagree, discuss a series of issues related to the stated claim, and support with examples or further explanation. It’s worth noting that though some of these are also five-paragraph essays, they are less one-dimensional because the arguments are more layered.

The point that struck me as I read these essays (all receiving the same score) is that the accumulation-of-evidence approach is not wholly ineffective.

It’s a clear method of organization, but it locks the writer into a static argument because the structural template seems to drive the thinking.
Sontag says understanding can only come from what is shown.. There is much more to life than what meets the eye, and this can be exemplified and proved in many different ways. Pretend that someone knows nothing about the tragic events that occurred on September 11, 2001. A photo is placed in front of Them. They take a look. It appears to be a man dressed in what appears to be in work clothes but the thing that strikes their attention first, the thing that stands out most is that he is upside down. Odd they think. The background behind the man is what looks to be a steel like structure. Maybe if their senses are sharp that day you’ll come to the conclusion that this is an image of a man who decided to end his life by jumping off the top of a tall building while in midair.

The writers do “establish and support their own position by using appropriate evidence,” often with considerable fluency, but the arguments are less developed than simply asserted, and then hammered away at. In the other three patterns, I found students “questioning the question,” as the argument developed more of an organic life of its own that reflected several levels of critical analysis.
When someone sees the faces of others in places they never will travel to, they start to understand the emotion they show. Words sometimes can not do justice to the things you are able to see. Pictures only help the reader better understand his/her meaning of what is actually taking place. Yet, do not be fooled by everything you see today. Technology has taken photography to a new level. Make certain you trust your source first. The old saying “Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear” no longer rings true. Be skeptical, but keep your eyes and mind open at the same time.


Most of the students assume that entertainment is a synonym for television and movies, but some recognize the importance of defining the term precisely, using that process to structure the essay. One such student asserts: “Though often controversial and viewed as ‘mindless,’ entertainment positively contributes to society and enriches rather than ruins our society.” Neither assuming that we equate entertainment with violent films and mindless television nor accepting the binary opposition of entertainment and reality, he structures his essay by examining alternative definitions of entertainment. He first discusses entertainment as “an especially potent educational tool due to its ability to combine fun and learning” and includes (without relying on) examples such as Sesame Street, and educational programs that dramatize historical events or classic literature such as Hamlet or Great Expectations.

However as Sontag pointed out photography takes the gaps in our mental pictures and replaces them. Photograph gives proof and confirms the past, but it does not exhibit the honesty a citizen would have lived through. For example if no pictures were captured during the Holocaust time period, it would be hard for people to believe that all the torturing actually occurred. Images allowed us to get a glimpse of what the Jews went through but the feelings and emotions aren’t the same. One cannot say they truly understand how the Jews felt, without actually experiencing what the Jews did. It takes one to be there to experience the emotions and tears the Jews had as the gas killed them and family.

Secondly, the student expands the definition of entertainment as a means to “express and communicate ideas and information... [in order to] vastly increase and encourage cultural sensitivity and diversity.” In a lengthy paragraph, he discusses music and even plotlines that cross cultural and geographical boundaries. The essay has only two developmental paragraphs, yet each includes several ideas discussed with considerable complexity.


Some students choose to agree or disagree in terms of consequences, again subordinating examples to larger subissues. The prompt itself, with its reference to “eventual effect,” suggests this approach; often these essays look beyond mere assertion that Gabler’s statement is or is not true, focusing instead on defining the consequences of entertainment on society. One student considers entertainment as a cause that has certain negative effects: children watching television until they “forget what it requires to imagine,” young women modeling themselves after film and television stars, young men seeing violence as the only answer to conflict, and an obesity epidemic plaguing all of society. There are some concrete examples in this response, but the writer argues persuasively by formulating and explaining four issues. In the paragraph on young women, for example, the student examines the consequences of body images that require plastic surgery and harmful diets and the glorification of beauty over brains: “Since entertainment shapes society, females idolize those portrayed in entertainment and find themselves lacking in beauty. High school girls starve themselves, quest for plastic surgery... [and prefer] a superficial image of a model [to that of] a woman scientist.” The paragraph is concrete because of the specific details explaining the consequences the writer is exploring, yet it is not structured around a series of examples.

Yes... But...

Perhaps the most nuanced of the approaches, the “yes... but... ” technique addresses the counterargument as a way to craft an argument. In this way, the writer redefines the terms and explains points, using examples more to illustrate than to carry the argument. One student asserts, “It is important that people are able to separate entertainment from real life, spending... time watching TV, but being able to recognize its limitations.” Then she discusses ways in which people, especially adolescents, model themselves after pop stars, “fail[ing] to differentiate between what is real and what is not,” before she makes the point that if people can learn to see the difference, then they can take advantage of television and movies that are uplifting or simply relaxing. The writer concludes by emphasizing the importance of educating today’s youth on the “limitations and flaws” of entertainment so the next generation can understand it as a way “to help our society rather than hurt it.” Thus, she has used the “yes... but... ” approach first to support and then to challenge the Gabler claim, by exploring both sides to arrive at a conclusion or propose a solution.

Continuing the Conversation

It is worth noting that I did not find any responses (in the 8s or the 9s) that presented an argument through narrative. I recall a few outstanding examples from previous years (a memorable one on the James Baldwin quote in 1995 about language as identity), but in this pool of samples I found narrative only when a student related a personal experience as part of the introduction or a developmental paragraph.

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Perhaps if students read such essays as George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” W. E. B. DuBois’s “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” or Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” less as memoir and more as argument, (though argument crafted through indirection), they might see more possibilities for structuring their own work.

Granted, the pool of essays I examined was relatively small, and the categories I have suggested are by no means the universe of possibilities. Nonetheless, I hope this beginning work will encourage others to continue the conversation. These samples offer valuable information about what students know and are comfortable doing with argument. We see that most rely on examples to structure their essays in a linear mode that makes the same point with several different examples: the examples become the argument. Other organizational structures suggest more complex thinking, as the writers break their main assertion or thesis into several subclaims that usually involve specific examples as part of a discussion. These other structures also are more likely to acknowledge, possibly even refute, a counterargument. (The counterargument is likely to have a stronger presence in student writing after the 2004 question that directed students to address it)

Yet it seems to me that the process I went through might be most valuable as a model for students themselves to discover how an argument can develop an organic life of its own and a form to go with it. Some of the categories I have described can be found in various textbooks along with other possibilities. The point is not to hand students a list of “types” of argument but to assist them in understanding how different approaches work. Students might use a pool of sample AP essays to go through a process similar to mine as they discern patterns of thought in written arguments. Or they might write to a sample AP prompt, exchange essays, and describe one another’s arguments. As a class, then, the discussion could focus on similarities and differences in the ways students handled the question as they developed their own arguments. Are there predictable patterns? Is one approach more appropriate to the question than another? How might the possibilities seen in their classmates’ work influence revisions of their own essays? Such discussions can surely lead students to take control of their own writing processes and, ultimately, write (for the AP Exam as well as in other contexts) more thoughtful and effective arguments.

*The samples were training papers used at the 2003 Reading and provided by ETS.

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