Coming in 2021: AP® Literature and Composition Guide

Coming in 2021: AP® Literature and Composition Guide

Having produced an emergency AP Literature guide for the 2020 online exam, I’ve decided to take the logical step and develop the condensed version into a full-length book for the AP Lit test.

The book will follow the same general organization as the Language and Composition guide—one half will be devoted to the multiple-choice reading (prose fiction and poetry), the other half to the three essays (poetry analysis, prose analysis, open response)—and will reflect the updated 2020 Course Description (half of the texts devoted to 20th-century works, the rest split between pre-20th century and 21st-century texts; no vocabulary in context or rhetorical identification). Each chapter will correspond to a specific question type.

While it is too early at this point to set a firm publication date, I am aiming for late winter or early spring. I will do my best to ensure that the book is available at least eight weeks before the exam.

If you are a student interested in submitting an essay for inclusion in the book, please email At this point, I am looking only for the poetry analysis and open response (“analysis that examines a specific concept, issue, or element in a work of literary merit selected by the student”). Essays must have been written in response to a specific AP Literature prompt from a previous year’s exam; they cannot be generic English-class assignments.


2021 GMAT book updates delayed (serious printing error in Official Verbal Review)

2021 GMAT book updates delayed (serious printing error in Official Verbal Review)

Update, 9/27/20: Because it is unclear when correctly printed copies of the Official GMAT Verbal Review 2021 will be available, I’ve decided to go ahead and release the book without Official Guide page numbers in the end-of-chapter indexes (the 2021 questions themselves are still listed). While this may pose a minor inconvenience, it seems vastly preferable to waiting indefinitely to release the 2021 updates. The book should be available on Amazon this coming week. 

Several weeks ago, I went to begin updating the Official Guide question indexes in The Complete GMAT Sentence Correction Guide and discovered a serious printing error in the 2021 edition of The Official GMAT Verbal Review: around 50 pages (pp. 329-376) were omitted from the book, or virtually the entire Sentence Correction portion. Most of the question are still reprinted in the explanation section, but still… some pages are also duplicated, and significant portion of the book is difficult to navigate. Someone clearly dropped the ball very hard on this one.

While I’ve managed to get most of the information necessary for the updates from a combination of the explanation section and the Amazon “preview” function (which includes a correctly paginated version of the book), there is still some information I cannot add without a correctly printed physical copy of the guide.

If you have purchased a copy of this book, PLEASE check to make sure that all the pages are included and in the proper order. At the Barnes & Noble locations I checked in New York City, all the books contained the error. At this point, it’s unclear how widespread the problem is; it could have affected only a portion of the print run, or the whole thing.

I notified the GMAC (apparently I’m the first person to notice this?), which is alerting Wiley (publisher), and hopefully the books will be reprinted correctly. In the meantime, if anyone happens to have a book that does not contain the error, please do let me know! I’d like to get the 2021 updates out as soon as possible.

“So” vs. “so that” – when to use a comma

“So” vs. “so that” – when to use a comma

The question of when to use a comma with so vs. so that vs. so…that isn’t normally tested on any standardized test I’m familiar with, but I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about it in various people’s writing recently, and so I wanted to address it here.

Essentially, the issue is that while all three constructions involve the word so, they’re actually three different types of conjunctions, and that in turn affects how they are punctuated.

So… (pun intended), here goes:


1) So by itself – synonym for therefore


So is a coordinating (FANBOYS) conjunction that serves to connect two independent clauses (complete sentences). Like the other FANBOYS conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or & yet), so must follow a comma when it is used this way.


Incorrect: The skin is located at the interface between our body and the outside world so its cells can respond to many different kinds of stimuli.

Correct: The skin is located at the interface between our body and the outside world, so its cells can respond to many different kinds of stimuli.


2) So that – synonym for in order to


So that is a subordinating conjunction that separates an independent clause from a dependent clause.

When the independent clause comes first—as it virtually always does in this case, for stylistic reasons—a comma should not be used because it creates an unnecessary and unnatural break between the parts of the sentence.


Incorrect: People who spend long hours in the sun are encouraged to wear long-sleeved clothing, so that they limit their skin’s exposure to harmful rays.

Correct: People who spend long hours in the sun are encouraged to wear long-sleeved clothing so that they limit their skin’s exposure to harmful rays.


3) So…that – used to indicate extremity/cause and effect


So…that is a correlative conjunction (word pair), used with an adjective. Again, using a comma with this construction creates an unnecessary and awkward break.


Incorrect: The sun at the beach was so strong, that we were forced to leave only two hours after we had arrived.

Correct: The sun at the beach was so strong that we were forced to leave only two hours after we had arrived.

Who really benefits from test-optional policies?

Who really benefits from test-optional policies?

Over the past few weeks, the test-optional dominos have continued to fall, with Harvard grudgingly deciding to consider applications from students who have faced exceptional obstacles in taking the SAT or ACT, and Princeton even more grudgingly following suit. As of now, the Ivies seem pretty clear about the fact that these are one-year policies only, and that applicants applying in the fall of 2021 and beyond will be expected to take the tests as usual.

At other other selective colleges, however, this year’s policies are part of a multi-year test-optional trial period, and so I think it’s worth taking a hard look at the implications of these policies in a non-Covid context, and to ask who really benefits from them. (more…)

Publish with The Critical Reader

Publish with The Critical Reader

If you’re looking to publish a test-prep or subject-specific study guide, or if you just have a great idea for a general education-related book, The Critical Reader may be able to bring your work to market.

We’re looking to expand our book offerings and are currently seeking manuscript submissions in the humanities and social sciences, with particular interest in the following areas:

  • AP® Exams, especially Human Geography, Government and Politics, Psychology, Spanish Language and Culture, and World History
  • English as a Second Language, including TOEFL® and IELTS® preparation
  • Phonics-based reading instruction

Other subjects will also be considered, though, so this should not be treated as an exhaustive list.

As an established player within our market, we are able to offer a traditional publishing model: you don’t pay us—we pay you. We can also offer support throughout the publication process, including editing, formatting, and cover design.

Please click here for submission guidelines.

The University of California will drop the SAT and ACT: putting the decision in context

The University of California will drop the SAT and ACT: putting the decision in context

So it’s official: The University of California—the country’s largest public university system, serving several hundred thousand students—has voted to phase out standardized testing.

The SAT and ACT will be optional for freshman applicants for applicants in 2021 and 2022; for 2023-4, test scores will be used only for out-of-state-students and to determine scholarship awards; and will be eliminated completely in 2025. If a new, UC-created exam is not ready by that point, then no exam will be considered.

This is obviously a major shakeup in the testing industry, although not a completely unforeseen one. Historically, there has been tension between the University of California and the College Board, with discussions of abandoning the SAT dating back to the early 1990s. More recently, there has been considerable speculation about whether the UCs would continue to require the SAT or ACT essay. Since last winter, however, additional pushback against the use of standardized testing has ramped up. (more…)

SAT vs. ACT reading: 5 key differences

SAT vs. ACT reading: 5 key differences

I was recently invited to do an interview about SAT vs. ACT Reading on the “Tests and the Rest” podcast, which is run by test-prep experts Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin and covers a wide range of issues related to standardized testing and college admissions. (This is actually the second time they’ve had me on; my previous interview, in which I discussed SAT vs. ACT grammar, can be found here. I’m not sure when the new interview will air but will post something when it does.)

I had a great time chatting with Amy and Mike, and as I looked at my notes, the thought popped into my mind that in all my years of running this blog, I had somehow neglected to devote a post to that particular topic. It also occurred to me that perhaps I’d actually done such a post and simply forgotten about, but when I went back and checked, it turned out that I had in fact never devoted an entire post to that particular topic. So I’m putting it up now. (more…)

2020 condensed AP® Guides for online exams now available

2020 condensed AP® Guides for online exams now available

Update, 4/29:

The electronic version of my AP® English Language and Literature guide is now available on Amazon.


My and Larry Krieger’s mini-guides for the condensed 2020 online AP tests are now available!

Because of a technical issue that resulted in the print version of Larry’s book being delayed on Amazon by nearly a week, Larry asked me to post the entire book as a free PDF download on this site. Click here to access it (do not add to cart; scroll down and click on the link in the description).

If you would like to order a print copy, the book is now available on Amazon as well.

Unfortunately, Larry realized that he would not have enough to time to complete the AP Psychology guide and decided to let that project go.

For logistical reasons, I decided to combine the English Language and English Literature sections into a single print book which, as of 4/25, is available only on Amazon.

I’m currently in the process of trying to get the manuscript formatted so I can make the book available in electronic form. I’m hoping that will happen by mid-week.

I’m also currently trying to determine whether The Critical Reader will be able to stock the book as well, given delayed shipping times.

I’ll post an update as soon as I have more information.

Important announcement regarding 2020 AP exams (test questions; new, condensed guides)

In the past few days, the College Board has released important information regarding the 2020 AP exam schedule.

Tests will consist of free-response questions only; last approximately 45 minutes each; and be administered online from May 11-22nd, with additional makeup dates in June. 

After some discussion with my SAT vocabulary book co-author and APUSH expert extraordinaire Larry Krieger, I’m happy to announce that we’ve decided to release condensed (approximately 50-page) AP guides that specifically target the 2020 online exams. We’ll aim to make them available within the next 2-3 weeks, sooner if possible. 

Our current plan is as follows: I will be covering the AP English Language and Literature exams, and Larry will be handling APUSH. 


The 2020 dates and questions for these exams are as follows: 


  • AP English Literature (May 13, 2pm EST): Prose Analysis essay (on the full exam, Free-Response Question #2)


  • AP English Language (May 20, 2pm EST): Rhetorical Analysis essay (Question #2)


  • APUSH (May 15, 2pm EST): Modified DBQ with 5 sources (Question #1)
My new reading site, “Breaking the Code,” is now live!

My new reading site, “Breaking the Code,” is now live!

Exciting announcement:, the new site that I’m co-hosting with my colleague Richard McManus of The Fluency Factory, is finally live (pats self on back for setting up and designing a website entirely from scratch, with only a minuscule amount of help; to my tech people, you’re awesome, but apparently I’ve learned a thing or two in all my years of wrangling this site into shape).

So the good news is that I’ll finally get out of everyone’s hair about little-kid reading problems—even though, for the record, they tend to turn into big-kid reading problems—and stick to writing about testing and admissions-related topics (well, mostly).

Kidding aside, Richard and I really want this to become a major resource for people involved in reading instruction, whether out of personal or professional interest. Richard and his tutors do phenomenal work getting kids who’ve fallen behind in reading back on track. (more…)

The Coronavirus might cause more schools to go test-optional (but you should take the SAT or ACT anyway)

The Coronavirus might cause more schools to go test-optional (but you should take the SAT or ACT anyway)

A couple of weeks ago, as soon as it became clear that there was no way the spring SAT and ACT testing schedule could proceed as normal, I started wondering how the Coronavirus pandemic would affect the trend toward test-optional admissions policies.

No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than an Instagram announcement popped up stating that Case Western had decided to go test-optional for students applying in the fall of 2021. At Case, the policy currently applies to those applicants only; policies for future classes will be determined next winter. Tufts has also announced a similar policy involving a three-year trial period.

From what I understand, it seems likely that the pandemic will consist of multiple, overlapping waves of outbreaks in different regions over a fairly extended period, rather than occurring in one single massive wave, and so it would not be at all surprising if these policies were ultimately extended. (more…)

Covid-19 impact on book delivery

3/24 update: International shipping is not available. I’ve just been notified that Amazon, which prints our books, is not currently shipping orders outside the United States. Because international orders must go through Amazon rather than from our regular warehouse, we unfortunately unable to ship abroad.

As of today (3/23/20), delivery times for *most* Critical Reader books remain unaffected by the novel Coronavirus. Our storage and shipping facility is still open and operating normally, and orders should continue to arrive in approximately 5-7 days.

The only exception is the recently released updated AP English Language and Composition Guide. This item must still be sent from the printer, which is currently experiencing delays. Please allow 10 days for shipping.

We will post an update if there are any changes.

To everyone: please take care and stay safe.

Announcing the launch of “Breaking the Code”: a new site dedicated to reading and phonics

Announcing the launch of “Breaking the Code”: a new site dedicated to reading and phonics

As regular followers of this blog may have noticed, I’ve recently been focusing heavily on issues related to phonics and the teaching of reading. I realize that these topics are in some cases only tangentially related to the test-prep and college admissions process, but I haven’t had anywhere else to post my observations… until now.

My colleague Richard McManus, a reading specialist and the owner of The Fluency Factory in Cohasset, Massachusetts, have decided to join forces and start a new website. Titled “Breaking the Code,” the site is dedicated to exploring the issues surrounding the teaching and learning of reading. (more…)

The grammar of fake news

The grammar of fake news

A number of years ago, an acquaintance enlisted me to help her search Craigslist for a sublet in New York City. This is a daunting task under the best of circumstances, but in this case the difficulty was compounded by the fact that my acquaintance was not a native English speaker—in fact, she did not speak much English at all—nor was she particularly internet savvy.

As someone who had spent a fair amount of time on Craigslist looking for apartments herself, I was well-versed in the various scams that flood the site and adept at the spotting the markers for them: TOO MUCH CAPITALIZATION or too much lower case. Word salad, word soup… Or wording that just somehow seemed “off,” in some vague, undefined way.

My acquaintance, on the other hand, was entirely at sea: she would call the numbers listed and be told that the original rental no longer existed but that she could be shown other, pricier options; or that she would have to hand over exorbitant amounts of money for a deposit, and so on.

I eventually got very frustrated trying to help her. She was oblivious to clear warning signs, and she went running to look at apartment after apartment that just obviously wasn’t going to pan out. (more…)

Updated AP® English Language and Composition guide now available

The updated version of The Critical Reader: AP® English Language and Composition Edition is now available

The guide provides a comprehensive review of all the reading and writing skills tested on the revised 2020 version of the exam. It includes a complete chapter dedicated to each type of multiple-choice reading question; a new multiple-choice writing section; and a section devoted to the three essays, with real student samples and detailed scoring analyses based on the new College Board rubric. 

Click here to read a preview.

Please note: The primary changes involve the elimination of vocabulary-based, multiple-answer (I, II, III), and rhetoric questions  from the reading section; the addition of a multiple-choice writing section; and a switch from a 9- to a 6-point essay-scoring rubric (essays themselves remain the same).

If you already have the 2018/2019 version of this book, we recommend supplementing it with rhetoric questions from SAT Writing and Language passages, ACT English passages, or the Fixing Paragraphs section of the pre-2016. Click here for examples of real essays scored according to the new rubric. 


Does Lucy Calkins understand what phonics is?

Does Lucy Calkins understand what phonics is?

As I alluded to my previous post, the U. Wisconsin-Madison cognitive psychologist and reading specialist Mark Seidenberg has posted a rebuttal to Lucy Calkins’s manifesto “No One Gets to Own the Term ‘Science of Reading’” on his blog. For anyone interested in understanding the most recent front in the reading wars, I strongly recommend both pieces.

What I’d like to focus on here, however, are the ways in which Calkins’s discussion of phonics reveal a startlingly compromised understanding of the subject for someone of her influence and stature.

In recent years, and largely—as Seidenberg explains—in response to threats to her personal reading-instruction empire, Calkins has insisted that she really believes in the importance of systematic phonics, a claim that comes off as somewhat dubious given the obvious emphasis she places on alternate decoding methods, e.g., covering up letters, using context clues, etc. (Claude Goldenberg, the emeritus Stanford Ed School professor who helped author the recent report on Units of Study, also does a good job of showing how Calkins attempts to play to both sides of the reading debate while clearly holding tight to three-cueing methods.)

That’s obviously a problem, but I think the real question is even more fundamental: not just whether Calkins truly supports the teaching of phonics, but whether she understands what phonics is. (more…)

Lucy Calkins vs. phonics: the Common Core creators strike back

Lucy Calkins vs. phonics: the Common Core creators strike back

I’ve been so wrapped up in trying to finish my AP English book updates these last few weeks that I somehow missed a new front in the reading wars: Emily Hanford recently published another American Public Media article, this one casting a critical look at Columbia University Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins and her enormously lucrative and influential Units of Study program.

Although Calkins claims to be in favor of phonics (when appropriate, as long as it doesn’t interfere with children’s love of reading), her guides for teachers promote a series of methods that effectively embody the three-cueing system.

The cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg, a specialist in reading problems who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has an excellent blog post in which he methodically dismantles Calkins’s attempts to distance herself from three-cueing methods, and demonstrates the extent to which Calkins engages in semantic game-playing. His reading of Calkins’s work also hints at the depth of her misunderstandings about phonics, some of which are rather astounding. I think they’re very important to highlight, and I’d like to do so in another post. (more…)