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…)

Rote creativity

Rote creativity

In July of 2015, the math teacher and author of the Truth in American Education blog Barry Garelick wrote an article in which he described the convoluted explanations to simple math problems that students were expected to produce under Common Core, the logic being that the ability to describe one’s mathematical thinking in detail was a sign of “deep understanding.”

As Barry pointed out, however, the process of describing one’s thinking became an end in itself rather a sign of actual comprehension. Essentially, students were being trained to display a set of behaviors that made it appear as if they were thinking deeply, whether or not they truly understood—a phenomenon he termed “rote understanding.”

I still think this is one of the most brilliant phrases I’ve come across in the edu-blogosphere; it perfectly captures the superficial, performative quality that is often held up as a signal of “true education” or “authentic learning.”

So with Barry as my inspiration, allow me to propose a term of my own: ladies and gentlemen, I give you “rote creativity.” (more…)

Why did Caltech drop its SAT II requirement? Well, it’s complicated…

Why did Caltech drop its SAT II requirement? Well, it’s complicated…

I was browsing through the admissions section of Inside Higher Ed recently when I came across a brief article announcing that Caltech had decided to move from requiring two SAT IIs (one math and one science) to making the exams optional. Now, over the last few years virtually every selective college—with the exception of a few engineering schools—has downgraded SAT from “required” to “recommended.” The fact that one more school is jumping on the bandwagon might not seem particularly noteworthy, just one incidence of the backlash against standardized testing.

Because the story involves Caltech in particular, however, it’s somewhat more interesting than it might at first appear. Not only because Caltech has traditionally been seen as a bastion of uncompromising rigor, but also because it’s difficult to see the move as separable from the school’s downward trajectory in the US News and World Report Ranking over the past 20 years, especially over the last decade. (more…)