Child holding on to adult's pinky finger

From Formula to Freedom, Part I

Dear Dr. Louis,

“For the synthesis question on the AP Language exam (which is basically an argument prompt but the students have to use  sources as CDs),  I’ve heard much talk from other AP teachers that the commentary should still be more than the CDs. I’ve prepped my students like this in an argument prompt, but I’m nervous because, if I teach them the wrong way, I fear they won’t  qualify for college credit. Should I be teaching them to write a 1:2+ chunk for synthesis for the AP exam? I’ve looked at high scoring essays that are both 1:2+ and 2+:1. Either way, I’m trying to teach the students to be flexible with the structure. It’s tough for them to make those decisions because they are still fairly new to the program, and now I’m asking them to be mature enough to know when to deviate. I just want to make sure that I am instructing them in the right direction. Thank you so much!”

Melinda R.

Dear Melinda,

What a great question! When we first train onlevel and pre-ap® students in argumentation, grades 6-10, I recommend that teachers train their students to use the 2+:1 ratio for the synthesis question to make sure that my students know the difference between evidence and analysis. The chunk, remember, is a part of the body paragraph. The students have many opportunities for commentary.  Watch this:

1) When we look at the introduction, it is typically 80% commentary. Sure, the writer might have a few engaging historical facts, but the introduction “introduces” the writer’s voice and opinion about the subject at hand. The debatable thesis, typically located in the introduction of this particular timed writing, is the writer’s assertion; and, therefore, it is commentary, too, especially in argumentation because the thesis is the writer’s claim. So, right from the gate, we have commentary.

2) Then, the writer moves to the academic body paragraphs. The topic sentence equals the topic (subject) of the paragraph plus the writer’s reason that supports his thesis; hence, commentary exists in the topic sentence. With a 2+:1 chunking ratio, the CD is 2+, and that means that the writer might need multiple sentences (3, 4, 5) to “synthesize” evidence from the multiple sources, which support both the topic sentence and the thesis statement. By the time students are in the AP Language course, however, my hope is that they have had years of practice and feedback with the JSWP foundation and graphic organizers to the point they have internalized and moved beyond the formula. They need some freedom, and I’m hoping that they are now weaving their sentences of evidence with some commentary. Keep reading.

Also, even though the ratio stipulates one CM, the chunk’s CM might certainly be a compound-complex sentence. And, if the writer needed multiple sentences of evidence, one CM sentence might not be enough. The CM must connect to the CDs, the topic sentence, and the thesis statement. All of the sentences must be designed to support the writer’s thesis.

At this level (AP Language) in the student’s writing, the teacher whose students have had the JSWP formative assessments and plenty of feedback along the way  may be ready to relinquish control and let the writer adapt his thoughts to the task at hand. The ratio is a guideline that has proven to earn high scores. If grades 6-10 have been practicing, practicing, practicing those graphic organizers with guidance and feedback, then by the time they are in the second semester of the 10th grade, my fellow Pre-AP teachers may consider preparing these young scholars for their junior and senior years and begin to teach the students how to tap into their internalization of the process and create abbreviated versions of the graphic organizers. In fact, next month, my blog is just about that!

If the student has had an aligned JSWP program, then at the 11th grade and the 11th hour, the good writer’s decisions, voice, and style must override the ratio; and, if the writer understands the importance of logic, organization, evidence, and analysis, then we should not hold him to the strict structure of the JSWP fundamentals. That being said, 1) internalization takes time; so, if an eleventh grader is seeing JSWP for the first time, stick with the foundation; and 2) as a writing teacher with her first master’s degree in rhetoric, I tell students that the evidence they choose is critical. CRITICAL. It’s the logos of a rhetorical speech or writing, and I do not want to read a bunch of opinion without the evidence that supports it! The assessment is, in fact, a synthesis of articles — which means evidence is, well, you know — CRITICAL.

The final piece to an academic body paragraph is a concluding sentence; and it, too, is commentary. Its purpose is to connect the CDs and CM with the TS and with the Thesis.

3) The writer completes his/her essay with a conclusion. The conclusion is all commentary; and in a forty-minute timed writing, it, like the introduction, is short, but it’s still commentary.

So, you see, even though the ratio is 2+:1, the opportunity for commentary abounds. Let me show you visually:

A JSWP Color-Coded Recap for the two-chunk AP Paragraph (See all the green CM possibilities)

  • Thesis: Importance of the Issue, Dilemma, The Writer’s Assertion (80% Commentary)
  • One of the many body paragraphs:
    • TS: The Writer’s Topic and His/Her Claim about That Topic (Subject plus first reason)
    • CD: Evidence from Sources (could include some woven connotative words or phrases from the writer, but the synthesized evidence from the sources is CRITICAL)
    • CD+: Evidence from Sources (don’t forget the “+”) – Again, could have some connotative language included
    • CM: The Writer’s Analysis/Opinion
    • CD: Evidence from Sources (could include some woven connotative words or phrases from the writer, but the evidence is CRITICAL)
    • CD+: Evidence from Sources (don’t forget the “+”) – Again, could have some connotative language included
    • CM: The Writer’s Analysis/Opinion
    • CS: The Writer’s Final Thoughts for the Body Paragraph that Connect His/Her Salient Points in the Body Paragraph with the TS and the Thesis (you can be sure there’s CM because it needs to support the claim in the thesis) 
  • Conclusion: Restatement of the Claim, the Big Picture, the Importance of this Issue (All Commentary)

I like the 2+:1, because I train the students to demonstrate their discerning eye of the evidence in the four to seven sources provided, proving them to be close readers and strategists in both the argument presented and the evidence chosen to support that argument and, thus, refuting the opposing side. Their commentary exists and is peppered throughout. As long as the evidence selected is solid and well-connected, and the TS, CM, and CS connect the evidence with the thesis in a convincing, logical, ethical, and organized fashion, students will earn high scores.

In the final analysis, though, Melinda, you and the ratio are sage guides. When those students enter the testing room, we can only hope that they have had enough repetition and feedback along the way to make good decisions.

Keep reading and writing!

Dr. Louis


Dr. Deborah E. Louis

Ph.D. in Humanities

Dr. Deborah E. Louis' passion for educational excellence began as a classroom teacher. For sixteen years, Deborah taught On-level, Pre-AP®, and Advanced Placement® English Language Arts to secondary students of diverse ethnicities and learning styles. In 2010, Deborah purchased the Jane Schaffer Writing Program®, and along with her non-profit organization, Center for Educational ReVision (CerV®), her goal and that of her national team of experts is to provide the highest quality professional learning and mentoring to teachers in the areas of writing, advanced academics, high-stakes testing, and educational technology. Through webinars, workshops, job-embedded training, and teaching materials, Deborah strives to ReVision the educational system, combining traditional and flipped approaches to professional learning for teachers of grades K-12; and differentiating for Special Education, English Language Learners, and Gifted and Talented. Although her mission takes her all over the United States and abroad, Deborah lives in Dallas, Texas USA. She loves music, dancing, archetypal psychology, and continuous learning opportunities.

Leave A Reply