Strategies for Writing Your Synthesis Essay for AP English Language

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Strategy 1: Critical Reading of Texts

Critical reading of texts specifically for the synthesis essay demands that you determine the following:

  • Purpose/thesis
  • Intended audience
  • Type of source (primary, secondary)
  • Main points
  • Historical context
  • Authority of the author
  • How the material is presented
  • Type of evidence presented
  • Source of the evidence
  • Any bias or agenda
  • How the text relates to the topic
  • Support or opposition toward the thesis

Practice with Critical Reading

Our example: Here is a text provided in the Master exam's synthesis essay.

Source E

Broder, John M., "States Curbing Right to Seize Private Homes." New York Times, February 21, 2006.

The following passage is excerpted from an article published in the New York Times.

"Our opposition to eminent domain is not across the board," he [Scott G. Bullock of the Institute for Justice] said. "It has an important but limited role in government planning and the building of roads, parks, and public buildings. What we oppose is eminent domain abuse for private development, and we are encouraging legislators to curtail it."

More neutral observers expressed concern that state officials, in their zeal to protect homeowners and small businesses, would handcuff local governments that are trying to revitalize dying cities and fill in blighted areas with projects that produce tax revenues and jobs.

"It's fair to say that many states are on the verge of seriously overreacting to the Kelo decision," said John D. Echeverria, executive director of the Georgetown Environmental Law and Policy Institute and an authority on land-use policy. "The danger is that some legislators are going to attempt to destroy what is a significant and sometimes painful but essential government power. The extremist position is a prescription for economic decline for many metropolitan areas around the county."

Our writer's critical reading of the passage provides the following information:

  1. Thesis: "… What we oppose is eminent domain abuse for private development, and we are encouraging legislators to curtail it."
  2. Intended audience: generally educated readers
  3. Main points:
    1. qualified opposition to eminent domain
    2. opposed to eminent domain for private development
    3. acknowledges that there are those who see their position as handcuffing local officials
    4. Echeverria says, "The danger … " He fears legislation could destroy essential government. power.
  4. Historical context: 2006 in response to Kelo decision
  5. How material is presented: Thesis + expert's direct quotation + acknowledgement of opposition + expert's direct quotation
  6. Type of evidence presented: direct quotations of experts in the field
  7. Source of evidence: expert opinions
  8. Any bias or agenda: both sides of issue are presented
  9. How text relates to the topic: specific statements for and against eminent domain
  10. Support or not for thesis: one quotation supports a qualifying position: "I can empathize with the home owners affected by the recent 5:4 Supreme Court decision." The other quotation could be used to recognize those who would oppose it.

Note: This is a process that does not necessarily require that every point be written out. You could easily make mental notes of many of these items and jot down only those that you think you could use in your essay. You may prefer to annotate directly on the text itself.


Now, you complete a critical reading of another text from the Master exam on eminent domain.

Source C

Kelo v. New London. U.S. Supreme Court 125 S. Ct. 2655.

The following is a brief overview of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005.

Suzette Kelo, et al. v. City of New London, et al., 125 S. Ct. 2655 (2005), more commonly Kelo v. New London, is a land-use law case argued before the United States Supreme Court on February 22, 2005. The case arose from a city's use of eminent domain to condemn privately owned real property so that it could be used as part of a comprehensive redevelopment plan.

The owners sued the city in Connecticut courts, arguing that the city had misused its eminent domain power. The power of eminent domain is limited by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The Fifth Amendment, which restricts the actions of the federal government, says in part that "private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation"; under Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, this limitation is also imposed on the actions of U.S. state and local governments. Kelo and the other appellants argued that economic development, the stated purpose of the Development Corporation, did not qualify as public use.

The Supreme Court's Ruling: This 5:4 decision holds that the governmental taking of property from one private owner to give to another in furtherance of economic development constitutes a permissible "public use" under the Fifth Amendment.

What Types of Visual Texts Can I Expect on the AP Language Exam?

You can expect to encounter a variety of visual sources on the AP Language exam. They may include:

  • Political cartoons
  • Charts and graphs
  • Posters
  • Advertising
  • Paintings
  • Photographs

As with the steps involved in the critical reading of written material, visuals also require critical analysis. The following are steps you should consider when faced with a visual text:

  • Identify the subject of the visual.
  • Identify the major components, such as characters, visual details, and symbols.
  • Identify verbal clues, such as titles, tag lines, date, author, and dialogue.
  • Notice position and size of details.
  • Does the visual take a positive or negative position toward the issue?
  • Identify the primary purpose of the visual.
  • Determine how each detail illustrates and/or supports the primary purpose.
  • Does the author indicate alternative viewpoints?

What Follows Is a Sample Critical Reading of a Political Cartoon Taken from the Master Exam

One type of text that could be used for the synthesis essay prompt on the AP English Language exam is the political cartoon. No, AP Language has not turned into a history or journalism course. But, it does recognize the variety of texts that can be created to advance or illustrate a particular thesis. The political cartoon does in a single or multiple frame presentation what would take hundreds of words in an essay, editorial, and so forth. It is a visual presentation of a specific point of view on an issue.

When dealing with a political cartoon, here are the specific steps to consider that are adapted from the critical reading of a visual.

  • Identify the subject of the cartoon.
  • Identify the major components, such as characters, visual details, and symbols.
  • Identify verbal clues, such as titles, tag lines, date, cartoonist, and dialogue.
  • Notice position and size of details within the frame.
  • Does the cartoon take a positive or negative position toward the issue?
  • Identify the primary purpose of the cartoon.
  • Determine how each detail illustrates and/or supports the primary purpose.
  • Does the cartoonist indicate alternative viewpoints?

Notice that a political cartoon assumes the reader is aware of current events surrounding the specific issue. So, we recommend you begin to read a newspaper or news magazine regularly and/or watch a daily news program on TV. Even listening to a five-minute news summary on the radio as you drive to and from errands or school can give you a bit of background on what's happening in the world around you.

Example: Source D, political cartoon

The following political cartoon appeared in an Omaha, Nebraska, newspaper. Jeff Koterba, Omaha World Herald, NE

  1. Subject of the cartoon: eminent domain.
  2. Major components: one chicken, one cow in a barnyard.
  3. Verbal clues: Print size and form indicates the chicken is very excited, even panicked, while the cow is calm and unimpressed.
  4. Position and size of details: The chicken and cow are drawn mostly to scale and perspective with the chicken taking center stage.
  5. Position of the cartoonist: Sees fears surrounding eminent domain as overexaggerated.
  6. Primary purpose of the cartoon: Ridicule those who believe that all is lost if eminent domain remains in effect.
  7. How details illustrate the primary purpose: Size and form of print indicates the chicken's state of mind. The sigh of the calmly chewing cow indicates its recognition of the chicken's silly warning. The chicken's last warning that says the cow is a threatening monster is just wrong and over the top.
  8. Indication of alternative viewpoints: Yes, both sides are indicated.

As pointed out previously, each of these steps is important in understanding a political cartoon, but it is not necessary that you write out each of them every time you come across one in the newspaper, and so forth. Most of the analysis is done quickly in your mind, but when you are practicing techniques and strategies, it is most beneficial to write out, just as our writer did, each of the previous eight steps.

Practice critically reading political cartoons that you find in newspapers and news magazines. You might even try a few included in your history textbook.

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