Exam Blues? How to Win at AP Spanish Literature and Culture
Are you a high school Spanish student with an eye toward higher education?
You’ve likely dreamed of seeing an elusive 3, 4 or even a perfect 5 at the top of your AP Spanish Literature and Culture test.
But how do you get there? Let’s find out!
- What Sets the AP Spanish Literature and Culture Test Apart?
- 3 Steps to Acing the AP Spanish Literature and Culture Test
- More Resources to Help You Study for the AP Spanish Literature and Culture Test
What Sets the AP Spanish Literature and Culture Test Apart?
If you’ve taken the AP Spanish Language and Culture test—and power to you if you have—then you already have some experience comprehending and communicating in Spanish at an advanced level, which will be required of you for the Spanish Literature and Culture test.
However, while Spanish Language and Culture has you test your language mastery through communication on a range of culture-related topics, the Literature and Culture exam is all about reading advanced material and breaking it down: learning to recognize literary elements and discuss them in an intelligent manner.
Think of it like the difference between an English language class and an English literature class: one is about communication, and the other is about analysis.
Your goal should be to move beyond simple comprehension to complex interpretation of Spanish literature. If you keep this in mind, you’ll be able to prepare correctly.
3 Steps to Acing the AP Spanish Literature and Culture Test
1. Get to know the works on the reading list, separately and together.
Unlike the English Literature AP test, which is more choose-your-own-adventure when it comes to what you read in preparation for the test, Spanish Literature and Culture has a required reading list of 38 works that may be referenced on the test.
Don’t worry, though—the good people at the College Board aren’t asking you to pack 38 novels into your brain to take this test. Rather, the reading list includes novel excerpts, short stories, poems and plays of varying lengths chosen to provide insight into the literary styles of various times and places.
If you’re taking the AP class, you’ll probably be following some kind of preset structure as to what gets read when.
Regardless, you should keep in mind that the point of such extensive reading is not only to understand each work separately but to understand how the works relate to each other in terms of literary styles and movements as well as historical and cultural context.
Here are a few of the movements you should make sure to get acquainted with over the course of your reading:
- Romanticismo (romanticism): Not to be confused with romance in the love sense, this movement was all about glorifying or romanticizing the human spirit and the natural world.
- Realismo (realism): Like the name suggests, this movement was about taking a realistic and unromanticized look at society and human nature—warts and all.
- Modernismo (modernism): Modernism in Spanish literature was an “art for art’s sake” kind of movement that relished grandiose locales and themes over a plain realistic style.
- El Boom (the Boom): In addition to being probably the coolest name ever for a literary movement, el Boom describes a period of explosive development in Latin American literature towards the end of the 20th century. It’s associated less with a particular style (although magical realism à la Borges was an important factor) and more with the fertility of the period itself, which led to Latin America being recognized as a serious literary presence.
2. Read like a college student.
Even if you like to curl up with college-level reading material in your spare time, reading at the level of comprehension that’s required for an AP test is a different animal altogether. This is doubly true when you’re reading in your second language.
To succeed, you’ll need to read with the same rigor you’d expect to apply in a college-level literature course, which means the following.
Reread, a lot
You’ll probably need to read most of the works on the reading list a few times to get a good grip on what they’re about, let alone to start analyzing in a meaningful way.
Learn to recognize themes and movements on your own
We’ve already touched on the importance of identifying common elements, but you’ll also need to cultivate an ability to recognize themes and spot them in unfamiliar works. This is particularly important because the test will sometimes require you to respond to works that aren’t on the reading list. So, rather than simply memorizing which work goes with what literary movement, be sure you can understand and articulate why a work might fit into a particular category.
There are a few different ways you could know, for instance, that “A Roosevelt” (“To Roosevelt”) is an example of modernism:
- You may have noticed it was published in the early 20th century, which puts it smack in the modernist epoch.
- Maybe you know that its author, Rubén Darío, is sometimes called the “father of modernism.”
- Heck, maybe you read it in a textbook or handout somewhere.
- Ideally, however, you should be able to read Darío’s poem/open letter to Teddy Roosevelt, notice that his assessment of the United States is that “Cuando ellos se estremecen hay un hondo temblor que pasa por las vértebras enormes de los Andes” (When they tremble, there is a deep earthquake that passes through the enormous vertebrae of the Andes) and think, “Gee, there’s some really grandiose and symbolic imagery here; I must be reading a modernist work.”
It’s the difference between knowing a piece of information and understanding it in a way that can be applied elsewhere.
3. Go beyond the page: Learn to compare literature with other art forms.
Be advised that literature isn’t the only thing you’ll have to know about for this literature test: one of the short-answer questions will require you to compare a passage with a piece of visual art, like a photograph or painting.
“Unfair!” you say. “A clear violation of my eighth amendment rights!”
Actually, there’s a good reason for this departure from the literary motif. Just as answering questions about unfamiliar readings demonstrates a deep understanding of the themes and movements you’ve been studying, drawing comparisons between readings and other forms of art shows you understand the ideas themselves in a way that’s not dependent on the context of literature.
You won’t need to become an art expert to ace this part of the test, but it’s a good idea to look up some art from the times and places you’re studying and think about how the ideas influencing literature might be seen in the art as well. Is the work gritty and realistic? Grandiose and over-the-top? Think about how you might compare it to some of the things you’re reading.
Here are a couple of resources to help you with this:
- ArtEEspañA.com offers a breakdown of Spanish art movements by time period and some sample works and artists to get you started. Plus, if you’re a visual learner, looking at the works under pintura romántica (romantic painting) and pintura realista (realistic painting) can help solidify those concepts for you.
- For a more robust practice session that includes art from outside the Spanish-speaking world (and yes, it’s fair game), try browsing a database like ClassicArtPaintings.com and looking for art that jives with what you’re reading.
Is that haughty-looking noblewoman the spitting image of the bride in “De lo que aconteció a un mozo que casó con una mujer muy fuerte y muy brava” (“Of what happened to a young lad who married a very stubborn, difficult woman”)? Does an image of an untamed jungle evoke the protagonist’s fever dream in “La noche boca arriba” (“The night face-up”)? Write about what you notice.
More Resources to Help You Study for the AP Spanish Literature and Culture Test
Here are some key resources out there that can help demystify this test for you a bit:
- CollegeBoard.org — Alternatively known as “the source of all our suffering,” the College Board is actually the group that runs the AP program, so it makes sense to check with them for help. On their website, you’ll find detailed course and exam guides for Spanish Literature and Culture, including expected learning outcomes, skills you’ll need for the test and even sample questions from past years.
- “Azulejo” — With such a range of reading to finish ahead of test-time, wouldn’t it be great if the works were compiled into one anthology? Well, guess what? “Azulejo” (the name means “tile,” like those used in a mosaic) includes all the works from the reading list with the added bonus of exercises and supplementary information to help you learn and think critically about what you’re reading.
- FluentU — Need to improve your Spanish listening skills? FluentU lets you practice by watching authentic Spanish-language videos, all with interactive captions so you can look up words while you watch and personalized quizzes that reinforce what you learn. FluentU also lets you study up on cultural subjects. You can listen to poetry by Julio Cortázar or learn about the life of Rubén Darío—all while getting the language practice you need.
You know how they’re always saying you shouldn’t wait to study until the night before the test, and then we don’t listen and do exactly that anyway? This is one situation where that won’t fly.
The idea behind AP testing is that you have to spend months, if not a full school year, studying in order to demonstrate your knowledge on one make-or-break test.
So no matter what point you’re at in terms of studying or studying well, practicing good study and reading habits as much as possible will help you walk into the testing room with confidence on the big day!