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Persuasive Writing and a whole lot more…

This post can also be read at Raymond Soltysek’s blog,  http://raymondsoltysek.wordpress.com/

I had a good morning the other day doing in-service with English teachers from South Ayrshire on Persuasive Writing at Nat 4, 5 and Higher. It was organised by my friend Sally Law, PT English at Marr College, who has used some of the resources I wrote for Education Scotland last year and which can be found at  http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/resources/nq/e/englishpersuasivewriting/introduction.asp

Much like my Creative Writing materials published two or three years ago, the basic premise is that pupils need to engage regularly with reading that is designed to persuade them, and then regularly undertake writing tasks that allow them the opportunity to persuade others in a variety of contexts. English teachers always – always – tell pupils they should be reading a quality newspaper regularly. That’s good advice which very few pupils take up, and I suspect it’s because (a) they have no incentive to and (b) don’t know what to do with it when they do. Just reading an article doesn’t seem to have any explicit relevance to them; so, it’s important we do something with it that makes sense to them.

In the materials, there are sheets to support regular blogging and tweeting, two social networking contexts pupils will be well acquainted with. It’s very easy to set up a class blog or Twitter account, even given the ICT restrictions common in schools, but these can also easily be done with a pen and paper “Blog Wall” or “Tweet Space”.

So the groups started off with two articles I downloaded on topical issues. In half an hour, they read them, briefly thought about tone and editorial position, identified their own reaction and then constructed a 140 character tweet in response to what they’d read. I think this sort of quick reading and evaluating holistically is something pupils rarely do: for many of them, reading a non-fiction article is only ever about an agonising search for rhetorical questions or identifying good link phrases to answer some questions on it that are, at the end of the day, pretty random. The teachers seem to get stuck into it, and I manage to get three tweets out of six groups (you lot in the other groups, I’m still waiting! Remember – @raymondsoltyek). All in all, it’s an exercise that works really well, and many of them say they’ll be using the activity with their classes.

We then take a look at Numeracy in English. The Using Numbers to Persuade resource looks at what, to me, is key when considering how we integrate Numeracy into the English curriculum: that is, the interaction between numbers and words, and how we use language to express numbers for different purposes. Basically, it’s based on the premise that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Pupils trawl the internet for stats to support their arguments, never really questioning how those stats are presented to them or what the agenda behind that presentation might be. Do they consider the difference between a statement that says that “barely half agree with X” and “a clear majority agree with X”, when the figure in both cases might be 51%? Can they interpret the difference in tone wrought by phrases such as “as much as a third”, “hardly a third”, “fully 30%” or “only 3 in ten”? I think this is where some really productive work can be done.

So the final task of the first session is to write press releases from different pressure groups on statistics issued to them. This, of course, allows us to investigate the whole notion of press releases and pressure groups, what they do and how they try to persuade us. Using the same statistics, they must argue that immigration controls should be eased or tightened up, they must argue prison sentences should be more lenient or more harsh, they must argue that clean air legislation isn’t doing enough or is moving too fast. It’s a difficult exercise that they find really challenging, but it can easily be adapted for less able groups. And the beauty of it is that, in a time of 24 hour news, it’s a real world exercise; a friend of mine from Glasgow Writers’ Group writes freelance, and she regularly has to come up with an article on something she knows nothing about in a matter of hours.

After a break, the groups look at three further resources, examining their use in providing formative feedback to exemplar essays in three areas: global structure, sectional structure and close structure. The resources on global structure are, I feel, the best in the package. Taking the lead from group discussion skills teaching, it looks at the Proposing – Refuting cycle as a means of structuring argument.

I think we sometimes pay too much attention to giving pupils rules and roles in group discussion, as if stipulating that everyone must take a turn or that Craig is the Chairperson and Jamie the Reporter somehow ensures that the pupils will then know how to discuss. Of course they absolutely don’t. What is necessary is that they acquire a metacognition of the behaviours exhibited in a discussion: that is, they are able to differentiate between those interventions where they propose an idea, where they question an idea, where they refute an idea. When they understand these behaviours, we can then help them build up a repertoire of language that enables them to engage in these behaviours; they know what to say when they build on a point, and how that differs from the language they would use to refute that point.


Naomi Klein

An analysis of a fantastic Naomi Klein article, “Looting with the lights on”, exemplifies the cycle used in writing. For those of you who don’t know Klein’s work, her breakthrough book, “No Logo”, is perfect to get young people furious about the way they are manipulated by the market and how their self-image is defined by advertising and branding. It’s brilliant. And if you want to read an excoriating analysis of capitalism’s use of war and disaster to extend its tentacles into every human being’s way of life, read “The Shock Doctrine”.

But of course, writing need not follow the cycle slavishly. The key here is that we build a sense of coherence in the pupils’ writing. I remember, to my shame, relying on a “make three points for, one point against” structure to teach persuasive writing. All that does is produce bitty, disconnected writing that is superficial and trite. Here, pupils are encouraged to think about the structural flow of an essay. Having made a point, what do they want to do next? Support it with further explanation? Build on it by introducing other ideas, facts or statistics? Question it by posing some problem scenario? Or refute it by making a convincing case for its inapplicability in certain situations? And if they refute the point, what then are they going to re-propose in its place? What happens is they begin to think about the progression of ideas throughout their writing, ensuring that there is cognitive linkage rather than just a surface level technical linkage. I think it’s extraordinarily powerful.

Having provided rich, formative feedback on the exemplar essays through the prism of the particular skills they examined, teachers then shared their feedback with each other. A couple observed that their feedback was very different but agreed this was a good thing. Rather than holistic – and probably sometimes quite anodyne – comments at the end of essays that amount to little more than ‘improve your structure’, the teachers found they were giving detailed and specific guidance: “This section might be improved by using an anecdote to illustrate your point”. It seemed to be a success.

Sally has offered to coordinate some feedback on the materials as the year progresses; that will be really interesting, and give me a real flavour of any tangible improvements that arise as a result of using these materials as they are meant to be used. In the meantime, if you’d like me to do a similar session for your school or authority, by all means e-mail me at raymond.soltysek@strath.ac.uk . Interestingly, a Geography teacher, Kenny (who was a former Educational Studies student of mine and who admits to kicking my shins at 5-a-side football) also comes along, and says he found a lot of it very relevant for the upper stages of Social Subjects. I’d love to investigate that, so by all means if you think persuasive techniques would help you deliver certain aspects of your SS courses, get in touch. Interdisciplinarity in action!

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