Persuasive techniques: studying not spotting

Persuasive writing is often broken down into lists of techniques. These lists can be memorised quite quickly without a sense of their utility. This leads in some cases to students who use a wide range of persuasive techniques but a) they don’t really persuade and b) they give an air of falseness to writing. They can name the techniques but don’t have a sense of the real impact of them. These techniques do have a place however, certainly as a bridge to more complex aspects of rhetoric, but I think how they are taught has a massive influence over how they are then used.

To explore persuasive techniques, I think it’s much more interesting to look at them in context, exploring the nuances of different techniques. Students need to spend longer exploring each one, how they work differently in a range of contexts and how they only make sense as part of a design by the writer. Then, when they move to using them in their own writing, students are better prepared. To illustrate how we might do this, I’m going to look at Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech and place it alongside Malcolm X’s ‘The bullet or the ballot’ speech. Seeing the techniques used in different contexts should help students to understand the subtleties.

Tone before techniques

As Chris Curtis discusses in his legendary sexy sprouts blogs, tone is crucial, and students need to see that any techniques they may spot have everything to do with creating a tone and building an argument. On a simple level, we can read King’s speech as hopeful and optimistic and Malcolm X’s as threatening. However, there is much much more at play than these simple short cuts. (They will be referred to as MLK and MX henceforth)

Opening lines set the tone:

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” MLK

“Mr. Moderator, Brother Lomax, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies: I just can’t believe everyone in here is a friend, and I don’t want to leave anybody out.” MX

MLK’s language is grand and sets this up as a momentous occasion. Depending on your interpretation, MX goes for either self-deprecating humour or sets up the tone of division that he wants to create.

From here, both speeches go on to highlight the awfulness of the situation: MLK speaks of “the dark and desolate valley of segregation” and MX talks about how “All of us have suffered here, in this country”.

At this point, the tones diverge. MLK is clear that the solution is “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy” whereas with MX “it points toward either the ballot or the bullet”. If students can track this crucial distinction in tone they can first of all unpick how the language does the hard work. MLK: the situation is terrible, therefore we must have true freedom and democracy. MX: the situation is terrible, therefore we must have democracy- or revolution. MLK’s evangelical tone builds and builds, sermon-like towards rallying calls. MX, having presented the ‘bullet’ alternative, calls for Lyndon B. Johnson to take action. Despite the angry and threatening tone of the speech, MX’s tone shifts at the end and he proposes a sensible, peaceful set of actions. (MX is reported to have said: “If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”)

With a clear understanding of the shifting tone of each speech, any language analysis becomes much more straightforward and rooted in a clear purpose. Instead of generic ‘it is used for effect’, even simple responses will be specific about the intended effect.

Rhetorical question

For some reason, this is the technique students always remember and they always use it. Often badly. (“Do you want capital punishment?”) Exploring it in depth and looking at the technique in context shows just how effective it can be. In MLK: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” This question is used for one simple purpose: to set up the rest of the paragraph; to list all the conditions which must be met. MLK poses a question. He then answers it in depth.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Similarly, MX uses “So, where do we go from here?” to fulfil an almost identical purpose. It is used to structure the argument.

So, where do we go from here? First, we need some friends. We need some new allies. The entire civil-rights struggle needs a new interpretation, a broader interpretation. We need to look at this civil-rights thing from another angle — from the inside as well as from the outside…

The following section from MX shows how questions can be used to structure a paragraph. Note how the last question is only effective because of the examples which precede it.

How can you thank a man for giving you what’s already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what’s already yours? You haven’t even made progress, if what’s being given to you, you should have had already. That’s not progress. And I love my Brother Lomax, the way he pointed out we’re right back where we were in 1954. We’re not even as far up as we were in 1954. We’re behind where we were in 1954. There’s more segregation now than there was in 1954. There’s more racial animosity, more racial hatred, more racial violence today in 1964, than there was in 1954. Where is the progress?

For students, not only do they help to add these uses of rhetorical questions to their toolkits but they see that a rhetorical question is not something they add in somewhere to get more marks- it forms part of a structured, deliberate piece of writing. They can see that questions play different roles at different stages.


Much like rhetorical questions, it is very easy to spot repetition and students do, but they can often say things like “it makes it stand out”. Once again, repetition is used for different purposes depending on the intention of the writer. I would recommend first of all that students are aware of a couple of specific types of repetition: anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses) and epistrophe (the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses or sentences).

Anaphora is a mainstay of both speeches. We have established that MX takes a confrontational tone at times and his frequent use of “I’m not here to…” reinforces this (In fact, MX begins many sentences throughout his speech with variations on “I’m not…”).

Although I’m still a Muslim, I’m not here tonight to discuss my religion. I’m not here to try and change your religion. I’m not here to argue or discuss anything that we differ about, because it’s time for us to submerge our differences and realize that it is best for us to first see that we have the same problem, a common problem, a problem that will make you catch hell whether you’re a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist.

There’s an interesting point in the speech where this shifts from “I’m not” to “they’re not”:

And this time they’re not going like they went last year. They’re not going singing ”We Shall Overcome.” They’re not going with white friends. They’re not going with placards already painted for them. They’re not going with round-trip tickets. They’re going with one way tickets. And if they don’t want that non-nonviolent army going down there, tell them to bring the filibuster to a halt.

It’s a wonderful rhetorical flourish and prepares the listener for the alternative. Because once MX has presented this picture, his final paragraph (which uses anaphora also: “let him”) is directed not really at the present audience but at Lyndon B. Johnson: “Let him go in there and denounce the Southern branch of his party.” The use of anaphora has fully supported the tone that we commented on earlier and certainly supports the bullet or ballot argument. After all the ‘not’ (bullet), it feels conciliatory for MX to use the positive-sounding “let him”(ballot).

MLK uses “I have a dream today” as punctuation, an exclamation, a rallying cry. He begins sentences with “I have a dream” to contextualise his hopes for the future. MLK doesn’t spend too much time on the nitty gritty of how this will happen but in many ways he does not need to. The speech is designed to build towards a crescendo and it is the sense of occasion, of emotion which is most important here. The anaphora shifts from “I have a dream” to “let freedom ring” and, much like MX changed the anaphora to change the tone, so does MLK. Still an abstract idea, “let freedom ring” suggests action rather than merely wishful thinking. (Interestingly, King only decided to use “I have a dream” on the spur of the moment. It was something he had used many times before and was memorised- he knew the power it had.)

Working through lists of persuasive techniques, you can provide example after example from these pieces that shows how something is used.

Forget spotting a personal pronoun, explore how ‘we’ is used for opposite purposes in “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” and We died on every battlefield the white man had”.

Don’t just find emotive language, contrast the proud patriotism of “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today,” with “Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood, dripping with the blood of the black man in this country.”

Forget simply metaphor-spotting, what about how King goes from “flames of withering injustice” to “a great beacon of light and hope” and “joyous daybreak”? Then see how X moves from “catching hell” to “the most explosive year”.

I wouldn’t stop teaching these ‘A FOREST’ type lists. But like any aspect of English, we need to give time to explore things in depth for a fuller understanding.

Further reading:

Sam LeithYou Talking to Me? by Sam Leith is a wonderful book which has transformed my entire approach to teaching persuasive writing.

Joe Kirby’s blog on Reclaiming Rhetoric is a useful introduction to the subject.

Shakespeare and the perception of incomprehensibility

First FolioFor many students, Shakespeare feels beyond their capabilities and the language seems completely inaccessible. But Shakespeare’s language isn’t really the problem- the majority of words are pretty familiar. The problem is caused by the things that students have to cut through: cognitive overload and the perception of incomprehensibility. Once these are addressed, Shakespeare’s language becomes much more straightforward.

Reducing cognitive load

For me, the biggest problem with studying Shakespeare is the wealth of knowledge students need to make sense of everything. Not simply vocabulary but the poetry, unfamiliar concepts, classical allusions, strange pronunciation, jokes which we can’t understand, topical references etc. Many things need to be known in order for a student to fully understand a scene and we can’t just point them all out as we read. Students need to be able to focus on the text without having to juggle a million new concepts. If they have too much to take on, they don’t understand the text and all those old prejudices rear their head.

I would therefore always start by watching the play. In an ideal world this would be in the theatre but most likely it’ll mean a film version. In starting with the complete play, students have the overview of plot, characters, themes etc. This means that the language is more accessible because they can contextualise it. There’s an argument that this spoils the reading of the text. However, surely the knowledge that Romeo and Juliet are doomed is crucial to our understanding of everything that happens before. And let’s face it, Shakespeare tells us that anyway in the prologue!

We should also endeavour to pre-teach some concepts which will unlock key sections of the text. Suppose we were studying The Merchant of Venice. Bassanio describes Portia:

Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia:
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece;
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.

Students who had previously been introduced to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece would be able to spot the connection. Reading this extract without that knowledge would completely change the meaning of ‘golden fleece’ and ‘Jasons’. Having to stop here and explain that story takes the students out of the language long enough for them to become disconnected. Shakespeare needs to economically introduce Portia’s status as ‘prize’, establish Belmont as a special, almost mythical place and lead in to the sub-plot of the casket quest. An allusion to the Greek myth does that job beautifully but we miss it all if we don’t fully understand that myth.

This ‘pre-teaching’ can be integrated into the curriculum. For example, in year 7, our students spend time studying Theseus and The Minotaur in one scheme and then read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which begins with Egeus taking his daughter to Theseus. Instantly, students understand the great authority Theseus wields because they can make the connection. These two examples just happen to be on Greek mythology but there are obviously other examples.

The curriculum needs to be carefully designed to offer these opportunities to prepare for Shakespeare. A poetry scheme of work could easily include Anne Hathaway by Carol Ann Duffy. A scheme on Blood Brothers could contain lessons on fate and tragedy. Rhetoric could be studied in Animal Farm before reading the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice. Vocabulary homework from the previous term could be designed around difficult words to be encountered in the play. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of new information is worthwhile.

The perception of incomprehensibility

Sometimes the biggest barrier is simply the perception that Shakespeare’s language is impossibly difficult so we have to address that. It is helpful to start with something which suggests the simplicity of Shakespeare’s language. Sonnet 130 is a great introduction, as it combines simple ideas and allows students that moment where they ‘get it’. From there, we can unpick other features of the poem without any fear of the language.

Another ‘way in’ to Shakespeare’s language is to choose a part of the play where the audience is being directly addressed, a soliloquy or chorus (more often a character serving the function of the chorus). While Shakespeare is an amazing wordsmith, we can’t forget that he is writing for the stage. Every line is there to convey something to the audience. Ben Crystal, in ‘Shakespeare on Toast’, writes: “People write in sentences, they speak in thoughts.” If students can unlock each thought then they can make sense of complex language and ideas. Take this from Act 5 Scene 5 of Macbeth, following Lady Macbeth’s death:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In this soliloquy we get a glimpse into Macbeth’s mind. Each of his thoughts (colour coded) is relatively simple. Looking at the soliloquy like this does cut through that perception of complexity that puts students off. Then each ‘thought’ can be explored, the language analysed and the structure becomes clearer e.g. the layering of metaphors jumps out.

Sometimes there is a temptation to change the words but we should expect all students to study Shakespeare’s language. If you change Shakespeare’s language then you distort the meaning, you lose the rhythm, you lose the rich imagery and characters lose their ‘voice’. For me, it is the one non-negotiable aspect of studying Shakespeare. If you change the language then why study Shakespeare at all?

Shakespeare’s language isn’t always easy to unlock but hopefully these things help to cut through any distractions. I definitely feel that I’m still learning when it comes to teaching Shakespeare but I know that my students’ attitudes towards Shakespeare are changing. There is a real sense of achievement to succeeding in something difficult which was previously thought of in very negative terms. I also feel that the enjoyment of understanding a complex text is much better than simplifying things to make it more ‘fun’.

Further reading:

ToastShakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal is useful and insightful. His Springboard Shakespeares  are short and packed full of ideas to support teaching.

Here is everything Chris Curtis has written on Shakespeare.



Routines for Excellent Writing

This is a posting of my presentation at the NATE North writing conference.

I think the routines and habits we establish in and out of the classroom are massively important. Whether these are routines to help the start of lessons go smoothly or to mark exercise books, there are things we should be doing again and again, refining, improving and embedding. Writing is no different. For students to be able to produce excellent writing there are several teacher and student habits I feel are important.

Part 1 Mentor texts and modelling

We want students to produce excellent writing but there are a few issues that we need to acknowledge. First of all, many students do not read regularly and do not encounter different writing styles. When I think about what made me a good writer at school, I am convinced that it was the fact that I read a great deal. But even if students have a reading habit, they are still less likely to read non-fiction and so when we ask them to write it is unsurprising that they will struggle if they have no idea of what a successful piece might look like. This is why we should surround students with mentor texts.

“A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of a writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to show don’t tell.” Jeff Anderson, in Mechanically Inclined.

Whenever you are asking students to write, you show them examples of texts to use as models- mentor texts. I like calling them ‘mentor texts’ because of the associations of the word ‘mentor’-these are the texts we learn from. We should collect these whenever we come across them. They can be whole texts, sections of texts and can even be created by you for the sole purpose of being a mentor text- although I would only do this if I couldn’t find a better one in the real world.


The first step is to read the mentor text. It is worth creating opportunities for students to interact and analyse aspects of the text. Then I would draw attention to anything worth pointing out: paragraph structures, sentences, vocabulary, punctuation and anything interesting at all. Draw out the interesting aspects that make this worth studying. Then students should be encouraged to imitate the text.

Mentor texts can be in all shapes and sizes. An example I used recently was this review of Rock of Ages. There is a cracking paragraph in there which could fit in any review which touches upon genre conventions:

Of course they also fall in love. Of course they have heartfelt conversations while standing behind the “Hollywood” sign. Of course they break up because of a tragic misunderstanding. Of course their mistake is repaired and (spoiler!) they’re back together at the end. Has ever a romance in a musical been otherwise?

There are a number of sentences with similar constructions throughout the text. I would draw attention to these as we read:

  • If you’re tracking those names, you’re perhaps impressed.
  • If you are of a certain age, you may remember them.
  • If you’re making the kind of movie where everybody in the audience knows for sure what’s going to happen, it’s best not to linger on the recycled bits.

Both of the above examples would lend themselves well to activities where students imitate the language and style. For good measure, here are a few more openings of film reviews I think would work well as mentor paragraphs.


If you are looking for mentor texts, then they don’t come any smaller than sentences. In Everyday Editing, Anderson explains how he chooses sentences that:

  • Connect to students’ worlds-their interests, humour, or problems;
  • Show a clear pattern that is easy to observe, imitate, or break down;
  • Model writer’s craft and effective writing-powerful verbs, sensory detail, or voice.

I now spend much of my time in lessons looking at sentences, mainly inspired by the blogging of Chris Curtis (see recommended reading). We need to form a ‘sentence stalking’ habit as teachers and then pass that on to students.

TWP_20131018_003his paragraph from a mentor text I used with a class has several sentences of note and I chose to ‘zoom in’ on the opening one:


Like many homeless young people that come to Centrepoint, Mark is used to being ignored.

We can encourage students to play around with a sentence like this.

  • How is it different from Mark is used to being ignored like many homeless young people that come to Centrepoint?
  • How does it change if it becomes Mark is homeless. Mark is used to being ignored.
  • You could get students to substitute words. You could ask them to create sentences with a similar pattern e.g. Like many_____________, Mark____________________.
  • You could experiment with different words to start e.g. ‘unlike’ / Just like/ As with.

You can see examples of this in action below when students were asked to use the mentor text as a guide for a similar piece on an animal rescue charity:


HumansThe second example is notable because, although the student has used the mentor sentence to create their own, the ‘dear helpless humans’ opening does not fit and is an example of trying to cram in a language technique at the expense of the tone of the piece.

gonzabThe next example is also notable because the original  mentor text had a punctuation error (which I didn’t spot) and the student has imitated it. This makes me realise that students will learn from the texts we show them. If we show students who have a target grade of C a C grade piece of work as an exemplar, we are guilty of lowering expectations as they will imitate that and not a better piece of work.

Teacher as writer

The teacher should model the process of writing. It isn’t just a case of showing a final product to students. They need to know that there is a hidden part that the best writers never show but always go through. Students need to see that it is never a perfect process. Sentences change, bits are removed, and sometimes when it is completed we’re not that happy. My visualiser is an essential tool to help me to do this. A useful website is as you can record videos of your modelling. This allows you circulate the class and you can save them and refer students back to them.As we start writing, I also like to ask students to write on my whiteboard either side of the Smartboard. It makes their thinking visible, other students can take ideas and we have something to critique afterwards.

Part 2: revision and redrafting

The first part of the post was all about ways to ensure that students produce a strong first draft of writing. The next set of habits that we want students to encode are to do with the crucial stage of revision of work. After the first draft, something needs to happen to ensure that a further draft has some improvement. All too often, drafts can be simply neater versions of the first drafts with the odd word replaced with another using a thesaurus.

Acting on feedback

Target2Students should act on feedback as part of the process of writing and not just after it is finished. I use mail merge to create ‘feedbactivities’ which are handed to students as starters. Examples are collected here. The more immediate this feedback loop is, the more likely that students will improve as a result. I like improvements to impact on the current piece of work as well as the next.



Another useful feedback method is the Taxonomy of Errors. Simply put- this is a collection of class errors on a piece of work- read this blog for a more detailed explanation. In my own version, I collect the errors/targets along with some guidance on how to improve. The pictured example is based on the Centrepoint mentor text. In the example I have informed students of their more specific target (T4) but you could ask them to identify their target from the list or use it for peer assessment. Here is the list of targets.


In Write Like This, Kelly Gallagher makes a compelling case for revision:

It is modelling revision- taking a rough draft and moving it to a better place- that is critical if our students are to sharpen their writing skills. Many of my students come to me with a ‘I wrote it once; I am done’mentality, and it takes many modelling sessions before they start to move past this attitude. Anyone can write, I tell them, but rewriting is where good papers emerge. Revision is where it is at- the make-or-break point for the paper, the place where bad writing has the opportunity to be transformed into good writing.

His ‘STAR Revision’ is a good starting point. Remember that you can’t just give students this sheet and they’ll magically revise everything. It all needs to be modelled, discussed and reviewed. Versions of this could be produced for specific tasks and text types. (Thanks to @KerryPulleyn for this idea)







There are certainly more routines worth exploring to help to improve writing and I’m always grateful for more ideas. The above are proving effective for me but as always are works in progress.

Further reading

Most of my ideas come from other teachers. Here are some ideas for further reading:

Chris Curtis (@xris32) is a prolific blogger. His blogs on sentences have had a huge impact on my practice and they are collected here.

Jeff Anderson(@writeguyjeff) has written a number of books on writing. 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know is a treasure trove of ideas and highly recommended.

Alex Quigley (@huntingenglish) has this brilliant blog on shared writing.

I’d recommend reading anything by Kelly Gallagher (kellygtogo).

Finally, I did speak about vocabulary in the original presentation as I feel that vocabulary routines are extremely important. Here are my posts on vocabulary: