Creative Ways to Teach Persuasive Language

Remember that time you watched a Facebook video and gave up sugar for a whole week? Or was it gluten? It was probably wine. OK, so that didn’t stick but don’t feel bad; you did agree to donate to that charity. And the proceeds from those cookies you bought went to a really good cause. 

Speaking of cookies, how often have you picked up a lifestyle magazine and convinced yourself you could be the next Martha Stewart? Also, why do they always put the health and fitness magazines right next to the check out? That’s where I pay for my candy bars! ‘They cancel each other out, though’. That’s what I tell myself when I add them to my basket. I know I’m not the only one guilty of impulse purchases. Be honest… what about those gorgeous, super uncomfortable shoes you never wear but bought because they were on sale? Or the time you ordered that exercise equipment with complete confidence that it would transform you into a supermodel/olympian. Oh wait, maybe that was me…

My point is (and I promise you, I do have one) – whether we’re aware of it or not – our choices aren’t as free as they seem. So many of our decisions, every single day, are guided by other people. Usually marketing executives. Sometimes journalists. Occasionally politicians and activists. More frequently celebrities and social media ‘influencers’. Even friends and family have the power to persuade us to change our behavior, think like they do, or ‘call your mother once in a while’. 

The fact that persuasion is so prevalent in every aspect of our culture means there are a ton of ways you can teach it using fun, relatable, and relevant examples that your students will respond to. In fact, I’ve got eight creative ideas right here!

1. Analyze print advertisements

Even in this digital age, printed advertising isn’t slowing down. Whether it’s giant billboards, or flyers through our letterboxes, you have thousands of persuasive examples to choose from. But I’ve found that one of the best way to engage teenagers is to bring in magazines that appeal to their specific areas of interest and comb through the many (many) pages of adverts. You know your students, so pick a selection of sports, exercise, music, fashion… whatever you think they’ll connect with!

2. Pay attention to current political discourse
Youtube is a modern goldmine for recorded speeches. Search for rallies, press conferences, debates, or state addresses to link your lesson to current affairs. But don’t limit yourself to politicians; activists are among the most savvy public speakers. Check the number of views and comments each speech has received for an idea of how effective and influential they’ve been.

3. Evaluate historical speeches
Analyzing persuasive language of the past is a great opportunity for cross-curricular projects. Have a chat with the history teachers and find out what they have planned for their lessons.

  • The Civil Rights Movement? An obvious choice would be Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis? Look to John F. Kennedy.
  • The Second World War? Look to Winston Churchill. 
  • The Women’s Rights Movement? You can’t do much better than Sojourner Truth.  

4. Embrace the season
If you coincide your lessons with seasonal celebrations, your students will carry on making connections and building awareness even outside the classroom. Big events like the Super Bowl, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and the Olympics are all great opportunities to talk about the power of advertising. While your students watch seasonal commercials, get them to write down all the techniques they spot, like persuasive language bingo!

5. Look to Shakespeare
Your students might not realize that persuasive language techniques are prevalent in fiction too, but it’s a great way to interject a language lesson into a literature study. One of my favorite ‘cross-over’ lessons involves Macbeth; Lady Macbeth is the consummate manipulator. But there are so many other examples of Shakespearean characters who use persuasive language to devastating effect – like Iago in Othello, or Claudius in Hamlet, or Cassius in Julius Caesar.
6. Look to the big (and little) screen
In my experience, students love any excuse to watch TV in class! Which is lucky as TV and movies are full of fantastic examples of persuasive language. War films are always a good bet for rousing speeches, but my favorite clips to watch and deconstruct with my students are always the closing speeches in courtroom dramas.

7. Turn your students into Ad Execs
Encourage your students to learn by doing. Ask them to pick a product or an idea – something they’re passionate about – and design their own advert using persuasive language techniques. This is always a big hit in my classroom; my students jump at the chance to use their creativity in such a free and independent way. 

8. Host a debate 
No study of rhetoric would be complete without a debate. After all, Artistotle defined rhetoric as ‘the art of argument’ so it really is the cherry on top of the persuasive language cake. There’s no better way for students to practice and show off their new persuasive skills and knowledge of ethos, logos, and pathos than to craft their own arguments. And to really get them fired up, the first debate can be choosing the debate topic!

So, there you have it! Teaching rhetoric is one of my most favourite elements of teaching English because it is relevant, and all around us! What are your favourite ways for teaching persuasion?

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