Analysing short written persuasive texts

Help your students to write effective persuasive texts by teaching them to analyse the texts written by others.
If you were to share the following short text, for example, you could ask them to identify where (and why) the writer uses repetition, statistics, examples, modal language, and both positive and negative language:
Where would you rather live – in the city or in the country? I think it’s definitely [modal language] better to live in the country.
For a start, you are free of all that dreadful [negative language] traffic. Traffic not only causes pollution [negative language], but it also causes stress. [negative language] You should [modal language] live in the country if you want a clean [positive language] environment and a relaxed [positive language] lifestyle.
Secondly, you are more likely to know your neighbours if you live in the country. As well as being your friends, neighbours also provide help when you need it. In the city, you are more likely to be lonely [negative language]. You are more likely [repetition] to have to look after yourself if you are in trouble.
Sixty per cent of people [statistics] in a recent survey said that they would much rather live in the country. They love the trees, the fresh air and the open space. [example/positive language]
People who have moved from the city to the country [expert opinion] are usually loudest in their praise of their new home. They don’t regret their decision for one minute.
I’ve never [modal language] lived anywhere else, and I never [modal language and repetition] want to!

Have students use this writing as a model to write a persuasive piece that argues the opposite point of view. Their challenge is to incorporate each of the persuasive devices.

Narrative writing: beginnings and endings

Beginnings are hard, and endings even harder, but the explicit teaching of specific techniques will make students aware of the choices that they have as writers.

Encourage them to try these ideas for beginning a narrative. (Some beginnings might mark the first event in the narrative; others might lead into a flashback.)

1. Dialogue

“Shut the door as you leave,” said the Principal.

2.  A question

Have you ever wondered why some people don’t like carrots?

3.  A statement

I can’t believe I was so stupid!

4.  A dramatic event

The car teetered briefly on the edge of the cliff before slowly sliding down into the sea.

And try these ideas for ending a narrative:

1. A surprise

And you won’t believe it, but I found that lost letter at the back of a kitchen drawer!

2.  A moral

So next time I think I can judge someone by their appearance I might think again.

3.  A hint of something more to come

The liteks were defeated for now, thought Zavo, but what would happen when summer came?

4.  Dialogue

“What was that all about?” Dad asked.

5.  A summary

In the end, then, it all turned out well. The children went back home and the monkeys were returned to their jungle home.

Explicitly naming and teaching these strategies will mean that you have a shared metalanguage to use in your feedback.

Teaching grammar in context – sentence structure

An understanding of sentence structure is both an important aid to comprehension when reading, and vital assistance for students who have been given the instruction: ‘Make your writing interesting!’ (An instruction, by the way, that is of little use unless students are given some clues as to how this might be done.)

So, how can an understanding of sentence structure be taught as part of the reading and writing that is done in the classroom?

  • Interest and style are created by sentence variety. Using only short or long sentences can be equally boring and monotonous for the reader. Demonstrate this to students by showing them a paragraph that is comprised of a series of short sentences, each highlighted in a different colour. Ask students to read the paragraph and to give their opinion of the writing, hoping to elicit from them that it is not very interesting. Encourage them to look at the way the sentences have been highlighted to explain that the lack of interest derives from the monotony of a series of short sentences. Ask students to suggest how it might be improved, or made more ‘interesting’ for the reader.Make the changes to the paragraph as suggested by the students and be explicit about what they have done in order to improve the writing.
  • Depending on their year level and previous experience with metalanguage, you might point out (or get them to identify) how they have changed some simple sentences into compound ones, or how they have created complex sentences by adding adverbial, adjectival or noun clauses. Draw particular attention to those sentences that have been left as simple sentences because you want students to understand that variety in sentence length can make writing more engaging.
  • Students might also suggest changes to the way in which the sentences begin – that is, instead of all beginning with a subject followed by a verb, they might suggest that a sentence should start with an adjective, adverb or phrase. Again, if they make these suggestions, be explicit about what they have done in order to create and emphasise the metalanguage for future use. In particular, ask students what effects are achieved by adding the extra detail.
  • Repeat this activity on another occasion with a paragraph comprised of a series of long sentences. Again, ask students for their opinion of the writing, hoping to elicit from them that it is not easy to read or understand. Encourage them to look at the way in which you have highlighted the sentences to demonstrate that they are all long sentences.  Get students to suggest changes to the paragraph and to discuss those changes as described in the previous activity.
  • Select a short, interesting extract from a novel to read to your students – for example, a description of a person that effectively creates a character in terms of appearance and behaviour; a description of a place that makes it seem particularly attractive, enticing, frightening or disgusting; or a retelling of an event which effectively conveys the pathos, humour or horror of the situation.Discuss their responses to the extract and then explain that you are going to look more closely at how the author has created this piece of writing.Display the extract on an interactive whiteboard so that it can be easily highlighted and marked up. Ask students to identify:
    – the kinds of sentences used by the author (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex).
    – where in the sentences the clauses  have been embedded (at the beginning, in the middle, at the end) or phrases added.  Depending on student experience, you might also ask them to identify the kinds of clauses and phrases.
    – particular words or images that help to create a vivid picture or mood. Again, depending on student experience, you might ask them to identify whether these words are nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, and whether the images are similes or metaphors.
  • From time to time, when students are providing peer feedback on each other’s writing, identify a specific focus for them to concentrate on. For example, in the context of sentence construction, ask students to concentrate on providing each other with feedback about sentence variety. Ask them to offer explicit advice about where a peer might change a simple sentence to a complex sentence, for instance. Encourage them to use the metalanguage. For example, the peer feedback might be:
    Change this sentence into a complex sentence. You could add an adjectival clause to describe the car.
    Or, where students need a little more help, the feedback might be:
    Add an adjectival clause here to describe the car, such as:The car, which had been sitting out the front of our house for two weeks, seemed to have been abandoned.”’
    When you are providing feedback, be explicit about what you are doing so that you create a model for peer feedback – for example: ‘I’m giving Jay an example of an adjectival clause so that he can use one in his writing.’
  • If you encourage students to use editing and reviewing checklists when they are checking drafts of their writing, add a reference to sentence variety so that students become accustomed to reviewing their writing for more than spelling and punctuation. In writing conferences, encourage students to comment orally on their choice of sentence structure and to evaluate the effectiveness.
  • A short, simple sentence can sometimes be extremely effective; it is not necessarily the case that a long and complex sentence is always best. Demonstrate this for students by focusing on the shorter simple sentences in specific texts. Get them to identify, for example, how these sentences can be used to build tension and assist them to see this by substituting the short sentences for longer ones and examining the effect. Other selected texts might use short, simple sentences to grab attention, especially at the beginning of a text, or to sum up an argument. In a set of instructions, too, simple sentences might be more effective than complex sentences. Ask students to use these texts as models for their own writing, and encourage them to explain their choice of sentence construction, based on the effect they were hoping to achieve.

Teaching grammar in context – Verbs

How can you teach verbs in the context of reading and writing?  Here are some ideas:

  • Explore what happens if you change the modal verbs in a text. Select a persuasive text to share with the students on an interactive whiteboard. First get students to identify each of the modal verbs used, and then to change the verbs of high modality into verbs of low modality and vice versa. Ask students to discuss how the effectiveness of the writing changes.
  • To practise the use of modal verbs, have students write sets of rules relevant to the school context – for example, rules for using the library or for behaviour in the playground. They could write rules for both teachers and students.
  • Select (or write yourself) several very short stories written in the past tense. Cut the texts up into sentences and distribute one or two to each student. Ask students to rewrite their sentence/s in the present tense and then to find other class members whose sentences relate to the same story. (They will need to make use of language clues in order to do this.)When they have found all of the sentences in their story, they sit down together as a group and order the sentences into correct sequence to make the story. The group task is to check the tense of each verb to make sure it is accurate. Students could then underline each of the verbs and share their story with another group as a further check.
  • Ask students to work in groups to create a storybook about verbs. Students could take digital photos or download them from the internet and write three lines of accompanying text. The first line could be written in past tense, the next in present tense and the final line in future tense. In addition, each group could focus on a different kind of verb – action, saying, sensing, relating…
  • Ask students to find verbs in magazines and newspapers to make a verb collage of printed text and pictures. As a variation, different groups could focus on different kinds of verbs. The posters they produce could become teaching resources to display in the classroom.
  • Provide students with a series of letters that could have been written to an advice column in a magazine. Ask them to select one and write a reply. Tell them to be particularly aware of the way in which they use modal verbs. On completion, they could share their responses with peers who could comment on the use of modality, as well as providing feedback on the content of the letter and the effectiveness of the advice.
  • Travel articles often use a lot of modal verbs. Share a travel article with the students and ask them to identify the modals and to say whether they are of high or low modality. Ask them to discuss why the author might have selected one kind of modality rather than the other.
  • Analyse a procedural text to identify the use of action verbs in their imperative form. Use the text as a model for students to write their own procedural text and identify the action verbs they have used.
  • Explore the kinds of verbs used by the writer of a narrative. Encourage students to change the action and sensing verbs to create a different impression of a character.
  • In their own writing, encourage students to explain their choice of verb and the effect that they were hoping to create.
  • Share with the students a piece of writing that you have edited to make the verbs bland and ‘weak’. For each verb, get students to suggest alternative ‘stronger’ and thus more effective verbs. This is a good vocabulary-building exercise. Show them the original text, with the author’s choice of verbs intact, and ask them to discuss their their effectiveness. Perhaps they will decide that some of the verbs they have suggested are even better than the originals.

‘I don’t know what to write …’

Generating ideas for writing is one of the challenges of teaching persuasive writing to primary school children.  It’s perhaps easy enough to teach the structure of the persuasive genre; it’s perhaps easy enough to teach the use of persuasive language and devices.  But if children have no ideas to write about, then it’s difficult for them to demonstrate their understanding of the textual features.

So what are some of the ways in which you can build content?

  • If the topic lends itself, show a video or explore a website together. Construct a set of shared notes as a result of the discussion.
  • Think. Pair. Share. In pairs, students discuss what they know about the topic and then share their thoughts and ideas with another pair.
  • As a whole class, brainstorm ideas about the topic, using a concept map. Use the concept map as a basis for organising various possible points of view on the topic.
  • Use todaysmeet and invite children to make comments and ask questions about the topic.  Use their input as the basis for a whole class discussion. Where children have offered ‘I think..’ or ‘I believe…’ comments, encourage them to support their arguments with evidence, and ask others to offer an opposing argument.
  • Ask students to work in pairs or groups to create a table to list ideas for and against a point of view. Have them share their table with another pair or group to build more content.
  • Use a ‘speed dating’ configuration in which children form two lines so that they stand opposite a partner.  Each pair then exchanges ideas on the topic during a specified period of time (eg, two minutes) before moving on to the next partner for a further exchange.
  • Where the topic lends itself, divide the class into groups that represent the stakeholders who are likely to have differing points of view on a particular topic.  For example, if the topic were ‘Students should be encouraged to walk or bicycle to school’, then the stakeholders might be the students, their parents, people interested in promoting a healthy society and teachers. Ask students to consider the point of view that each stakeholder is likely to hold, and the arguments that might be put forward to support each point of view.
  • Conduct a ‘lucky dip’. On an A4 sheet of paper each student writes a statement, an opinion or a question about the topic.  These are then placed in a box and students select one to which they respond.  (This activity could also be conducted electronically on a wiki or in a google doc.)  Students go back to the lucky dip several times, each time reading what has been written previously by other students and adding their own statement, opinion or question.
  • Have a class debate.  Half the class is designated to support one point of view on the topic, and the other half is asked to support the opposing view.

These activities, as well as building the necessary content to be used in a piece of persuasive writing, also encourage thinking skills, promote collaboration and, in some cases, provide opportunities to use speaking and listening skills.

Parents and NAPLAN: how concerned should you be?

NAPLAN tests in literacy and numeracy will take place on May 14, 15 and 16 for all students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
Both before and after those dates the media will probably feature a fair few negative articles about the test, and you might even wonder whether you should withdraw your child from the testing process.
But how much should you worry?
Firstly, it’s important to understand the purpose of the NAPLAN tests.  They’re designed
• to measure whether Australian students are meeting the outcomes outlined in the Australian Curriculum,
• to provide information about the achievements of individual students so that schools can be specific about meeting their needs, and
• to provide schools and education departments with information about the effectiveness of their educational programs.

Of course you are most interested in the impact on your child, so what’s the deal with NAPLAN?

The important thing to recognise is that NAPLAN assessment is just one part of a school’s assessment program. In no way does it provide a comprehensive picture of your child’s achievement and progress, and nor does it try to. It can, however, provide useful information about aspects of your child’s literacy and numeracy progress which might need further support. Importantly, in analysing the data provided by the NAPLAN results, schools draw on their own more extensive knowledge of individual students as part of their evaluation.
You can be reassured about this because there are various reasons why a child might not ‘perform’ on the day. Perhaps he or she is overly anxious or not feeling well, for instance. For this reason, attaching too much significance to the results can be misleading.
Having said that, I would reiterate that the information derived from NAPLAN can be extremely useful, so how can you help your child to prepare?
• Reassure children, but only if they seem to need that reassurance. If you link NAPLAN with stress, then maybe this will actually create anxiety. You know your child best, and you will know whether or not they need reassurance.
• Play down the significance of the tests, emphasising that they are just one part of the school’s assessment program and explain why they are held.
• Remind children that the focus is on effort, on doing their best, rather than on worrying about results.
• On a practical note, make sure they get a good night’s sleep before the test and a good breakfast in the morning.
Teachers will have shared examples of NAPLAN tests so that children are familiar with them. They will probably have practised answering questions.
There are four individual tests. The first one tests children’s knowledge of language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation); the second one asks children to complete a piece of persuasive writing on a particular topic; the third one tests reading skills, and the final one tests numeracy. The specific skills that are being tested reflect the Australian Curriculum.
Otisa offers children the opportunity to practise the skills described in the Australian Curriculum.

How to prepare students for the NAPLAN writing task

Remember the advice: ‘You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it’. NAPLAN ‘practice’ is not necessarily the best way to prepare for the test. Rather, the best preparation you can give your students is to make sure they have the necessary skills and knowledge. You will, of course, introduce them to the testing genre and explain key terminology, but before that spend lots of time making certain they understand the persuasive genre that they will be asked to use in the test.
Here are some random ideas:
• As a whole class, explore lots of persuasive texts (magazine and television advertisements, posters, short letters to the editor – purpose written, if necessary) to identify what the authors are trying to do (their purpose) and how they do this. This gives you an opportunity to examine the language, both print and visual, that the author chooses, and to discuss why that choice might have been made.
• Have students work in pairs to create simple posters and advertisements whose purpose is to persuade others to do, think or buy something. Ask them to explain the strategies they used (images, font, language) and why they think these would be successful.
• Have students work in pairs or groups to role-play persuading others to do, think or buy something. Other students say whether they are in fact persuaded to do, buy or think, and identify the language (both oral and body language) that was used to persuade.
• Select several persuasive texts and assist students to identify the words used to persuade. Introduce the idea of negative and positive connotations. Ask students to assist in drawing up a list of the persuasive words used – adjectives, adverbs and adverbial phrases. Get them to suggest alternative words which might have the opposite effect on the reader.
• Encourage students to use persuasive words in their own texts. Ask them to identify their deliberate use of persuasive words and to explain their choice in terms of how they are trying to persuade their readers.
• Explore the use of connectives used to organise ideas in a persuasive text. Use an IWB or similar and highlight these on the text. Ask students to use some of these connectives in their own persuasive writing.
• Use blank templates – boxes labelled with the structural aspects of an argument such as Introduction or point of view, argument plus evidence, Conclusion. Cut up the text of a simple argument, and ask students to paste the relevant sections of the text into the relevant blank space on the template. (This can be done electronically). Model the process first before asking students to work in pairs to complete the activity. Particularly focus on the evidence that is used to support each argument (because ….) and on identifying the words that sequence ideas and that are used to link one paragraph to the next.
• Draft and write individual, group or class persuasive letters for real purposes, e.g. to express a point of view about a school issue or one that is relevant to the particular age group.
• Help students to understand how persuasive writing can be adapted for different audiences and purposes, by asking them to write on the same topic for two difference audiences.
The Persuasive Writing section of http://www.otisa.com.au provides more activities for students to work through in order to improve their understanding of the features of persuasive writing. Otisa is available on subscription to schools and parents.