Rhetoric: What Every Student Needs To Know

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Helen Sharpe

Helen works at The Radclyffe School in Oldham as English AST and Lead Teacher for Literacy. She has worked tirelessly to build a culture of reading through regular assemblies and whole-school initiatives while trialling and sharing best practice in pedagogy. Helen is passionate about curriculum...
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How can we make our students less vulnerable to divisive political rhetoric?

It’s confusing times for our students. They are living in a world full of uncertainty: the uncertainty of Brexit, the uncertainty of Donald Trump, the uncertainty of climate change, the uncertainty of terror threats and rising violent crime including hate and knife crime.

Is extremism the correct viewpoint?

I work in a school in Oldham with a largely Asian intake and, therefore, our students face the added fear of growing Islamophobia. There are politicians, journalists and advertisers using language to persuade the public that their view, however extreme, is the correct one. Our students are also immersed in social media: often a vehicle of persuasion regularly criticised for its lack of censorship. It is not difficult, for example, to find videos and comments on social media expressing extreme right-wing or fascist views.

So, what does every student need to know?

It is with this context in mind that I advocate the explicit teaching of rhetoric. I feel as teachers, we have an ethical responsibility to equip our students with the knowledge of how proficient speakers and writers use language to achieve their aims, not only so that they can see through it, but also so that they can convey their own opinions eloquently and engage in healthy, sophisticated debate. We must empower students to stand up for themselves with the power of words and to recognise that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.

1. Ethos, logos, pathos

You Talking To MeI have taken ideas from Mr. Pink (@positivteacha) and the excellent ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ by Sam Leith, to inform our crucially important rhetoric scheme. Our starting point is to teach what Leith calls ‘the three musketeers of rhetoric’: ethos, logos and pathos.

Through studying these ancient Greek terms and their etymology, students can understand and start to identify where reputation and credibility (ethos), logic (logos) and feelings (pathos) are used to influence an audience or reader. We teach this primarily through Shakespeare, exploring everything from Mark Anthony’s infamous ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’, to Shylock’s ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ and even Lady Macbeth’s personal manipulation of her husband. This is so that students can see rhetoric at work in many guises: from the very public political stage to a private marital conversation.

However, because our students are not going to write or speak like Shakespeare, we also have a homework booklet running through the scheme, exemplifying modern rhetoric from Churchill to Malala.

2. Structure

We then look at the structure of a speech and why it is put together in a way that usually begins with ethos and then moves onto logos and ends with pathos. This opens up lots of discussion around the different types of emotions stirred up in rhetoric and the impact that an emotional response has. Maya Angelou’s quote is particularly relevant here:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

There is, as students begin to realise, a reason why emotional appeal occurs at the end of a piece of rhetoric.

3. Style

Finally, we examine the use of rhetorical devices. Some scaffolding is required here as there are hundreds! While the higher ability classes look at several different types of repetition and questioning as well as allusion, analogy and antithesis, my lower-set year seven class focus on anaphora, tricolon, emotive language and anecdotes, linking these to their effect. By delving into the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of rhetoric, students develop a much deeper understanding than simply studying it through checklists or mnemonics. This is a brand-new scheme and there will inevitably be changes needed, but our purpose is clear.

Knowledge is power and knowledge of rhetoric, as Leith says, needs to be in the hands of the good guys!

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