Saturday, 15 June 2013

Sexy Sprouts – why I think we need to stop teaching persuasive writing

It saddened me recently to hear that Iain Banks had passed away. He has always been one of my favourite writers and death is a big loss. His writing, for me, is playful, skilful and varied, and it isn’t as flowery as others. In fact, I am proud in my teaching to have introduced ‘The Wasp Factory’ to a group of students. Before you panic, it was to a group of Year 13s and not Year 7s; however, I’d love to see the reaction it would create. Anyway, I taught the book as part of a comparison in A-level English Literature. My colleague was teaching a Dickens’ novel and I was teaching the modern novel. Side by side, I was able to see how good these two writers were. It was the oddest combination, but it worked.

I was a young teacher at the time and I had selected ‘The Wasp Factory’ mainly because I wanted something different and partly because I wanted something challenging. The lessons with that group were hilarious. It was a group of 15 girls and me being a young, shy English teacher didn’t help. There came a moment towards the end of the book, when one of the students asked a question relating to a major plot development. The student asked: ‘Sir, penis envy, yeah? Why should a woman be envious of a penis? What’s there to be envious of? Tell us’. I turned red. I am always prepared for a difficult literary question, yet a question like this flummoxed me. The sea of female faces all looked at me, as if I had the secret answer that men keep hidden away from lady-folk since the dawn of time. Ummm…errrr…ummmm. I couldn’t answer the question. I lacked the confidence to say: ‘It allows you to wee standing up’. All the girls stared at me, looking like sharks that had sniffed blood. Ummmm…errrr…errrrr….ummmm. The bell went and I was saved. Today, I am a bit more careful with ‘challenging’ books, but I am glad I taught it. Going against the grain is something I like doing occasionally, but maybe I should leave the difficult parts for a cover lesson and let the supply teacher deal with those difficult questions.  I am a wimp and proud of it.

If there is one thing that ‘The Wasp Factory’ does well, it is shock. The novel has the power to shock readers with its ideas, characters and events. At the moment I am teaching persuasive writing to Year 8s and I am teaching it in a different way for the first time in years. I am teaching it from the perspective of effect and not from the perspective of purpose.

For several years, I have taught persuasive writing in a fairly similar way. First, I revise different persuasive techniques and then I read a few persuasive texts. Finally, the students write their own persuasive text. This year, I felt that all of that was a bit pants and I am now trying something different and something new. I am teaching persuasive writing around the different effects such as desire, shock, guilt and impress. Students write a piece that makes something desirable and we explore the choices they make as writers and then compare those choices with how other writers have made products sound desirable.


"Brussels Sprouts" by Bill Longshaw
Personally, this approach has worked for me, as I think I am doing something new. The problem I feel that we have in schools is that genre, audience and purpose are visited again and again in KS2 and KS3 and KS4; we rarely introduce something new into the mix. Yes, I know English is recursive and students forget things, but are we really developing our students to write in a sophisticated way? I put myself into the shoes of a student and I thought about the concept of writing to persuade. The word ‘persuade’ conjures up very little emotionally. It just makes me think of getting people to do something. It doesn’t really cover the how to get people to do something. In English we are interested in the ‘how’, yet the language we use in teaching that doesn’t help students. If I said to students that I want them to persuade people to buy a paperclip, I might get some good responses and I will certainly get techniques to persuade, but is it really effective? If I said make a paperclip desirable to people, then I think students engage better with the emotions of the reader and concentrate on the desired effect. Desiring is much better than buying.

Sadly, writing in secondary school is limited to silly writing triplets (argue, persuade, advise) and genre, audience and purpose. I am guilty of using them too, but I think we need to be more sophisticated with how we teach writing. Instead of genre, audience and purpose, have genre, audience, purpose and effect. Teach with the effect in mind. We do it with creative writing and fiction all the time. Write a creepy description. Write a funny story. Let’s do it to non-fiction writing: write an opening to a letter that will shock. Write an ending to a blog that makes the reader feel guilty. If we approach writing from an ‘effect’ perspective, it will only help our analysis of texts later. The relationship between writing and reading needs to be stronger in lessons. An Ofsted inspector recently in a conversation said:

‘Read like a writer and write like a reader’.

Yes, I know, I am quoting an inspector, but it is true. The relationship between reader and writer is paramount in English, yet we treat writing and reading as two separate entities at times. We may do a bit of writing when we read a book, or we might read something when we are writing, but are we drawing attention to the relationship between the reader and the writer?

Recently, I have been using role play to develop a student’s understanding of a writer’s choices. It focused on one student being a reader and the other being a writer. They had to explain their thoughts and feelings towards a choice made in a text. If they become better readers of texts, they become better writers of texts. So, let’s use ‘effect’ more when getting students to write.
Persuade: desire, shock, guilt, impress
Advise: reassure, convince, relax

So, why the title ‘Sexy Sprouts’? Well, that was a lesson I did this week:


I gave students this extract from a piece another student had written.

Pure evil. The worst vegetable in the world. A soggy, watery parcel of smelly green goo. It is as if the worst of every meal is scooped into one place and boiled down into one small little ball. Eating them is like eating sick that has been left out overnight and has little bits of peas floating around in it.


What is the effect of the writing here?

What does it make the reader feel / think?

How does the writer make you think /feel this?




We then discussed what we could do to make it sound desirable.
How can you make your writing sound desirable?

You could ...

You might want to ...

You could ...

You might want to ...

You could ...

You might want to ...

You could ...

You might want to ... 


Then, students had to make the sprouts sound sexy or desirable. And, dear reader, they did. One student described the ‘biting slowly into the crisp succulent shell and into the warm centre inside’ and another described it as a ‘parcel of heavenly delight’. The writing produced was very effective and more effective than them trying to use every persuasive technique in the book.   

We then watched the infamous M&S food adverts and discussed how the makers did similar things to our writing. Finally, I got them to make their own commentary to an advert that I had made about a new box of chocolates. We left the room feeling very hungry, but they understood the effect of a text and how writing can be adapted to make writing sound desirable. Plus, it was much better than a lesson on the features of a persuasive text. Next week, we are a looking to shock, but I will be keeping away from ‘The Wasp Factory’.


So, I am ditching the emphasis on the writing purpose and focusing on the writing effect. For secondary school teachers, the groundwork is done in KS2. We should be developing and extending that knowledge and understanding in KS3 and KS4 and not just repeating it again and again. Furthermore, A grade students write effectively because they have a desired effect in mind and they are not just persuading. They are shocking, impressing and making something seem desirable.
Thanks for reading, 
Xris32  


This blog is sponsored by Sprouts Are Us.  

14 comments:

  1. I think it makes absolute sense to write as a writer writes - no professional writer would say they were writing "to persuade". They'd say they were writing to make their product sound sophisticated and sexy, or to make their readers outraged about an issue, or to make their readers cry over the fate of a character. It's all about reader experience, and we need to encourage our students to explore that.

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    1. Thanks. Yes, it has taken me a while to get there, but I am starting to see that it is about reader experience and not the purpose. ; )

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  2. Hi Chris, thanks very much for this post. It really resonates with what we've been discussing in our year 11 gain time this week. We have two schemes of learning in year 8 based around writing triplets, and though I haven't taught them this year, I remember in my NQT year the frustration with these topics. We focused on teaching techniques and getting the students to be familiar with them without looking deep enough into how we wanted the audience to feel. The students were soon expert at writing statistics, facts, rhetorical questions etc. but weren't questioning their choices at all.
    We are determined to move the focus away from triplets next year. Instead of weeks of writing for different purposes (which I’m sure are no way near as distinct as we choose to present them) we are going to focus on writing. In the words of my colleague:
    “We get trapped by purpose. We teach writing to blah blah blah, and not just writing to get better.”
    I’ll be sending this blog the round department.
    Cheers,
    Dave

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    1. Thanks, Dave. It is good to know that I am not alone on this one. ; )

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    2. Chris this has really enlightened me thanks as an engloish teacher myself I couldn't agree more lots of love barney xxx

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  3. Also, I think you'll find that the Osted inspector is quoting someone else. "Write like a reader..." has been my mantra since I began teaching, because that is what my English teacher said to me. Glad to see someone else passing on the same philosophy to their students. :-)

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    1. Thank you. I will keep passing that mantra on. But, I will cite you as the source of it now.; )

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  4. Really enjoyed this post, and I'll be adapting this exercise to use with my eager Higher English tutees next term. Thanks for sharing the idea :-)

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  5. Good post and, you're right, we need to (to misquote Atticus Finch) get them to step into the reader's shoes and see it from their point of view. As a starter, I tell my classes that they need to make the reader 'make a noise' when they're reading their piece and then we model the different kinds of noises, such as 'Ugh' for 'that disgusts me' or 'Nooooooo!' for 'I can't believe what you're telling me' or 'Ha ha ha ha ha' for 'That is SO funny'. On the other hand, I've just read your Ofsted post too and it's perhaps not something to do as a starter on those days.

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  6. Thanks for that Fran. I will try that approach this week. Great idea. Thanks

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  7. 1) There is little discussion of why you would want to persuade somebody in the first place. Persuasion is neutral - you can try to persuade somebody to do the right thing, and equally persuade them to do the wrong thing.

    A libor fraudster's email that says "i have a huge 1m fixing today and it would really help to have a low 1m tx a lot" is as much an attempt at persuasive writing as Larkin's "we should be careful of each other, we should be kind while there is still time".

    So teaching persuasive writing looks morally empty from here.

    2) Some attention should be paid to the reality of effects. Does persuasive writing really persuade? No, I mean really really...

    If you chuck in a few common rhetorical devices, does that really persuade? Instead of sprouts, consider chocolate: is any persuasive writing about how disgusting chocolate is really going to persuade somebody to avoid it in real life?

    Did writing nicely about sprouts influence anybody to change their minds about sprouts?

    It's easy to delude ourselves about effects...

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    1. An interesting perspective. Thank you. You are right to point out that persuading is far more complex than it seems. I don't think that any of the students were convinced to eat sprouts, because they were only novices. They were learning how language can be used for effect. I was challenging how reductive the teaching of persuasive writing has become. Writing with an effect in mind is much better than the purpose, in my opinion. It allows students to engage with their readers more.

      The reason I chose sprouts was the unlikelihood of people being persuaded by the product. I have done the same with chocolate and the results haven't been as effective. Most people want chocolate so there wasn't much persuading needed. Plus, students, through advertising, had been conditioned with loads of stock clichés and words associated with chocolate. Their writing was just duplicating adverts seen. There was very little engagement with the purpose. Sprouts got them to think. It gave them a challenge.

      Did writing nicely about sprouts influence anybody to change their minds about sprouts?

      No, but add a £50 to the writing and they might consider it. ; )


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