The writing section of GCSE English Language Paper Two, Section B – persuasive writing or writing to express a viewpoint – is potentially the more challenging of the writing tasks. Perhaps this is because it asks students to work with a form that they’re unaccustomed to: the purpose might be beyond the reach of the students’ everyday domain, demanding successful application of various persuasive writing techniques; the register can be challenging to get right and the discourse unfamiliar. Furthermore, the nature of the tasks are formal in nature: a letter, article, text for a leaflet, text of a speech or an essay.
The following strategies for teaching my students how to write good persuasive writing were gathered during a teaching and learning sequence I called ‘The Big School Debate’, in which the students planned, sequenced and wrote a text that offered a viewpoint about education. There’s clearly nothing spectacularly new about this topic as stimulus for persuasive writing, but, like the question they’ll tackle in an exam context, it draws from a sphere that students can well be expected to already know something about.
‘The task will always be essentially discursive in nature – providing students with opportunities to communicate their personal view(s).’ AQA
I wanted to teach my students the process of planning, drafting and editing their writing, initially over the course of a few lessons, but with the intention that gradually, they could plan, write and edit effectively within the time constraints of the exam. I wanted to establish some maxims for good persuasive writing without imposing a rigid framework or a list of success criteria.
The task in the exam is linked to the topic or theme of the reading sources, which act as stimulus material. To replicate this, we watched several YouTube clips which in which viewpoints and opinions about education were expressed, from Sir Ken Robinson to Katherine Birbalsingh on Good Morning Britain. In our ensuing class discussions, many students, although certainly not all, unsurprisingly veered toward a fairly ‘progressive’ stance on how education should be conceptualised. The topic is certainly contentious enough – and the students feel sufficiently invested – to totally engage with it, whatever their opinions might be.
The following suggestions draw on my experiences teaching ‘The Big School Debate’, but I hope you’ll find them useful when applied to any topic of your choosing. A copy of the resources I’ve used, which include some material written by my own students, which you can use as a ‘here’s one I made earlier’ and which you can adapt as you see fit, can be found here.
1. Encourage students to plan broadly and gather ideas.
‘There was significant evidence of more planning taking place and, in most cases, this led to a stronger and more coherent sense of a whole argument, which is likely to encourage students towards the clarity necessary to be awarded a mark in Level 3 or above.’ AQA – examiners’ report, November 2018.
Students can expect a statement at the start of the question setting out a clear audience, purpose and form; what AQA have called ‘an enabling, provocative…controversial statement that prompts students to write a response offering their own… viewpoint.’ The ‘enabling, provocative… controversial statement’ that I chose was ‘education is no longer fit for purpose.’
After we had watched and read the stimulus material I described above, I fielded a classroom discussion in which I encouraged everyone to develop an individual response to the statement and to gather ideas in the form of a mindmap.
It is worth emphasising to students that in order to sustain their argument throughout their writing, they should develop a central idea and select reasons to support it. Examiners’ reports are clear that a crafted, sustained argument is crucial to success. This is not a discussion of two sides of an argument.
‘Where students were awarded marks in Level 2, this was in recognition that their central argument was unclear or muddled, often switching from one side of the argument to the other.’ AQA – examiners’ report, November 2018.
2. Model the process of sequencing and structuring.
I gathered the ideas the students generated through discussion and mind-mapping on a projected screen in the form of text boxes, with the intention of modelling how we might structure and sequence the ideas most powerfully. Should we start with the strongest ideas first? Would the argument lose momentum this way? What about starting with the weakest ideas and building momentum as we go? What if we were to cluster them by theme?
‘The best responses established a clearly identifiable point of view from the start, and followed this through with a coherent series of points to support their central argument.’ AQA – examiners’ report, November 2017.
The idea of clustering the ideas topically seemed like a sensible idea. However, I suggested an alternative approach: grouping ideas by which mode of rhetoric they most suited. A student suggested that in order to allow powerful momentum to be sustained throughout, we could open with what Aristotle would have termed the ‘ethos’ of the argument, in order to establish a sense of virtue, then the ‘logos’ of the argument, or the appeal to the reader’s sense of logic, and finally, the ‘pathos’ of the argument, appealing to the reader’s emotions and contriving a powerful and lasting impact toward the end of the text.
In small groups, students shared and reflected on their own ideas and, using colour-coded cards, categorised these ideas based around one of the rhetorical categories. Of course, an idea such as ‘school children should be allowed more freedom of expression’ could potentially be constructed as either an argument of ‘ethos’ or an argument of ‘pathos’, but I left it to the students to decide how they wanted to deploy their ideas.
3. Get them to open with an anecdote before outlining their main argument.
This is no doubt a familiar strategy, but one that works extremely well. A student in my class who handles writing to argue with ease, came up with a brilliant way in to his piece.
Another student who felt particularly strongly about school uniform produced a rather lack-lustre opening, but reflecting on the importance of an immersive anecdote, retooled it.
4. Teach students how to build explicit paragraph links to show cohesion visibly.
We know that paragraph cohesion is an important part of successful persuasive writing. A student could productively employ the usual devices to build such cohesion, such as conjunctions or adverbials of time within their writing. However, another device that can work really well is the explicit paragraph link, in which a motif or phrase in the last sentence of a paragraph is repeated in the first sentence of the next paragraph:
This technique can help students to employ much more bespoke, effective ways of linking ideas than the usual ‘firstly… secondly… furthermore…’ approach.
5. Make sure they understand the importance of personal pronouns.
6. Encourage them to adopt the ‘tone’ of the powerful.
Potentially, the discourse of persuasion is the discourse of power. There are several gains a student might make in their own persuasive writing by ‘borrowing’ from ‘powerful language. We can see these approaches in the powerful arguments we read in the media each day:
In these examples from The Guardian, we can see inverted commas to imply doubt and a question followed by an answer which bestows a high status ‘persona’ upon the writer. I also encourage my students to occasionally use Latin connectives such as ‘ergo’, ‘ad nauseam’ and ‘in perpetuum’ to suggest a sense of gravitas.
7. Encourage them to experiment with sentence structures to allow them to showcase higher order thinking.
A ‘a full range of appropriate sentence forms [used] for effect’ is, the mark-scheme tells us, a way of helping students to access ‘Level 4’. Particular sentence structures can, however, allow students to showcase more advanced thinking. Comparative subordinating conjuntions such as ‘however’ can allow a student to rebuff a counter-argument, as can the preposition ‘despite’. A student could use conjunctions such as ‘because’ and ‘since’ to demonstrate reasoning. Opening a sentence with a simile shows understanding of representation and symbolism.
8. Prompt the students to change the level of formality on occasion for emphasis.
Students working at greater depth at Key Stage Two are expected to ‘exercise an assured and conscious control over levels of formality, particularly through manipulating grammar and vocabulary to achieve this.’ At GCSE, a candidate might achieve this by using parenthetical brackets to incorporate an informal joke or aside into their response. This can work extremely well, as the juxtaposition of humour or self-deprecation with the formal tone of argument can be an extremely sophistictated persuasive technique, which gets the reader ‘on side’.
9. Make sure the students make thrifty use of persuasive devices.
It’s important to ensure that students don’t liberally scatter their responses with rhetorical devices. Similarly, responses structured around mnemonics like DAFOREST or variants can feel artificial and constrained. Years ago, I taught writing to argue and persuade with a strong focus on encouraging students to shoehorn as many persuasive devices as they could into their writing, as the example below, with the obligatory Comic Sans, illustrates.
The examiners are clear that a sustained argument should be led by the deeper structures of the argument itself, rather simply signposted by persuasive devices.
‘…there were still signs of familiar mnemonics to remind students to cover the whole range of linguistic devices, regardless of how appropriate they were to the task. Of particular note as being often out of place were the ubiquitous statistics and spurious surveys, alongside the fake experts and fictitious anecdotes, none of which were very effective in supporting a clear argument.’ AQA – examiners’ report, June 2017.
10. Tell them to write less and craft it more.
The student from whose work I’ve included many of the examples in this blog post initially wrote over two thousand words. The piece digressed at length about the merits of the education system in Finland, and in doing so, really lost sight of the central thesis. After cutting it down considerably, the student was still grappling with an overly long and unwieldy piece of writing. Offering verbal feedback as I sat with the student at a computer, we pruned it brutally, then went back to edit and craft some more.
I hope that by practising this process over the course of several lessons, the student – and others in the class, will become familiar with the process of planning, sequencing, drafting and editing their writing and that they’ll be able to undertake a version of this process in the exam, which will lead to some powerful and sustained arguments.
‘Indeed, it was often those students who wrote at great length who suffered as they were unable to sustain their skills over the course of four or five sides of writing… to write less and to craft it more would be useful advice for all.’ AQA – examiners’ report, June 2017.