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Teaching Strategies for Argument Analysis

Jordan Catapano

Although teachers have regularly used teaching strategies to help students make effective arguments of their own, it is becoming increasingly important that students are able to understand how others are crafting their arguments. This sort of analysis – known as argumentative or rhetorical analysis – has been a mainstay on the AP Language and Composition exam. But now the new SAT’s essay portion also specifically requires students to, “Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim].”

But it’s not just standardized tests that validate the skill of argument analysis. Citizens are bombarded with various forms of argument all the time, from commercials to political statements to personal interactions. It’s important that students learn to deconstruct the messages sent to them so they can understand the messages’ intended effects and not be manipulated by them.

As students break down the structures and ingredients of argumentation, they also study the way effective arguments are constructed. In turn, this leads to enhanced student understanding of effective argumentation and empowers them with examples that can be leveraged in their own argumentative writing.

So, since the study of argumentation is an essential skill, here is a useful acronym that may help you use teaching strategies to instruct argumentation analysis.

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SOAPSTone Teaching Strategies

Pronounced “Soap stone,” this hand acronym embodies six essential ingredients for interpreting others’ argumentation.

S = Speaker
O = Occasion
A = Audience
P = Purpose
S = Subject
Tone

Speaker

The term “Speaker” refers to the person doing the communicating, and might often be called the “Writer” or “Author” as well. It is important for students to consider what they know about this individual. You can ask questions such as these:

  • What is their background with the topic?
  • What is their relationship to the audience?
  • What biases might they bring to the subject?
  • How does the speaker try to portray himself/herself?

Occasion

The occasion refers to the context or situation in which the communication is taking place. The speaker isn’t just randomly bringing up a topic. Communication makes sense within the broader context of occurrences. Think of occasion as surrounding context leading to the need for this communication. Just like a story has a setting, an argument makes sense when understood within its time and place.

Audience

Communication changes based on whom it is designed to be heard by. The intended recipients of any message are called the “Audience” whether they are sitting in the same room as the speaker or reading the argument a hundred years later. Communication is better understood and analyzed when we can identify the attributes of the intended recipients. Try some of these questions:

  • Why is the speaker targeting this particular audience?
  • What specific thoughts, concerns, or experiences of the audience is the speaker targeting?
  • What does the audience think of the speaker?
  • What does the audience already know or need to know about the topic?

Remember that sometimes there can be more than one intended audience. The more precisely students can identify the audience, the better. The audience is never “Everyone.”

Purpose

The speaker is speaking for a reason, right? That reason is known as the “Purpose” and is the intended outcome of the communication. This element is central, as understanding the overall purpose gives clarity towards the strategy behind the specific tools and techniques within the communication. What does the speaker hope will happen during or after the communication?

Just like there can be more than one intended audience, there can also be more than one intended outcome.

Subject

Subject is another word for topic. Every piece of communication is about something, and that something is called the subject. It is critical that students examine the relationship between a subject and the speaker, audience, and occasion. Some simple questions for examining these relationships might sound like this:

  • What is the relevance of the issue in this broader occasion?
  • What is the audience’s relationship to this subject?
  • What is the speaker’s relationship or experience with this subject?
  • How is the speaker attempting to portray this subject?

Tone

Finally, the tone is generally defined as the speaker’s attitude toward the subject. The tone is conveyed through the word choice and reflects the emotional spirit in which the argument is conveyed. A tone, for example, might be optimistic, judgmental, sinister, belligerent, cheerful, or sarcastic. Understanding a speaker’s tone is critical for understanding how an argument is meant to be understood by the audience.

Teaching SOAPStone

After defining these terms to your students, it may be beneficial to practice observing these core argumentation ingredients with some of the following methods.

Analyze commercials. Commercials are short, action-packed forms of persuasion that include loads of SOAPStone material. Watch commercials together in class and ask students to write down or discuss their observations about the speaker/company, the audience, occasion, purpose, subject, and tone. See how specifically they can use the commercial’s music, images, and statements to precisely define each of the rhetorical elements. Have them identify their own commercials at home or via YouTube.

Change around. Give students a piece of communication – such as a speech, a commercial, a eulogy, a lawyer’s argument, or a song – and ask them to identify all the SOAPStone elements. Then take one of those elements, like Audience, and change it. What if this speech were targeted toward college-bound teens instead of mortgage-paying adults, or what if this description of my weekend was meant to be heard by a parole officer rather than a girlfriend? Change one element, and ask students to examine what would change in the communication.

Jigsaw a portion. Give all students the same article, but ask them each to take responsibility for paying attention to just one SOAPStone element. After they analyze everything they can about one aspect of the communication, they can group together and have a jigsaw discussion to share all of their observation.

However you examine SOAPStone with your students, do it frequently and with a range of current communications happening in the world around us. Show students that this is not just an exercise that works only in the classroom, but that it’s a simple key for better understanding the immense quantity of communication taking place every day.

Have you used this SOAPStone technique for analysis before? How would you explain it or teach it? Share your ideas with our TEACHHub.com communication in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.