Analysis of an non-literary text

My grade 10s (MYP5s) are in the middle of the advertising unit; they submitted their analyses of ads Monday and I'm about to introduce an ad pitch oral assignment. (More on that later.) This week, I'm asking them to do an analysis of a text about advertising.

I have two reasons for doing this, and the first is pragmatic: most of these students will take the IB Diploma Literature and Language course next year which will require them to do non-fiction linguistic analysis, especially in the area of Language and Mass Media. So they need to build some skills in this area.

The second reason is that everyone needs these skills. We all need to be able to grasp the main idea of a text and be able to explain how language is used to communicate that idea and both advance and obscure the biases of the writer. We assume that the language study that happens with poetic analysis will transfer to the study of non-literary texts, but in my experience it does not, especially as the techniques used in non-literary prose are different, both subtly and overtly, from those used in literary texts.

(I know I'm throwing 'literary' and 'non-literary' around, and these are problematic terms. I would like to see the boundary between them broken down so that texts are texts with different expectations and whatnot, but my students don't see it that way, and I'm guessing most of us don't either.)

My original plan was for them to find articles and other texts to analyze. I started the unit by having my students do a link dump: search for articles and other texts about advertising, including ethics, techniques, its place in culture, criticisms, etc. I anticipated a rich list with loads of different resources.

This was a failure. What I got back was the first ten hits off of Google and a lot of encyclopedic sites -- not actually Wikipedia, but Wikipedia clones. (I had said specifically that Wikipedia would be a good place to look for links.) I clearly didn't give enough information to get what I wanted, but we did have a good conversation about the things they found and how to find more specific information.

So I found three texts with specific points of view and clear language use issues: one from CNN.com, one from Entrepreneur, and some song lyrics. Each week, during the second half of a double period, I set them on reading the text and responding to it fairly informally. I provided this as a prompt:

Read the text (linked). Create a forum post about your response. Aim for +/- 200 words. You should deal with one or more of the following questions:

  • What is the main point of the text, and how does the author make that point?

  • Does the text show a bias? If so, what is it, and where do you see that bias?

  • How would you describe the language of the text? Why do you think the author used that kind of language?

Once you post your forum post you can only edit it for a short time, so think and check before you post.

Their responses were in a Moodle Q&A Forum: they can read each other's posts, but only after they post first. The idea was to create a class-wide source of ideas about the articles to allow for some collaboration in the planning process. These were fairly successful and drove some thoughtful and detailed discussions in the forum discussions and subsequent class discussions. This has become one of my models for tech-driven collaboration: having the planning stages done more publicly so individual students can craft their work based on that collective thinking and recording.

The assignment for the advertising text review gives them a number of questions and techniques to look at and it is fairly limited in length. Part of that is because of time limits, and part of it is to encourage tight, focused writing. I really want them to get down to the most important issues and not waffle on about the content.

Today we had in-class draft-check time and the results were rough but in the right neighborhood. They were asking detailed questions both of me and of each other.

A few thoughts of reflection:

  1. I thought about modeling this myself, but the forum writing was a model from themselves and each other. My comments on the forum gave them a sense of confidence about which ideas were more specific and focused rather than generalizations.

  2. A few of the students had an instinct about what mattered in the language of the texts but not the technical language for describing it. Encouraging that instinctive response to language (both with literature and otherwise) and developing that into an analysis has become an important strategy as I help students find and express their own readings of texts.

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