Understanding the task: the analysis of argument and persuasive language

Understanding the task: the analysis of argument and persuasive language

English teacher and Insight writer Anja Drummond outlines what you need to consider when analysing argument and persuasive language.

The ability to analyse the ways in which argument and language are used to persuade others to agree with a point of view is integral to VCE English. In the SAC for Unit 3, Area of Study 2 you will analyse two or three texts on a current issue, while Section C of the end-of-year exam will ask you to analyse a scenario that you won’t have seen previously.

The following tips will help to ensure you understand the demands of both these tasks.


1. Read and annotate

Use your reading time to read the text or texts at least twice. The first time you read, try to establish the writer’s contention: what are they saying? On your second reading, think about how the texts are positioning you to agree with the writer. In the SAC, annotate the written and visual texts as you read; in the exam you will need to wait until writing time begins.

Tip: Note your own responses. Reflecting on your own reactions to the language can be a useful way to work out how the writer is being persuasive. For example, if you think ‘Oh, that’s terrible, I feel sorry for that person’, write this down and underline the words in the text that make you feel this way.


2. Identify the form and features of the text(s)

Media texts vary in form and may be print (e.g. newspapers) or non-print (e.g. radio, television, online, speech). This means that you need to be familiar with a range of text types including blogs, opinion pieces, letters, interview transcripts and cartoons. Different texts employ different features to suit the intended audience and purpose. For example, online texts will often invite readers to ‘click here’ or ‘join now’ – consider how the writer uses these features to achieve their purpose.

In both the SAC and the exam you will probably be looking at print texts, but it is possible that these could be transcripts of speeches or presentations. In other words, the audience will have been listening to the text in its original form. Keep this in mind as you are analysing the language and thinking about its possible effects on the audience.


3. Consider purpose, audience and context

The texts you are asked to analyse will have at least one purpose and intended audience. For example, the purpose might be to present an idea to a community, or to persuade people to sign a petition. These texts will typically have a single, clear purpose and audience. However, some texts have multiple purposes and/or audiences, and to recognise this you need to think about the context.

For example, in Section C of the 2017 English exam the response from Louise (a parent) was directed at the principal, but the public forum in which it was published meant that the school community was also an audience for this piece. Similarly, in the 2015 exam the primary purpose of the event was to acknowledge the work of volunteers, but a secondary purpose was for the sponsors (bigsplash) to promote their company.


4. Identify the contention and supporting arguments

What is the central idea that the writer wants their audience to accept? What does the writer want the audience to feel, believe, think or do? By answering these questions, you will have established the writer’s contention.

Don’t assume that the first sentence of the text is the contention. Sometimes the contention is implicit rather than explicit, and can only be understood after you have read the whole text.

Once you have decided what the main contention is, look at the arguments used to persuade the audience to agree. The writer might present reasons or evidence that support their point of view, or they might refute opposing arguments. For example, a contention that greyhound racing should be banned could be supported with the argument that greyhounds are treated inhumanely within the industry and with the evidence for this.

Also consider the logical development of argument within a piece: how are the supporting arguments organised in order to manipulate the audience?


5. Examine how persuasive language is used to express the argument

Language and argument are not separate entities; they work together. You need to explore the ways in which persuasive language is used to express an argument and to position the audience to agree.

Do not fall into the trap of listing a series of techniques without examining the reasoning behind each technique. To avoid this trap, ask:

  • Who is saying it?
  • Why are they saying it?
  • How are they saying it?

Tip: Verbs are your friends. Effective verbs form the foundation of a strong analysis. Expand your vocabulary beyond ‘argues’ and ‘shows’ to include more powerful verbs such as ‘posits’, ‘incites’ and ‘elucidates’. This will make your writing more engaging and help to ensure you are not simply offering a recount. Build up a list of verbs to use in your practice analysis pieces.


6. Respond to visuals

Sometimes the visual material will be open to various interpretations. There is no single correct interpretation of an image; just ensure your interpretation is consistent and relevant to the ideas in the written text. Also think carefully about the placement of the visual: is it designed to support a specific argument being made at that point in the text?

A common mistake is to simply describe the image. Remember that, just like the language and structure of the text, the visual elements are used to position the audience to think, feel or behave in a certain way. Analyse the image in exactly the same way.


7. Compare the texts

In the SAC you will be presented with more than one text, and part of the task is to compare how the texts use language and argument to present different points of view on an issue. In the exam there is often a secondary text that responds to the primary text. In this case, explore what the connection is between the texts, noting where there is consensus or disagreement about particular points and any contrasts in their language use.


8. And finally …

You may find that the approach to this task taught by your English teacher differs from what other students are being told. Don’t stress! There are many valid ways to approach your analysis and as long as it addresses the criteria (as unpacked above), you are on your way to success.


Need help tackling Area of Study 2: Analysing Argument? Insight’s Argument & Persuasive Language by Melanie Napthine provides comprehensive coverage of Area of Study 2. A textbook and workbook, it covers the analysis of argument and persuasive language in a wide variety of media texts using a systematic, step-by-step approach.

Argument & Persuasive Language is produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.

(Photo credit: Victoria 1/Shutterstock)

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