Structuring the Persuasive Essay

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SWBAT structure their persuasive essay based on the "Guide to the Persuasive Essay" template using the Five-Pyramid Method

Big Idea

A persuasive essay in the tradition of Aristotle's Rhetorical Triangle convinces readers using ethos, pathos, and logos.

Teacher to Teacher: Lesson Context and Time Frame

This lesson presents the following information:

  • A rationale for the way I structure the persuasive essay,
  • An introduction to Aristotle's rhetorical Triangle,
  • An introduction to the Five-Pyramid Method of constructing the persuasive essay. 

In this video Kelly Gallagher (Write Like This) reflects on teaching writing and the importance of making writing "real world" and using models to teach students, which is what the next lesson focuses on. 

A Professional Rationale Grounded in Communication and Rhetoric

10 minutes

A Professional Rationale:

Look at units on the Persuasive essay in most text books and you might find something similar to a five-paragraph essay. Often teachers give students a list of things to do in each paragraph. This results in a contrived, formulaic mode of writing. Rather than thinking about formulaic structures such as the five-paragraph essay, I consider how to show students structural elements of the essay, such as every essay has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then how they can allow a topic and writing purpose to govern their approach to the persuasive essay assignment. 

At its heart persuasion is about changing minds. Alan H. Monroe, a long-time professor at Purdue University, proposed a structure for the persuasive speech that has become well known as Monroe's Motivated Sequence. 

MMS builds on the more common problem-solution essay so that the language a speaker uses moves the audience to immediate action. Consequently, I began thinking about the ways I coach students to construct persuasive speeches, which the National Forensic League says must be scripted. 

Could I use the basic Monroe Motivated Sequence structure to teach persuasive essay structure? 

I like MMS for persuasive speeches but also as a framework for the persuasive essay. That is why I have grounded the persuasive essay I teach in both MMS and the Five-Pyramid Method of constructing an Original Oratory (a form of persuasive speech found in forensic competitions). 

Competitive speakers compose their oratories in manuscript form. They give careful consideration to how they will change an audience member's mind. This is why I have adapted these two frameworks to the persuasive essay assignment. Guide to the Persuasive Essay.mp4 offers some insight into my thinking about changing up the formula for persuasive essays and my inspiration for the approach in this lesson. 

To the Student:

Explain that you will teach students how to compose a persuasive essay that helps the audience do/see five things:

  • Attention
  • A need
  • A way to satisfy or solve the need
  • A way to visualize their world
  • A way to take action

These are the five steps in Monroe's Motivated Sequence, but it's not advisable to teach this the way one would if teaching students to plan a speech:

  • Attention
  • Need
  • Satisfaction
  • Visualization
  • Action


Aristotle's Rhetorical Triangle

20 minutes

After explaining the basic structure of the essay to students, I tell them that Aristotle says we need three components to persuade: ethos, pathos, logos. This is true for any form of persuasion, from advertising to an editorial, to a review. Any time we want to convince someone of something, we need ethos, pathos, and logos to move our audience.

A relatively simple way to introduce students to Aristotle's Rhetorical Triangle is with this video, which can be found on the Read, Write, Think website. 

Although the video specifically addresses ethos, logos, and pathos in advertising, its contents work for the persuasive essay, too. Indeed, once students understand that advertising at its core is about persuading an audience and that advertisers use ethos, logos, and pathos to move (that is, to persuade) the audience, they'll see the connection to the persuasive essay. 

Before students can speak from an informed position about persuasive techniques, they need at least a cursory understanding of the terms ethos, logos, and pathos

Introducing the Five-Pyramid Method

30 minutes

After telling students they'll be learning a new way to organize the persuasive speech, distribute the handout, "Guide to the Persuasive Essay," which is a link to a Google doc. Here's a downloadable version:  Guide to the Persuasive Essay.

Once students have the handout, read through it with them, taking time to field questions and comments and taking time to explain each point. 

Talking Points:

The element of surprise or "ah ha" moment is important. Even if the topic is one that has been around a long time, how can the writer make it fresh and new for the audience?

Explain to students that to persuade, the writer needs to lead the reader to a different place. Otherwise, there is no persuasion. 

Also tell students that the five-paragraph essay structure many of them have learned is simply not something that we find in real-world writing (See Kelly Gallagher's Write Like This). The Five-Pyramid Method will help them break free from the formula. They should think of each pyramid as a separate section (not paragraph) in the paper. 

Finally, ask students to recall that long ago they learned the upside down pyramid structure when they learned that the introduction ends with the thesis and paragraphs typically begin with topic sentences. 

Pyramid 1: The Introduction:

Finding common ground is the basis of Rogerian argument. From a point of common ground, we can begin to understand our differences. 

In a sense, the Five-Paragraph Method blends Rogerian argument and Aristotelian Argument. Whereas Rogerian argument leads to a thesis, Aristotelian argument identifies the thesis early in the speech or essay. 

Ask students to look at a mentor text, such as the essay "Banning Books: An Un-American Act" from the previous lesson. 

Have students identify the attention-getter in the essay, as well as the other parts leading to the thesis. 

Pyramid 2: 1st Main Point:

Remind students of the importance o logos and that their points need a variety of support. Logos often gets short shrift in student writing, but it's at the heart of persuasion, just as it's at the heart of argument. Aristotle's Rhetorical Triangle should balance ethos, pathos, and logos in the persuasive essay. 

Continue working with the mentor text to identify the components of each pyramid. The formula may not fit explicitly, but that's okay. The exercise in analyzing the mentor text will aide students in understanding how to structure their papers. The formula isn't meant to be formulaic; it's more important that students use it as a guide rather than a rule. 

Pyramid 3: 2nd Main Point:

This is the point in which the writer hones in on the need or the problem. Using questions journalists ask can help students focus their analysis. 

Pyramid 4: 3rd Main Point:

This is the time for pathos. Good persuasion is built on narrative as well as facts and statistics and expert testimony. A good story can lead the reader to change his/her mind. 

Pyramid 5: Satisfaction (the Solution):

Now that the reader sees the problem, offer workable, realistic solutions. They should not be too complicated. Help the reader see the better world we create with the solution and the dire circumstances we experience without the solution. 

Taking it to the End: The Conclusion:

An effective way to begin a conclusion is w/ a reference back to the attention-getter. Doing this helps students break out of the five-paragraph-essay formula w/ its "restate the thesis" directive for beginning the conclusion. 

I tell students that a good conclusion leaves the reader wanting more from the essayist. I share w/ them how I think about this when I write on my blog. 

Of course, the conclusion, especially for a long essay, needs to revisit the thesis, but w/out quoting what the student has already written. 

*Remind students that the handout sections are represented by an upside down pyramid. This is to get them thinking about beginning w/ broader, more general statements and leading to more specific ideas. Simply, it's deduction: general to specific. 

We tend to think about details (induction) first and draw conclusions (general statements) about the details. This is a complex idea for students to grasp, so I don't use the terms induction and deduction yet, although that's how  I'm asking students to think. 

*The essay Persuasive Essay Draft 1, which is about banning the Bourne Trilogy, shows one students first effort at composing a persuasive essay using the Five-Part Pyramid.