Analyzing Rhetorical Situations: Maps, Travel Guides, Bus Schedules…

Today I’d like to share a simple activity that can help students better understand the concept of genre as well as the other components of rhetorical situation (e.g., purpose, audience, tone, and medium). This activity requires minimum preparation, and the materials used in it can easily be found anywhere around us.

  1. Put students in small groups.

Each group receives a packet that includes materials representing different genres (prepare them in advance). I used the following materials:

  • Maps
  • Bus schedules
  • Tourist brochures
  • Travel guides
  • Coupons
  • Housing ads
  • Academic journal articles
  • Scholarship applications
  • Résumés
  • Postcards
  • Phone bills
  • Food packages
  1. Explain that each of these materials represents a certain genre, created for a particular audience with a specific purpose. The genre, the purpose, and the audience determined the design of these materials, as well as the language used in them.
  2. Ask students to analyze each of these materials in terms of their rhetorical situation. You can prepare a handout with the following questions:

Purpose

  • What is the purpose of this writing piece?
  • How does the purpose of this piece influence other elements of the rhetorical situation? Discuss audience, medium/design, genre, and tone (language).

Audience

  • Who is the audience of this piece?
  • How does the audience of this writing piece influence what and how this piece is composed?
  • What do you think was important for the author to know about the audience?
  • Can you give an example of how this piece may have looked if the author had not been aware of the audience?
  • Can you think of other examples of writing genres appropriate for this particular audience?

Genre

  • What kind of information does this particular genre provide to the reader/audience? (You can think of this particular piece or other examples of the same genre).
  • Does this genre have rigid conventions? Should it have rigid conventions? What could have happened if these conventions had not been followed? (In other words what could have been done wrong with this particular piece?)
  • If this particular piece doesn’t have rigid genre conventions, what features could have been done differently?

Tone (stance)

  • What is the general tone of this writing piece? (e.g., serious, lighthearted, formal, informal)
  • How does the tone of this writing piece affect the way the audience perceives it? Give specific examples.
  • How is the tone affected by the relationships of the author with their audience?
  • How is the tone affected by the purpose of this writing piece (this genre)?

Medium/Design

  • Why did the author choose this particular medium and design?
  • How is this medium and design affected by the purpose, the audience, and the genre of this piece?
  • What would be an inappropriate design and medium, given the genre, the audience, and the purpose of this writing piece?

After students are done with the discussion, ask them to share their findings with the class. You can also ask them which piece they found the most and the least effective in terms of its rhetorical situation. When I asked my students which material they found the least effective, almost all of them said, “The journal article” and explained that it was “dull and boring.” “Well,” I said, “let’s go back to the concepts of audience and purpose…” The “aha moment” followed.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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One Response to Analyzing Rhetorical Situations: Maps, Travel Guides, Bus Schedules…

  1. Eric Roth says:

    Thank you for sharing this simple, yet potentially, profound lesson.

    I have often passed out California postcards to students on the second day of a writing class to emphasize the importance of audience, context, and purpose in both causal and professional writing. Your exercise, however, takes the concept a few steps further. Asking students to identify genre, evaluate tone, and determine effectiveness adds practical critical thinking component.

    Perhaps next semester I can add another short assignment where students compose a housing ad or brochure for their home cities. Thanks for sharing the ideas to spark student awareness that context matters in reading and writing.

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