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Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • learn the basic tools necessary for the evaluation of persuasive writing.
  • learn to identify the speaker, audience, occasion, and means of persuasion used in a piece of persuasive writing.
  • apply those skills to Jonathan Edward’s sermon in guided practice.
  • apply those skills independently to contemporary persuasive writing, such as an advertisement.

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

90 minutes


  • Jonathan Edwards’ speech “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
  • magazines (a wide range of different kinds such as Field & Stream, Surfer, Southern Living, etc. are especially effective
  • copies of editorials from recent newspapers or magazines


Students will already be familiar with the following:

  1. the basic tenets of Puritanism
    • The desire to have one’s feelings or life changed radically was an experience called grace. Grace involved a cleansing of the individual — a purging of sinfulness. Grace also entailed much self-examination as the Puritan sought signs that God was working within him &mdash a key to understanding Edward’s point of view.
    • Puritans valued plainness, especially in religion. This extended to their writing. For examples, see in particular, Ann Bradstreet, though is not as clearly seen in writers like Cotton Mather. This insistence on plain speaking shapes much of American literature (Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemingway, etc.)
    • The Puritans were convinced that they were carrying on God’s work in settling the New World. Their lives in the New World were a divine mission (very evident in William Bradford’s writing).
  2. the four forms of discourse (narration, description, exposition, and persuasion)
    • narration: telling a story, developing a sequence of events (plot)
    • description: writing that appeals to the senses
    • exposition: writing that communicates information
    • persuasion: writing meant to modify behavior


  1. Class discussion begins with a biographical overview of Jonathan Edwards and his place in eighteenth-century American literature.
  2. Discussion continues with a review of the forms of discourse. This leads to an analysis of “Sinners” as persuasive writing and the need to evaluate persuasive writing according to the following criteria: speaker, audience, occasion, and means of persuasion.
  3. The teacher will begin with a comparison of “Sinners” with modern advertising, drawing on student experiences. Class discusses Edwards as a speaker, addressing questions of credibility, then moves on to look at modern advertising and the need for companies to speak through spokespersons and the need for credibility. (students invariably mention Michael Jordan).
  4. Even more fruitful is a discussion of the audience. Edwards clearly demonstrates an awareness of his audience in the way he frames his argument. God’s wrath is compared to a flood, a storm, and an Indian attack. All these images would have been familiar and alarming to an 18th century audience. (There is an opportunity here also to discuss extended metaphor). The repeated reference to fire is another example. Again, discussion expands to look at how advertisements are targeted to particular audiences (after-school advertisements, football games versus a new program such as “60 Minutes”).
  5. The third point of discussion is occasion. Edwards is writing as part of the Great Awakening, and specifically for a revival. The selection is appropriate in both contexts. Once again, the discussion shifts to a look at contemporary advertising. Specific occasions include Christmas, back-to-school time, and the Super Bowl. Also discuss the concept that some (most) advertising is not keyed to a specific occasion.
  6. Finally, we talk about Edwards’ means of persuasion. Most obvious is his reliance on fear, but there are others (repetition, limited opportunity, bandwagon). These are also popular means of persuasion in advertising.
  7. Following this discussion, students are placed in groups of two or three, given a magazine, and asked to analyze an advertisement. I give an example: This is an advertisement for Nike, the spokesperson is… she/she was well-chosen because…The audience for this publication is… which is well suited for this product for the following reasons… The occasion is… The means of persuasion are… which are especially effective for this product/audience because…
  8. Students then work together for about 10–15 minutes to prepare their responses. These are then presented to the larger group. One student reads the group’s findings while another walks around with the ad so all can see.
  9. Teacher directs questions to ensure understanding. For example, if the students fail to appreciate why a particular advertisement is in Popular Mechanics, a question like, “Who buys/reads this magazine?” would be appropriate. If the students missed a bandwagon type appeal (“The number one brand of tires in America”), a question like, “How does Goodyear appeal to our desire to be in the majority?” would address this.

This lesson has carryover benefits for the study of Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine, which, in a sequential course, follow shortly.


Initially, the teacher can assess student understanding by listening to the group presentations. In looking at and presenting their analysis of an advertisement, have they:

  • correctly identified the speaker (company, spokesperson, etc.) and addressed the question of credibility? Why was this person chosen?
  • correctly identified the target audience? What is the relationship between the targeted audience for this advertisement and the publication in which it appeared?
  • determined if this advertisement is dependent on a particular occasion, and if it is, how is that apparent? Or is it a nonspecific occasion?
  • correctly identified the means of persuasion (fear, limited opportunity, bandwagon, sex, popularity, status, etc.)

A rubric for evaluating student presentations is included.

Further assessment comes from the next unit test in which students are given an advertisement, editorial, or other persuasive document and asked to evaluate it according the four points discussed in class. See the sample test.

Supplemental information

The greater the variety of magazines, the more interesting the discussion generated.


I have had students do this for homework as well. In this case, it is individual rather than group work.

I have also had students bring in their own magazines. That way they can chose an advertisement that is more relevant.

  • Common Core State Standards
    • English Language Arts (2010)
      • Reading: Informational Text

        • Grade 11-12
          • 11-12.RIT.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison...
          • 11-12.RIT.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.
          • 11-12.RIT.9 Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second...
        • Speaking & Listening

          • 11-12.SL.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly...

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • United States History I

        • USH.H.1 Apply the four interconnected dimensions of historical thinking to the United States History Essential Standards in order to understand the creation and development of the United States over time. USH.H.1.1 Use Chronological thinking to: Identify the...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

English Language Arts (2004)

Grade 11

  • Goal 1: The learner will demonstrate increasing insight and reflection to print and non-print text through personal expression.
    • Objective 1.02: Reflect and respond expressively to texts so that the audience will:
      - discover multiple perspectives.
      - investigate connections between life and literature.
      - explore how the student's life experiences influence his or her response to the selection.
      - recognize how the responses of others may be different.
      - articulate insightful connections between life and literature.
      -consider cultural or historical significance.
  • Goal 3: The learner will demonstrate increasing sophistication in defining issues and using argument effectively.
    • Objective 3.01: Use language persuasively in addressing a particular issue by:
      - finding and interpreting information effectively.
      - recognizing propaganda as a purposeful technique.
      - establishing and defending a point of view.
      -responding respectfully to viewpoints and biases.
  • Goal 4: The learner will critically analyze text to gain meaning, develop thematic connections, and synthesize ideas.
    • Objective 4.01: Interpret meaning for an audience by:
      - examining the functions and the effects of narrative strategies such as plot, conflict, suspense, point of view, characterization, and dialogue.
      - interpreting the effect of figures of speech (e.g., personification, oxymoron) and the effect of devices of sound (e.g., alliteration, onomatopoeia).
      - analyzing stylistic features such as word choice and links between sense and sound.
      - identifying ambiguity, contradiction, irony, parody, and satire.
      - demonstrating how literary works reflect the culture that shaped them.
    • Objective 4.03: Assess the power, validity, and truthfulness in the logic of arguments given in public and political documents by:
      - identifying the intent and message of the author or artist.
      - recognizing how the author addresses opposing viewpoints.
      - articulating a personal response to the message and method of the author or artist.
      -evaluating the historical significance of the work.
  • Goal 5: The learner will interpret and evaluate representative texts to deepen understanding of literature of the United States.
    • Objective 5.02: Analyze the relationships among United States authors and their works by:
      - making and supporting valid responses about the text through references to other works and authors.
      -comparing texts to show similarities or differences in themes, characters, or ideas.