5 ways to teach rhetorical devices and boost writing

There’s no reason that primary pupils can’t become masters of language, writes Tim Roach, with recommendations varying from The Hobbit to Katy Perry

Tim Roach

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For such familiar concepts for primary teachers, you'd be surprised to learn that the words simile and metaphor occur only once in the national curriculum – and only then in the non-statutory guidance for upper KS2 reading.

These two devices, along with personification, alliteration and the ubiquitous rhetorical question are usually lumped together as poetic devices. 

But they are more accurately described as rhetoric: figures of speech that are both memorable and persuasive.

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From its foundations in ancient Athens to today’s most indelible political slogans, rhetoric is stealthily at work beneath writers’ individual words and phrases. 

It’s no accident that Make America Great Again and Let’s Get Brexit Done both feature a slew of matching vowel sounds (assonance). 

In contrast, one can see how Labour’s It’s Time for Real Change didn’t stand a chance, despite its allusion to Barack Obama’s Change We Can Believe In, an equally forgettable slogan that history has rewritten with the hypophora (asking and answering a rhetorical question) response of Yes We Can.

Here’s how to introduce rhetoric to your primary classroom:

Research the terminology 

There’s nothing worse than getting your parataxis (use of short, simple sentences) mixed up with your hypotaxis (labyrinthine subordinate clause upon subordinate clause). 

For the uninitiated, Mark Forsyth's The Elements of Eloquence and Sam Leith’s You Talkin’ To Me? are the go-to texts that will aid the novice in the often-confusing world of strange Latin names and bafflingly similar definitions. 

You also get a plethora of examples, both classic and contemporary, such as Katy Perry’s Hot N Cold as a near-perfect example of antithesis (pairing statements that are the direct opposite of each other).

Use real examples  

Timeless poems such as Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman drip with rhetorical devices, such as the epizeuxis refrain of “The Highwayman came riding— Riding— riding­—”. And you can have a lot of fun finding all the litotes (describing things by saying what they are not) in the opening to The Hobbit

As well as being one of the greatest opening lines, Katherine Rundell’s Wolf Wilder also begins with an intriguing transferred epithet: “Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.” 

Applying the wrong adjective to a noun creates jarring cognitive dissonance, and an unforgettable image.

Learn through play

Even if you feel some of these stylistics are beyond your current class, you could do no wrong in teaching them about hyperbaton – deliberately getting words in the wrong order – as say would Yoda. 

The opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose noun rule of adjectives in English can be turned into an enjoyable writing exercise, like an extended version of the classic parlour game, exquisite corpse.

Careful of cliché

Teaching some of these technical terms isn’t without its pitfalls. Every primary teacher must wince at each "as fast as a cheetah" they encounter, mis-matched metaphors are thorny issues to untangle and children’s writing can quickly descend into platitudes with impertinent rhetorical questions. 

Yet exposure to these terms gives pupils the opportunity to experiment with language and increase their writing repertoire.

Say it loud

I've never experienced anything quite like the time a Year 5 pupil stood up in assembly and unexpectedly exhorted the school to join his voyage to Antarctica – they had been reading Shackleton's Journey – embroidering his oratory with anaphora (repeated sentence openings), tricolon phrases of three (after all, three is the magic number, as De La Soul said) and potent repeated sentence endings (epistrophe). 

Giving pupils the opportunity to perform their writing aloud encourages pupils to write with real purpose.

Tim Roach is a Year 3 teacher at Greenacres Primary Academy in Oldham

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