Why Start with Rhetorical Analysis?

Whether school is on a traditional year-long schedule, a 4×4 block, or a modified block with A days and B days, there is a case to be made for starting with rhetorical analysis.

Reason #1: Rhetorical analysis is the foundation of everything we do in AP Lang.

On Day 1 in my AP Lang, class, we read “Our Barbies, Ourselves” and start talking about author’s purpose and the difference between subtle and overt theses. Feet first, we’re in it. The next day, I have Barbies, Kens, and GI Joes lined up along my white board tray, and some of them are naked. Rhetorical analysis doesn’t have to be dry and boring; in fact, if it is, you’re doing it wrong.

It is, however, foundational. I can’t effectively teach a student HOW to argue if I have not first had the student evaluate the effectiveness of someone else’s argument. That’s part of rhetorical analysis. Yes, we’re looking at movements, strategies, and devices, but RA is ultimately all about the speaker, the audience, and the message. Before I ever teach a student how to construct, I have to teach her what the tools are.

Reason #2: Question 2 is the most difficult of the three essays on the AP Lang exam.

Most students coming out of an AP Lang exam with that beleaguered look are thinking about Question 2. In fact, I tell my students to start with rhetorical analysis when they get to the free response section. They are to skim all three prompts, pick the one that looks most challenging to them, and start there. They need to do the easiest one last (when they’re tired).

The same idea applies to AP English Language as a course. They are coming in with an understanding that it will be a challenge, so they come with their game faces on. If my students have their game faces on, we’re not going to ease in with the team that’s easy to beat; we’re going up against Alabama. Rhetorical analysis is the Alabama of AP Lang.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, though, we do the most difficult one first because we need to spiral back to it over and over. We can’t drop in for a visit and then forget about him until it’s time for Christmas cards. No, we’re going to stalk him–call once a week, send letters, wait outside his house with a black pen in hand.

We do the most difficult one first because we need to spiral back to it over and over.

Reason #3: Rhetorical analysis creates a framework for introducing all the rhetorical modes.

I love, love, love teaching all the different rhetorical modes. Sometimes, I embed all the instruction within my unit for The Things They Carried, and sometimes, I let the students do all the work with a Rhetorical Mode Project. After an overview of rhetorical analysis in which students learn generally about modes, strategies, and devices, we move smoothly into looking at the specifics of each one. Quickly, students catch on to the fact that it’s harder to figure out author’s purpose in narration and description, that satire often finds its home in process analysis, and that classification and division can be really fun to write. From there, we move smoothly into the mac daddies of modes: argumentation and persuasion. From there, we go to research, and that’s our segue to the synthesis essay. One flows into another.

Planning out your course? Grab one of these two pacing guides to help you as you map it.

AP Language semester pacing guide
ap english language pacing guide


I’m a recovering high school English teacher and curriculum specialist with a passion for helping teachers leave school at school. I create engaging, rigorous curriculum resources for secondary ELA professionals, and I facilitate workshops to help those teachers implement the materials effectively.