Teaching Argument Construction through the Incorporation of Nonfiction Film & Visual Media

Teaching Argument Construction through the Incorporation of Nonfiction Film & Visual Media


Teaching a unit on argument can make even the best teachers feel like Sisyphus. We roll the giant boulder of knowledge up the hill to our students only to watch it roll down again and begin the process once more. Many teachers attribute this frustration to their students being lazy, unmotivated, incompetent, or worse. While with certain students this may prove true, this is ultimately unproductive thinking. Instead of wondering what is wrong with our students, we need to be wondering what can be done to improve our instructional practices. As educators, we need to revamp the way we teach argument in order to effectively engage our learners and meet them where they are.
Argumentation units are frequently taught with dry, text-based, nonfiction pieces that sometimes don’t even grab our attention, let alone the attention of our students. Argument construction is a step-by-step process and as such is taught in a somewhat formulaic, disconnected manner. This type of instructional practice “promotes passive reception on the part of the student because it is not illuminated with any spark of vitality” (Hobbs 90). We need to restrategize. We need to find the metaphorical flint that will ignite this “spark.” But where? The answer lies in our ability to know our students, their interests, and their motivations.

Marc Prensky dubs the young people of this generation “digital natives” (Prensky 2). “Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked” (Prensky 2). Their culture (and ours) is no longer exclusively text-based. Our students “squeeze in 200 hours of media and technology use into each month” (Hobbs 7) and will “have logged some 22,000 hours of television by the time they graduate from high school” (Frey & Fisher 7). Why not tap into this veritable gold mine of student interest? Tapping into student media awareness can help us formulate rich, inquiry-based learning for our students. When we meet them where they are, we can facilitating active, authentic learning, and countless research studies show that authenticity leads to increased engagement and retention.

The end to our Sisyphean struggle is near! If we tune in to media culture and make room for it in our classrooms, we will finally get that boulder of argumentation knowledge to our students at the top of the hill and it may just stay there. Argument is literally everywhere—in our advertisements, our television commercials, our documentaries, even our reality shows—and yet these resources remain relatively untapped in our classrooms. In her article “What Do Students Need to Know About Rhetoric?” Hepzibah Roskelly argues that “The very ordinariness of rhetoric is the single most important tool for teachers to use to help students understand its dynamics and practice them” (Roskelly 1). This wiki will help provide the tools (both lesson plans and discussion question ideas) for using documentary and nonfiction film to authentically teach argument on a level that students will both understand and appreciate.

The following aspects of argument will be explored:
  • Hook/introduction
  • Thesis statements
  • The rhetorical triangle: speaker, audience, subject/purpose
  • Persuasive appeals: ethos, logos, pathos
  • Locating and organizing support
  • Diction and tone

I will lean heavily on the documentary, Sicko, by Michael Moore during my explanations, though there are several documentaries that lend themselves nicely to this process:

Helpful Introductory Tutorial for Students on Argumentative Structure:

Hook & Introduction:

In college I had a professor who had an indescribable way of leaving her mark on us during each and every class. There is one class in particular that I remember with distinct clarity. It was the first class of a new semester. She walked into class ten minutes late, disheveled and visibly shaken. She sat at her desk and attempted to gather herself. She apologized, or tried to, as her words caught in her throat and she began to weep inconsolably. She then looked at each person in the room for what felt like an eternity and said, “I have devastating news. The remains of Jesus Christ have been found.” She stopped, sobbed, and a pregnant pause ensued. She let the full weight of the statement hit the class slowly and then all at once. For twenty students at a small religious college this was big news—faith shaking news. She continued by explaining that we would not have class today because there was no point. Everything we had lived for and understood had been wiped away. I distinctly remember girls in my class weeping and everyone else sitting in stunned silence. My professor then smiled a confusingly brilliant smile and said, “Welcome to English of the Victorian Period—one of the most faith-shaken periods in literary history. I apologize for the ruse, but I needed you to feel, even momentarily, the loss and doubt that the Victorians spent their lifetimes grappling with.” Needless to say, she had our absolute, undivided attention for the remainder of the semester. She had hooked us.


A good hook can do wonders for an argument or persuasive piece of writing. I am certainly not suggesting that you emulate the crazy antics of my college professor (though admittedly I have adapted what has been termed “guerrilla teaching” for my own public school classroom), but I do believe that we need students to understand how powerful an introduction can be.

Lesson Ideas:
(Approximately 50 minutes)
This lesson uses clips from Michael Moore's Sicko.

Pre-Instructional Sequence (Before Viewing the Film):

Have students discuss/write about the following:
1. Explain a time when you were "hooked" and wanted to pay attention.
2. Explain a time when you were bored and didn't want to pay attention.
3. How does your favorite story begin? Why is this a good beginning?

Instructional Sequence (During Film Viewing):

The introduction to Sicko allows Michael Moore to establish both audience and purpose. This would be a good way to review these concepts with students, while also providing a segue to the concepts of hooks and introductions. The documentary opens with a man, Adam, stitching a gaping wound on his knee. While graphic, the image is lasting because it is shockingly grotesque. Adam’s story takes a back seat as a second man, Rick, is introduced. Rick explains an unfortunate accident where he sawed off the tops of two of his fingers. When he went to the hospital he had to choose which finger to have reattached due to a lack of funds. Moore uses Rick and Adam’s stories to acknowledge the fact that there are nearly 50 million Americans with no health insurance, but this is not a story about them. He then cuts directly to archival footage of the 1950s style “happy family” and explains that this is a story intended for the 250 million Americans who have health insurance and are “living the American dream.”

This clip could be used to help students identify irony, tone, audience, and purpose, though for our purposes we will look at its ability to teach hooks and introductions.

In order to use this effectively, the film clip will need to be broken up into segments. After Rick and Adam share their stories, pause the film. Ask students what they think this film will be about. Inevitably, they will say healthcare and uninsured people. This is Moore’s intention. Ask students what Moore did to grab their attention. Direct them specifically to the audio and visual tracks of the film. What did they hear and see that hooked them? Why did Moore choose to begin this way?

Continue viewing the film. Stop after the 1950s “happy family” clip. Ask students to reevaluate their responses from the first clip. Do they think this film is still going to be about healthcare? About uninsured Americans? Why or why not? Then discuss the inclusion of the 1950s footage and the music. Ask students what effect this had on them? Why was it placed after two gruesome stories about uninsured men? The music playing comes from the children’s film, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Tell the students this and ask why they think Moore included this music specifically? What did it communicate?

Wrap discussion up by asking students if Moore effectively grabbed their attention. Have them qualify their responses with specifics. What grabbed their attention, and more importantly, why did it? What are some things that Moore could have done that wouldn’t have worked.

Use the momentum and understanding generated by this discussion to introduce students to the concepts of hooks and introductions. Explain that the decisions Moore had to make in his film are identical to the types of decisions writers need to make in their papers. How will they get people to care? How will they encourage readers to keep reading? How can they begin with something interesting and relevant?

Post-Instructional Sequence (after viewing the film):

For homework have students choose a product out of a hat. Products can range from toothpaste to space ships. Students should go home and plan a “hook” for a sales pitch. How will they get consumers to want their product and to listen up? Students can complete the assignment in written format, in a PowerPoint, a glogster, or a Prezi. Choice and freedom (within limits) are crucial when attempting to motivate and engage students.

The Thesis Statement:

The thesis statement is perhaps the most frustrating piece of the argument puzzle. Explaining a thesis statement is actually quite simple, but there seems to be a developmental dam in the cognitive processing of 9th and 10th graders that holds back the deluge of understanding. Frequently, students can define a thesis and explain it clearly, but they have difficulty locating thesis statements in nonfiction argument or forget to incorporate them in their own writing. Sometimes students struggle with condensing their arguments into concise statements. Any and all of these problems can be solved through the use of documentaries.

In his book Reading in the Reel World, John Golden explains that “the skills students use to understand nonfiction print texts are nearly identical to those they use to understand a nonfiction visual texts (documentary), [and] we should use the inherent interest students have in film by identifying and practicing these skills first with the visual texts and then transferring those skills to print texts” (Golden 72).
Due to the familiarity that students have with visual texts like documentaries, they will have much more success with identifying thesis statement.

Thesis Statement Tutorials:

Thesis Statement Lesson: (Approximately 50 minutes)

Pre-Instructional Sequence:
Ask students to brainstorm what they know about the American healthcare system. They can bullet their information or free write about their prior knowledge.

Instructional Sequence:
1. Begin by watching a documentary in its entirety. I strongly recommend using Michael Moore’s Sicko, a documentary that explores the American healthcare system. It is certainly possible to use clips, but it is helpful for students to see the construction of an entire argument.
2. After viewing, have students complete a think-pair-share. First ask students to briefly journal their thoughts in response to the questions, “What is the filmmaker’s point? What is he/she trying to argue in this film?” Give them five or so minutes to process. Then have students turn to a partner and share their responses and discuss similarities/differences between their response and their partner’s.
3. When discussion wanes, redirect students to their journal entries and ask them to break it down into 1-2 sentences. Explain that they are condensing everything down to the heart of the filmmaker’s argument. Give students 5 minutes to complete this.
4. Come together as a class and have students share their responses. Write them on the board as students share.
5. Discuss as a class which statements are strongest and vote on the statement that best represents the filmmaker’s argument. You could take this further by explaining why the elected class statement is the strongest and explore the style and craft behind thesis statements.

You can now explain to your students that this is a thesis statement, that without a thesis there is no driving force behind an argument, and that they will always, always need one in their own writing. When your students feel confident locating and writing thesis statements from documentaries you can help them translate these skills to print texts. Students will be much more prepared because they have already built the necessary schema to tackle this difficult concept using a comfortable format—film.

Post-Instructional Sequence:

With a partner, have students write an original statement about healthcare.

Additional Topics for Exploration:
1. Ask students to discuss when they knew what the filmmaker was arguing. How did they know? Why do they think the filmmaker made their argument clear at this point in the film? Why not earlier or later? Use this process to discuss thesis statement placement.
2. Ask students if they would be frustrated with a film that doesn’t have a clear argument and have them explain why. Use this process to explore the importance of a thesis in their own writing.
3. Have students write their own thesis statement about the documentary itself. Example: “In 4 Little Girls, Spike Lee wants to reach a large audience, particularly Caucasians, to emphasize the horrific effects of racism and the denial of civil rights.” Use this process to initiate student-generated thesis statements.

See figure 1.1 for thesis handout

The Rhetorical Triangle & Persuasive Appeals:
The rhetorical triangle was constructed by Aristotle in an effort to shed light on the interconnectedness of an author, their audience, and their subject. In order to be able to compose and analyze arguments, our students need to understand the relationship between these three elements. We need to give them the skills to unlock all three elements of the triangle, to see their relationship to one another, and to take note of them in their everyday lives. Hapzibah Roskelley asserts, “Exercises that ask students to observe carefully and comment on rhetorical situations in action—the cover of a magazine, a conversation in the lunchroom, the principal’s address to the student body—reinforce observation and experience as crucial skills for budding rhetoricians as well as help students transfer skills to their writing and interpreting of literary and other texts” (Roskelley 3). rhetorical_triangle.png

If we can teach students to see the ubiquitous nature of argument and rhetoric in their daily lives, we will essentially be enabling them to be better consumers and constructors of academic arguments. Both documentary films and advertisements lend themselves nicely to this endeavor.

Lesson Ideas:

Pre-Instructional Sequence:

You can begin this activity with a simple homework assignment. Ask students to bring in one advertisement from a magazine. Begin class the following day with an entry slip that asks them:
1.) What is being sold?
2.) Who is selling it?
3.) Who are they trying to sell it to?
4.) How are they trying to get people to buy it?
When students finish, have them turn to a partner and share their findings. With their partner ask them to break both ads down into three categories: audience (who was this intended for), speaker (who created this), and subject (What is this about?).

Instructional Sequence:

This could then lead to a formal introduction of the rhetorical triangle and a discussion on the importance of understanding the relationship between speaker, audience, and subject. For a fun follow-up game to illustrate the importance of knowing your audience, have students look at the ads they brought in and plan to change it for a different audience. For example: if they bring in a tampon ad, it could be humorous to market it to teen boys using the angle that they could stop nosebleeds during sports practices. This will get students engaged, but it will heighten their awareness about how/why audience matters. For homework have students journal about TV commercials and look closely for the three sides of the rhetorical triangle.

In class the following day, take this further by viewing a documentary or watching a political speech. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and President Barak Obama’s speeches would work very well. Michael Moore’s Sicko is also perfect for this activity. As students watch the film/speech have them use figure 1.2 to take notes. This activity will help build a bridge between the rhetorical triangle and persuasive appeals. Following the viewing, discuss student notes. Then formally introduce ethos, pathos, and logos and explain their connection to the three sides of the rhetorical triangle. Have students work in small groups to categorize parts of the film/speech they watched as pathos, ethos, or logos.

Tutorial on The Persuasive Appeals:

Additional Topics for Exploration:

1. Students could also analyze the elements of the rhetorical triangle using a “SOAPstone chart” (Golden 81). Shown below. (taken from Reading in the Reel World by John Golden):

How can you paraphrase the text in a sentence or two?
What are the larger historical issues that inform this piece as well as the immediate need to speak at this particular time?
To whom is the piece directed? How do you know?
What is the point or message of this piece?
Who is the speaker? What can you say about the speaker’s age, situation, social class etc.?
What is the attitude of the speaker to the subject? What words and phrases reveal this?

2. “Have students imagine they are going to write a persuasive essay that explores both sides of a controversial topic—say, capital punishment—and to think about what logos, pathos, and ethos information they might include in their pieces” (Golden 113).

3. Introduce students to “RAFT” (Golden 119). Shown below (taken from Reading in the Reel World by John Golden):

This is the persona you take on as you compose your piece: student, historian, teacher, parent, inanimate object
This is who will receive your piece: a child, a celebrity, a lawyer, teacher, etc.
This is the form you have chosen to communicate your ideas; letter, job application, pamphlet, poem
This is the topic or purpose of your piece: to inform, to sell, to convince, to protest, to warn

Locating and Organizing Support

Editing a film is a lot like editing a paper. Editors get to choose what stays and what ends up on the cutting room floor. Mistakes and inaccuracies are removed, and the pieces of a film or piece of writing are molded together in an effort to maximize effectiveness. If films weren’t edited there would be countless hours of pointless, disconnected footage. Without the tools needed to learn how to organize their writing, students will end up with something similar—pages of something that resembles a paper, but is logically held together with glue and scotch tape instead of an organized, cohesive argument.

Documentaries provide a wonderful means for exploring organization and support. In his article “Film as Composition,” William Costanzo argues that “using short subject films, documentaries and advertisements” is recommended “because the basic steps of filmmaking can serve as a working model of the composing process” (Costanzo 79). “Media messages are always selective and incomplete” (Hobbs 59) and helping students to think about what is omitted also allows them to focus on what is present and the order in which it was included. “Noticing omissions can help people realize the way messages selectively represent the world, which becomes a process for recognizing how social, political, and economic power are maintained through media and communication technologies” (Hobbs 59). In turn, students can translate this into an ability to selectively represent their own arguments and realities.


According to John Golden, four questions can help students analyze organization and support and the way they contribute to an argument (Golden 109).

1. What information is included?
2. How is this information presented?
3. What information is not included?
4. What can you assume about this piece’s perspective?

When analyzing the information presented in a film and when locating support for their own papers, students can use Howard Rheingold’s C.R.A.P test (shown below).


* Currency -
o How recent is the information?
o How recently has the website been updated?
o Is it current enough for your topic?

* Reliability -
o What kind of information is included in the resource?
o Is content of the resource primarily opinion? Is is balanced?
o Does the creator provide references or sources for data or quotations?

* Authority -
o Who is the creator or author?
o What are the credentials?
o Who is the published or sponsor?
o Are they reputable?
o What is the publisher's interest (if any) in this information?
o Are there advertisements on the website?

* Purpose/Point of View -
o Is this fact or opinion?
o Is it biased?
o Is the creator/author trying to sell you something?


Tone is a slippery concept for most high school students. It is easily confused with mood and voice. Voice is the personality of the writer, tone is their attitude towards their subject, and mood is how the writer wants the audience to feel. Tone is difficult to articulate because it requires students to make judgments about another person’s attitude. In order to do this, students need to use context clues to draw conclusions. When determining tone in writing these context clues include diction, images, headlines, and structure. When determining tone in film the array of context clues that students have at their disposal is significantly larger. Tone can be communicated in film through lighting, angles, shots, music, focus, etc. John Golden argues that “if [students] are given the opportunity to practice first with a documentary clip, using a note taking [strategy], they can be more successful in applying their analysis to a print text” (Golden 105). Golden also recommends “trying to get students to see a connection between tone and purpose because authors typically employ a specific tone to achieve a particular purpose” (Golden 105). Having students make a list of words that describe tone prior to viewing the film will give them more to draw from during later discussions. Lists of tone words can also be provided for them. For a more challenging activity, have students fold a sheet of paper in half and make a list of terms that describe mood on one side and terms that describe tone on the other. Remind them that mood words will usually be emotions and tone words will usually be attitudes.


Instructional Sequence:
The documentary Outfoxed is a good resource for teaching tone. The first ten minutes of the documentary lend themselves nicely to helping students understand this concept. The film opens with a picture and music from The Godfather and transitions into negative interviews from former Fox employees attempting to expose the biases of the station. These interviews quickly cut to an advertisement for Fox that highlights the words “fair and balanced” and “America’s News Station” whilst playing Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” in the background. Lyrics from the song include “I make my living off the Evening News/ Just give me something-something I can use/ People love it when you lose,/ They love dirty laundry/ Kick ‘em when they’re up /Kick ‘em when they’re down.”

Questions to consider after viewing:

1. What is the filmmakers tone toward Fox news? What about toward Rupert Murdoch? How did you arrive at your conclusions?
2. What images reveal the filmmaker’s tone?
3. What about the music and sound effects? Do the lyrics send a message?

Post-Instructional Sequence:
For homework have students practice unlocking tone in a written text. You can use a news article from Fox news or about Fox news. Introduce students to diction prior to assigning this homework. Have them underline certain words that contribute to the overall tone of the piece, and then list 3 possible tones in the margins.

Additional Topics for Exploration:

1. Have students write a journal entry about how tone has affected them at some point. Perhaps a teacher was condescending, or a friend was sarcastic. Have them explain what these tones communicated or failed to communicate.
2. Have students create a working outline for a paper topic. Their outlines should clearly explain audience, purpose, and tone. Have students provide detailed information about their plans for effectively reaching their audience, achieving their purpose, and communicating their tone.
3. Have students choose a favorite song and analyze its tone. Remind them that mood and tone will probably not be the same. For example, many rap songs make us feel excited and happy because the beat gets our adrenaline pumping, but the lyrics could be about death, drugs, and misogyny. The tone and mood in this case would be very different. Have students highlight lyrics that helped them make observations and draw conclusions about the tone of their chosen song.


Figure 1.1-Teaching Thesis Statements with Documentaries

Thesis Statements in Documentaries

1. As you watch the documentary make a list of the messages you think the filmmaker is trying to send.

2. Take 5 minutes to journal about the following questions: What is the filmmaker’s point? What is he/she trying to argue in this film?

3. What led you to respond the way you did in number two? Use specific examples from the film to support your answer.

4. Return to your journal entry. Condense your thoughts about the filmmaker’s argument into 1-2 sentences. You are boiling the information from the film down to the HEART of the argument. Only include essential information.

Figure 1.3 Rhetorical Triangle Activity

The Power of the Rhetorical Triangle

1. Who is the speaker?

2. Who is the intended audience? What evidence led you to this belief?

3. What subject is discussed?

4. What parts of the argument are effective? Why?

5. What parts of the argument are ineffective? Why?

6. How does the speaker try to get the audience to care?

7. How does the speaker try to get the audience to trust him/her?

8. Is any part of the argument intended to evoke emotion? Where? Why do you think this is included?


Costanzo, William. "Film as Composition." College Composition and Communication 37.1 (1986): 79-86. Print.
Frey, Nancy, and Douglas Fisher, eds. Teaching Visual Literacy. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2008. Print.
Golden, John. Reading in the Reel World: Teaching Documentaries and Other Nonfiction Texts. Urbana: NCTE, 2006. Print.
Hobbs, Renee. Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2011. Print.
Prensky, Marc. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” On the Horizon. 9.5 (2001): 1-6. Web.
Rheingold, Howard. “The CRAP Test.” Work Literacy. <Workliteracy.com>. 7 July 2012. Web.
Roskelley, Hapzibah. “What Do Students Need to Know about Rhetoric?” Special Focus in English Language and Composition: Rhetoric. <collegeboard.com>. 7 July 2012. Web.