Readers, Writers, Texts

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Practising Modality

“Yes. We. Can.”

Barack Obama, presidential election victory speech, 2008

In language, the way we express our views, whether we are very certain, or somewhat less certain, is frequently shown through modality. It is an integral part of persuasion; sometimes present overtly, and at other times less obviously expressed. Modality is most often expressed through the use of modal auxiliary verbs (words, like will, should and may that often precede main verbs in English) and adverbs or adverbial phrases (for example, probably or no doubt).  As an introductory activity, brainstorm modal auxiliary verbs and adverbs and place them on a ‘continuum of possibility’ like the one at the top of this page. Then read through a couple of these articles and handouts to learn the ins-and-outs of this important language feature:

Class activity 1: marking modality

You may have heard the stereotype that British people love to talk about the weather, so to illustrate this lesson I’ll be happy to oblige. If you were to say, “It’s raining” you are expressing a high degree of modality – you are certain it is raining. However, there is nothing to mark the modality, so we would designate this statement as high unmarked modality. On the other hand, if you were to say “Don’t go to the UK – it’s always raining there” you would be equally certain; but this time, the word ‘always’ reinforces your degree of certainty. Therefore, we would designate this statement as high marked modality.

If you were to ignore this advice and say, “I’m going to London next week, it may not be raining by then” you have once again marked your opinion with the modal verb ‘may.’ However, your confidence is not high so we would designate this statement low marked modality.

Return to one or two of the speeches from the speech archive you may have used before. You can review a speech you have already worked with, or pick a new speech. Locate examples of modality and label them: high marked; high unmarked; low marked. Once you have finished, discuss the effect and importance of modality in the speech.

Class Activity 2: perils of indifference

In 1999, Elie Wiesel gave a speech at the White House, at the invitation of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Despite his illustrious audience, Mr Wiesel felt he had to speak to them in warning tones about the dangerous attitude of apathy and indifference that he felt existed in America and the world. For, in 1944, Elie Wiesel, along with his family, was taken to Auschwitz extermination camp where his family were killed and he was brutalised. After their captivity, he and the few other survivors would speak of the way they felt abandoned and forgotten by the world: they came to know the pain of indifference. You can listen to and read the whole of this powerful speech here.

The purpose of this speech is both to describe the suffering caused by indifference and to warn against the temptations of taking the easy way out. Wiesel explains that empathy is what makes us human and he views indifference as a betrayal of humanity. He wonders how Roosevelt, a great and compassionate leader, could have been so blind to the suffering of the Jewish people in Europe. Yet he walks a fine line: he also expresses gratitude for American intervention in 1945 and acknowledges the efforts made by Hillary Clinton, who is sitting in front of him, in ensuring today’s children, wherever they live in the world, will never suffer the horrors that he survived.

In order to walk this fine line between praise and criticism, it is necessary for Elie Wiesel to expertly control his tone, and the way he uses modality is an integral part of the success of this speech. Here you will find selected extracts from his speech, as well as discussion questions encouraging you to analyse what makes this speech particularly effective. Print out this resource and note down your responses.

Area of Exploration Conceptual Guiding Question

Jess and the Mighty Journey is part of the Smith Family One-In-Ten campaign, designed to raise awareness about the number of Australian children living in poverty.

Both language and literature texts encourage the reader to see the world in an unfamiliar way, whether these are propaganda texts purposefully distorting reality or a speaker persuading you to adhere to a particular set of beliefs. These kinds of texts can provide insight into the way society functions, and also challenge us to reflect on the world, what we believe, and how the things we are told may or may not be reliable. Working through the following resource will help you explore this concept in more detail. The resource includes a section discussing the way an animated charity campaign appeal has been put together, and ends with a close study of recruitment posters; both of these activities will help you analyse individual texts for Paper 1 as well:

Learner Portfolio

Take an issue that is important to you; for example, an environmental issue, volunteering, the importance of exercise, a school issue. Write a one-two page speech in which you employ the rhetorical devices from The Language of Persuasion course, including what you’ve learned about modality from this page. For maximum effect, once you have finished, read your speech out loud to your classmates as if you are an activist or political leader.

For inspiration, and if you like to study aurally, you can listen to the speeches in this excellent collection before you write your own.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: charity appeals

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are examples of charity appeals. Use the examples of different texts to familiarise yourself with the genre tropes of this kind of writing; add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the sample responses then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

key features of charity appeals
  • Persuasive: the purpose of charity adverts is to make the reader take action, probably in the form of money or time. Adjacent to this is the need to raise awareness of social problems. Therefore, look out for all kinds of persuasive rhetorical features in charity appeals.
  • Pathos: charity ads are likely to be more emotive than regular adverts. By appealing to emotions such as anger, pity, guilt, sympathy, and so on, charity adverts make it more likely that you will want to respond.
  • Hard-hitting: like conventional advertising, charity appeals rely on visual elements to impact the viewer. An effective approach is to use hard-hitting shock tactics to spur the reader of this text type into action.
  • Credibility: charity appeals need to be even more trustworthy than regular persuasive texts. Look for information that suggests your donations will make a positive change, perhaps in the form of facts and statistics.
  • Metonymy: social problems like hunger and poverty are too large for one person to help solve; so charity ads often introduce you to a single individual who represents all those who your donation goes towards helping.
  • Direct address: charity ads will often address the reader with the word ‘you’, striving to make a strong connection. If a person in the advert is making eye contact with you, this is a kind of visual direct address.

Body of Work: The Obamas’ Speeches

First lady Michelle Obama’s full speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention

Obama is completely addicted to what technical rhetoricians call anaphora, which is what politicians always do. It’s where you repeat a word or a phrase at the beginning of the sentence, so you build up a whole rhythm. He says, “I’m going to be a President who’s going to do this, a President who’s going to do that… He also builds very musical sentences. He never says something in one term when he can say it in two. And that’s called syndeton, which goes: We’re talking about homes and jobs, people and places, fish and chips… He also does — which I wish I knew why it was so effective, neurologically — but he does what’s called the group of three, which is called the tricolon. “Blood, sweat, and tears,” which is actually a misquote from [Winston] Churchill … The human brain wants things to go into groups of three for some reason. It’s hugely rhetorically effective to use groups of three, and Obama does it all the time. … If you just look for grouping of three phrases that rise up in import and significance as you get to the end. So things fall into groups of three, balanced pairs, the syndeton thing. There are a lot of parallelisms, lot of antithesis, one thing and the other.”

Sam Leith, Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama (above)

When the Obama era came to a close in the United States, much was made – and rightly so – about his abilities as an orator.  Websites and newspapers were ranking his top speeches, comparing them to J.F.K., Lincoln, and F.D.R. in American history. Much less was said about Michelle Obama’s powerful voice in those eight years; but this oversight has recently begun to be rectified. With the publication of her top-selling autobiography (Becoming) and a continuing public presence, the media is beginning to appreciate her skill as a wordsmith too.

Here you can find a collection of six of Barack and Michelle’s seminal speeches – including Barack Obama’s famous ‘Yes We Can’ speech – delivered between 2004 and 2016. You can study the transcripts and listen to the speeches by clicking the links inside this Body of Work. (NB If you decide to use this collection for your Individual Oral you should use either Barack’s or Michelle’s speeches – not both – as your Body of Work must consist of texts by the same named author.)

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Either Michelle or Barack Obama’s speeches (but not both, as a Body of Work must be composed of texts by the same writer) would make ideal texts to use in this assessed activity. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry: Beliefs, Values and Education
  • Global Issue: The Importance of Education
  • Rationale:

Michelle Obama in particular is dedicated to the idea of education as a powerful tool in improving the lives of individuals and creating a better society. She often speaks to students and audiences of young people at universities. What are her values when it comes to education, and how does she use language in powerful ways to express her values?

Field of Inquiry: Politics, Power and Justice
Global Issue: Listening to charismatic individuals

Individuals who have authority are able to use their positions to speak publicly and get others to listen to them. This can be an important way by which messages are disseminated in societies. Of course, certain charismatic speakers use their position to promote positive and inclusive messages, and seek to change society in for the better. Others exploit their position for personal gain.

possible literary pairings
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – in Act 4 scene 1 Portia delivers a powerful speech to try and persuade Shylock to be merciful; or explore Shylock’s famous speech in Act 3 scene 1.
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – Michelle clearly values education and her speeches in this Body of Work are delivered to students. How do her educational values compare to Higgins’ ideas about learning?
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – Gjorg’s father represents an authority figure who must persuade Gjorg to honour his family and follow the tenets of the Kanun. Study an interaction between Gjorg and his father for an apt comparison with Barack Obama’s speeches.
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – when the magistrate finally decides to make a public stand against the corruption of a decadent empire, his words seem to fall on deaf ears. Explore why through a study of Coetzee’s allegorical novel.
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – for a talk about the importance of education in the lives of individuals, look no further than Sijie’s novel in which the coming of age of three teenagers is only possible through reading the books of Balzac, and other authors, who have been forbidden under Mao’s cultural revolution policies.
  • Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poetry – perhaps a more difficult link, but it might be interesting to take the example of Mew’s Farmer as a ‘charismatic speaker’ and explore the effects created by hearing the story of the Farmer’s Bride told in his voice.
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – in this graphic memoir, education is a way for Alison to escape the confines of her father’s Gothic revival mansion and discover truths about herself and her own sexuality that her family would rather stay buried.

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