HomeIDIOM back issue reviewsArgument and Persuasive Language: For the New VCE Study Design 2016-2020

Argument and Persuasive Language: For the New VCE Study Design 2016-2020

Authors: Melanie Napthine with Robert Beardwood, Sandra Duncanson and Virginia Lee
Publisher: Insight Publications, 2015
RRP: $32.95

In Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen’s recently published satirical take on an easily identified well-known TV panel show, their character in the spotlight, Professor Dr. Grafton Everest, who has found himself to be a panel member on one of these panel shows, reflects on the contrast between being a patient in a hospital and a panel member on such a show. 'Of course, the procedures in hospitals were ultimately for the benefit of the patient. By contrast, the sole beneficiary of the interview was the media organisation. Current affairs programs were simply a form of entertainment in which the presenters, moderators and reporters were the stars and public figures raw materials.' '(The panel members) were just fodder they had no more control over the final product than a pine log fed into a wood chipper.'

I did say that it was a satire but Fitzgerald and McFadyen’s characters make us reflect on how language comes through and is shaped for us in the various press, radio, T.V and Internet outlets that speak to us about what people are arguing about around the world. At whom are these exchanges directed? How are we meant to interpret what we read and hear in a world where one’s choice of language and how it is constructed is readily jumped on by all asunder?

When I first received Argument and Persuasive Language, I questioned the need for a whole textbook given over to this material. As many readers are aware, argument and persuasive language usually has its own extensive, detailed section in textbooks about VCE Units 1,2 3 or 4 or the like. The study of media texts for the area of study now called 'Analysing and presenting argument' is more or less similar to this area of study in past study designs except that there is now an explicit emphasis on teaching students to recognise argument structure and to understand the connection between language choices and the persuasive presentation of argument. So, in a sense, Napthine et al had, in my view, to make their own case for a discrete text devoted essentially to this part of the VCE English study design that has already been well covered. For the most part, the authors have been successful in making such a case.

Argument and Persuasive Language: For the new VCE Study Design 2016-2020 is an informed, thoughtful and systematically thorough addition to the textbook resources available to assist students. It begins with definitions and brief explanations of key concepts – issue and main contention; audience, purpose, context; argument; language; style and register; tone; voice; visual language; design features – and as it moves on to consider issues in the media, it offers, among other things, a short useful exposition on producing the news. This, on its own, provides some very useful early discussion points for students studying this section of the study design. It draws in consideration of bias in the news, code of ethics and how various media speak to one another in different ways.

The author’s chapter on analysing argument begins with an explanation of an obvious but really important distinction between argument and opinion – one that is not always fully appreciated by students. This chapter offers useful insights into how to examine the structure of argument. It moves into the dangerous area of argument techniques with its potential to encourage students to believe that these are all there is to this part of the study design. This is, however, well managed by the authors with their inclusion of careful explanations of these devices accompanied by examples and sample analyses. This latter feature encourages good teaching and learning related to this area of study.

Other features of the book worthy of note include its important distinction between analysing argument and persuasive language (dealt with in separate chapters); its consistent insistence on a holistic approach to analysing texts and its discussion of a broad range of both traditional and not-so-traditional media text types which has the effect of broadening a student’s understanding of sources of contested ideas. The authors conclude with skills-based chapters on writing an analysis and presenting a point of view.

This textbook is very familiar with the VCE English Study Design 2016-2020 and unquestionably offers instructive, clear insights into how to go about studying the areas of study relating to argument. While it does at different stages refer to forms of reasoning – deductive and inductive, etc. – it is, perhaps a lost opportunity that the authors give relatively little attention to the importance of logical theory and reasoning in the understanding of argument. Logic allows us to understand what may be said to be justifiably thinkable through language – the extent to which one idea follows another, is inconsistent with it or perhaps is allowed by it. As has been said elsewhere (Grant Barley: Philosophy Now Feb/Mar 2015). 'Using reason also yields the best way of arriving at meaningful thought.' While the study design does not explicitly refer to such laws of thought, there is little doubt that contextually sensitive instruction in this area could provide students with a useful basis for understanding argument and persuasive language.

Reviewed by Paul Martin, VATE Life member and member of VATE Council.