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Teaching the AP Language and Composition Rhetorical Analysis Essay

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

Every year, my AP Language and Composition students struggle with the rhetorical analysis essay. Over the years, I've come up with various graphic organizers to walk them through the process, and I also show them various models, but this only gets students so far.  I teach highly motivated students, and they want to know exactly what they need to do to earn a high score.

This year,  after I graded a stack of so-so papers, I realized that I was going to have 60 students chasing me down and demanding to know how to get a better grade. I suffer from Fear of Student Bombardment (FOSB), so I try and anticipate what students are going to be concerned about and address it in class. Below are the materials I use to teach the rhetorical analysis essay.

I had already used all of my rhetorical analysis graphic organizers and some of my AP models. My students were starting to understand the rhetorical analysis essay but not quite. They were identifying devices and trying to connect to effect, but they weren't keep the big picture in mind.  They were also picking out small, unimportant devices to analyze, or they were skipping giants chunks of the passage. I realized that in order to show them exactly what I wanted,  I was going to have to model the entire process for them. Tedious? Yes. But I knew it was the only way I would be able to show them exactly what I wanted, and therefore prevent the student onslaught after class. (WHY DIDN'T I GET A BETTER GRADE!?!?)

I did this lesson after students attempted to analyze the 2005 Form B Maria W. Stewart prompt, but you can do it after any rhetorical analysis attempt. The reason I do it AFTER they write the essay is because they are not invested in the process until they get their grades back. That's when the realize that they probably should stop ignoring me and pay attention. The lesson went well and I didn't have any students chasing me down afterwards. You will need about ninety minutes. You can use the steps below with your own passage, or you can use this ready made "Intro the Rhetorical Analysis Essay" for sale on my TpT page. I use Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?"

Here is what to do:

1. Give students back their essays and briefly discuss what they did well, but acknowledge that there's work to be done.

2. Give students a handout titled "How to Write a Rhetorical Analysis Essay." This is just a clean document that lists the steps students should follow when attempting to write a rhetorical analysis essay.  I sell it on TpT, but it is not necessary for this lesson: 

3. Choose a short passage to work with or use an old AP prompt. Show students how to annotate the first paragraph (summary/function/devices), and then have them annotate the second paragraph on their own and share out.

4. Next go over how to write a rhetorical analysis thesis statement. I have my students write a SOAPStone thesis. They use it in their AP history classes and it works well for the rhetorical analysis essay, so I figure... the fewer acronyms to remember the better. The "SOAPStone" letter meanings are as follows: S=Subject, O=Occassion, A=Audience, P=Purpose, S=Style, and "tone"=tone. Students should identify all of this information about the text they are analyzing and then tie it together in one or two sentences at the end of their introductory paragraphs. Kids always ask if they should list literary devices but I am partial to them identifying and discussing the devices in the body. Really, I don't care it's up to them.

5. Show students how to write a full intro paragraph by typing it out on the spot and thinking aloud. Make students take notes by hand while you are typing.

6. Show students what the body paragraph of a rhetorical analysis essay to look like. I literally type out the paragraph and think aloud while I am writing it. I also make them copy this down by hand.

6. Repeat for another paragraph.

7. Ask students to write their body paragraph own. Despite having a model paragraph right in front of them, students typically make the same three mistakes on their first attempt at the rhetorical analysis:

  • They do not put a device in their assertion

  • They speak in generalities in their commentary

  • They do not include exact evidence.

As students are working, I try and circulate and catch kids who are making one of the above mistakes. Students submit their attempts at the end of class.

During Planning/Before Next Class

8. Look through the paragraphs students submitted and divide them up into “strong,” “medium” and “weak.” Then make groups of three with one student from each category. Basically, you want to match the students who DO understand the rhetorical analysis essay to be paired up with students who DO NOT understand the rhetorical analysis essay. The stronger students can explain and model how to write the essay to the kids who did not get it the first time around.

Next Class

9. Review any major misunderstandings that you saw in their paragraphs.

10. Start the process over again. Give students Dave Barry’s “Turkeys in the Kitchen.” (complete lesson with handouts for sale here), and ask them to take out their "How to Write a Rhetorical Analysis Essay" handout. Go through the steps again. Students read the prompt and the passage on their own and annotate. We share out some annotations, and then we go over how to write the thesis statement as a class.

11. Put students into the mixed-ability groups that you made the day before. The students divide up the into “beginning” “middle” and “end” and each person is responsible for writing 1 body paragraph that will be part of a whole essay written by the group. I have students write their paragraph on a Google doc and then share it with me so that I can check in on them as they are writing. I use the commenty function to leave feedback, but if a student is really confused, I call them up to my desk for a quick conference.

12. Once all students in the group have written their paragraph, they need to read the paragraphs of the other two members in the group and give one piece of feedback.

13. Submit essay to teacher.

Next Class

14. Review all the steps with the students one more time and then have them do a their first timed rhetorical analysis. Give them 55 minutes to complete it, then I look over the essays and figure out my next lesson.

No first attempt at a rhetorical analysis is pretty. The essay is just too new and unfamiliar to my students. I’ve just learned to accept this stumble as an inevitable part on the path to mastery. My students hate it for this reason, but they feel pretty good once they get the hang of it.

Rhetorical Analysis Essay Materials
How you will really feel for the first ten years.


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