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Teaching students to discuss text purpose needn't be like pushing *&%# uphill.

Updated: Apr 23

teaching students to discuss text purpose

I’m sick of reading paragraphs with a cursory nod to ‘purpose’ tacked on as a final sentence.    Students aren’t thinking about the person behind the text.  They’re not focusing on the experience and passion behind the creator's desire to change us, change the world. 

I've rethought my approach to the ‘p’ word because teaching students to discuss text purpose shouldn't be like pushing *&%# uphill!



The WIPE acronym is a helpful go-to that I’ve relied on for years (until now, but we’ll get to that soon).  We tell students that the purpose is often to warn, inform (educate), persuade and entertain (which, sadly, we often ignore but let’s leave that for another day).  It’s a handy way for students to remember what purpose ‘is’, and to emphasise that word ‘to’ which generally comes before a discussion of purpose.


But we need to move on. 


teaching students to discuss text purpose

Better words than WIPE

Within each of those four purposes – to warn, inform, persuade, entertain – are many effects that students should consider. Zooming in on these would help students write more precisely about purpose.  For example, an author might be wanting to warn us about the effects of discrimination. But zooming into the text to look for specific effects on the audience related to smaller events and interactions highlights many smaller aims along the way. For us to heed that wider warning, along the way, the author might aim:

  • To horrify us

  • To make us cry

  • To anger us

  • To scare us

These more precise emotions work together to warn us that individuals discriminated against can never flourish.

Activity idea: Have your students work through the alphabet to think of verbs and/or verb phrases to describe audience reactions.  A fun activity, good for vocabulary, and it’ll come in handy with this next step where we ditch WIPE altogether.


Thinking of the creator as a ‘social influencer’

The best part of this trick is that your students all know what a social influencer is, how they work and the power they have!

teaching students to discuss text purpose

An influencer worth their salt will have an audience:

  1. Feel something (that’s where those verbs/verb phrases come in handy)

  2. Think about things.

  3. Understand a concept (processing all those feelings and thoughts to spit out the ‘aha’ moment)

  4. Do something.  (If we buy it, change it, do it… the creator has just helped change the world – and that’s the whole point of the text!)

Students mostly ignore these steps, skipping straight to that cursory sentence (because they know they must talk about purpose) - The purpose is to persuade us to...

Working through this sequence will force students:

  • To think about where the creator, the text, they and other audience groups sit.

  • To think about how that creator is manipulating them and why.

  • To discuss the text.

  • To put a bit of personal voice into their response because now, with that sequence, they know how to discuss the text.

For a fun way to get students to ‘see’ the author behind the keyboard (or camera or mic.), try the fly spy activity!  It’s amazing how students pretending to be a fly on the wall actually works.  I explain this in a blog and video here


What do WE gain if a creator nails it?

Take class discussions further by discussing the significance – the importance – of the creator’s mission.  What might happen if the creator succeeds in getting everyone to DO as they intended?  How would the world change?    What happens if the creator fails - if nobody puts anything into action, then what?


Authors, directors, poets, podcasters, YouTubers... – text creators – use their voices to change the world!  If we read, view or listen to that text, and that text is successful in its purpose, then we can be part of that change.  Read a book – save the world!

teaching students to discuss text purpose
When students see a text creator as a social influencer, the better understand that creator is using their voice to change something in their audience, even the world.


'Splicing in' the main idea

After working through the feel-think-understand-do sequence, and writing out a few scenarios, point out to students that they've discussed the ideas in the text brilliantly. Because, of course, discussion of purpose leads to the main idea.  For example:

The author wants us to feel upset with the way Devin is being treated and to think about how we may have ignored or left out somebody we think is ‘different’ to us.  She wants us to think about what we may have missed when we've cut people off.  When we see how amazing Devin is with her calm attitude and life-saving bushcraft, we understand that the people we've side-lined, and perhaps even been cruel to, could have added value to our lives.  The author wants us to [do] get to know people before we judge them.


Normally I insist students use the word ‘that’ when discussing the main idea because it forces them to explain it properly in a sentence.  (I talk about this here.)  However, I've noticed that with this magic sequence, the main idea, and subsidiaries of it, fall from it quite naturally to form – ye gods – a discussion! (See the writing in bold in the example above.)


The evidence angle

Thanks to that cursory sentence tacked on to the end of a paragraph, so often we wish the student had linked what they've said about purpose to specific evidence from the text.

Here's a tip! Try putting a quotation or excerpt from your class text in front of students, then asking them to go through the feel – think – understand – do sequence in relation to that excerpt.  You’ll end up with a wee paragraph of gorgeousness – a discussion of purpose and idea(s) with evidence woven in.

Next, try having students write an essay with three body paragraphs, each about a different piece of evidence (and using the feel – think – understand – do sequence.  Scrummy!


Ban the word ‘purpose’ – at least for a while

teaching students to discuss text purpose

Here’s a challenge! When students are writing about purpose (using the feel-think-understand-do sequence), ban the word ‘purpose’

They’ll probably find that if they follow that sequence, they don’t really need it anyway. 

Purpose screams 'box-ticking', and as already mentioned, often just means a cursory sentence or two is added at the end of a paragraph. 

Watch and weep WITH JOY because by:

  1. Using the feel-think-understand-do sequence, and

  2. Beginning with a specific example of evidence from the text

students show an authentic understanding of the creator and the text, and produce the DISCUSSION to prove it.

Teaching students to discuss text purpose is officially sorted. Hehe.



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