Critical Reading & Thinking Exercise with Beyond Words

Purpose: Exploring and analyzing writing with a critical eye. This exercise will allow the students the opportunity to engage with a text, making notes, highlighting unknown words and phrases, arguing with the author, and questioning the written word for validity. 

Description: This exercise calls for the students to evaluate and freewrite on a text of your choice (an ad, an editorial, a TV commercial, etc.). Paired Text: Activity Accompanies Beyond Words, “Reading Texts,” (8-53).

Suggested Time: 30 minutes


  1. Find some opinion-oriented piece of writing/visual material of substantial length and make enough copies for the class.
  2. Have the students read the appropriate section in Beyond Words the night before and go over the main points in class to refresh their memory.
  3. Allow the students to read the text and employ the strategies outlined in Beyond Words. Suggest to the students that they read it once straight through and then begin to engage with the text. 
  4. Ask questions as the students are writing to help them along, such as, “What is the author’s point?”, “What do you agree with? Disagree with?”, “What is confusing?”, “Is the author effective in achieving their goal in the text?”, etc.
  5. Allow the students five to ten minutes to free write a response to the text and pursue as they see fit.

Discussion/Follow-up: Ask the students to bring a page of an opinion-oriented piece of their own. Have them read it to the rest of the class. While the student reads his/her piece, students will write down and evaluate the different points of the presented argument. You can then discuss how to improve the piece using some of the tools they have while reading the Handbook and your selected text.

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Exploring Culture: The Influence of Ads

Purpose of Exercise: This exercise works well with an Ad-buster paper or project, or other cultural analysis/textual essay. It considers visual rhetoric and the images/text that motivates audiences in certain ways. Students examine the influence of the various media around them through freewriting analysis, and also practice describing the visual rhetoric of a ‘text’ as they analyze it.

Description: Students evaluate and freewrite about a particular advertisement from a magazine. Bring a selection of magazine ads or features to the class, or ask students to come prepared with some of their own.

Suggested Time: 20 minutes to a full class period

Procedure: Choose one ad to project on the overhead. Remind students that real people are inventing (have invented) these ads with a target audience in mind. Ask the class questions like: "What is the ad selling?" "What kind of visual stimulation are they using?" "Who is the audience?" “What lifestyle does the ad sell or promote?” "What does the ad invite you to imagine might result if the dress, drink the Bacardi, etc.?" "Do you become cool?" “What type of magazine might this ad appear in?”

Prod the class to begin thinking critically about how the ad tries to work on a potential market demographic. When you feel they have the idea, pass out a selection of ads and ask students to choose one from among them. If you asked them to bring their own magazine, ask them to select their favorite ad. Forming groups of 2-3 students is fine, if you don’t have enough ads to go around.

Allow them to study the ads while you explain the purpose of the exercise. Remind them to consider what you’ve talked about as a class on the first ad, and apply these same questions to their own ad. You may write or project your key questions on the board.

Allow the class about 5-10 minutes to freewrite on all the rhetorical elements that they pick up from the ad, considering the function of each element in promoting a sale, and reaching a demographic. Tell them to feel free to diverge into some other area that the ad stimulates.

Afterwards, ask the students to share their analyses and the discoveries they made. How does that make you fell about these companies? What about persuasive writing? How much are we responsible for our own critical thinking? And can we blame the companies for capitalizing off our absence of critique?

Did anyone diverge? (Let them read aloud) Anyone get any great ideas about something you’d like to write about?

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Exploring the Interplay of Text and Visuals

Purpose: To help students explore the interplay of text and visual and further explore the effects of visual rhetoric. Activity Accompanies: “Harry Potter and the Mystery of Magic” (Our Own Words [OOW] 2007-2008)

Suggested Time: 50 Minutes


1. Gather the class together as a whole and introduce the activity’s main set of questions:

  • How do these visuals inform the text? (How can visuals “enhance” a text?)Likewise, how does the text inform the visual? (How can text “enhance” a visual?)
  • How can picture or text placement/layout convey a different emotion/intent/message?
  • How can font style/size/color choice convey different emotions/intents/messages?
  • Does the combination of both text and image make an argument that neither element could make on its own?
  • How does such visual rhetoric relate to the "Harry Potter" piece we’ve looked at on OOW?

2. Walk the students through each set of pictures and discuss how each of the five questions apply to our study of the interplay of text and visuals?

3. Replay the video for Harry Potter in class and discuss how your new understanding of the interplay of text and visuals informs your interpretation.

4. Post-Question Activity (in groups):

Split into groups of 3 or 4 and have them create as a group their own version of this visual rhetoric activity. Students can either choose one image and pair it with multiple words to convey different meanings, or choose one word to pair with various images to convey different meanings (in other words, they either experiment with the image or experiment with the text). Have them discuss (within their groups) why they’ve made the decisions they have, possibly using the five procedure questions from earlier; then have the groups present their images and explanations to the class and attempt to foster a discussion/debate atmosphere concerning their choices.

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Lunch: Thinking about Generalizing and Stereotyping

Purpose of Exercise: This exercise challenges students to think about how they (over) generalize or stereotype groups of people through nonverbal ques.

Description: The instructor will present two imaginary menus (or even their own lunch menu) and ask students questions about the lunch patron using only what they ordered. The menu can be as “regular” or as stereotypical as the instructor desires. The more stereotypical or outrageous the menu, the more stimulating and interesting the conversation.

Suggested time: 20-25 (5 minutes or less to review the menu and gather ideas, 15 minutes for students to discuss their answers)

Procedure: Instructor should write menus on the board or provide a handout to students. The format can be as seen below:

Lunch Order #1:
Double Martini
Twelve-ounce T-bone steak
French fries
Corn on the cob
Apple Pie a la mode
Stoneware plate
Bone-handled flatware
Paper napkins
Lunch Order #2
Hot herbal Tea
Pita sandwich with avocado and sprouts
Raw vegetables with yogurt dip
Simple china plate
Stainless steel flatware
Cloth napkin

Give students a couple of minutes to read the menus and think about the kind of person who might choose either one. Ask the students to either write or discuss answers to the following questions or something similar:

a) Which one of these diners in more concerned about the environment?
b) Which one of these diners is a fan of professional football?
c) Which of these diners is male or female?
d) Which of these diners is a Republican and which is a Democrat?
e) Which of these diners is over 55, and which is under 40?

After students have written down or prepared an oral response to the lunch orders, allow them to discuss and defend their choices. This not only opens up a lively conversation, it also allows students to practice sharing their ideas in an academic environment.

Additional Information: Because students are confronting their own ideas and perceptions of others, the instructor needs to make sure to retain a comfortable and open space for discussions. He or she should reinforce the idea that not all students are going to agree and that is okay.

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My Ten Commandments: Examining Social Construction

Purpose: To examine the social constructedness of our personal moral codes, and its relationship to how what we chose to include or leave out of our writing is directly and intimately connected to our socially constructed values. This works especially well within the context of the community strand.

Description: My Ten Commandments asks students to generate a list of their own personal commandments (prior to the class period) and then rank these commandments in various categories to examine how much of our values have been influenced by the different communities.

Suggested Time: When previously assigned, at least 30 minutes. When not, usually closer to 1 hour

Procedure: As a homework assignment, ask each student to generate a list of their own personal 10 commandments. They don’t all have to be as grandiose as "I’ll never murder" or "I’ll never steal." I tell my students to imagine that they are at a bus stop and are approached by a stranger who has a great deal of money-- What are 10 things that a stranger would never be able to convince you to do? (students are generally more comfortable with this if you tell them no one but you will see this list--even better, tell them no one else will see it.)

In class, ask the students to look over their list to see if these commandments are indeed inviolable or if extreme circumstances would allow the ‘commandments’ to be broken. (A student might list ‘Do not kill’ but be willing to kill someone if attacked, for example.) Next, have your students create a four column graph. In the first column, they should list their Ten Personal Commandments. In the next column, they should rate these on how terrible a violation they viewed them to be—number 1 would be a very minor transgression, while a 10 would be unthinkable. In the third column, they should list the names of the people or institutions most likely to be hurt by these transgressions. Lastly, in the forth column the students should give a rating number to how serious this other party would view this transgression.

If students are willing, briefly lead a discussion allowing students to comment on their lists and reflect on the lists of their classmates. With or without discussion, the chart often leads my students to see that different people (with different values) view each transgression differently and that absolutes are difficult to come by. Ask the students to write about why there are such discrepancies in how each party rates the seriousness of these transgressions.

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Play It Again, Sam: Summary vs Analysis

Purpose: To help students differentiate between analysis and summary and then apply that knowledge to their own drafts. This works in conjunction with any number of papers in the 1101 and 1102 strands, particularly well if the students are doing analysis of visual texts in their papers, though it can be adapted for written texts as well.

Description: Through visuals, this activity asks students to differentiate between summary (this is what happens) and analysis (this is why it happens) by watching a movie clip twice and writing two different texts in response. A successful clip is suggested here, but you will need access to whatever you show (via DVD, uTube, etc). The activity is also adaptable to a workshop format, requiring students to bring their drafts to class.

Suggested Time: About an hour

Procedure: Show an action-packed, short (5 min.) scene from a film, such as the clip from Pulp Fiction in which Vincent and Jules go to the apartment of the boys who have stolen Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase (Play it from when they walk into the apartment until they shoot them). This scene works well because there are a number of unanswered questions in it.

Ask students to write a one-paragraph summary of what they’ve seen, giving them +/- 10 minutes. Discuss what they came up with in their summaries, having them read their actual texts aloud. Be sure to note if something they say is analysis. Try to keep them focused on plot so that they understand the genre conventions of summary. Make note of what delineates a good summary on the board (features like tone or objectivity, selectivity or inclusivity, etc).

Show the clip again. Encouraging them to watch closely to see if we missed anything. When it’s finished, ask them to turn their papers over and write a one-paragraph analysis. Make sure to give them at least 10 minutes this time. Discuss their responses again, noting if something is summary. I write the analytical points on the board. This might take a little prodding, but once they get the hang of it, you should have no shortage of responses.

This can also help with the concepts of claims and evidence-- be wary of students jumping to conclusions and ask them for evidence from the text (film) to support their claims. Take one of the responses and start a deeper, discussion-based analysis. What conclusions can we draw about, say, the briefcase in the Pulp Fiction scene? How do we know this?

To adapt this exercise to a workshop:

Ask the students to break into pairs and read each other’s drafts in search of summary, circling the portions they find. Afterwards, have the students discuss how the summary portions might become analysis. Some groups may need a little guidance, others will get it right away.

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Title: Visualizing an Essay—Analyzing a Text

Purpose: This exercise gets students in the practice of summarizing arguments and thinking about others’ writing in alternative ways. I often use this exercise to initiate discussion about assigned readings, but I also have students do this with their own writing. Since I often frame this exercise as designing advertisements for essays, this segues nicely into discussions about images as arguments.

Description: In this exercise, students work in groups to determine the main arguments and main elements of a text. Each group works at the board to design a visual interpretation of a text. To add a competitive edge to this exercise, I tell students that the class will vote on the best design.

Suggested Time: 30-50 minutes

Procedure: Organize the class into groups of four or five and ask each group to review the text and answer the following questions: what is the author arguing in this text? What are the important elements/arguments in this text? What parts of the texts did you find interesting? Have someone in each group record their findings. Next, give each group a work space at the board and some dry erase markers. Using their responses to the questions as a guide, ask students to create an image that illustrates their ideas and also gives a general impression of what the text is “about”. When the groups finish their work, they present their visuals and explain their reasoning for their design. After each presentation, I then ask the other students: is this visual an accurate interpretation of the text? Why or why not? When this exercise is completed, the students have a good sense of the text and have a sense of the moves the author made to make her argument.

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Repainting the Starry Night: Visual/Textual Analysis

Purpose of Exercise: Allows the students to look critically and interpretively at visual images as well as practicing close reading of texts. Combining visual and textual rhetoric as separately and collaboratively important helps student prepare for a visual/textual analysis paper.

Description: For this activity, you will use Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” Robert Fagles’s “The Starry Night.” Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night,” and Don McLean’s “Vincent” in order to have the students move past summarizing visual images and begin to closely analyze images as they would texts. Students will not only analyze images and texts separately but also see the intersections between visual and textual elements and develop an appreciation for how this relationship can alter our understanding of works that incorporate both aspects (such as films).

Suggested Time: 30 minutes or an entire class period, depending on the length of the discussion.

Procedure: Divide the students into groups of three or four; each group should be assigned one poem/song dealing with Vincent’s painting. You can have the students complete these readings prior to the day you do this activity or you can have them read over their specific poem/song in the groups.

Have the groups closely analyze the words and the meaning behind the poem/song. It helps to have the artwork displayed in the background (or print off a picture for each group). Ask the students for similarities between the words of the poem and the visuals in the painting. Have any images in the painting inspired certain parts of the poem? What image/color in the painting struck the author of the poem/song? What first strikes each student? Has the author altered anything in the painting? What details are lost or added in these “translations”? Do these textual “translations” convey a different meaning or evoke another emotion?

Next begin with a general discussion about the painting, focusing on the students’ own interpretation of it. Next, I go around to each group and closely analyze the words of the poems and song in connection with the image. Before you discuss McLean’s song, I like to play the song, which allows us to also analyze the tone of the music; I ask them how the music element may explain or alter the feeling evoked by the painting or the song. I also ask the students questions about the different titles each artist chooses to use, the different occupations of Van Gogh, Fagles, Sexton, and McLean (what do they have in common?), and if religion becomes a important aspect in any of the interpretations to Van Gogh’s painting, or even in the painting itself.


At the end of the discussion, you could have each group make their own song or poem based on their interpretation. What part do they want to focus on? What would their title be? Even if the students do not create their own poem or song, you could have a discussion about the possible titles or images they would focus on in their own version. You can also point out that there is not one correct interpretation of a visual text, which these poems and song demonstrate. 

Additional Information: Developed from Robert Atwan’s “Guidelines for Writing about Visual Art” (found in Convergences) provides an understanding of how to analyze an image and how to treat the image as a type of “text.” Atwan’s questions, paired with my love of Don McLean’s “Vincent,” lead to this exercise.

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