Teaching Writing as an Authentic Act Using the Malleable Rhetorical Triangle

Teaching Writing as an Authentic Act Using the Malleable Rhetorical Triangle
Smiling teenage girl writing in book while sitting amidst friends in classroom

By The Educator Collaborative Fellow Shawna Coppola

Problem: Your students use the same language/tone/style with every composition they create.

Problem: Your students can articulate when different purposes and audiences call for different writing decisions but do not demonstrate their understanding of this in their work.

Solution (?): The Malleable Rhetorical Triangle

For decades upon decades, composition scholars (alongside fellow educator-scholars) have been imploring writing teachers to help their students conceptualize writing as a rhetorical act–in essence, to understand that texts are “produced by people, in specific situations and contexts” (NCTE, 2018), and that these texts lack meaning until they have been “read” by an audience (even if that “audience” is the writer herself). Doing so, these folks argue, will prevent our students from envisioning writing as something that is merely “school-based,” lacking any authentic cachet or meaning outside the dreary (and ubiquitous) assigned essay/poem/story/[insert your form/genre of choice here]. Doing so will also empower writers to make intentional decisions about the compositions they create.

While I count myself among those who advocate for a rhetorical focus when teaching writing–even when working with our youngest learners–I also understand that it can be overwhelming for many in the K-16 sphere to figure out how to employ such a focus in an engaging, yet practical, way. 

One of the ways I do this is by utilizing the “classic” rhetorical triangle, which represents the three enduring kinds of rhetorical appeals (logos, ethos, and pathos) writers must consider that are most often attributed to Aristotle (another old white guy*, bleh–I know!–but try to stick with me here). It generally looks like this:

For those who are unfamiliar with the rhetorical triangle, each aspect of it is supposed to represent the “basic components” of every rhetorical situation, or every attempt to “argue” (or, more broadly, communicate something to someone). Logos typically refers to the way such communication is structured or organized in order to maximize its “reasonableness” (or logic)–more broadly, it represents the “text” itself. Ethos represents the author of the text–and how “credible,” “knowledgable,” or “trustworthy” the author is. Pathos is often translated to refer to a text’s “emotional appeal,” or how an audience might relate to and/or respond to the text.

The coolest thing about the rhetorical triangle, though, especially among critical writing scholars like myself, is its malleability. While the triangle is typically drawn as an equilateral triangle, representing the “desired” balance each of the three components of any rhetorical situation, I like my students to explore how the importance of logos, ethos, and pathos shifts and changes with each context. What I do, then, is present opportunities for them to (quite literally) play with the shape of the rhetorical triangle, depending on what text they are composing–or even consuming. 

For example, if I were to use the rhetorical triangle to represent this blog post, I might shape it like what you see below. Notice how the ethos side of the triangle is slightly longer than the other two sides. This is because I want readers of this blog post to, above all else, find me a credible and engaging source so that they might be more likely to utilize this educational strategy with their own student writers. Do I want my post to read in an organized way–to seem reasonable and logical? Yes. Do I want my audience to feel something upon reading this post (in this case, affirmed by what they already do or inspired by a different way of teaching composition)? Of course. But if readers don’t find me credible–or if they find my writing style to be a total drag–then they won’t take the time to read this in its entirely (or, even, at all). They have fifty bazillion other things to do, after all!

Let’s say, though, that you want your students to play with the idea that they are the main character in the “limited series” of their life–to be aired on Netflix at a later date–and consequently have to compose a “title” or “opening credits” sequence that will give their viewing audience an idea of what their autobiographical “show” is about. (Those who know well me know I love myself a great title sequence; you can find some of my favorites here.) How might the rhetorical triangle look for this kind of composition? I would argue that it should look something like this, with manipulating the audience’s emotions–or attending to pathos–being the overriding goal:You, however, might disagree. Because the way a multimodal text like this one is structured–and how/when the content of the title sequence is presented on the screen–ultimately determines how the audience reacts to it, you might argue that the logos side ought to be the longest. Great point, isn’t it?

And that’s the beauty of the malleable rhetorical triangle: the goal is not to be “right,” because contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, there’s no such thing when it comes to composition! The point, rather, is to engage in lively discussions about different rhetorical situations in which all students might bring their own knowledges and social/cultural norms around communication (and composition) to the table. The point is also to demonstrate to students, in a concrete way, how the important decisions that we make as writers cannot be decontextualized from the authentic–and inexorably social–act of writing itself.

*For a deeper exploration of the historical Whiteness of rhetoric scholarship, see Godfried Agyeman Asante’s 2019 piece #RhetoricSoWhite and US centered: Reflections on Challenges and Opportunities.”

If you enjoyed this post, check out Shawna’s other work, including her new book from Routledge, Literacy for All: A Framework for Anti-Oppressive Teaching (2023).


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