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Analyzing the Language of Presidential Debates

Lesson Question:

How can a presidential candidate's linguistic patterns in a debate further reveal his or her political agenda?

Applicable Grades:

6—12

Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students will analyze an excerpt from a 1960 debate between presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Then, students will watch or read a debate between current presidential or vice-presidential candidates and reflect on how their verbal patterns may relate to their overall political positions as well.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  • evaluate word choice and linguistic patterns in a historic presidential debate
  • watch or read a debate between current presidential or vice-presidential candidates
  • analyze word choice and linguistic patterns in a self-selected debate transcript excerpt

Materials:

  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • "Analyzing a Candidate's Verbal Patterns" [click here to download]
  • copies of "Excerpt from the Second Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debate (October 7, 1960)" [click here to download]

Warm-up:

Reading and analyzing an excerpt from a historic presidential debate:

  • Explain to students that in anticipation of the upcoming presidential and vice-presidential debates they will be analyzing an excerpt from a historic 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy — one of the first televised debates between presidential candidates.
  • Distribute copies of the October 7, 1960 debate excerpt between Nixon and Kennedy [click here to download], and have students follow these directions: "Carefully read both Nixon's and Kennedy's responses to debate panelist Harold R. Levy's question to Vice President Nixon on the topic of 'party labels.' As you are reading, try to make note of how Nixon and Kennedy emphasize particular words and phrases in their responses. Underline those words and phrases that stand out to you. Which words or phrases do the candidates tend to repeat? What words or phrases are familiar or unfamiliar to you? What other verbal patterns do you detect in these candidates' responses?"

Instruction:

Exploring repetition as a means of emphasis:

  • Elicit students' comments about any language patterns they detected in Nixon's and Kennedy's responses to Levy's question, and list any specific words or phrases that they underlined on the board. Steer students to pay close attention to the candidates' usage of the word "party." Why do students think that Kennedy uses the word "party" four more times than Nixon, even though Nixon's response is twice as long as Kennedy's response?
  • Display the Visual Thesaurus word map for the word "party" on the white board and have students identify which definition of "party" is relevant to the debate responses (i.e., "an organization to gain political power"). You could also then click on this definition for "party" to reveal the multitude of political parties that exist or have existed beyond the Democratic and Republican parties (e.g., the Black Panthers, the Know-Nothing Party, the Free Soil Party, etc.).
  • Establish that repetition is a common form of emphasis and that Nixon's reluctance to use the word "party" may be related to his greater point: that a candidate should be judged as an individual, rather than as a mere representative of a party.

Investigating the term "free world" with the help of the VT:

  • Call attention to Nixon's usage of the term "free world" and his repeated stance that the 1960 election race between himself and Kennedy would determine "leadership for the whole free world."
  • Display the Visual Thesaurus word map for the term "Free World" and reveal that Nixon was referring to "anti-Communist countries" by using this phrase.
  • Explain to students that Nixon and Kennedy were candidates vying for presidency during the Cold War, the post-WWII "cold" conflict between Western allies (headed by the U.S.) and Communist countries in the East (led by the Soviet Union).
  • If students are curious to learn more about this period in history, they could investigate the terms "cold war" and "Communist" by using the VT, or by using on-line reference site such as The Cold War Museum or the CNN "Perspectives" series on the Cold War.

Analyzing language usage in a contemporary debate:

  • Assign students the task of watching a recording of a debate. The 2008 presidential and vice-presidential debates are available for viewing on websites such as the New York Times and MSNBC.
  • Ideally, students could watch one of the debates in its entirety and then examine a transcript of the debate after viewing. (Debate transcripts are available in newspapers and on on-line news sites, such as the New York Times.)
  • Have students use the "Analyzing a Candidate's Verbal Patterns" sheet [click here to download] to record their general reactions to the debate. Who do they think "won" the debate? Why? How did each candidate try to convince viewers of his or her point of view? In general, what verbal or rhetorical patterns did each candidate use in an effort to reinforce their points?
  • Direct students to choose a particular question posed by a debate moderator or panelist and to more closely examine each candidate's responses to this question. Have students write the question on the "Analyzing a Candidate's Verbal Patterns" sheet [click here to download] and then supply brief summaries of candidates' responses to the question. For example, Kennedy's response to Levy's question could be summarized as: "Party does matter, and a candidate's party affiliation can tell voters a lot about what a candidate stands for."
  • Have students next examine how candidates used specific words and phrases in their responses. Which words or phrases did candidates repeat or emphasize and why? Direct students to choose at least one of these words or phrases to investigate by using the Visual Thesaurus.

Wrap-up:

Holding a roundtable analysis of a debate:

  • Rearrange students' desks so that there is a central "roundtable" of students' desks in the center of the room.
  • The students in the center of the room should act as debate analysts who are discussing the pros and cons of each candidate's debate performances, much like the political analysts who are featured immediately following a televised debate.
  • Begin the discussion by having a roundtable participant read excerpts from his or her comments on the "Analyzing a Candidate's Verbal Patterns." Then, other roundtable participants can either agree or disagree with the original commentator's viewpoint. Students who are observing the discussion can also interject comments or questions during the discussion. Try to encourage a lively discussion that seeks to answer the central question: "How do candidates' word choices reflect their greater points or political positions?"

Extending the Lesson:

  • By using the Commission on Presidential Debates web site (www.debates.org), students could compare and contrast transcripts of historic debates with more contemporary debates and draw some conclusions about how political language and rhetoric has changed throughout recent American history.
  • Students could also read a few of the debate transcripts on www.debates.org and then decide who "won" each debate, based on clarity, eloquence and logic. Did the debate "winners" go on to win their elections? Students could create charts to display their opinions and findings.

Assessment:

  • Assess each student's analysis of the Nixon-Kennedy debate excerpt by reading their responses to the warm-up questions.
  • Assess each student's analysis of a contemporary debate by determining if the student's opinions about the debate performances have been adequately supported by examples of verbal patterns that they identified in the debate transcript.

Educational Standards:

Civics

Standard 20. Understands the roles of political parties, campaigns, elections, and associations and groups in American politics

Level III (Grade: 6-8)

2. Knows the various kinds of elections (e.g., primary and general, local and state, congressional, presidential, recall)

3. Understands the ways in which individuals can participate in political parties, campaigns, and elections

Level IV (Grade: 9-12)

6. Understands the significance of campaigns and elections in the American political system, and knows current criticisms of campaigns and proposals for their reform

United States History

Standard 27. Understands how the Cold War and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam influenced domestic and international politics

Level III (Grades 7-8)

1. Understands major events in U.S. foreign policy during the early Cold War period (e.g., the origins of the Cold War and the advent of nuclear politics, U.S. response to the Chinese Revolution, causes of the Korean War and resulting international tensions, the implementation of the U.S. containment policy, the circumstances that led to the Marshall Plan and its accomplishments)

2. Understands the differences between the foreign policies of Kennedy and Johnson (e.g., changes in U.S. foreign policy toward the Soviet Union and the reasons for these changes, changing foreign policy toward Latin America, the Kennedy administration's Cuban policy)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

4. Understands factors that contributed to the development of the Cold War (e.g., the mutual suspicions and divisions fragmenting the Grand Alliance at the end of World War II, U.S. support for "self-determination" and the U.S.S.R's desire for security in Eastern Europe, the practice of "atomic diplomacy")

Language Arts

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level III (Grades 6-8)

3. Uses a variety of strategies to extend reading vocabulary (e.g., uses analogies, idioms, similes, metaphors to infer the meaning of literal and figurative phrases; uses definition, restatement, example, comparison and contrast to verify word meanings; identifies shades of meaning; knows denotative and connotative meanings; knows vocabulary related to different content areas and current events; uses rhyming dictionaries, classification books, etymological dictionaries)

5. Understands specific devices an author uses to accomplish his or her purpose (e.g., persuasive techniques, style, word choice, language structure)

6. Reflects on what has been learned after reading and formulates ideas, opinions, and personal responses to texts

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

1. Uses context to understand figurative, idiomatic, and technical meanings of terms

2. Extends general and specialized reading vocabulary (e.g., interprets the meaning of codes, symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms; uses Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to infer meaning; understands subject-area terminology; understands word relationships, such as analogies or synonyms and antonyms; uses cognates; understands allusions to mythology and other literature; understands connotative and denotative meanings)

4. Understands writing techniques used to influence the reader and accomplish an author's purpose (e.g., organizational patterns, figures of speech, tone, literary and technical language, formal and informal language, narrative perspective)

6. Understands the philosophical assumptions and basic beliefs underlying an author's work (e.g., point of view, attitude, and values conveyed by specific language; clarity and consistency of political assumptions)

Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Level III (Grade: 6-8)

2. Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate and form viewpoints of visual media (e.g., evaluates the effectiveness of informational media, such as web sites, documentaries, news programs; recognizes a range of viewpoints and arguments; establishes criteria for selecting or avoiding specific programs)

Level IV (Grade: 9-12)

2. Uses a variety of criteria (e.g., clarity, accuracy, effectiveness, bias, relevance of facts) to evaluate informational media (e.g., web sites, documentaries, news programs)


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