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Using Presidential Debates to Teach Social Language Concepts

by Heidi Britz
written by
presidential debate stage

——presidential debate stage

As a speech-language pathologist fascinated by social language, I recently thought about how I might incorporate the language from the presidential debates into treatment. The debates and campaign ads provide an engaging way to work with older students on reading nonverbal language, identifying emotions and connecting the race to the Common Core State Standards, particularly in social studies. You can search YouTube (of course, preview videos first!) for local and national campaign commercials or the complete debates.

Watch and then use these timely videos to create activities aligned with the Common Core for students in grades seven through 12. Include questions to help students determine persuasion, bias, point of view, main idea and truth in context. Co-teaching with your social studies/history teachers can turn this into a collaborative lesson plan over several weeks, and gives you time to observe your students in the classroom working with their peers.

Common Core standards for middle to high school include participating in group discussions, using media to enhance understanding of a topic, identifying evidence, perspective, reasoning, defining opposite points of view, determining evidence to support claims and more. So how do we use this is the context of a push-in lesson on social language?

I would show this clip as an example of how to dissect the content and strategy of political commercials, and what we’re about to discuss. You can then start your lesson by viewing one commercial and asking students to identify the commercial’s main message. Next, show an opposing candidate’s commercial and ask the same question. This process gives your group an opportunity to also talk about point of view, perspective-taking and persuasion. You can also look at campaigns from the past (where we know the outcome) and tease out each of the concepts in light of what happened. This is not the time to add your political two cents to the lesson, so remain neutral!

Next, formulate questions and answers to prompt further group discussion—use a smartboard or Venn diagrams to help with this activity:

  1. What is the candidate’s platform (education, political reform, gun control)?
  2. What is the candidate’s opinion of the topic? How is the candidate trying to persuade the  listener he or she is right?
  3. Who is the audience the candidate is trying to persuade?
  4. What evidence is the candidate giving to support the position?
  5. Is it true? How could you check the facts? Should you accept what a commercial says at face value?
  6. What bias does the candidate say the opposition has?
  7. Is it important to discuss the opponent’s point of view or offer a rebuttal?
  8. Does a rebuttal impact the voters positively or negatively?
  9. What is the tone of the advertisement? Combative or collaborative?
  10. Do you think the commercials were effective considering the outcome of the election?

Then divide students into small groups (with supervision) and let them walk through the steps above with an opposing candidate’s ad. It should generate in-depth discussions as well as opportunities to work through misperceptions about politicians. Students with autism spectrum disorder or social communication disorder might need explicit instruction on the vocabulary and concepts prior to the sessions and multiple opportunities to practice using flexible thoughts to consider other people’s points of view or opinions.

The numerous debates and campaign ads generated by this election offer enough social language material to last several months. I look forward to a gold mine of social-language learning opportunities! As for the best candidate for our next president? Well, let’s just say that’s up for debate…


Heidi Britz, MA, CCC SLP, has 25 years of pediatric experience in hospitals and public schools.  She’s currently a lead SLP in her school district, where she mentors new grads and develops social language assessments, rubrics and response-to-intervention. www.smartmouthslp.com or heidibritz@att.net


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Shellie’s Strategies and Support | Speech Associates February 26, 2016 - 4:00 pm

[…] This is a timely post from ASHA about using the Presidential Debates to Teach Social Language Concepts. […]

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