Classroom Activity: Introduction to Rhetorical Context

To supplement your introductory discussion of rhetorical context, divide students into four groups of approximately equal size. Inform the class that each group will be completing the same writing task—a grocery list—for a unique audience. For example, you might distribute slips of paper indicating the following:

  • Group 1: You and your roommate share food and prepare meals together. You have similar tastes and frequently accompany one another to the grocery store. Prepare a list for your roommate for a trip to the store he/she will be making alone.
  • Group 2: You are in charge of arranging for refreshments at a campus activity. You have decided to hire a caterer. Prepare a grocery list for the caterer.
  • Group 3: A new friend who lives down the hall is running errands and has offered to pick up some grocery items for you. Prepare a list for your friend.
  • Group 4: You plan to make a trip to the grocery store later in the day. Prepare a list to take with you when you go.

As students complete their lists (about five minutes), post a chart on the chalkboard or wipeboard. Label the columns "Audience," "Purpose," and "Focus," and number the rows from 1 to 4. When groups have finished their lists, ask them to share with the class what they've written. Make notes of the audience, purpose, and focus for each list. For example, when the audience is a caterer, the writer's purpose might include getting the best quality for the group's money. The writer might list price ranges and quantities and probably would also focus on the event theme in choosing food items. In contrast, a writer preparing a grocery list for his or her own use would probably do so primarily as a memory aid (purpose) and might focus on categories—cereal, soda, ice cream—rather than listing specific brands or quantities. Discussing how each group decided what to include in their list will help students see how purpose, audience, and focus work together to inform all our writing choices.