Identifying persuasive language, teaching pupils to identify spam scams
Are you about to undertake persuasive writing with your class? Alan Gillespie has a cracking idea to bring the topic into the 21st century!
The children we teach are the first of a new, crashing wave. The modern world is full of possibilities, but there are new and unforeseen hazards as well. These children are the first who have been born into a broadband society, with iPhones in their schoolbags and a community of friends and vague acquaintances on Facebook. When they are adults they will do it all online: shop, bank, find work, book tickets, watch films, hear music, read books, keep in touch with family, create photo albums, and make connections with the world. Children should be open to its potential but also aware of the pitfalls.
In days gone by it was junk mail – colourful envelopes pouring through the letterbox, offering free dream holidays and fortuitous lottery wins. Most of this gaudy nonsense ended up in the bin, but there were those sad occasions when people were tricked into disclosing their bank details or security passwords. The internet makes such scams far simpler, cheaper and quicker to carry out.
I gave a class of twelve year olds a selection of genuine spam emails and asked them to write down what their replies to these would be. It mostly purported to be from a distressed Nigerian monarch living in exile looking for a friendly Briton to share a fortune with. Some of the kids quickly twigged and wrote sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek responses. But a few of them seemed genuinely intrigued and happy to enter into correspondence; others tried to negotiate the terms to make more money. It was this naivety and innocence that I wanted to address in the pupils. They had to become aware of dastardly tricks.
As an English teacher, it was important to zoom in on the persuasive language techniques used in spam emails. By the end of the unit pupils could tell you that spam emails use terms of endearment to hook in the recipient, include hyperlinks to news articles to make their stories more plausible, describe accidents or impending threats to generate sympathy, and specify tight deadlines to make the deal seem juicier.
I was asked by one rather opinionated pupil why we were studying spam emails in English rather than in Computing. The simple answer was that in our lessons I wanted to teach the pupils about persuasive language, and the serious threat which will only intensify as they grow older. But there are massive opportunities for cross-curricular lessons here, with Computing teachers covering anti-virus software, IP addresses, Trojan horses and other forms of hacking. The Geography department could explain to pupils why most spam emails originate in poor African countries. There are countless possibilities for that lovely buzzword: interdisciplinarity.
In our series of lessons the pupils produced three pieces of work. The first was a written task – either a newspaper article, or a letter to a relative, describing the dangers of spam emails. The pupils also worked in groups to design posters and then script, rehearse, perform and record television adverts. At the end of the unit there was a screening of all the videos, with the pupils basking in the chance to see one another’s theatrical offerings and show off their own efforts.
The class enjoyed the unit; it was unexpected and related to the real world – they could see proper meaning and purpose behind the lessons, and for that reason I felt the unit was a success. Although I do fear that in a few years’ time I’ll have prepared a fiendish army of slick, persuasive spammers, and that we’re all horribly doomed.
You can download feedback from pupils about the task, as well as Alan's powerpoint, from the two links below.