A side view of the stage and seating at Ford’s Theatre. On the left is the Presidential Box with an American flag, a framed picture of George Washington and American flag bunting draped over the box.
View from the stage of the President’s Box at Ford’s Theatre. Photo © Maxwell MacKenzie.

Rhetorical Triangle

By understanding Aristotle’s three elements of persuasive speech—the ancient Greek words ethos, pathos and logos—students will be able to analyze the effectiveness of rhetorical strategies and elements in commercials and speeches.

This lesson could be used in grades 5-12. In Lesson Activity Two, there are links to resources that allow the teacher to choose appropriate texts for their students.

Common Core Standards


Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

LEARNING OBJECTIVESExplain the difference between ethos, pathos and logos
Explain how advertisers use the Rhetorical Triangle to persuade a specific audience
Define and identify 11 different rhetorical elements
GUIDING QUESTIONSHow do we persuade others to see our point of view?
Why do we remember certain speeches?
What techniques do advertisers use to persuade us?
What techniques do speakers use to make their speeches memorable?

Classroom Activities

  • Classroom Activity One: Introduction to Aristotle
    Using Visual-Thinking Strategies, students are introduced to Aristotle, the father of the Rhetorical Triangle.
  • Lesson Activity Two: The Rhetorical Triangle and Ethos, Pathos and Logos as a Class
    Working as a class, students identify the use of ethos, pathos and logos in several commercials.
  • Classroom Activity Three: The Rhetorical Triangle and Ethos, Pathos and Logos in Groups
    Students identify use of ethos, pathos and logos in small groups. There are four different suggested activities to do this.
  • Classroom Activity Four: The Rhetorical Triangle and Ethos, Pathos and Logos in Speeches
    Students identify the use of ethos, pathos and logos in speeches.
  • Classroom Activity Five: Rhetorical Devices
    Using a jigsaw, student define additional major rhetorical devices and provide examples of their own.
  • Classroom Activity Six: Rhetorical Devices in Speeches
    Students find and analyze the effect of rhetorical devices in speeches.

Classroom Activity One

Introduction to Aristotle

Show students the picture of Aristotle linked above, covering Aristotle’s name. Ask students who they think he is. What job might he have? Tell students that this is the picture of the door of the National Academy of Sciences, which is a society of scientists that was founded by an Act of Congress and signed into existence by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. More than 500 members of the Academy have been awarded Nobel Prizes. Ask what might qualify a person to be pictured on the door of the National Academy of Science.

After students have inferred what kind of person Aristotle was and how long ago he lived (more than 2000 years ago), let them know that he is still considered one of the leading scholars of persuasion. His book, Rhetoric, is still taught in colleges around the world to teach students how to be persuasive. Tell them that they will be learning about Aristotle’s theories of persuasion today. These theories include the Rhetorical Triangle and the Rhetorical Appeals of Ethos, Pathos and Logos.

Classroom Activity Two

The Rhetorical Triangle and Ethos, Pathos and Logos as a Class

Pass out The Rhetorical Triangle and Rhetorical Appeals worksheet. Define Persuasion as a class. You could have students look it up in a dictionary or have them come up with meanings in groups and then vote for the best definition. They could also combine the different definitions from each group to create a class definition. You should decide on which approach works best for your class, considering time constraints.

Explain to students: To understand how speeches or advertisements persuade, you should consider five questions:

  1. Who is the Speaker?
  2. What is the Message?
  3. Who is the Audience?
  4. What Methods is the Speaker employing to Persuade?
  5. What is the Desired Result or Action to be Taken?

Review the following as a class:  The interaction between message (subject), speaker (communicator, writer) and audience (listener, reader). There is a space to take notes on the front of the Rhetorical Triangle and Rhetorical Appeals Worksheet.

  • The Subject (message):
    • The interaction of these elements determines the structure and language of the argument (the text/image that establishes a position)
    • Skilled communicators first choose a subject and then evaluate: what they know about it, what others have said about it, and what evidence/proof will help develop an effective position.
  • The Speaker (communicator/writer):
    • Need to identify the speaker; not as easy as it may sound. The speaker is the person/company who created the text.
    • Often assume a persona: the character that the speaker/writer creates, which depends on the context, purpose, subject and audience:
      • Poet
      • Comedian
      • Scholar
      • Expert or novice
      • Critic
      • Concerned citizen
  • The Audience (listener/reader):
    • Each audience requires the writer/speaker to use different information to present their argument effectively.
    • Consider the difference between:
      • Essay for college application
      • Letter to a prospective employer
      • Letter to a newspaper about a newly proposed policy by an elected official
    • Questions to consider:
      • What does the audience know about the subject?
      • What is their attitude toward it?
      • Is there common ground between the audience and speaker’s views on the message?

Have students watch the following advertisements on YouTube to explore how each part of the rhetorical triangle is used.

Upper Elementary and Middle SchoolHigh School
Pathos: Original Goldie Blox Commercial or the Crying Indian (Keep American Clean)
Logos: Mac vs PC Commercial on Viruses
Ethos:  Vitamin Water Commercial with David Ortiz and Brian Urlacher
Use of all three methods:  Terry Crews Old Spice Power Commercial (16 Hour B.O. Blocker)
Use of all three methods:  Sarah McLachlan SPCA Commercial
Pathos:  “Daisy Girl” 1964 Lyndon Johnson Presidential Advertisement
Logos:  ZzzQuil Commercial  Sleep of Vicks
Ethos: Discovery Channel – The World is Just Awesome (Boom De Yada)

After each commercial have students answer the persuasion questions on the worksheet. Make sure you define pathos (appeal to emotion), logos (appeal to logic) and ethos (appeal to credibility) to students before each commercial. 

Classroom Activity Three

The Rhetorical Triangle and Ethos, Pathos and Logos in Groups

Have students look at five different advertisements and fill out the persuasion chart included in the Rhetorical Triangle and Rhetorical Appeals Worksheet.

  • Option One (Student-Directed): Have a stack of magazines for students to look through and fill out the chart after choosing five advertisements.
  • Option Two (Teacher-Curated): Print out copies of the 10 advertisements, from which students can choose five to analyze.
    You can choose a set of ads to focus on a particular time period or issue. Here are a couple recommended resources:
  • Option Three (TV Homework): Have students take home the worksheet and fill it out after watching several commercials on TV that night.
  • Option Four (Internet Ads): Have students search for their own commercials on computers in the classroom.

Classroom Activity Four

The Rhetorical Triangle and Ethos, Pathos and Logos in Speeches

On the board, display the following selections from famous historical speeches:

But I am free from American slavery, after wearing the galling chains on my limbs 53 years, nine of which it has been my unhappy lot to be the slave of Henry Clay.

Lewis Richardson, “My Grave Shall Be Made in Free Soil,” March 13, 1846

It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death.

Chief Joseph, “I Will I Fight No More Forever,” October 5, 1877

There was but one college in the world where women were admitted, and that was in Brazil.

Lucy Stone, “A Disappointed Woman,” October 17, 1855

Using random calling strategies, ask students to identify which rhetorical appeal the speaker employs, as well as hypothesize why the speaker might use that strategy.
Pass out the copies of a speech. We’ve provided copies of speeches by Sotomayor, Reagan and Nehru, but this activity would work well with any speech.
Each student should have three pencils, one each of blue, green and red. They should read through their speech (either in small groups or independently) and mark examples of the speaker/writer ethos (green), logos (blue) and pathos (red). There is a question about rhetorical device after the speech. That question is for Lesson Activity Six. 
After students have marked up their speeches, have them pick three examples and complete the Effect Worksheet. This can be turned in for assessment or used to start a class discussion.

Classroom Activity Five

Rhetorical Devices

Begin class by asking students what is the most famous speech ever given and justify their answers. Eventually someone will say “I Have a Dream.” Make sure you address why they think it’s so famous. Tell students that rhetorical devices help make a speech memorable and Martin Luther King, Jr., was a master at using them in his speeches.

Give each student one or two Rhetorical Device puzzle pieces. It is very important that you cut up each page into three parts. Make sure you cut them differently so only the correct piece fits with each term. You could even print some of them in different colors to make it easier for students to find the matches.

Once students have put together all of the puzzle pieces, they should go around the room and copy down the definitions and examples on their note sheet. After copying down all the definitions and examples, students should come up with their own examples.

Classroom Activity Six

Rhetorical Devices in Speeches

Have students look at the selection of “I Have a Dream” on their Rhetorical Devices note sheet. Have them see how many rhetorical elements they can find. Give students about five minutes to find as many as they can. After the five minutes, use a random calling strategy to call on students. They should share one example they found. Make sure all examples are captured on the board so that students can copy down any they missed. Ask students how these devices helped make this speech memorable. They should also discuss whether or not the example uses ethos, pathos or logos.

Using the speeches that they colored coded in lesson activity four, students should mark any rhetorical elements they find in the speech. You could also have students work in groups and assign different parts of the speech to different students. They should finish by reflecting on how these devices helped make the speech more memorable. This reflection can be done in a Socratic Seminar.

Note: This lesson is an introduction to the Rhetorical Triangle, Rhetorical Appeals and Rhetorical Devices. Students will need to work with them again and again to be become masters in the Rhetorical Process.


In Lesson Activity Three, students work on their own or in groups to analyze modern advertisements and the persuasion chart can be used as assessment. In Lesson Activity Four, the Effect Worksheet can be used for assessment. In Lesson Activity Six, the final question on the worksheet lets you assess student learning.

What You Need

You will need the following materials, handouts, colored pencils, access to YouTube and optional advertising images.