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nding an easy-to-remember, easy-to-implement,

step-by-step method for understanding and evalu-


ating written opinion.
Finding a catchy acronym, for me, seemed
like the right place to start. Acronyms are the ulti-
mate mnemonic, providing meaning or structure
[to] material that is otherwise not very meaningful
or organized (Higbee 94). I doubt that RATTKISS
will ever rise to the great heights of ROY G. BIV
(colors in a spectrum) or SOH-CAH-TOA (sine-
cosine-tangent ratios). However, I condently sug-
gest that, twenty years from now, my more
enthusiastic students will remember RATTKISS
and most or all of its components.
The steps within this process draw on parts of
the critical reading methods described by Deanne
Spears, H. Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron, and
Amy Wall and Regina Wall. The signicant differ-
ence in RATTKISS is that it is geared specically to
short opinion pieces, which often pack the biggest
argumentative punch, and that, again, its unusual
mnemonic provides for long-term memory and
application by young adult students.
And so, I present RATTKISS (see g. 1), a
step-by-step, acronym approach for critically read-
ing a short opinion piece. I look at what step each
letter stands for and consider the brief process
behind each step.
ats can be intriguing and some-
times scary. And, for some young
people, kissing can be intriguing
and sometimes scary, too. So, pre-
dictably, the second I use the words rat and kiss
together, in a classroom full of older teens, I garner
some attention and hold onto it longer than the
usual ve seconds. Heres a copy of an editorial
from this weeks Newsweek. Lets RATTKISS it!
Huh?
And the process of teaching one method for
critical reading begins.
There are few things more rewarding than
teaching the art of nonction critical reading,
where students learn to delve beneath the surface of
what they are reading and judge it for truthfulness,
logic, evenhandedness, and importance. There are,
indeed, some wonderful books written on the art of
nonction critical reading. This is appropriately so:
critical reading is now its own category on the SAT
Reasoning Test, accounting for one-third of the
maximum 2,400 points awarded on the standard-
ized college admissions test. More importantly,
judging the merit and quality of what one reads is
what academic growth is all about.
However, when teaching students how to
take their time and critique a typical, one- or two-
page written commentary, I have had difculty
Scott Snair proposes a mnemonic for students to use when critically examining written opinion.
The acronym, RATTKISS, represents a step-by-step method for understanding and evaluating
written opinion.
Scott Snair
Are Your Students Critically
Reading an Opinion Piece? Have
Them RATTKISS It!
R
A ME R I C A N C A C O P H O N Y: L A N G U A G E S , L I T E R AT U R E S , A N D C E N S O R S H I P >
52 English Journal Vol. 97, No. 3 January 2008
I have pressed the rst lever, said OBrien. You understand the construction of this
cage. . . . Have you ever seen a rat leap through the air?
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Copyright 2008 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.
The R Is for Riters Background
The rst step in the RATTKISS critical reading
process is establishing the authors background. It is
difcult to fully consider persuasive discourse with-
out rst considering the credentials and life experi-
ences of the person offering it. The same argument
put forth in one article by a civil rights leader and in
another article by the national director of a Ku Klux
Klan organization probably suggests two different
things by two different writers. Granted, the lofty
thinker says, Let us consider the argument solely on
its merits and not on its source. And, admittedly,
cutting down an opinion strictly because of its source
means exploiting one of the most common logical fal-
lacies there isthe ad hominem argument.
However, going to the other extreme and
ignoring a writers background means discounting
his or her strengths and familiarities as well as his
or her predispositions. The reality is that even if
policy-driven researchers and writers do not hold
extreme predispositions, they still rest on a founda-
tion of experiences and surroundings that have
shaped their writing, and it is folly to assume oth-
erwise. As my good friend Marty Finkelstein at
Seton Hall University says, Prominent researchers
dont have biasesbut they do have agendas!
Should the reader of David Brookss commen-
tary in the New York Times know that he was once a
conservative columnist who, by his admission, has
moved to more moderate positions in recent years?
Should the Web site reader or radio listener of Matt
Drudge know that he broke the story that led to the
Monica Lewinsky scandal? Should the television
viewer know that ABC News commentator George
Stephanopoulos used to work for Bill Clinton or
that Fox News president Roger Ailes used to work
for George H. W. Bush? You bet.
Borrowing from the best-known academic
mnemonic there isthe three Rsthe rst letter
of RATTKISS stands for riters background, where
students briey research and consider the personal
history of the author of the opinion piece.
The A Is for Analyze
The A in RATTKISS stands for analyze. To analyze
something simply means to break it down into its
basic components, usually
with the intent of studying it.
During this step, students
read the article and circle
those sentences that best state
the main points the writer is
trying to make. In written
commentary relying too heav-
ily on tapping into the read-
ers emotions or using weak or
erroneous logic, the students
might discover that they have
circled few sentences. Won-
derful! The point of this step
in critical reading is to set aside the garnish and
determine what is really being served for dinner.
After circling the authors big, important
points, students determine what circled items serve
as the main arguments and what items serve as sup-
ports for those arguments. If students are able to
group these important points into arguments and
supports, they should do so.
From the circled items, students should be able
to establish the writers intention when creating this
article and what the writer is hoping to convince the
reader of. Students might also be able to look at these
circled items and establish what attitude the writer
holds toward the subject matter or toward the object
of opinion.
The First T Is for Tone
In the acronym RATTKISS, RATT has two Ts. The
rst T is for tone. Having analyzed the article by cir-
cling the important items, grouping them, and
looking for intent and attitude, students move on
to determining the authors tone. Tone is the emo-
tion (or lack of emotion) in any written work. Tone
can be, among many possibilities, formal, casual,
nostalgic, satirical, or whimsical. It can be opti-
mistic or pessimistic, triumphant or defeatist.
53 English Journal
Scott Snair
The signicant difference
in RATTKISS is that it is
geared specically to
short opinion pieces,
which often pack the
biggest argumentative
punch, and that, again, its
unusual mnemonic
provides for long-term
memory and application
by young adult students.
FIGURE 1. RATTKISS Method
R Riters Background
A Analyze
T Tone
T Topic
K
Kontrolling Idea
I
S Synthesize
S Scrutinize
}
Students should consider, from the stand-
point of critical reading, a few noteworthy things
when deciding what tone the author is taking. For
example, in argumentative writing, the author can
take a particular attitude not only toward the sub-
ject of the debate but also toward the readers. This
attitude might be bitter toward the topic but grat-
ifying toward the readers. Or it might be upbeat
toward the subject but condescending toward the
readers. As students read the article, they should
ask themselves, What are this commentators feel-
ings toward the topic? and What is this commen-
tators outlook toward me, the reader?
Is it unfair to allege that opinion writers choose
appealing to their core readership over persuading
the rarely persuaded or, for that matter, over offering
the occasionally contrarian opinion? Maybe. How-
ever, it is difcult, even for the author of peer-
reviewed, research-based essays, to completely forget
who the audience is. And for the extreme commenta-
tor, with a core audience of passionate opinion-hold-
ers, it is undoubtedly tough to feed the bears
vegetables when they are looking for raw meat. As
part of the critical reading process, establishing tone
helps determine if the author is deant, inexible,
overly harsh or generous, or at-out disregarding of
facts when spelling out his or her argument.
The Second T Is for Topic
The second T in RATTKISS stands for topic. If the
article is well-structured, it contains a main-idea
sentence. A main idea, notes Spears, has two com-
ponentsthe topic and the controlling idea (31).
In a main-idea sentence, the topic is often the sub-
ject of both the sentence and the article, and the
controlling idea is the remainder of the sentence.
Naturally, it is easier to critique an opinion piece if
the student identies its general subject.
I have been surprised when asking students,
What is the topic of this article? to hear several
widely varying answers. Not that consensus is neces-
sary, but if something as basic as the topic of an opin-
ion piece is open for debate, it speaks volumes about
the wonderful, dynamic nature of critical reading.
The K and the I Are for Kontrolling Idea
The second component of an articles main idea, and
the main-idea sentence, if there is one, is its control-
ling idea. The controlling idea funnels the topic,
making it more specic and more manageable. In an
opinion piece, the controlling idea often reveals the
commentators predominant view on the subject or
the chief argument he or she is attempting to make.
By using poetic license and changing the C to
a K in controlling, I use the K and I to form the rst
two letters in the KISS of RATTKISS.
The First S Is for Synthesize
The rst S in the KISS of RATTKISS stands for syn-
thesize. Depending on the age of the students, this
rst S could also stand for secret meanings without
taking away from the importance of reading
between the lines and synthesizing the commentary.
If analyzing something means breaking it
down into its basic components, synthesizing is
blending them together again. However, the word
synthesize means something more: It means to blend
elements in a way that something entirely new is
created. By determining the articles main idea,
tone, important points, and authors background,
students are able to see that perhaps theres some-
thing there that wasnt there before. This is the part
of the process where hidden or underlying mean-
ings make themselves most apparent. It is also the
step where students are most likely to determine if
the author is singing to the choir, that is, writing
for his or her core readership, which, incidentally,
could include young people, sometimes impres-
sionable and sometimes hasty to judge.
The Second S Is for Scrutinize
The nal letter in RATTKISS stands for the nal
step in this critical reading processscrutinize.
Depending on the age of the students, this second S
could also stand for support or deny.
Scrutinizing entails answering a few ques-
tions. Is the author qualied to write on the topic
on which he or she has chosen to offer an opinion?
What are the important points, and through what
type of lens does the writer view these points and
the readership? Is the main idea easy enough to
decipher? What lies between the lines? Are there
any logical fallacies or an overuse of emotional liter-
ary weaponry? Is the argument well thought out
and well structured? Should readers agree or dis-
agree? Why or why not?
54 January 2008
Are Your Students Critically Reading an Opinion Piece? Have Them RATTKISS It!
This last step brings the critical reading
process to a point where the nonacademic reader,
unfortunately, often beginsthe point of judg-
ment and reaction. If student readers can carry
themselves past the point of instant, emotional
reaction, they can delve into the mind and intent of
the opinion writer. One of the lessons they might
occasionally take with them is that effective com-
mentary is not always truthful commentary and
that adept, written contentions are not always logi-
cally sound ones. It is common for any of us to read
something, be captivated and swayed by it, only to
ask ourselves later, What exactly did I read, and
what was it that so mesmerized me? The underly-
ing question is, Was I duped?
Scrutinizing an opinion piece means decid-
ing if the argument transcends the quick, emo-
tional prize and endures the inspection of
higher-order thinking. Such scrutiny also means
scrubbing the article for the buzzwords and spin
phrases of the day.
Ultimately, students must decide if they
agree or disagree with the argument presented and
if their reasoning for doing so passes the same,
thoughtful scrutiny.
RATTKISS Celebrates the Critical Thinker
It should come as no surprise that Winston Smiths
indoctrination in George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-
Four comes to a climax with rats placed at his face,
or that Willards social angst as a young man, in the
1971 and 2003 movies of the same name, is
reected in his fondness for rats. After all, when one
becomes a cog in society and obediently joins in its
collective, often meaningless pursuits, he or she is
said to have joined the rat race. And so, how tting
the acronym RATTKISS is for dening a way to
examine the clever words (Newspeak?) fed to young
people and for scrutinizing these words, in aca-
demic fashion, for hidden meanings, logical fail-
ures, and an overreliance on emotion.
I feel a mix of emotion myself whenever I hear
a student use a catch phrase that was uttered the
day prior by a pundit on a television news-talk
show. On one hand, it is wonderful that the student
is immersed in the current events of the day. On the
other hand, it is saddening to hear the student use
the phrase (e.g., ip-opping politicians) so casu-
ally as to not consider the spin or political calculat-
ing behind it.
By kissing the occasional rat, perhaps stu-
dents might be more inclined to keep the knee
from jerking and to analyze and ponder. Perhaps
they might judge what they read for accuracy, fair-
ness, and signicance. And perhaps they might, as
all ardent critical thinkers do, screen out false-
hoods, faulty premises, raw anger, smugness, and
narrow-mindedness. Perhaps they might seek the
truth over what is convenient to believe.
Works Cited
Fowler, H. Ramsey, and Jane E. Aaron. The Little, Brown
Handbook. 9th ed. New York: Pearson, 2004.
Higbee, Kenneth L. Your Memory: How It Works and How to
Improve It. 2nd ed. New York: Marlowe, 1996.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1946. New York:
Signet, 1961.
Spears, Deanne. Developing Critical Reading Skills. 7th ed.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Wall, Amy, and Regina Wall. The Complete Idiots Guide to
Critical Reading. New York: Alpha, 2005.
55 English Journal
Scott Snair
Scott Snair is an English instructor at the United States Military Academy Preparatory School, preparing US Army soldiers who
have been earmarked for West Point cadet appointments. He is also the author of several leadership books, including Stop the
Meeting: I Want to Get Off! (McGraw, 2003) and The Complete Idiots Guide to Motivational Leadership (Penguin, 2007).
email: scott.snair@usma.edu.
READWRI TETHI NK CONNECTI ON Li sa St or m Fi nk, RWT
Snair invents a strategy to help students critically analyze a short opinion piece. If students read about current local
or national issues, Persuading an Audience: Writing Effective Letters to the Editor can take their analysis a step
further. Students write a persuasive letter to the editor of a newspaper, focusing on the issue and requesting a
specic action or response from readers. The lesson includes an exploration of the genre, a review of persuasive
writing structure and letter format, and an emphasis on multidraft writing. http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/
lesson_view.asp?id=929