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Illustrated Opinions: Decoding an Editorial Cartoon

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Students analyze editorial cartoons from the past and present to explore the role of illustrated commentary in politics and society over time.

This cartoon was published on the front page of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Feb. 10, 1877.

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GRADE LEVEL: Middle and high school

TIME: 30–60 minutes

MATERIALS: Decoding an Editorial Cartoon worksheet (download), Persuasion Techniques handout (download), Uncle Sam cartoon (download), additional political cartoons about recent elections, Create Your Own Editorial Cartoon worksheet (download, optional)


  1. Print copies of the Decoding an Editorial Cartoon worksheet and Persuasion Techniques handout, one per student.
  2. Project the Uncle Sam cartoon on the board or print copies for students.
  3. Select and print political cartoons for your students. Sources may include:


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Overview PDF DOC
Worksheets PDF DOC
Extensions PDF DOC
Full Packet PDF DOC

To request a large print or Braille version, call 202.292.6650.


  1. Ask your students if they know what an editorial cartoon is. It’s a drawing that expresses a certain message or viewpoint. Ask them why they think editorial cartoons exist. Why not just use words to convey an opinion?
  2. Tell students that editorial cartoons have been a part of political discussions throughout our nation’s history and remain a popular form of social and political commentary today, particularly during elections. Pass out the Persuasion Techniques handout and briefly review the vocabulary.
  3. Tell students they are going to analyze a historical political cartoon from a past presidential election together using these techniques, then look at a cartoon of their choice to further understand editorial cartoons’ techniques and their role in our society.
  4. Analyze the Uncle Sam cartoon as a class as an example (see activity download for questions and answers).
  5. Distribute the Decoding an Editorial Cartoon worksheet, and your selection of cartoons. In small groups or individually, students complete the worksheet.


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After asking students to share their worksheet findings, discuss the role and value of political cartoons. Possible prompts include:

  • How have editorial cartoons changed over time? How have they stayed the same?
  • Why create a cartoon instead of – or in addition to – writing an editorial?
  • Which cartoon do you think is most effectively communicates a message? Persuades a viewer? Why?
  • Have you ever shared a meme during an election? How are memes similar to and different from traditional political cartoons?
  • Do you think editorial cartoons make a difference in elections? Why or why not?
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Create Your Own Political Cartoon: Tell students that they’re now going to create their own editorial cartoons using the knowledge they’ve gained from this exploration. Allow students to complete the “Create Your Own Cartoon Commentary” worksheet (download) in class or as homework. Invite students to share their finished cartoons with the rest of the class. You might post them all on the board, collect them in a physical or digital book, or scan them and post them online.

Pen vs. Ink: What are the pros and cons of communicating a message in an opinion article and an editorial cartoon? Select written and visual commentaries on the same subject for your students to compare and contrast. Compare and contrast the written word and the image. Prompts include:

  • Are the writers and the cartoonists trying to reach the same audiences? How do you know?
  • How might the readers/viewers of each be the same/different?
  • Which piece did you find easier to understand?  Why?
  • Which was more informative? Why?
  • Which piece did you find more persuasive? Why?
  • Which (if either) inspired you to learn more about the issue?
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