Introduction to Argument Writing

A long-time middle school teacher and writing expert explains how to design strong writing instruction

Teachers at all grade levels have lots of questions about how to help students with argument writing. Sometimes, looking at mistakes can be helpful – here are a couple I’ve encountered (and learned from!)

An early mistake!

Early on in my years as a middle school teacher, I created a unit on the Industrial Revolution. My students spent weeks reading, taking notes, and writing summaries, as they learned about the history of the Industrial Revolution.

Near the end of the unit, I decided that it would be thought-provoking if students wrote persuasive essays on the question: “Overall, has the Industrial Revolution been good for humanity?” (What a good idea! I congratulated myself.)

So, students wrote, conferred with each other, and revised. But when I got the second drafts of the essays, and saw what my hardworking kids had done (and not done), I instantly realized my mistake.

These students did indeed know a lot about the history of the Industrial Revolution – but they knew little or nothing about the overall impact of the Industrial Revolution today. I had asked them to make an argument about knowledge they did not have – which, of course, they could not successfully do.

Another mistake

For a decade or more in the 90’s, Vermont had a system of “writing portfolio networks.” Teachers came together in small regional meetings to practice assessing writing and to share student work.

Persuasive writing was a hot topic. Since persuasive writing did not make its way into the Vermont standards until fifth grade, hardworking teachers at this level struggled with how to give kids good opportunities to write persuasive essays.

I remember one meeting especially. A fifth grade teacher brought a student essay, a letter to her parents about wanting a horse. The teacher described the assignment, which went something like this:

“Think of something you want or feel strongly about. Then see if you can find or think of reasons and information to support that strong opinion.”

I’m not sure we fully realized it at the time, but it seems clear now that what this diligent teacher was – unintentionally – asking her students to do was to come up with a claim without evidence. Only then, after deciding what they already thought, would students be asked to find evidence to support that claim.

Yikes! Learning from mistakes, indeed!

Argument writing and the Common Core

In the Common Core, argument writing has a distinct purpose, and it sometimes surprises people.  Appendix A of the Standards tells us that “Argument forces a writer to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of multiple perspectives. When teachers ask students to consider two or more perspectives on a topic or issue, something far beyond surface knowledge is required: students must think critically and deeply, assess the validity of their own thinking, and anticipate counterclaims in opposition to their own assertions” [italics mine] (p. 24).

This section closes with one of my favorite sentences in the Standards, which states that “…the proper context for thinking about argument is one ‘in which the goal is not victory but a good decision, one in which all arguers are at risk of needing to alter their views, one in which a participant takes seriously and fairly the views different from his or her own’” (p. 26).

Hmmm……

If I understand these ideas correctly, the purpose of teaching students to write sound arguments is really to teach them to think deeply about substantive knowledge; to come from a habit of mind which recognizes and appreciates both complexity and the very real possibility of error; to hold a perspective that is not one of “gotcha” but rather one which values solutions that genuinely solve problems.

The implications of this for teachers are significant. It means that what happens in the classroom before argument writing is of critical importance at every grade level.

What might effective argument planning and instruction look like?

Here’s what we in the Vermont Writing Collaborative have learned:

First, the teacher needs to carefully consider what topics in the curriculum make sense for argument writing – substantive, worthy of exploration and deep thought, and still manageable for kids at that grade level.

  • In one fourth grade class in Vermont, students are studying the maple syrup economy of Vermont and how to protect it.
  • In an eighth grade history class, students are studying World War One and whether or not the United States should ratify the League of Nations treaty.
  • In high school, biology students are studying genetics and the thorny issue of whether or not medical genetic testing is a good idea.

Second, the teacher needs to make sure students build knowledge about that topic.

  • What will the fourth graders need to know about the maple economy of Vermont?
  • What will the eighth graders need to know about the military and emotional experience of World War One? About the proposed League of Nations?
  • What will high school students need to know about genes? About the pros and cons of genetic testing?

Third, the teacher, at any grade level, needs to consider the very purpose of the argument thinking and writing:

  • How will I make sure students learn and understand both sides (or maybe more than that) of the question?
  • How will I model and provide for keeping an open mind – genuinely considering the nuances of the question, and gathering evidence, before making a claim?
  • How will I provide for the “talk it out” work that students will need in order to think carefully and accurately about the complexity of the topic?

There is more planning, of course – for note-taking, for giving students a sense of structure, for how the actual writing will happen. This is not easy stuff, and often teachers need help developing units that do all of this.  But if we’re serious about the benefits of teaching kids to be thoughtful and effective thinkers and argument writers, we’ll make the investment!

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About the Author: A longtime middle school teacher in a Vermont public school, Joey has been deeply involved with content-based writing instruction at both the state and national level. At the Vermont Department of Education, she worked with the development of the Vermont GE’s in writing, grades K-12, and the writing portion of the New England Common Assessment Program. Joey is now working with the Common Core Standards at the state and national level and presents nationally about Common Core writing instruction. She is a co-founder of the Vermont Writing Collaborative and the lead author of Writing for Understanding: Using Backward Design to Help All Students Write Effectively.