Teaching Argument Writing: Supporting Claims with Relevant Evidence and Clear Reasoning. 2011. 
George Hillocks, Jr. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Genre: Teacher Resource

Grade Levels: 6 through 12 (though highly recomended for teachers at upper elementary levels as well)

Features: Instructional guidelines; samples of student discussions; tips on pretesting, selecting problems for discussion, and making small-group work effective; reproducible samples; an outstanding study guide, Foreword by Michael Smith.

222 pages, including Study Guide


If you’ve been perusing the Common Core Standards (www.commoncore.org), then you know how much emphasis is placed on the teaching of argument. It’s no mystery why this is. Writing a good argument requires deep thinking, thinking that is important not just to language arts classes but to all subjects, to education itself—and to a moral and fulfilling life beyond the classroom. Even if you’re very familiar with the requirements of the standards, however, you may still have many questions about how to teach argument. Here’s a resource that will provide genuine help.

Hillocks’ book Teaching Argument Writing is thoughtfully designed and intelligently written. It picks up where the Common Core Standards leave off by telling you what the standards do not: that is, how to teach the craft of argument. As Hillocks makes abundantly clear, this is not a simple three-step process. Don’t look for shortcuts. It takes time and a great deal of preparation and effort, but the results can be striking. If the examples in the book are any indication, students taught through Hillocks’ inquiry method do in fact learn to think through situations, draw inferences, define concepts, rely on evidence, and hone their thinking. Just what we wanted. You will see and hear this for yourself in full-blown discussions, written in students’ own words, that make you feel as if you’re right there in the classroom.

The book covers such topics as the basics of argument writing; crafting arguments of fact, judgment, and policy; focusing on problems students truly care about; making judgments based on criteria; defining elusive or abstract concepts such as courage; developing and supporting criteria; and drawing inferences to support arguments based on literary interpretation.

Throughout, Hillocks makes clear connections to the requirements of the Common Core. But what’s particularly impressive about the book is the intricate scaffolding—not only for the students with whom he conducted his research, but for us, the educators who plan to use this resource. Hillocks takes us from the simple to the complex in easy, understandable steps. He introduces us to basics, such as the elements of argument: claim, evidence, warrants, backing, and qualifications or rebuttals (page xix). He also provides intriguing examples to keep us engaged—murder mysteries to solve, for example. With each set of examples, you’ll likely find yourself saying, “My kids would love this.”

Two recurring themes underscore every chapter: (1) We can make argument interesting by the way in which we teach it; and (2) the value of discussion prior to writing cannot be overstated—students need to talk before they write.

Hillocks helps us to understand that good argument is about precision. There simply is no room for lazy thinking, hasty detail, or opinion posing as evidence. There is no room for terms used carelessly or judgments made without backing. The message is clear: good argument is a demanding genre. You may want to spend at least four to six hours with this book, reading, highlighting, and planning classroom activities. You will emerge with numerous instructional ideas, but in addition, a new understanding of and respect for this complex, challenging genre. Hillocks just might make it your favorite.

In the Classroom

Following are just a few highlights of each section to give you a sense of this remarkable book’s depth and scope:

  • The Preface.  Here Hillocks makes his own case for teaching argument, calling it “the kind of writing students need to know for success in college and in life—the kind of writing that the Common Core State Standards puts first” (page xvii). He discusses the elements of argument, elaborately and clearly defining concepts such as claim, evidence, and warrant. This is one Preface you don’t want to skip.
  • Introduction. This is one of my favorite sections. Here Hillocks discusses the concept of “flow,” citing research by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihslyi (pages 2ff.). The concept of flow refers to situations in which a learner feels a sense of control, has clear objectives and purpose, and yet becomes so deeply, effortlessly involved in the activity at hand that time passes unnoticed and concern for self disappears. It is just this sort of immersion in the moment that needs to happen in our classrooms, Hillocks says, in order for instruction to be maximally effective. His lessons are designed to create this sort of flow.
  • Chapter 1: Whodunit?   This delightful chapter focuses on writing arguments of fact. Hillocks presents us with several mysteries to solve (we get text and pictures), along with expanded student discussions. Through these discussions, we see how he helps students tease out the evidence and work out certain rules to help explain or interpret the evidence. The discussions are lively, and we see students building a foundation for thinking logically.
  • Chapter 2: What Makes a Good Mascot—or a Good leader? This chapter builds on skills students have developed by showing them how to write simple arguments of judgment. The students review and discuss several school mascots, analyzing the positives and negatives of each, then develop a set of criteria for judging the worthiness of a mascot, and use these criteria to choose a mascot and defend that choice. They also analyze a drawing: an eighteenth century etching of the Prince of Wales by John Gillray (Figure 2.2, page 50). The idea is to make inferences from the sketch regarding the prince’s character (This is surprisingly fun and easy to do), and then to use those inferences in developing a set of criteria for judging whether this fellow (or anyone, for that matter) would make a good king. The chapter includes outstanding tips for making small-group discussions effective (see pages 65-66).
  • Chapter 3: Solving problems Kids Care AboutIn this very important chapter, Hillocks points out that in most research-based projects, students “are not required to collect and interpret any original data” (page 68). So-called “research” in today’s schools is often nothing more than a summary of what other people have thought. This, he asserts, must change if we are to meet the requirements of the Common Core that students identify and answer an important question (page 69). Hillocks shows us just how much students can learn from original research (versus simply citing the findings of others) through an example involving Mrs. Peterson’s eighth graders. Gum chewing has been banned at their school—allegedly because cleaning the desks, where used gum is often left, has become prohibitively expensive. But is it really all that expensive to scrape gum off desks? And is the rule helping? The students design and conduct an investigation through which they learn the fine points of setting up personal research and writing an argument of policy.
  • Chapter 4: How Are judgments Made in the Real World? This chapter offers an outstanding and enlightening discussion of warranted versus unwarranted judgments—together with an explanation of why definitions are so vital. We cannot judge, for instance, whether something is an act of terrorism unless we have a clear definition of the term in our minds.
  • Chapter 5: Answering Difficult Questions. In this chapter, Hillocks uses the example of The Giraffe Project (a small foundation in Washington State) to show how students learn to apply criteria. Using reproducible samples, students must decide who is worthy of winning the Giraffe Award. Later, they use other examples to determine what charges to bring in potential murder cases (legal definitions of first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter 1 and 2, and so forth are provided in the Appendix A). The discussions are highly engaging—both for the students and for us, and support Hillocks’ passionate claim that such debate is essential to teaching English, particularly the “use of language,” as well as to teaching critical thinking (page 142). The chapter includes ideas on choosing problems for discussion.
  • Chapter 6: What Is Courage? Chapters 6 and 7 are especially closely aligned. In this first of the two, Hillocks uses multiple examples, involving characters from Superman to gang members, to help students define what is meant by courage. The result is an elaborate definition that includes six specific criteria and is applicable to any situation.
  • Chapter 7: Argument and Interpretation. This is a chapter many teachers will have been waiting for—but it could not happen without the conceptual support of those preceding. It deals with thinking interpretively about literature. Hillocks suggests (page 177) that we often believe assigning thousands of pages of great literature will make students stronger interpretive readers—when in fact, they need extensive direct instruction. If you’re tired of plot summaries substituting for analysis, this is a chapter for you. Step by step, Hillocks shows us how to teach students to make literary inferences, using an extended example from Stephen Crane’s “A Mystery of Heroism: A Detail of an American Battle.” We see from their discussions about whether the lead character is a hero just how helpful it is for students to have a sense of definition and specific criteria to apply. Such thinking influences both reading and writing.

There are many good teacher resources available—but we get only a few great ones. This is one of the great ones. You’ll want to read it more than once, and you’ll find yourself going back to it frequently. In the end, it isn’t just a book about teaching argument (significant as that is); it’s about good teaching, period. Hillocks himself says it best: “If schools were to adopt a policy of teaching through inquiry, making arguments would be taking place every day in every subject matter from language arts to mathematics. This would make learning more exciting—and much more meaningful” (page 200).

Tips: See our recent post: The Amazing Appendix A. You’ll want to have a quick look at Appendix A (www.corestandards.org) prior to reading Hillocks’ book. It will give you just the right mindset. Also, plan to read this book (if at all possible) with a study group or at least a partner with whom you can exchange ideas.

George Hillocks Jr. is Professor Emeritus, departments of Education and English Language and Literature, at the University of Chicago. He is a multi-award-winning researcher and writer who has deeply influenced thinking on writing, writing assessment, and classroom-based research over several decades. He is also the author of Narrative Writing (2008).

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’ll treat you to part 2 of our “Down the Rabbit Hole” discussion in getting ideas for writing. We’ll also continue to identify outstanding informational texts for you to share with students. Thanks for stopping by—and please remember, for the BEST in trait-based PD, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.