Argument just might be the most difficult of the three umbrella genres to master—and it’s the one that receives the most emphasis in the Common Core standards for writing. Why is this? The Common Core authors contend that a university is an “argument culture,” meaning that university bound students will need to be skilled in this form of writing because during their college experience, they will use it more than any other. Further, the CCSS writers suggest, only about 20% of our students—at any grade level—are prepared to write a solid argument. It is not emphasized in most writing curriculums, which tend to focus on exposition and narrative, nor do many students fully understand the nature of argument. In addition, while some students have experience writing persuasive essays, very few develop the skills essential to a good argument. But—is there really a difference between the two?
Yes. According to the Common Core State Standards, persuasive writing and argument are related, but not quite the same thing. Persuasive writing can be heavily opinion-based, and tends to rely on the credibility of the writer (Betty Crocker knows her cakes, Stephen Hawking knows about the universe) or on an emotional appeal to the readers (If we care about the earth, we’ll conserve water). Argument, on the other hand, stands on its own, atop a platform of solid facts and evidence. Few of our readers are probably old enough to recall the iconic TV cop Joe Friday, who famously said (repeatedly), “Just the facts, ma’am.” In other words, give me the cold, hard evidence, without any emotion or personal bias mixed in. Let’s consider the big differentiating factor here—evidence—and then explore things we can do to teach this challenging genre effectively.
The big differentiating factor: EVIDENCE
What qualifies as evidence? It’s more than a hunch, more than an opinion, more even than a reason (I like dogs because they’re playful). It’s facts, solid, recordable information, what’s learned over time or through multiple experiences or through direct observation. To make the distinction simple, evidence is anything about which you can ask, What’s your source? And the answer can be cited.
Let’s say I’m making an argument that snorkelers and swimmers are damaging coral reefs. I don’t happen to be a marine biologist, so I cannot rely on personal credibility. If I love coral reefs—which I do, in fact—I can offer a passionate plea to stop harming one of the great treasures of our earth. Coral reefs are beautiful, I claim. Many marine creatures live on the reefs. This might be a good beginning, but so far I still haven’t offered much in the way of solid evidence. I haven’t gone beyond the level of persuasion or opinion piece. Here are some things I could do to elevate my writing to an argument:
- Talk with a marine biologist
- Read about coral reefs and how they are eroding
- Talk with a chemist about the impact of sunscreen on reefs
- Visit a coral reef in person and take some underwater photographs to contrast fading colors with how reefs looked twenty years ago
- Gather data on the number of swimmers who visit popular reefs each year
- Gather data on the current health of reefs worldwide.
In short, evidence—central to any successful argument—consists of any of the following:
- Scientific data
- Documented history
- First-hand observations/experience
- Information taken from reliable sources (books, Internet, or other media—such as film)
- Information from interviews with experts
Does the topic matter?
YES!! Many issues remain, in the end, largely a matter of opinion, no matter how much information we might gather on the topic: e.g., Which makes a better pet—a cat or dog? When we set students up with this kind of an issue, one on which it’s a challenge to gather hard-core evidence, we teach them to be persuasive without demanding the fundamentals of good argument. We teach them to rely on personal opinion rather than research. This isn’t easy to reverse. We need to teach students the difference between opinion and evidence and, where appropriate, assist them in choosing a good topic—and developing a claim that can be supported by evidence.
What makes a good topic? It’s something about which the writer is curious, an issue about which people do choose sides, one that permits development of a defensible claim, and one for which evidence is reasonably available through research (reading or other investigation, interviews, site visits, etc.). Let’s say my topic is elephants. An indefensible (through evidence) claim is that elephants are the most interesting of all mammals. I might think so, but I can’t really show it to be true. A better claim, one I can support through evidence, is that female elephants make incredibly good parents. Now the question becomes, How do I support this claim? I’d like to travel to Africa and film elephants in their native habitat for a month or two, but sorry to say, that’s out of the question. Here are some research approaches more within the realm of possibility: visit a local zoo and observe elephants with their young, take notes, take photos, or even shoot a video; interview biologists, caregivers or veterinarians about the behavior of elephants with their young; carefully choose books and articles to read; view online (or other) films about elephants. In the end, the more credible my sources and the more compelling the evidence I gain from them, the more convincing my argument will be.
You may be thinking that argument demands a greatly expanded definition of writing. That’s correct—and it’s correct because it relies on research. Information to support an argument cannot generally be pulled out of the writer’s head. It has to be sought out. This means identifying good sources, tracking them down, taking meticulous notes, summarizing the best information in a way that makes sense, ordering that information logically, and citing sources thoroughly and correctly. That is a lot to learn—and a lot to teach. And there can be a twist, too—one for which we don’t usually prepare students: As a researcher, I must be open to the idea that my original premise is wrong. If I discover, in the course of my research, that elephants are not good parents after all, then the whole structure of my argument must change. Argument writing, in the end, is not a quest to validate the writer’s original thinking; it’s a search for the truth.
Doesn’t passion have a role to play in argument?
Some CCSS people would probably say no. But I disagree. Writers who feel passionate about a topic are likely to be more convincing. That doesn’t mean they can forego evidence, though. This is easier to understand if we put it into a courtroom context–a place where good argument is vital.
Let’s say I’m defending a person who’s accused of a shooting an intruder. I can say he was a nice person, that he would never do such a thing. Everyone liked him. The neighbors say he “seemed like such a regular guy.”
Such claims may well be convincing, but if the prosecution has hard evidence, a passionate plea appealing to emotion may not be enough. Let’s say that the prosecution can show that the intruder was someone the defendant knew, and they had a long history of discord. Maybe the defendant bought a gun a week before the shooting, though he’d never owned one before. In the face of strong counter arguments, I need more than opinion or passion. I need evidence.
Evidence in this case might include things like the following: Footprints show that the intruder came to a back window, not the front door as one might expect; and the intruder was wearing a mask—so it’s reasonable to assume he was trying to hide his identity. This evidence is the core of my case. I can also argue passionately that the defendant was a kindly person, who had no history of violence. That’s a compelling defense that will likely strengthen my argument—but it will not take the place of evidence.
The thing to remember is that in a CCSS assessment, readers will look for solid evidence. Writers need to ask themselves, “Did I prove my case?” Passion won’t hurt—so long as it does not camouflage, replace, or minimize evidence.
Grade Level Differences: Opinion Pieces versus Arguments
Up through grade 5, the CCSS call for students to write opinion pieces, not arguments per se. The defining characteristics of an opinion piece are as follows:
- The writer makes a claim
- The writer offers reasons to support that claim (School uniforms are not a good idea because they are expensive)
- The writer offers facts or details to strengthen his/her reasons (School uniforms can cost over $100 each, and every student needs at least two of them)
- The writer uses transitions (For example, To illustrate, Consequently, On the other hand, In addition) to link reasons or details to the main claim
- The writer sets up the paper by making the issue clear and closes by reinforcing his/her position or otherwise guiding the reader toward a good decision
Beginning in grade 6, students are expected to write more formal arguments—and personal opinion plays a much smaller role, if indeed it is present at all. Reasons generally yield to evidence (as noted earlier), and such evidence is expected to be substantive, convincing, and grounded in research. The essentials of an argument are as follows:
- The writer makes a claim and sticks with it throughout the argument
- The writer offers support for that claim in the form of evidence
- The writer organizes information in a logical manner (The argument makes sense and is easy to follow)
- The writer uses “words that clarify relationships” among claims and reasons: e.g., As the following example illustrates, To make this point even more clear, For this reason, In conclusion, To look at it another way, In addition, On the contrary
- The writer relies on research and cites credible sources to back his/her claims
- The writer adopts and maintains a formal (think academic) style throughout the piece
A word of caution: It’s easy to see that in transitioning from grade 5 to grade 6, some students (indeed, some teachers) may find themselves confused. First opinion matters deeply. Then it disappears behind the scenes, replaced by evidence. The CCSS writers contend that the opinion pieces students write K-5 lay the groundwork for the more formal argument pieces that will follow in middle school on up. There’s a problem with this, however. “Groundwork” suggests that students build on what they have learned. In fact, they’re asked to leap onto a whole new ladder. It is true that opinion pieces do teach students to state a claim and to back it with reasons. So one could argue that this is an organizational framework that will serve them well in the future. That’s fine so far as it goes. Confusion occurs because the substance of the argument changes. Beginning in grade 6, evidence and research take center stage, and students may be relatively unprepared for this sudden shift. Instead of pulling opinions from their own minds, they must now investigate outside sources and assemble evidence. This isn’t convincing mom and dad to buy a puppy. It’s showing evidence that pets improve the quality of life. That’s a pretty big leap.
Here’s my suggestion: Teach opinion pieces in the early grades (as the CCSS suggest), but help students make the transition by showing, early on, the difference between opinion (or reasons) and true evidence. We do not need to demand evidence in their writing at this stage, but I think we do need to show them what evidence is, and indicate that beginning in middle school, they will be doing more independent research. It is never too early to teach research and the documentation of that research. Too many college students flounder because they have no idea how to track down information, incorporate it into their writing, or cite the sources from which they took it. Even with primary students, it is possible to model the borrowing of a fact, and show how that fact strengthens personal writing.
Let’s say I’m writing about throwing trash away on the beach. My claim is that this is a bad idea, and one of my reasons is that trash could be harmful to marine animals. Even kindergarteners, many of them, will agree with this. But if I wanted to show them how to make my argument stronger, I could read a very short passage from a book called Tracking Trash by Loree Griffith Burns (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). I might tell them, “I want to make my argument even more convincing by including a fact. This is called using evidence. Tell me if you think I should put any of this evidence in my paper about trash.” I will then read (or paraphrase) some short, pre-chosen excerpts from pages 38-39 of Burns’ book: e.g.,
- “There is no organism anywhere on the planet that can digest plastic.” (p. 38)
- The number of animals in the Pacific Ocean that die each year from eating plastic is about 100,000. (p. 39)
- If we could “turn off a plastic switch” somehow, bits of bottles, hats, soccer balls, sneakers, and tub toys would keep washing up on shore for 30 or 40 years. (p. 39)
I have no doubt that even very young writers will find this information interesting. I have no doubt that they will see how any or all of these research findings would strengthen my writing. But best of all, even if they don’t begin doing this themselves for five more years, they will begin to grasp the difference between opinion and evidence. They will begin to see the value of evidence. It’s not just some arbitrary CCSS requirement. It’s a tool for making writing powerful, a tool for changing human behavior.
What is “logical” order anyway?
The CCSS call for logical order in argument, but do not define what that looks like. In all fairness, logical order is not an easy concept to get your arms around, but we need to help students understand what it does—and does not—look like. In the simplest terms, it’s constructing an argument the reader can follow. The best tests for this are to (1) read your own writing aloud to yourself—more than once; and (2) share your writing with a partner, who can point out any moment where he or she feels lost.
Logical order should also include these elements:
- A strong lead. A good lead in an argument lays out the issue at hand and makes the writer’s central claim clear.
- Orderly presentation of key evidence. Let’s go back to my topic of eliminating trash on the beach. Suppose I have evidence that the increased volume of plastic trash in the ocean kills marine life, disrupts the food chain in the ocean, and reduces the supply of consumable fish. I need to decide in what order to present these—and I would choose the order in which I’ve listed them. Why? Because killing marine life is the most obvious consequence, disrupting the food chain is something readers might not think of immediately, so I can rekindle interest with that point, and finally, interfering with fishing hits home. It’s my strongest point because it affects people personally—so I save it for last. (This is one part of organizational structure I always sketch out on scratch paper.)
- Counterarguments and rebuttals. Counterarguments are often best handled after the writer has presented the majority of his or her evidence. There is little point in weighing in against arguments that have yet to be made. Counterarguments on the topic of plastic waste might include things like (1) it’s too expensive to deal with it, (2) marine animals are highly adaptable and will accommodate to this new situation, and (3) the problem is exaggerated for dramatic effect in the media. A whole section of my essay must include open and honest discussion of each of these issues and my rebuttals.
- Transitional phrasing. Transitions are essential in any form of writing, not just argument. But it’s also fair to say that transitions play a special role in this genre because they guide readers’ thinking. Consider how your brain responds to each of the following: To be more specific, Though it isn’t obvious at first, To look at the issue another way, Although this seems like a sensible argument, Furthermore, In addition, Most compelling of all . . . Each one of these sets us up, as readers, to make more of what follows. Mastering transitions is an exercise in higher thinking, so don’t expect miracles in just weeks. But continue providing examples from the best writing you can find, and discuss them. How does each transition affect thinking?
- A powerhouse ending. Endings matter. They need to stick in our minds, wrap up loose ends, give us new things to think about—and perhaps, in the case of argument, suggest new thinking or action. An ending must be more than a summary of what we’ve read. It is condescending to simply summarize what’s been said, as if the reader were inattentive or not very quick. It’s lazy to leave things dangling, or toss the choice of options to the reader—the old “What do you think?” way out. A good argument might close with a call to action, a summary of the consequences of inaction, or even with the most powerful piece of evidence—one the writer has held back until this moment. A good question to ask is, What doesn’t the reader know yet that will push him/her to a good conclusion?
3 Additional Tips
Not everything can be incorporated into standards. Following are three tips for strong argument writing that you may or may not infer from reading through the standards:
- Know your topic. Nothing, nothing whatsoever, takes the place of this. It’s impossible to measure how well a writer knows a topic—but it’s easy to gain an impression. Writers who don’t seem to know what they’re talking about quickly lose the attention of a reader. If you think professional assessors never skip right from first paragraph to last, think again. It happens frequently, especially when people are pressured to read quickly, and they think they already know what the writer is (or isn’t) going to tell them. Well-informed writers can wake readers up. They are able to choose details that matter, details that are both interesting and important to the argument at hand. They also anticipate what the other side is thinking and that makes counter arguments easier to refute with skill.
- Write with voice. You won’t, of course, find this bit of advice in the CCSS. They’ve tried their best to make voice a non-issue. The problem with that is that readers are incapable of ignoring voice. It’s like ignoring air. Gotta have it or everything else becomes irrelevant. The CCSS calls for students (grades 6 and up) to “adopt a formal style.” The reason for this is obvious. You don’t want to appear at the Oscars in your tee shirt. Formality commands a certain respect. It makes the writer appear serious. But let’s step back and assess what “formal style” really means. Does it mean to write in a cold, detached manner? To appear uninterested in one’s own topic? I don’t think so. I think it means to write with voice—but a certain kind of voice. Not playful, not humorous, not jokey or sarcastic, lofty or arrogant. Not a voice that shines the spotlight on the writer instead of on the topic. But rather, a voice that is confident, knowledgeable, thoughtful, curious, intrigued, impressed by and respectful of the results of one’s own research. And above all—helpful. A voice that reaches out to the reader with this message: This information is fascinating, and I want to share it with you as clearly as I can. Please tune in.
- Take a stand and stick with it. Many students are cautious about offending anyone. So they conclude their persuasive writing with comments like this: Dogs or cats? I like them both! Which would you choose? They need to know that as conclusions go, this is pretty weak. Some readers find it downright annoying. Our message to writers needs to be “Be bold. Dare to take a stand, even if some readers disagree. They will still respect your position if your reasons and evidence are strong.” Then, an ending can go more like this: “Cats may live twice as long as most dogs, but the joy you’ll know spending time with your dog makes up for it!” OR—“It’s true that you cannot train most cats to fetch sticks or do other tricks, but cat owners actually prefer untrained pets who behave more as animals do in the wild.”
What to Teach: 6 Essentials
Here’s a quick summary of six things we must teach in conjunction with argument:
- The nature of argument itself. Students have difficulty (As we all do, to some extent) distinguishing between argument and opinion or emotion-based persuasion, so help them make this distinction, keeping in mind that arguments rely on evidence.
- The nature of evidence. It isn’t easy to go from “Here’s what I think and why” to “Here’s what I think based on the evidence I’ve collected.” Understanding the forms evidence can take is an important first step.
- Research fundamentals. Research is fun. Raise your hand if you agree. Actually—I’m not kidding. Research can be fun, if you know how to go about it. I mentioned things like snorkeling on the coral reef or visiting the zoo. Such things don’t always come to mind when students think of research. They imagine long hours poring over the Internet, taking tedious notes. But site visits, personal experience, films, and interviews can and should be part of research, too. In addition, we can alleviate some of students’ research phobia by giving them instruction on simple things like figuring out where to look for information in the first place, making a research plan (complete with timeline), navigating the Internet, arranging an interview, or taking good notes. Many, many, many students struggle with note taking, and this makes research a nightmare.
- Evaluating the validity of a source. Not all books or Internet sites contain valid, reliable information. Knowing how to assess the value of a source is important, and needs to be taught through modeling and discussion.
- Quoting effectively. Ever notice how many quotations look like they were dropped into the text from a hovering helicopter? Students need to know how to find a good, relevant quotation; how much to quote (whole paragraphs are too much, single words not enough); and above all, how to set up a quotation so that it feels like an integral part of the argument instead of a pine cone falling on your head. You can use mentor text for good illustrations and model the use of introductory set-up lines such as these: As Jeff Hicks often says . . . Donald Murray makes this clear with the following message . . . As Loree Griffith Burns points out . . . Consider this comment from Anne Lamott . . .
- Writing clearly. Fuzzy arguments fail. Readers need to know where the writer stands and why. If the reader cannot summarize the argument, including evidence, counter arguments, and rebuttals, it’s not clear enough. Once students finish drafts, pair them up and have partners try summarizing each other’s arguments. This is an excellent way for writers to detect loopholes and plan ways to revise.
Some final thoughts
Argument is not a mental wrestling match, an effort to “win” or come out with more points. It’s an attempt to educate readers so that together you arrive at the most logical or helpful conclusions. Argument is important in any field—education, medicine, scientific research, technology—where the consequences of poor decisions could be dire. To teach argument is to teach thinking.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Next week, Jeff will offer reviews of some of his favorite new literature, discovered over the holiday break. I (Vicki) will return in about two weeks to review Holly Goldberg Sloan’s compelling story of friendship, family, and outsiders, Counting by 7s. Meantime, are you thinking about professional development in writing during the remainder of this school year? Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can help. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.