An A-to-Z Breakdown on Teaching Argumentative Writing
Teaching students the art of argument isn’t easy. This is because argumentative writing has a different format and tone than other types of writing that are more familiar to students.
But by directly teaching the purpose and elements of argumentative writing, connecting the genre to skills students already possess, and providing plentiful practice opportunities, you can shape your students into skilled argumentative writers in no time.
Purpose of Argumentative Writing
What sets argumentative writing apart from other writing types is its purpose. The first step in teaching students to write persuasively is to help them understand the goal of this type of writing.
Explain that argumentative writing is intended to convince the reader to agree with the author’s main idea. An effective piece of persuasive writing should change the reader’s point of view or inspire a particular action or behavior.
Choosing an Essay Topic
In some cases, students will have the opportunity to select their own topic for an argumentative writing piece. In this situation, encourage students to select a topic that is:
- Of personal interest
Claims and arguments must be supported by facts and evidence, so ensure that your students choose topics that aren’t based merely on opinion. A strong topic should have a substantial body of evidence from multiple sources to support it.
The topic must also be debatable. There’s no point in advancing an argument on a topic with which everyone generally agrees already. For instance, an argumentative essay on why exercise is important is unnecessary. An argument for or against gun control, on the other hand, would be far more effective. Finally, a topic which the author feels strongly about will produce a better essay. Encourage your students to write about topics that they find interesting and meaningful.
If your students are assigned an argumentative writing task as part of a standardized test, they will need to choose between two sides on a given topic.
In this case, the advice is a bit different:
Encourage your students to choose the side with the most evidence to support it, even if this is not the side with which they personally agree. They will be evaluated on their ability to provide strong, relevant evidence, so the more evidence available to support their claim, the better.
Elements of Argumentative Writing
Of course, choosing a topic is only the beginning. There are several key elements of argumentative writing, including:
Below, we’ll take a look at what your students need to know about each element.
The thesis or claim clearly states the point your student intends to prove. A thesis might read something like, “Reducing car usage would offer many benefits to individuals, communities, and the environment.”
The thesis also provides a “road map” for the rest of the essay. The first body paragraph that follows from the thesis above would likely focus on benefits to individuals, while the next would elaborate on advantages for communities, and the last paragraph would argue that reducing car usage would help the environment.
A thesis statement can also provide more specific reasons in support of the argument. For instance, “People should limit car usage because it reduces both emissions and stress, ultimately improving health.” Here, body paragraphs would focus on reducing emissions, relieving stress, and improving health.
Evidence is the most essential component of argumentative writing. If you want others to agree with your argument, you’ll need facts, statistics, examples, and/or quotes from experts to support it.
Students typically need plenty of examples and lots of practice with finding and integrating evidence. Discuss finding relevant sources and correctly citing them. Also, talk to your students about what constitutes “evidence.” Opinions, personal experiences, or quotes from clearly biased sources won’t provide sufficient support.
In an argumentative essay, each body paragraph should include at least 2-3 pieces of evidence to support the reason that paragraph is developing.
After providing a piece of evidence, students should also provide commentary. Commentary helps readers understand how the evidence contributes to the writer’s argument.
Ask students to consider:
- What is the significance of this piece of evidence?
- How does this piece of evidence support your claim/thesis?
- What do you want readers to understand based on this piece of evidence?
Here’s an example:
“According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the transportation sector is responsible for 55% of nitrogen oxide emissions, a pollutant that contributes to poor air quality. This indicates that reducing car usage would significantly reduce a major factor in air pollution, improving our environment and health.”
The italicized sentence provides commentary, interpreting the evidence and relating it to the claim that limiting car usage is beneficial.
Explain to your students that although they’re writing an “argument,” they still need to strike a balanced tone. They should demonstrate that they’ve carefully considered both sides of the argument before arriving at their conclusion. An argument that appears biased is perceived as less valid.
In order to show an understanding of both sides, students should include a counterargument in their persuasive essays.
A counterargument has two major components:
- Introduce the other side’s argument
- Provide a rebuttal
When your students plan an argumentative essay, it can be helpful to create a T-chart listing pros and cons, or arguments from both sides. To write a counterargument, they’ll select a popular argument from the other side, then explain why this reasoning is illogical, weak, or easily defeated by an argument from the writer’s own side.
This is an effective strategy not only because it demonstrates balance, but also because it allows the writer to address an argument that may already be on the reader’s mind.
Activities and Strategies for Teaching Argumentative Writing
In order to teach argumentative writing, you’ll need to show students examples of effective arguments. You can have students highlight claims and supporting evidence, then discuss what makes the evidence particularly effective.
You may also wish to show non-examples, or provide students with several pieces of persuasive writing, some more effective than others. Then ask students to rate the arguments in terms of effectiveness, discussing what makes some pieces stronger. Which pieces of evidence do the best job of influencing the reader? What could the less effective writers do to strengthen their arguments?
Before you assign argumentative writing tasks, you might want to make the connection between verbal and written arguments.
While students may not have mastered argumentative writing, most are skillful at arguing. They’ve argued for later curfews, more expensive phones, or permission to attend events for years.
One engaging activity is to read aloud a statement, then have students who agree move to one side of the classroom and students who disagree move to the other. Next, have students explain why they’re standing on a particular side of the room, providing support for their argument.
Ultimately, this resembles a debate, as students tend to voice rebuttals for arguments from the other side. You may also wish to have students debate more formally, assigning a side and providing a set of texts that students can use to find evidence.
These activities are engaging for students, and students realize that they do know how to form and support an argument. Now, they just need to apply these skills to their writing!
Provide Practice Opportunities
Lastly, you’ll need to provide your students with plenty of opportunities to practice argumentative writing.
Assign text-based argumentative writing tasks, but also allow your students to choose their own topics and find their own research on occasion.
Give rubrics, checklists, and feedback, and allow students to receive feedback from their peers as well. The more students practice, the more confident and skilled they’ll become.
By directly teaching necessary elements, providing examples, practice opportunities, and feedback, and leading engaging activities, you’ll help shape your students into effective argumentative writers.
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