Helping Students Visualize Counterarguments

Helping Students Visualize Counterarguments

When teaching argumentative writing to beginners, it is one thing to tell your students to think critically, evaluate sources, and integrate counterarguments—and another thing for students to conceptually understand why this matters and how to connect diverse elements together. As a teacher, you need to make your own good arguments in order to help your students understand effective argumentative writing and structure.

While the simple truth might be that you’re happy when your developing writers successfully craft good arguments—leaving you to not worry so much about them going to the next level of addressing counterarguments—you can still strive to help students understand the value of counterarguments and get them to practice considering, researching, and integrating them.

A Resistance to Counterarguments

Good arguments contain solid reasoning, explanations, and valid support—but they also address counterarguments as a way of establishing context and ethos. The goal is to help students understand what approaches they, as writers, must take if they want to convince an audience that their claims are well researched and ultimately worth consideration.

Some students resist, even when assignments insist that counterarguments must be used in an argumentative essay because they don't understand why someone would want to mention other points of view, let alone contradictory points of view. After all, aren't students supposed to be arguing their side of things? Supporting their thesis? They find it hard to care about counterarguments when they aren't given reasons for why counterarguments are an important part of academic writing. As teachers, we need to teach students how to visualize using counterarguments in order to help them understand the purpose of including counterarguments in their work.

Demystifying and Deconstructing Counterarguments

Good writers consider ethos when they present arguments. The fastest way for an argument to fail, as we all know, is for the audience to realize that the person arguing hasn't a clue what they are talking about. Proving to an audience that one's views are worth considering is important, and counterarguments can help establish ethos quickly.

To help students understand this better, use the practice of formalized debating as an example. Great debaters always know the other side of the argument they are making. They anticipate counterarguments because they've done their research. Writers of an argumentative paper should be equally prepared. Say someone is writing a paper on gun control, an all-too-popular topic for argument papers by beginning writers. They need to clarify their views, but they also need to know, regardless of what stance they take, the opposing arguments. Failure to do so makes a writer look oblivious to controversy, and worse it makes the writer appear as if they haven't done their research.

When one seems unprepared, one's ethos is damaged. Why should anyone consider the argument of someone who seems uninformed? The answer is that they shouldn't. When an author uses counterarguments it proves that they "know their stuff" and increases their ethos.

A quick list of counterargument teaching strategies:

  1. Show parts of formalized debates in class. Have a class discussion afterward that highlights the argumentative structures used—and when counterarguments punctuate the speaker’s approach.
  2. Look for short TED Talks where the speakers start their presentations off with ideas, notions, and concepts that they believe are untrue. Then review together how the speaker used this to their advantage to share their own ideas and solutions.
  3. Analyze famous pieces of rhetorical writing like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Help students break down things like schemes, tropes, and rhetorical moves. Help them visualize when King is using varied or seemingly unconventional metaphors, symbolism, and arguments to present his ideas.
  4. Never make this a guessing game. Ask students to identify counterarguments in the essays they’re reading for class (see the Koch example below). Also, spend class time showing them not only how counterarguments are used in these essays—but how they are framed and where they are placed within the text.
  5. Ask students to list counterarguments to their position on an argument before selecting one or two of those counterarguments to research. This can help them understand the various points of view that exist on their topic. Following that up with a short assignment asking the student how they might argue against opposing views could help them visualize how, and why, to use counterarguments in their essays.

Researching Counterarguments

Often when students write research-based argumentative essays they focus only on texts that support their view. Requiring students to find evaluated sources that provide them with counterarguments helps them visualize their argument as a response to the larger discussions already happening on the topic. Locating counterarguments demands that students use critical thinking skills to evaluate sources, and in considering how to refute opposing arguments they discover. WriteLab's app and Guide can assist students in considering those sources by reminding them to provide evidence for their claims (while assisting them in strengthening the logic of their arguments). See an example of how WriteLab pushes students to consider counterarguments.

A Great Textbook Resource for Teaching Counterargumentation

Counterarguments also allow students to consider the structure of their paper. Constructing an argument using the popular "they say, I say" method, which begins with a summary of counterarguments before dismantling those arguments, can also help writers provide context for their argument. The "they say, I say" structure is a consistently effective tool for writers as a framework for the complete essay or individual paragraphs. As Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff note in They Say I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, the "they say, I say" structure is a key rhetorical move that can be adapted to diverse argumentative writing projects.

Providing students with examples of argumentative essays structured with "they say, I say" patterns can help them visualize how to use counterarguments in their own work. One oft-used example of this structure is Ed Koch's "On Death and Justice," a pro-death penalty essay from the former Mayor of New York. Koch constructs the essay as an address to multiple anti-death penalty counterarguments and ultimately demonstrates the strengths of the technique.

A Final Look at Ethos

Counterarguments can also help an author's ethos in another way; including counterarguments can create opportunities for concession and create common ground. When writers create common ground in an argumentative essay, particularly if common ground is established early on, it is easier to use that agreed upon point as a logical first stepping stone for an argument's construction (and it makes the writer look considerate).

The True Value of Counterarguments

Addressing counterarguments shows a skeptical reader that an author is considerate of differing views. It isn't hard to get someone who shares one's position to agree with one's thesis. The trick is getting those readers who are resistant to the thesis to understand an opposing position. Asking students to play devil's advocate for one another early on in the writing process, or even later in review sessions, can help writers visualize a skeptical reader more clearly—and can emphasize the need to address those opposing viewpoints.

Counterarguments acknowledge those skeptical or resistant readers as the true challenge, and in addressing their concerns directly writers strengthen the argument for all readers. The use of counterarguments does require a lot of critical thinking from writers, but the benefits are worth the effort, and WriteLab's Logic feedback can help.

WriteLab is an online writing platform that offers immediate, actionable responses to students' prose as they draft, revise, and polish their writing.

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