Learn What Works
Writing arguments is a clear application of Writing Standard 1, which calls for students to “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.” In the lower grades, this may be simply writing a one sentence opinion about a book, while in the upper grades students will be analyzing, synthesizing and responding to issues using multiple sources, which may include video, audio, or experiential sources as well as text.
In argument writing the writer presents a claim and supports it with evidence in an attempt to change the reader’s point of view, bring about some action on the reader’s part, or to ask the reader to accept the writer’s explanation or evaluation of a concept, issue or problem (p. 23, CCSS-ELA Appendix A). Writing an argument is different than traditional persuasive writing. Persuasive writing depends on the writer-reader relationship, in that the author works to develops his/her credibility and character, and tries to appeal to the reader through connecting to interests, beliefs, character, or emotions. However, in an argument, the writer seeks to convince an audience based on the merit and reasonableness of claims and evidence.
Opinion writing is “. . . an elementary type of argument in which students give reasons for their opinions and preferences. Because reasons are required, such writing helps prepare students for drafting the arguments they will be expected to create beginning in grade 6” (p. 2, CCSS-ELA Appendix C). Students will learn than an opinion cannot be supported by another opinion, such as “I like dogs because they are nice.” Rather, an opinion needs to be supported by facts and reasons, such as “I like dogs because my dog wags his tail when I come home.” In the elementary grades, students are also learning the vocabulary of opinion writing, when words such as “because”, “since,” “for instance”, or “consequently” are introduced at various grade levels.
Providing students with intriguing or controversial topics is key to writing opinions and arguments. Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (2010) calls on educators to “teach the conflicts” in order for students to develop the ability to form and support reasoned arguments in writing.
Making use of mentor texts for argument and opinion instruction means teachers must “read like writers”–always considering the author’s craft, always on the look-out for good mentor texts. Mentor texts can come from a variety of sources–picture books, novels, plays, newspapers, blogs, and Internet sites. Being familiar with grade-level Writing Standards for argument and opinion can help teachers to focus on those mentor texts particular to the needs of their classrooms. In addition to the use of mentor texts, teachers can also model writing by composing argument or opinion texts in front of the class and “thinking out loud” about the process of stating clear claims supported by evidence and reason. As always, teachers will want to use the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework to support students in their learning. After explicit instruction and modeling, students benefit from shared writing experiences, guided writing experiences, and collaborative practice with frequent descriptive feedback around lesson learning targets. Peer and teacher conferencing about writing can help students to fine turn their writing and stretch their thinking.
See How it Works
Above are some examples from the Common Core Appendix C. These examples show the expectations for student argument and opinion writing.
K – 5 Opinion Writing
Opinion writing might be introduced with discussions or quick writes around fun topics:
- What super power would you like to have and why?
- What is your favorite (fill in something of common interest such as: restaurant, football team, singer, etc.) and why?
- Convince the teacher you need another 5 minutes for recess today.
- Persuade your parents to let you (fill in something of common interest such as: stay all night with a friend, join Boy/Girl Scouts, get a puppy, etc.).
- Tell Santa why you would make a good intern.
According to the Iowa Core Standards for K-5 Writing (2010), students’ use of writing structure and language should progress significantly from kindergarten to 5th grade. In the primary grades, students might read or hear two different versions of a story, and tell which they like best and why. Your media specialist can help you with sources for this kind of writing. Students in upper elementary are expected to express opinions about topics of interest, supported by reasons and information, using appropriate text structures and vocabulary. In order to accomplish this, students will need multiple opportunities to write opinions and later arguments. In fact, about a third of elementary students’ writing should be opinion.
Sentence or paragraph frames might be used to help young students use appropriate text structures and vocabulary for opinion writing. Once students have practiced using the frames collaboratively, then they may use them independently. However, please remember the goal is for students to use the text structures and language of opinions without the frames, so frames are to be used as scaffolding. During scaffolding, the teacher provides ongoing descriptive feedback to coach the students towards learning targets. The scaffolding strategy should be removed as soon as students are ready. Frames can be differentiated for groups or individuals to provide more or less support as needed. Some students may not need sentence or paragraph frames at all.
Here are some examples of what sentence or paragraph frames might look like in the elementary. Grade appropriate connecting words from the Iowa Core Standards are in bold and should also be on the classroom Word Wall.
We like Green Eggs and Ham because it rhymes.
Spy Files Secret Agents by Adrian Gilbert is an awesome book. It has pictures of spies. I liked the part about female spies because they could hide things in their clothes. For example, a camera was in her skirt. I learned that women made good spies since people thought women were weak. Therefore, I recommend this book.
We would like to take a field trip to the high performance engines shop at 335 Main Street. We recommend the trip in order to learn more about a local business and about race car engines.
There are three main reasons to go to the engine shop. First of all we could walk there. The snow is all melted, consequently, it would be an easy walk. Also if we walk it will not cost as much as taking a bus. Walking is good exercise for us, too. Another reason we like the engine shop is because Kevin’s dad works there. He could give us a really good tour since he’s the boss. For instance, he could show us how the dyno works. He knows all about race engines so he could answer all our questions. Finally, we want to see all the tools and machines they use. We have been studying machines in science so this would specifically help us understand our science work.
We should go to the engine shop because it’s easy to get there, we know the owner, and it connects to science. For these reasons we propose a trip on Friday after music.
Students should also be taught different forms of opinion writing.
This video shows whole class instruction in opinion writing: Teaching for Transfer as Students Move Between Persuasive Speeches and Petitions 3-5 from TC Reading and Writing Project on Vimeo.
6 – 12 Argument Writing
Once students move into 6th grade, the expectation is for students to write reasoned arguments rather than mere opinions. Also, the amount of argument writing increases–now making up about 35% of their writing.
Just as with younger students, older students might begin their work around argument with a playful discussion. Gallagher (2011) asks students to discuss if they’d rather have a voice like Gilbert Gottfried or Elmo. Next, students are broken into small groups to discuss additional either-or questions (based on the influence of Justin Heimberg and David Gomberg’s (1997) Would you rather…?). Questions might be…
- Would you rather be able to pause the world around you or silence it?
- Would you rather be able to fast forward life or to rewind it?
- Would you rather be stuck on a desert island with (fill in the blank with a current person in the news) or with (fill in the blank with another current person in the news)?
After a brief discussion, students do quick writes to state and explain their stands. This is just a means to introduce argument writing. Much more instruction, modeling, practice and scaffolding will follow. Adolescent writers will need good models of well written arguments. Teachers should always be on the look-out for such mentor texts. These might be found in current magazines or online.
Gallagher (2011) provides guidance on argument writing in his book Write Like This Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts, Chapter 7, “Take a Stand/Propose a Solution”. This chapter focuses on real-world problems and issues. He suggests a variety of templates for students to gather and organize information. Gallagher models his expectations for writing using Composing Think-alouds.
Again, students will need first collaborative practice followed by independent practice. During practice, the teacher provides descriptive feedback in order to move students from novice to accomplished writers.
A skill that must be developed in tandem with writing reasoned arguments is the analysis of sources. This includes looking at the perspective of the sources, as well as the intended message and audience. Sources might include journal articles, books, websites, videos, speakers or experiences. Students will often need to look at a source differently depending on the discipline. A news article might be evaluated in terms of the the publisher, the author, the photographer, and the source’s location of origin. On the other hand, a scientific source might be analyzed in terms of the supporting research base, corroboration against current scientific understanding, or the organization that sponsored the research. It is important that students understand how sources are analyzed according to different criteria based on the discipline.
Find more videos on opinion and argument writing by on Vimeo.
Do What Works
Above are a sampling of templates and processes that might be used to scaffold student thinking and writing. These are only a sampling, and do not reflect the full range of scaffolding that students might need.
There are many sources of information around which students might form and write arguments and opinions. AEA Online provides many sources appropriate for students. To access AEA Online, you will need your school’s username and password, available from your media specialist. From here, you can access the sources listed below. Some of the sources may also serve as mentor texts for instruction.
BookFlix: (Primary grades) This source pairs classic video storybooks from Weston Woods with related nonfiction eBooks from Scholastic, linking fact and fiction. BookFlix reinforces early reading skills and introduces children to a world of knowledge and exploration.
CultureGrams: (All grades) This source provides age-appropriate, high-quality digital content from primary and secondary sources spanning thousands of titles and multiple media types. It features landmark articles and electronic resources that illuminate all aspects of the most vital issues of our time.
Learn 360: (All grades) This source provides video and audio clips, as well as full length videos, on a wide variety of historical, current, and intriguing topics.
Gale: (All grades) This source offers screened and reliable content from magazines, newspapers, and reference materials.
AP Images: (Intermediate through high school) This source provides both historic and current newsworthy photographs, as well as audio news clips and graphics. For instance, students may listen to the the President’s weekly address.
Teen Health and Wellness: (Middle and high school) Provides middle school and high school students with nonjudgmental, straightforward, standards-aligned, curricular and self-help support. Topics include diseases, drugs, alcohol, nutrition, mental health, suicide, bullying, green living, financial literacy, and more.
SIRS: (High school students) Provides current perspectives on controversial issues, as well as a framework/process for students to analyze the information and create their own reasoned argument.
Gallagher, K. (2011). Write Like This Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts. Portland, ME, Stenhouse Publishers.
Hale, E. (2008). Crafting Writers K-6. Portland, ME, Stenhouse Publishers.
Indrisano, R, & Paratore, J. (Eds.) (2005). Learning to Write and Writing to Learn Theory and Research in Practice. Newark, DE, The International Reading Association.
Iowa Core English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects. (2011). Des Moines, IA, Iowa Department of Education.
The Reading & Writing Project website
Routman, R. (2005). Writing Essentials: Raising Expectations and Results while Simply Teaching. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann.