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4 Reasons Argument is Priority #1

November 11, 2013 / by Ryan McCarty

Internet argument Do Now: Is this image an appropriate depiction of an argument? What would your students draw if you asked them to sketch an argument?

You probably don't need me to tell you that argument is hot right now in education.  Argument has a "special place" in the standards.  It is writing anchor standard number 1 for a reason.  The standards make a point of differentiating between opinion/persuasive writing and argument writing, with argument writing required for grades 6 and up.  Our high schools are doing a "deep dive" into argumentative writing , and the writing focus for grades 6-12 for the the December Instructional Shifts workshop is argument writing.

So what is all the fuss about?  Should we really no longer teach persuasive writing to our upper grade students?  I have many fond memories of teaching persuasive writing.  It is engaging- students love to discuss and debate their point of view.   It pulls in reluctant writers because most students have no trouble generating ideas about their position on a controversial issue.  Persuasive writing has traditionally been required on high stakes assessments like the ISAT and the ACT.  Keeping kids engaged AND preparing them for the high stakes test?  That's a win-win.  Why should we switch from persuasive to argument writing (and what's the difference between them anyway)?

Here are four reasons to make the switch from Persuasive to Argument writing in grades 6-12.

1. Argument stops the drama from persuasive debates

Have you ever had a discussion stall out in your classroom when a student says "Well, that's my opinion, I have a right to my opinion" and refuses to entertain other ideas?  Or had a debate get too personal, with students polarizing to one side of the other and tempers rising?  Turns out, this is quite typical of persuasion.  Persuasion is personal, passionate, and all about winning.  In persuasion, people often pull examples from their own lives to tug at the heart strings of their audience.  They pull out all the stops including using persuasive techniques such as "glittering generalities" and setting up a "straw man"  that are in fact fallacious reasoning, but are acceptable tools in a persuasion.  They pick and choose the best evidence for their side, ignoring the counter arguments.  This leads to a discussion that is more about who can speak the loudest  or get in the most verbal jabs, not the best for promoting civil academic discourse.

2. Argument focuses on evidence and clear reasoning

In contrast,  in argument, it is all about the evidence.  Well, it's really about whether you have quality evidence and whether you can explain how your evidence supports your claim.  The logical process of gathering evidence, coming up with a claim, and linking your evidence to your claim is much different from the passion of persuasive debates.  Rather than combat, an appropriate metaphor for a classroom discussion focused on argumentation is shared inquiry into an issue.   Rather than ignore contrasting points of view, different perspectives strengthen arguments by giving students the chance to test their claims with contrasting evidence and refine their positions.  Introducing standards for accountable talk and argument frames is a great way to keep the discussion focused and academic in nature.

3. Argument gets students ready for the next generation of high stakes assessments

Next-generation assessments such as the PARCC are going to require a large amount of argument writing (along with writing to inform and explain and, to a lesser extent, narrative writing), but they are NOT going to include persuasive writing.  While the ACT persuasive writing prompt is back this year, old-school persuasive writing where students get a prompt like "cell phones- yes or no" is on life support.  The future is argument writing.  Because argument writing requires evidence, prompts require students to read across several texts, some of which include video and other media.  The sooner you start preparing students for this the better.  There are great examples on the PARCC and Smarter Balanced websites of argument-centered performance tasks.    Achievethecore has K-12 samples of PARCC-style opinion and argumentative writing.  The 6-12 samples  are writing an argument from three texts and have been annotated with common core standards for argument.  Check them out!

4. Argument prepares students for the real world beyond the school walls 

Education experts Mike Schmoker and Gerald Graff argue that argument is "the primary skill essential to our success as citizens, students and workers".  College professors always complain that students are not prepared to craft an argument when they get to college, and our students' embarrassing performance on national assessments of argument writing bears this out.  You can't teach all the standards and do a good job of it, so argument writing is one great place to start.  Argument is important in all disciplines, so it can be a common thread throughout the school day.  Because students are constantly bombarded with media manipulators trying to separate them from their money (or worse), understanding what makes a sound argument is essential because it can help them eor themselves.valuate the outrageous claims that many of these products, services, or people make, and think f

An understanding of the difference between persuasion and argumentation will help students think critically about ads such as these.

So if you teach grades 6-12, make the switch to argument writing.  If you teach grades K-5, read Writing Anchor Standard 1 up through the grades and see how your students are being scaffolded toward argumentation.

Topics: English Language Arts, Writing

Ryan McCarty

Written by Ryan McCarty

Ryan McCarty is a High School English Coordinator with Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a Chicago nonprofit focused on transforming failing schools and preparing highly-effective teachers. He previously served as an instructional coach and was a classroom teacher of Reading, English and U.S. History in schools from the South Side to the North Shore for more than 10 years.

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