The Usual Suspect: Solving the #1 Problem in Argument Writing

May 22, 2014 / by Ryan McCarty

I hope my previous blog convinced you that teaching argument writing should be your number one priority. Recently, I've talked to teachers whose students are practicing more argument writing. They are finding that many of their students are having success and can lay out a claim and provide evidence to support it, but teachers are still finding that the arguments are choppy and read like lists. What's missing from their writing?

When we look at their writing together, it's lacking the "usual suspect": an effective warrant. In an argument, the warrant explains how the evidence supports the claim and often applies a commonly accepted rule or principle. Warrants are a challenge, even for college students.

Five Reasons Why Warrants are a Tough Case to Solve

1. Under an Assumed Name

Defining a warrant can be confusing because there are many terms for the concept of warrant. Some teachers refer to warrants as the “explanation” portion of a P.E.E. (Point Evidence Explanation) essay. For others, it is the "Mean" in a "Tell- Show-Mean" structure. In a DBQ Project essay, the warrant is, oddly enough, called the "Argument." In our science PLC, it's the "Reasoning." Is there any wonder why students find this confusing? We need to help them see that all of these writing devices serve the same purpose, despite their different names.

2. Often Missing in Action

Warrants are also tricky because in everyday life, they are rarely spoken (and it would sound pretty weird if they were). A claim, "We should get something to eat" and evidence ("It's 8:00 PM"), don't require a warrant if the speaker and audience share a common understanding. Saying, "8:00 is past the time people typically eat dinner, therefore we should get food now" is unnecessary. However, good academic writing often makes the reasoning connecting claims and evidence explicit, since that is the first place an educated reader looks to pick apart an argument.

3. Probable Cause

Warrants in academic writing involve logic, but not the formal logic Aristotle made famous, where an absolutely true conclusion is derived from absolutely true premises. Instead, academic writing often applies "probabilistic" logic, warranting claims that are likely, but not absolutely, true.

4. Multiple Identities

The nature of the warrant differs depending on the discipline. For instance, historians often warrant claims by corroborating them with primary sources. Scientists may warrant claims by citing a law or principle, such as the law of conservation of matter. Mathematicians may warrant claims by referencing a theorem. Literary critics may explain how the quoted text fits the criteria for a particular concept, such as courage.

While arguments involving concepts such as courage, leadership, or terrorism are common in the humanities, these terms are often loosely applied. Students must first establish a definition and criteria for the concept by applying a respected definition and criteria, arriving at a definition as a class, or creating their own. Students can then leverage these definitions and criteria to warrant their arguments, by explaining how their evidence meets the criteria.

5. The "Accomplices" Problem

If a student has an imprecise claim, or has insufficient or irrelevant evidence, they will have a hard time explaining how that evidence proves the claim. Teachers tend to think, "I'll teach claims and evidence first, and worry about warrant later." The problem with this is that the only way a student can test to see whether or not their claim and evidence are sufficient is by writing the warrant.

You're probably thinking, "Okay, warrants are hard, I get it.  Now how do I SOLVE this issue?"

Three Tips to Solve the Case of the Warrant

1. The CSI Approach

In Teaching Argument Writing, George Hillocks describes using crime scene illustrations to introduce the role of warrants. In "Slip or Trip," students determine whether or not they believe the wife's (Queenie's) claim that her husband Arthur died when he slipped and fell down the stairs. Arthur is depicted lying on his back, legs forward, at the base of the stairs. Students find evidence (Arthur still has a glass in his hand) and come up with a warrant (as a rule, people typically drop what they are holding when falling down stairs in order to protect themselves). From that, they conclude Queenie is probably lying.

Clips from shows like CSI are great to hammer this concept home. Much of the show is spent coming up with the warrant that connects the evidence to the claim (a person's guilt or innocence). Connecting the writing term "warrant" to the idea of a "warrant for someone's arrest" can be an "Aha" moment for students as well. Court room scenes from movies, where the prosecution and defense use the same evidence but different warrants to arrive at opposite conclusions, are great too. Transcripts from Supreme Court oral arguments are also worth examining. Since the facts were established in lower courts, the discussion centers on interrogating the warrants used to reach the previous verdicts.

2. Help from "Model" Citizens

Try showing students models of writing with and without warrants. Have them judge which they find more effective and why. Students may think writing with explicit warrants is too wordy, or think explaining and qualifying claims makes an argument sound "weak." Help students understand how warrants function in academic discourse as compared to everyday speech. Another idea is to give students a claim and evidence and have them provide the warrant to isolate this skill. Opportunities to test warrants are also important. Students enjoy rewriting (or adding) warrants to published writing to make it more effective. They often get a kick out of realizing how many well-known "experts" are just throwing around unwarranted claims... and how many of us are falling for it!

3. Make Your Case

Warrants come to the foreground only when claims or evidence are questioned by the audience. The topics we assign and the resulting thesis statements often contain little potential for disagreement, which makes writing warrants a bore. Instead, pick an academic controversy and ask an interpretive question without one "right answer." Better yet, have students help select the topic. Once they have a written draft, have students write warrants in the form of an "if... then” statement to check the underlying logic. Then have them pair up and orally explain their argument, with partners, using stems such as, "How does that evidence prove your claim?" to push thinking. Mock trials are yet another great way to practice linking evidence and claims.

Without an understanding of warrants, students' written arguments fall short. They are also more likely to fall victim to arguments in the media with sweeping claims and lots of (irrelevant, unsubstantiated) "evidence."

Topics: Professional Learning, Improving Your Practice, 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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