Over the years, three major modes have dominated academic writing—narrative, explanatory, and argument. Traditionally, writing teachers have devoted equal attention to the Big Three in that order, but modern standards place argument writing at the head of the pack. Why?
A push for rigor may explain the shift. Argument writing requires clear, logical thinking and the know-how to appeal to readers' needs. Clearly, such communication skills come at a premium in today’s information economy, and developing those skills will help students flourish in school and the workplace.
But many developing writers struggle to write clear and compelling arguments. You can help them succeed by teaching the following strategies.
1. Distinguishing Argumentation from Persuasion
National writing standards and the tests that assess them focus on argumentation rather than persuasion. In practice, these approaches overlap more than they diverge, but students should understand the subtle difference between them.
- Persuasion appeals to readers' emotions to make them believe something or take specific action. Advertising uses persuasion.
- Argumentation uses logic and evidence to build a case for a specific claim. Science and law use argumentation.
You can help your students understand the difference between the two by presenting Distinguishing Argumentation from Persuasion.
2. Forming an Opinion Statement
Your students’ message will not make a full impact without a clear main claim or opinion statement. Reading arguments with a missing claim statement is like driving through fog; you're never quite sure where you're headed.
Present Developing an Opinion Statement to help students write a main claim for their argument. In this minilesson, students follow a simple formula to develop a claim of truth, value, or policy.
3. Appealing to the Audience
Once students state a claim, how can they support it in a way that appeals to skeptical readers? Aristotle outlined three types of rhetorical appeals. The first two work best in argumentation and the third in persuasion.
- The appeal to logos means providing clear thinking and solid reasoning to support claims (using logic).
- The appeal to ethos means building trust by citing reputable sources, providing factual evidence, and fairly presenting the issue (using ethics).
- The appeal to pathos means persuading by connecting to readers’ emotions (tugging "heartstrings").
Assign Making Rhetorical Appeals to help students choose supporting details that will appeal logically and ethically (argumentation) or emotionally (persuasion).
4. Connecting with Anecdotes
Though argumentation should de-emphasize emotional appeals, it still should connect to readers on a human level. As Thomas Newkirk advises in Minds Made for Stories, “Any argument that fails to appeal to the emotions, values, hopes, fears, self-interest, or identity of any audience is doomed to fail.”
Apt anecdotes allow students to add interest and emotive impact to their writing. Give students practice Using Anecdotes in Formal Writing, and encourage them to add appropriate anecdotes to connect to readers.
5. Answering Objections
Students' arguments lose steam when they ignore key opposing ideas. Help them realize that addressing readers' disagreements does not weaken their arguments, but in fact strengthens them. Introduce these two ways to respond to opposing points of view.
- Counterarguments point out a flaw or weakness in the objection (without belittling the person who is objecting).
- Concessions admit the value of an opposing viewpoint, but quickly pivot back to the writer's side of the argument.
Then present Answering Objections in Arguments.
6. Avoiding Logical Fallacies
An effective argument uses clear and logical thinking. Sometimes, though, students get so eager to fight for a point of view that they accidently (or intentionally) make misleading or illogical claims to prove their points. You can help students look for and avoid fuzzy thinking by introducing common logical fallacies in the following minilessons:
These six strategies can help your students write stronger and more convincing argument papers. Also know that many of the skills you teach during your narrative and explanatory units will translate well to argument writing. Sometimes an argument needs a touch of description, a careful analysis, or even a poetic turn of phrase. Good writing is good writing.
Want more ideas for argument writing?
- Share 7 C’s For Building a Rock-Solid Argument.
- Browse 15 Awesome Persuasive Writing Prompts.
- Explore the handbooks in our K-12 writing program for full and grade-specific support for argument writing.
- Look out for future blog posts from the team at Thoughtful Learning.