Volume III, Issue VII

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Heather Clayton, the author of Making the Standards Come Alive!, is the principal of Mendon Center Elementary School in Pittsford Central School District, New York. She is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.



Why and How to Engage Students in
Classroom Discourse and Argumentative Writing

Argument is the soul of an education.
– Neil Postman

Recognize that knowing a lot of stuff won’t do you much good unless you can do something with what you know by turning it into an argument.
– Gerald Graff


In their article “More Argument, Fewer Standards,” Mike Schmoker and Gerald Graff share that, “If we want record numbers of students to succeed in post secondary studies and careers, an ancient, accessible concept needs to be restored to its rightful place at the center of schooling: argument.” Argument is a process of inquiry, where students explore a topic, pose meaningful questions, gather evidence in support of their claims, and build a case for their thesis statement. Students also consider counter claims and take on multiple perspectives as they construct their arguments. The goal of an argument is to use reasonableness and logic in order to convince others of the validity of claims.

Argument is used for a number of different purposes. The CCSSO writes that it a “reasoned, logical way of demonstrating that the writer’s position, belief, or conclusion is valid.” It is used “to change the reader’s point of view, to 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.” Argument may take the form of a response to a work of literature, to argue for an understanding in social studies, or to advance a claim in science. Whatever the purpose of the argument, at the heart of the writing is critical, evaluative thinking and the careful use of evidence to allow readers to consider perspectives which may be different than their own.

This month’s issue of Making the Standards Come Alive! defines argumentation and gives the rationale for its significance in the standards. It also clarifies the differences between persuasion and argumentation, examines how argumentation progresses longitudinally, and offers strategies to prepare for argument writing through high quality classroom conversations. The next issue will dive deeper into argument writing, with strategies for teachers, parents, and students to apply when bringing argumentation to life.

Argument vs. Persuasion
Argument and persuasion, as a result of having some similarities, are often mistakenly considered one in the same. After all, both argument and persuasion involve authors making claims to convince an audience to change their thinking, behavior, or to support a position or message. However, there are substantial differences between the two, and a clear understanding of how they are different has far reaching implications for the K-12 classroom. For instance, when writing to persuade, authors advance their claims based on emotion by either appealing to the credibility and character of the writer, or by appealing to the audience’s feelings. In contrast, an argument uses valid reasoning and relevant evidence to make a logical argument. Argument also considers counter claims and addresses the opposing arguments to further strengthen the writing. In argument, evidence is not selected on the basis of its emotional appeal, but rather evidence is selected to verify the logic and reasonableness of the claims being made.


Differences Between Argument and Persuasion

Argument Persuasion

Purpose is to help reader make an informed decision or consider an idea, even when the author has presented views that are different than those of the reader

Purpose is to “win over the reader,” to appeal to their feelings or wishes in order to make them believe what the author is saying is true
Based on research and logic Based on passion and emotion
Substantiates claims with multiple sources of evidence

Convinces by appealing to the credibility of the author or the interests and emotions of the audience

Involves evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of multiple perspectives May consider the perspectives of others, but not always
Addresses counter claims, although the piece
is clearly written defending one side
Focus is on the writer’s viewpoint

This link juxtaposes a persuasive essay and an argumentative essay on the topic of animal testing so readers can see the differences.


Opinion and Argument: A Vertical Leap
Students need to learn to reason based on logic, to use reliable and relevant evidence to back their claims, to consider the perspectives of others, and to evaluate sources. Learning standards almost always indicate that students should be able to “write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.” That’s to say, in order to build a foundation for college and career, students will need to learn to use writing effectively to support their claims.

The progression of the writing standards for argumentation steepens quickly, and as you look at the standards vertically, there is a noticeable increase in expectations at certain grade levels.

  • Kindergarteners use combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to express their opinions with others.
  • First and second grade students write opinion pieces where they are introducing topics or books they are writing about, then stating their opinions, giving reasons for their opinions, and providing some sense of closure.
  • Second graders also begin using linking words like and, because, and also, to connect their opinions and reasons for their opinions.
  • Third through fifth grade students write opinion pieces on topics or texts that not only introduce the topic or text about which they are writing and state an opinion, but also include an organizational structure for their evidence.
  • Fifth graders are expected to logically order and group their evidence for the purpose of advancing their claims. Students broaden their use of linking, or transition words, to also include words like because, therefore, since and form example to link their opinions and reasons for their opinions. Students need to have a concluding statement or section and relate it to the opinion they have presented.
  • In sixth through eighth grade, students’ pieces are no longer opinion pieces, but rather argument pieces. Students write arguments to support their claims that include logically organized reasons and evidence based on credible sources. At this level students are also expected to argue both sides of an issue and to understand the relationship between claims and counterclaims in their writing. Students’ writing also includes a concluding statement or section that supports the argument presented.
  • As students move through middle school and high school, there is a progression of skills for effectively making counterclaims in their argument writing. For instance, students begin by acknowledging opposing claims, then later develop claims and counterclaims by supplying evidence for each. These students are also required to recognize the strengths and limitations of both their claims and counterclaims.

Anatomy of an Argument
Stephen Toulmin, a British philosopher, outlines six components that exist in well written arguments. They are:

  • Data is the facts or evidence that the writer or speaker uses to make the argument.
  • Claim(s) are the statement(s) being argued (thesis statement).
  • Warrants explain how the claim and the evidence are connected.
  • Qualifiers limit the strengths of the argument so that it is not presented as an absolute truth. (i.e. Probably, may, many, often)
  • Rebuttals are counter arguments that refute the claim.
  • Backing supports the warrants.


Use of Plastic Bags
An Illustration of the Toulmin’s Six Parts of an Argument

The use of plastic bags should be eliminated (claim) because plastic bags are damaging our environment due to the fact that they are not biodegradable and contain poisons that cause death of marine animals and other ocean life (data). The care and protection of our environment is more important than the convenience plastic bags provide for the consumer (warrant). Plastic bags that do not decompose are harmfully clogging our landfills (warrant), taking 10 to 20 years for larger pieces to break down (backing). While paper bags may be biodegradable (rebuttal), they are likely (qualifier) not a viable replacement because of the damage that would be done to trees to produce them.


Classroom Discourse as the Precursor to Argument Writing

Students should continually be reminded that the purpose of argumentation is not to name “a winner,” but rather for all participants to reach a common understanding of the topic or issue being discussed and to remain open to the ideas of others and how those ideas may shape their own thinking. Students should have the opportunity to engage in verbal argumentation under the guidance of the teacher to increase the effectiveness of written arguments. The teacher’s role is to help initiate the dialogue, while students learn to intellectually engage with others’ ideas by reflecting and building on their explanations. Therefore, I offer some strategies for the teacher to use in order to help navigate the conversations students have in preparation for their argument writing.

Invite students to shape the classroom culture for argumentation.
In an effort to move students towards student centered classroom discourse, students should be included in making that shift in the classroom. Include students in developing the classroom norms for argumentation and discourse, and post them for all to see. For example, students may agree that all participants listen, everyone makes contributions, everyone’s thinking is valued and honored, all participants remain open to new ideas, no one is left out, and/or all participants learn how to respectfully agree and disagree. Once the norms are established for respectful argumentation, they should be made accessible to everyone, reinforced, and celebrated when they are followed.

Argue issues that are authentic and debatable.
Joseph M. Williams and Lawrence McEnerney of the University of Chicago Writing Program explained the differences between good high school and college writing by saying argument is “a serious and focused conversation among people who are intensely interested in getting to the bottom of things cooperatively.” In order to invoke that intense interest and passion, and to have rich debates that are sustainable, the issues students are exploring must be relevant, allow for opposing viewpoints, and have implications in real life. Once students can argue logically with the use of high quality evidence and identify the weaknesses within their own arguments, they will be ready to take their verbal ideas and put them into writing.

To get you started, The New York Times announced an editorial writing contest and posted “200 Prompts for Argumentative Writing” from their daily “Student Opinion Feature.” They invite students to take a stand on an issue. The list is comprehensive and poses debatable questions from a host of topics like education, sports, culture, technology, and modern life. Some examples are:

  • How important is Arts education?
  • Is your school day too short?
  • Does technology make us more alone?
  • Should video games be considered a sport?
  • How should parents handle a bad report card?
  • Can money buy you happiness?
  • How much does your neighborhood define who you are?

Be prepared with high quality questions.
The purpose of argumentation and classroom discourse is to construct group knowledge around the issue being studied. Initiating discussions with a high quality question is the key to the success of the discussion. Whether or not you begin the conversation with a well formulated question that welcomes opposing viewpoints will make the difference between an engaging and sustainable discussion versus one that falls flat. It is useful to plan these questions in advance of the discussion and have them at your fingertips in the event students haven’t generated high quality questions of their own.

Require students to use data and research to substantiate their claims.
When students are taking a stand and arguing an issue in the classroom, “because it’s my opinion” is not a way to rationally shape the thinking of others. Instead, students should have done their homework and used a variety of sources and pieces of evidence to advance their claims. In fact, when done well, it is the research, inquiry, and data analysis that happens first, and then the construction of a thesis statement and claims. A thesis statement will grow from the questions posed as students dig deeply into a topic or issue.

During the discussion, students should have their resources or notes handy, and be able to cite where they found information. Students may be overheard saying things like:

  • In ____________, the author states that…
  • On page ____ of _____, there is evidence of ______…
  • From my research I learned that…

Let students’ thinking drive and shape the discussion.
As we know from Vygotsky, our students learn from social interaction and engagement in discussion. Whether as a whole class, small group, or partner discussion, students learn to not only communicate their ideas, but to be active listeners who revise and expand their own thinking based on the responses of others. In classrooms where discourse is the norm, students’ ideas shape the direction of talk in the classroom. Teachers should observe students responses during individual and group work then incorporate specific responses as a basis for class discussion. Teachers may elaborate, question, redirect, confirm, and validate student responses, but it is the students’ voices who are heard the most in the discussion.

Use talk moves to model the facilitation of the discussion.
Our vision for a classroom discussion that argues a complex issue would include students responding to each other, respectfully disagreeing on points and elaborating with evidence, and sharing ideas that are so compelling they change the thinking of others. This does not happen naturally, however, without scaffolding and support from the teacher. When students are having discussions, model for them what it sounds like to build on the thinking of others, propose a new idea, or share a new question. Listed below are some “talk moves” from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics article “What Are Some Strategies for Facilitating Productive Classroom Discussions?”

  • Use wait time in order to give everyone the time they need to think and plan their responses
  • Invite participation from all students
  • Revoice students’ ideas
    What I hear you saying is…
    Have I got that right?
  • Ask students to revoice a classmate’s response
    Can someone else say in their own words what ___ just said?
  • Probe students’ thinking
    Can you tell us more?
    Can you say more about that?
  • Provide students with the opportunity to engage with the thinking of others.
    Can you share how your thinking connects with _____’s thinking?
    Can you share how your thinking is in contrast to ______’s thinking?
    Summarize our discussion so far. What do you feel have been the most important points?

Provide a summary and closure.
At the end of the discussion, assist students in getting back to the salient points that were made and the ideas that were shared. Students should leave the conversation with a greater depth of understanding of the topic or issue than they had when they started the conversation.

It is clear, given the presence of argument in college cultures, that the critical thinking, inquiry, and reasoning associated with argument are a top priority. Learning standards for most states use some or all of the following characteristic to describe students who are ready for college and career.

  • Construct effective arguments and convey information
  • Discern a speaker’s key points, request clarification, and ask relevant questions
  • Establish a base of knowledge across a wide range of subject matter
  • Adapt their communication in relation to audience, task, purpose and discipline
  • Remain engaged, open-minded, and discerning readers and listeners
  • Question author’s assumptions and premises and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning
  • Cite specific evidence when offering interpretations
  • Use relevant evidence when supporting their own points in writing and speaking and make their reasoning clear to the reader or listener
  • Constructively evaluate others’ use of evidence
  • Use various technological tools and mediums best suited to their communication goals
  • Actively seek to understand the perspectives of others
  • Communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds
  • Evaluate other points of view critically and constructively



Resources for Argumentation

“Argumentative v. Persuasive Writing.” Warren, IN: Smekens Education Solutions, Inc., 2011. Accessed at: imavex.vo.llnwd.net/o18/clients/smekenseducation/images/Genre_Specific/Pers-Arg-Full-Essays.jpg

Cirillo, Michelle. “What Are Some Strategies for Facilitating Productive Classroom Discussions?” Reston, VA: National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, 2013. Accessed at: www.nctm.org/news/content.aspx?id=35386

“Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects: Appendix A.” Washington, D.C.: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010. Accessed at: www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf

Hillocks Jr., George. “Teaching Argument for Critical Thinking and Writing: An Introduction.” English Journal. July 2010. Accessed at: www.ncte.org/library/nctefiles/ej0996focus.pdf

Gonchar, Michael. “200 Prompts for Argumentative Writing.” The New York Times. February 2, 2014. Accessed at: learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/04/200-prompts-for-argumentative-writing/

Schmoker, Mike and Gerald Graff. “More Argument, Fewer Standards.” Education Week. April 19, 2011. Accessed at: www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/04/20/28schmoker.h30.html

“Students Who Are College and Career Ready in Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, & Language.” Washington, D.C.: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2014. Accessed at: www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/introduction/students-who-are-college-and-career-ready-in-reading-writing-speaking-listening-language/

Toulmin, Stephen. “The Toulmin Model of Argumentation.”
Accessed at: www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~digger/305/toulmin_model.htm

Plastic Bag Debate Resources

Dignan, Jennifer. “Bag-Ban Debate.” Scholastic News. April 14, 2009. Accessed at: www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3751739

Joyce, Jaime. “Are Reusable Bags Dangerous?” Time for Kids. November 2010. Accessed at: www.timeforkids.com/node/11841/print

Magaziner, Lauren. “Plastic Bags: Convenient or Cruel?” Scholastic Storyworks. April 2014. Accessed at: mwmsteacherweb.wikispaces.hcpss.org/file/view/Plastic+Bags+Article+and+sheet.pdf

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. “Is It Time to Bag the Plastic?” The New York Times. May 18, 2013. Accessed at: www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/sunday-review/should-america-bag-the-plastic-bag.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0


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Please include the following citation on all copies:

Clayton, Heather. “Why and How to Engage Students in Classroom Discourse and Argumentative Writing.” Making the Standards Come Alive! Volume III, Issue VII, 2014 (Updated 2020). Available at www.justaskpublications.com. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). ©2020 by Just ASK. All rights reserved.