Ready to start teaching argumentative writing? Arguments and middle school students go hand in hand!
Looking for essay topics and ideas to help your students?
What is an argument?
That seems like a silly question, but ask your students and you’ll be surprised at the responses you get!
What you really want to focus on is the difference between an argument and writing an argument (or argumentative writing). Focus on:
- an argument is a disagreement
- in its most simple form, it has two opposing sides
- it relies on logic and evidence culled from research
- it addresses counterclaims (or opposing views)
- considers the audience
How is it different from persuasive writing?
If you’ve already taught persuasion or propaganda techniques, your students need to understand the subtle differences between the two types of writing.
Two key differences your students should understand:
- Argument writing is based on logic and fact.
- Argument writing addresses counterclaims.
While persuasive writing may include facts and address counterclaims, argument needs to explicitly include that.
It might be helpful to distinguish the two this way:
- Persuasion is used to convince you to drink a certain kind of water
- Argument is used to convince you about the guilt or innocence of a person
Getting started with Mentor Texts
Begin teaching argument writing by having your students analyze mentor texts.
Picture Books: The beauty of using pictures books as mentor texts is that they are short and easy for students to analyze.
Some fun books you can use include:
- I Wanna Iguana by Karen Kaufman Orloff
- Give Bees a Chance by Bethany Barton
- The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
- Why Should I Recycle Garbage by MJ Knight (There are several books in this “Why Should I” series — each proposing a different argument.)
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You can provide students with these quick questions to get started:
- What is being argued?
- Who is the audience?
- What are the claims in favor?
- Describe the counterclaims (those opposed)? What logic and/or evidence does the speaker use?
- Do you think the argument is effective? Why or why not?
It is often easiest for students to work with a partner as they analyze. You can even have each group of students analyze a different book.
Once they have completed their analysis, allow students to share what they’ve discovered. Use simple summarizing questions like:
- What makes the argument compelling?
- How does the writer use evidence?
- What kind of evidence is most effective?
- Rate the evidence from strongest to weakest.
As students complete their analysis and observations, as a class create a list of “Elements of a good argument” that students can record in their resource notebooks. This will provide a checklist for students as they move forward.
Once students have a list of elements of argument writing, you may want them to analyze more advanced texts.
Political speeches are a great resource for analyzing an argument since they are more complex.
Even a short speeches like the Gettysburg Address or Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” can provide students with practice analyzing an argument.
As your students work on analyzing more complex pieces, they can create an anchor chart in their resource notebook.
Try this: ask your students to list ten things they can’t live without, ten things they don’t want to live without, and ten things they want to live without.
Take each of those lists and start building ideas your students can argue.
For example, students will say they can’t live without food. What other ideas are contained in that one thought?
- fast food
- organic foods
- fruits vs vegetables
Take those big ideas and start to narrow them into topics that a middle school students could argue:
- vegetarianism — what are the health benefits for a teen?
- fast food — why should our school allow fast food vendors in the cafeteria
- hunger — does our community need a food bank?
- fruits vs vegetables — is one better than the other?
- reasons to eat dessert first
- these are the best chocolate chip cookies
- reasons to pack your lunch
Some ideas will be better than others, but the idea here is to brainstorm as many as possible. Allow students to add to keep growing their idea “trees.”
Narrow the focus
Students often struggle with writing an argument if the topic isn’t narrowed enough.
As students begin to choose what they want to research and write about, be sure you are checking in with them. Is their topic narrow enough?
Try this: ask students to generate a list of questions they need to answer for their topic. What information do they need in order to argue their point?
If their list is long, they need to narrow the topic. If it’s only a question or two, then the topic might be too shallow.
It is sometimes difficult to know which should come first — the draft or the research.
Try this: provide students with time to freewrite about their topic. Set a time for about ten minutes to allow students to “brain dump.” Tell them to just write their ideas, questions, and arguments down. It doesn’t have to be organized or perfect. This is just a way to get their ideas from their head to the paper (or screen!).
As they write, ask them to keep a separate list for questions they have or information they need to support their claims. Students should ask themselves where they need to “prove it.”
In other words, where do they need facts, statistics, or anecdotes to support their claim?
One of the hallmarks of argument writing is to respond to counterclaims. What is your opposition saying?
Try this: pair students up. Have the first student share his or her argument — giving the partner all the reasons why the argument is sound.
As the partner listens, he or she should be making a list of questions or counterclaims. The partner’s job is to challenge the writer with questions or gaps in the argument.
This kind of feedback is golden!
Before setting your students on this kind of critique, you may want to model what it looks like for them and set up some ground rules.
For example, it’s not fair to simply say, “That argument is stupid” or “I disagree.” The writer needs concrete feedback, so the listener should give specific arguments.
Drafting and final draft
As students begin to write their final arguments, check in with them to make sure they’re on the right track.
- check in with students to make sure they are incorporating research into their writing. You can quickly check by having them highlight or underline their research.
- use exit cards to get instant feedback from students — they can simply let you know if they need more help or are on track
- use a writing scheduler so you can have regular formative assessments
- set up your writing workshop mini lessons to focus writing tasks for each day — you’ll want to spend a day or two on creating a works cited and incorporating quoted material into their writing
So, are you ready to get into an argument (writing)?!