5 Steps to Teaching Argumentative Writing

By on March 31, 2015

Teaching students how to write arguments is both fun and challenging. Students have opinions, they want to be heard, but they need to learn how to make well reasoned arguments that are supported with strong evidence. This eCoach guides teachers through five simple steps that teach students how to write credible arguments.

Step One: Choose a High Interest Topic

When teaching argumentative writing, the topics we choose should be familiar and interesting to our students. Consider the list below.

  • Should schools give homework?
  • Should schools give letter grades?
  • Should colleges look at students’ social media sites as part of the acceptance process?
  • Should businesses be allowed to advertise on school campuses?
  • Should we pay college athletes?
  • Should schools allow students to play contact sports like hockey, lacrosse, and football?

It is important to acknowledge that not all writing tasks have high interest topics. In order to prepare for state exams, college aptitude tests like the SAT and ACT, and AP writing exams, students need to practice writing about subject matter that is less emotional and not as exciting. That said, high interest topics are great place to start when teaching students how to write arguments.

It might be a good idea to let students talk about the topic in small groups before you move to Step Two. Students will have lots to say about the above topics and will most likely list opinions. We want students to get their thoughts out so that they are ready to listen and learn.

Step Two: Explicitly Teach the Difference between Claims and Opinion

Since we are asking students to take a position on topics that are interesting to them, they might want to list their opinions on the subject instead of crafting a reasonable response that is supported with evidence. Here are three definitions that can help.

  • claim: a confident statement that (something) is true but may not be proven or supported.
  • argument: a position on a topic organized by a claim or series of claims that are supported by reasons and evidence.
  • opinion: personal thoughts, feelings, and beliefs on a topic that cannot be supported with evidence.

Use multiple scenarios and examples to show the difference between these two words. Consider writing statements on cards and giving them to small groups. Then, ask the groups to sort the statements into two categories: claims and opinions. Discuss each statement and ask students to explain why a statement is a claim or why it is an opinion. To extend the learning, ask students how an opinion can become a claim. Ask inquiry-based questions like…

What about this opinion can we argue? What needs to change? Does it need to be more focused or specific? For example, an opinion might be: “School lunches are nasty.” To change this opinion into a claim, we could say, “School lunches lack nutrition and tend to be bland.” We can support this statement with evidence. The word “bland” could be supported by looking at the amount of salt and spices in the food and the types of food served in school cafeterias. (It might be good for me to pause here and state that LiteracyTA is not making the claim that school lunches are nasty.)

These types of activities give students multiple experiences with the words “claim” and “opinion.” This is what we mean when we say “explicit.” Students need more than a definition. They need multiple ways to learn new words and clear explanations that help them understand.

Step Three: Brainstorm Claims, Evidence, and Warrants

Now that students have a better understanding of claims, guide them through developing their argument with claims, evidence, and warrants. A warrant is an explanation that connects the evidence to the claims. To get started, create a three column chart. The first chart will focus on the proponent’s argument. Start with a claim. Then, ask students for reasonable evidence that directly supports the claim. Students may need to do some research based on the claims that are made. Next, brainstorm ideas that can connect the evidence back to the claim. See examples at Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL).

(+) Claims (position) Evidence & Reasons Warrant (connection)
1 2 3
1 2 3
1 2 3

Consider working under a document camera or on the whiteboard as you complete the table. Students will benefit from seeing how the ideas build and connect. When ready, have students tackle a claim on their own or in small groups.

When the proponent’s argument is outlined, ask students to build a second organizer. This time, the class will work together to build an argument for the opposing side.

(-) Claims (position) Evidence & Reasons Warrant (connection)
1 2 3
1 2 3
1 2 3

Step 4: Explicitly Teach Counterclaim

A well reasoned argument not only acknowledges the “other side,” it challenges its own claims and discusses its limitations. Traditionally, we have taught students to include a counter argument toward the end of a persuasive essay. In argumentative writing, counterclaims can appear almost anywhere and certainly have a different function. Counterclaims (as the name suggests) are designed to challenge the claims being made in the text; whereas, the purpose of a counter argument is to acknowledge other viewpoints on the topic. Both are useful, but a counterclaim can strengthen a writer’s credibility by forcing him or her to think deeply about the argument being made, questioning its merits and plausibility.

Step 5: Get Them Writing

Once students gather their claims, reasons, and evidence, have them take a central position on the topic and give them 20-30 minutes to write their arguments. Since so much work went into setting up the writing task, students won’t need a full 60 minutes to write. I like to have students practice writing arguments in their daily journal. Journaling is seen as informal, so students feel comfortable and uninhibited. The truth is, some of the best writing comes from my students’ journals. I expect my students to write with proper grammar, punctuation, and paragraphing, but the journal doesn’t feel like a timed test or an in-class essay. 20 minutes later, my students have written arguments that include all of the major features in this writing type.

Additional Teaching Ideas

An introduction and conclusion can be challenging for our students. I have learned a few questions along the way that help my students develop authentic writing. Here are my winning questions.

Opening paragraphs

  • What is the issue?
  • Why are you interested in the issue?
  • How are you related to the topic?
  • What is motivating you to write? (Don’t say, “My teacher.”)
  • What are the common or leading viewpoints?
  • What is your position on the topic?

Supporting Paragraphs

Support and advance the argument with claims, reasons, evidence, and counterclaims.

Concluding Paragraphs

Why is this topic relevant and important to consider?

Learn more with LiteracyTA resources for Argumentative writing.

Interested in this topic? Would you like to learn more about writing arguments and supporting claims with textual evidence? Come learn with us this summer in San Diego. LiteracyTA University early bird registration ends April 30th.  

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Literacy Standards In Action

We've mapped our literacy lessons and reading, speaking, and writing skills to state standards, Common Core, and NGSS. The standards are "the what" to teach. Our lessons are "the how" to meet the expectations defined by the standards. Click on the links below to view our quick reference table that maps standards to literacy lessons.

Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital resources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
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