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April 2014 | Volume 71 | Number 7
Writing: A Core Skill
In the real world, argument is everywhere. It should be at home in all the content areas.
Let's put the Common Core State Standards aside for a second, as blasphemous as that might sound, considering the tone of the conversation these days. We don't teach something merely because it appears on a list of priorities somewhere. After all, lists change. In education, yesterday's priority often becomes today's fad. What never changes, however, is the fact that we educators must prepare our students today for their tomorrows.
Enter the art of argument. Not only do the Common Core standards emphasize this skill—it's also one that students must use long after they've left our care.
Many people see this new focus on argument as some alien from a B-level horror movie, a blob-like entity that destroys all other genres that dare to cross its path. Narrative, a beloved favorite, seems to have been downgraded by the Common Core standards as something to merely fit in when you can. And literary analysis seems to have been absorbed into the definition of argument.
But there's a more positive way to view this, and it entails clarifying what argument really is. Argument doesn't just allow for other genres—it showcases them in a real-world way. Yes, the standards require that argument must take a more prominent position, but argument is best when it shares the limelight with other genres. After all, an argument essay or debate that doesn't include narrative or analysis wouldn't be very strong.
For those of us who teach writing, this means protecting the various elements that help boost argument—those that derive from narrative, analysis, and summary. And for content-area teachers, it's more than just throwing students a persuasive prompt every now and then. It means developing in students an eye for argument and a comfort in writing this genre. It means both teaching and assessing argument writing.
The need to focus on argument has always been there; it's not some new fad. However, teachers have been so inundated lately with content standards and testing that they've been hard-pressed to teach this most authentic way to communicate their content.
Argument is inescapable. It's at the heart of all career-based writing. I'm talking about the professional debate, the cover letter pitch, the interview, the grant application, the executive summary. Because argument appears in so many situations in life beyond school, students need to experience it not just as a separate skill in writing class but as a skill that's crucial to all content areas.
Although implementing argument rests on the shoulders of every teacher, writing teachers have a more specific role. We need to focus on those elements of writing that easily transfer into argument. Here are some key transferable skills that I teach in my narrative unit:
So how can content-area teachers honor the real-life application of their subject matter and, at the same time, hone students' skills in evaluating and writing arguments?
Start by having a small bulletin board in your classroom or space on your classroom website that showcases your subject in the world beyond school. In physical education, you might post an editorial in the newspaper that debates doping in sports or an athlete's response to allegations. In science, you might post a screenshot from the Facebook meme "This Week in Science."
Better yet, have students seed the content of the board. Ask them to hunt for real-world applications of your subject matter. In language arts, I have students bring in any news items they find that relate to Shakespeare. A while ago, when the skeleton of Richard III was discovered underneath a car park in England, the debate was very public about Shakespeare's interpretation of the king as opposed to the reality of the corpse's anatomy. Grim stuff, true, but really fun for middle schoolers.
Content-area teachers can also use various strategies that lend themselves to argument writing. Let's look at some applications.
To get students thinking about theme, teachers might explore the following questions with their students:
Students can more smoothly embed evidence in their writing by using transition stems, words, and phrases. Give a list of possibilities to help nudge students along, including such words and phrases as nevertheless, admittedly, according to, in other words, conversely, what the expert means is, on the other hand, this authority states that, in addition, and as one can see.
Using sensory details helps students embed information more deeply and memorably. Teachers can draw these details out of students by asking probing questions.
Here's a short list of writing skills used in argument that all teachers should develop in their students. If language arts teachers initially teach them, and if all content-area teachers then support their use, all student writing, not just argument writing, will improve.
This is a crucial skill in all content areas. In an essay in language arts that advocates for an issue, students need to be able to summarize the background of that issue, preferably embedded in the introduction, so the reader knows the context. In a history essay, students need to summarize the events in a timeline to situate their topic in relation to other events.
It's vital that students can boil down their thinking into a single sentence that encapsulates their main idea. In science, if students are writing a scientific argument, the thesis is a version of the hypothesis they're trying to prove. The thesis statement might appear toward the end of the introduction paragraph; it might also serve as a hook to get the reader involved.
Argument is all about logical evidence. It isn't about tears—it's about proof. Whether students are writing a fact-based narrative like a science fiction story or an analysis of a scientific observation, they need scaffolds that can help them embed evidence.
Provide lessons on Google Advanced Search and how to cite sources. Suggest sentence stems that students can use to launch into a quote and give alternative words for the word said. Writing in all subjects requires textual evidence, not just personal experience, if it's to meet the rigorous requirements in the Common Core standards. Great writing integrates that evidence fluidly.
You can't just embed evidence in a sentence and leave it hanging with no connection or rationale. Adding commentary is one of the greatest indications of sophisticated thought in writing. Some key ways to get students to add commentary is to ask them to make a prediction on the basis of their argument; pose a thoughtful question; connect the topic to themselves, the world, or current events; or find a metaphor for their topic.
For instance, in an elective such as Speech and Debate, a student might prove that oral presentation in classrooms is vital by submitting the evidence that one of the leading phobias in the United States is public speaking. His or her commentary might add that speaking in front of the class is not unlike 10 minutes of hearing your own heartbeat pummel the inside of your ribcage. In math, this might involve connecting an equation to a real-life application, such as looking at the Pythagorean theorem through examination of a building on one's campus or in one's city.
It's vital that students understand that those who disagree with their argument can have valid points. Recognizing those points, pinpointing the gist of the opposing side's ideas, and supporting or critiquing those ideas with textual evidence is as important, and more sophisticated, than merely stating one's own opinion. Just think how far it would go in the way of empathy if people understood how to develop a respectful counterargument. Learning this skill starts in school.
In language arts, this entails recognizing authors' perspectives and characters. Why do the characters feel the way they do? In science, it's about recognizing the legitimacy of another scientist's claims or the context in which an original diagnosis was made, even if we've learned something new since then.
OK, so technically this isn't a writing skill. However, it involves evidence, and evidence supports argument.
Hyperlinking is when students create another layer of reading for their audience by identifying keywords in their draft and adding live links to more information about those keywords. Hyperlinking encourages readers to expand their knowledge of the topic and creates a more interactive writing and reading experience.
I teach and require hyperlinking in every written piece my students produce, whether it's a narrative, an argument, an analysis, or a speech. By following a student's train of thought or research beyond the written words, I get a sense of the student's comprehension behind those words. For instance, after my students read Gary Paulsen's short story, "Stop the Sun," one student wrote that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the main issue in the story. That student linked the term to its definition on the website of the National Institute of Mental Health.
I assess the words that students have chosen to create hyperlinks for, and I assess the quality of the sites to which they've linked. This is a good practice to follow in any classroom.
Content-area teachers may well be open to teaching these skills, but they may feel they need to brush up on them. So what's a school to do?
Look to your classroom experts. Find writing teachers who are willing to run an after-school or one-day professional development session on these topics. Similarly, exchange thoughts on how writing teachers can incorporate more content-area writing in their language arts classrooms.
The Common Core standards are, after all, about integrating subjects and teaching more of that which lives and breathes in the world outside school. The standards are about argument, sure. But they're really about good writing as a whole.
Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a middle school teacher in Los Angeles, California, and author of Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing in the Content Areas (Routledge, 2014) and 'Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers (Eye on Education, 2011.) She blogs at http://tweenteacher.com/blog.
Copyright © 2014 by ASCD
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