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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Argument Writing

Introduction

The previous unit focused on practices that support the reading and analysis of text for developing interpretations. This unit looks at a process for argument writing, which is important for communicating interpretations and further developing the evidentiary base to support claims.

The ELA/Literacy Common Core Standards identify three types of writing: (1) writing as argument focused on discipline-specific content, (2) writing as informative/explanatory texts, and (3) writing as narrative. Classroom historical investigations that incorporate argument writing fulfill the criteria for the first of these two text types. Depending on the framing of the writing assignment, the third text type could also be fulfilled by argument writing. Argument writing is especially appropriate to a disciplinary literacy approach to history and social studies since it closely reflects important ways of thinking that are embedded in historical study. That is, an argument establishes claims and supports them with evidence from the historical record. A claim made without supporting evidence or on the basis of faulty evidence is not convincing or historically sound.

Argument writing is also linked to college, career, and civic readiness. The National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) College, Career, and Civic Life C3 Framework shares common language with the ELA/Literacy Common Core Standards. The C3 Framework focuses on evidence by emphasizing the communication of student conclusions based on evidence and framed using information gathered while students read.

Lastly, argument writing provides students with an opportunity to take an active role in learning the subject matter because it encourages students to interpret rather than memorize. This implies higher student engagement, as students are asked to critically voice ideas of their own and make meaning of the evidence.

ARGUMENT WRITING

Explore: Check out Reading and Writing Activities that Promote Understanding [PDF] about argument writing.

Reflect: What types of mental processes might students encounter when undertaking argument writing? Why might these processes seem so unnatural?

Video and Reflection: Watch Using Document-based Questions for Historical Writing as an example of a class focused on writing arguments. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Consider how often your class focuses on summary writing as opposed to argument writing. When you’ve seen a focus on argument—in your class or others—what has that involved?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Ms. Westenberg structures the lesson to help students improve their argument writing. What are the different aspects of argument writing that students are working on?
  • Reflect:  How might the ideas about supporting argument writing from this video be incorporated into your own teaching? What aspects of argument writing are challenging for your students?

Video and Reflection: Now watch Presenting Facts as Evidence as an example of a class focused on using evidence in argument and counterargument. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Where are the spaces in your curriculum for students to work on making arguments?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Ms. Shanley structures the lesson to help students begin to understand the structure of an argument. How do students use evidence in this lesson?
  • Reflect: How might the ideas about using debate and making counterarguments from this video be incorporated into your own teaching as preparation for writing arguments?

USING EVIDENCE IN WRITING

Argument writing involves synthesizing the ideas present in multiple texts and then arranging these ideas to form a claim that is backed by evidence. Evidence-based writing involves an examination of evidence and the construction of an interpretation in response to an essential question and in consideration of the evidence. There are multiple forms of argument writing (e.g., editorials, letters, written debates, etc.). But in classrooms, the emphasis is typically toward essay writing. When assignments have an authentic purpose and a real audience, they are more motivating and can encourage students to interact with the real world through their writing.

As with the reading strategies presented in the previous unit, writing is conducted and managed through a host of cognitive processes. It is vital that teachers attempt to make their own cognitive processes visible through explanation and documentation so that students are immersed in the necessary steps that writers go through when producing meaningful written products.

Explore: Read Rosa Parks: Student Work [PDF] to see examples of student argument writing in history in response to the essential question that frames the investigation of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956.

WRITING AS A PROCESS

Writing is a process that takes time to develop and is not solely confined to the final manuscript or paragraph(s) written at the end of an investigation. To build the capacity for student writing, it is important for students to consider that, as with all skills, strong outcomes follow strong practice. Therefore, writing is a process that develops over time and includes annotations, planning, drafting, revising, and editing. Writing naturally follows from reading and deliberating evidence in an investigation.

Students may be unfamiliar with argument writing, and it is usually necessary for teachers to cultivate complex writing over time. Students most often write summaries of information in school, so asking students to write arguments is usually a shift. Therefore, students need to learn the expectations and facets of argument writing. One way to do this is to dedicate an investigation to learning a single step in writing process. Each step below provides a necessary scaffold for building toward the next step. However, teachers should decide for themselves how to incorporate increasing complexity.

WRITING STEP 1: SORTING AND DELIBERATING EVIDENCE

A major step in being able to sort and deliberate about evidence is to consider ways that the essential question of the investigation can be answered. Making claims in response to the question often involves developing an interpretation or taking a position. Teachers can simplify this aspect of writing by asking students to “take a side.”

This first writing strategy begins by utilizing the analysis students made of the sources while reading. When students go to write, they can use their annotations of the texts to compare pieces of evidence. This is a process of deliberating about the evidence and sorting annotations in order to develop an interpretation.

At this step of writing, certain graphic organizers (T-chart, Venn Diagram, etc.) can support students in separating evidence into opposing sides for opposing claims. One way to sort evidence is “evidence for” versus “evidence against.” Another would be to sort evidence into three categories of “evidence that supports only side 1,” “evidence shared by both sides,” and “evidence that only supports side 2.” More complex forms of sorting evidence include tracking and comparing key points made by different sources.

Explore: Check out these graphic organizers students can use to categorize their ideas when investigating the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956: Rosa Parks: 5-Day Lesson Plan [PDF] and Rosa Parks: 3-Day Lesson Plan [PDF].

Sorting evidence provides students with the opportunity to consider what evidence supports different lines of argumentation and what evidence is more or less useful in answering the essential question. Another way to sort evidence is by reliability. Using information about the authors and contexts of the texts, students can identify certain pieces of evidence as more or less trustworthy, given the focus of the investigation. So, the use of sourcing, contextualization, and corroboration is important in developing an argument in writing.

Video and Reflection: Watch Using the Socratic Method in History and Developing Questions that Promote Discussion as examples of teachers helping students sort and deliberate evidence, an important step to supporting writing. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about what is involved in sorting and deliberating evidence. How might attention to sorting and deliberating evidence help students write?
  • Watch the video(Using the Socratic Method in History): As you watch, notice how students use questions and evidence. In what ways do Ms. Male and Ms. McElveen help students sort and deliberate the evidence?
  • Watch the video(Developing Questions that Promote Discussion): Again, notice how students use questions and evidence. In what ways do Ms. Male and Ms. McElveen help students sort and deliberate the evidence?
  • Reflect: How do you think the focus on questions and evidence supported students’ reading and writing? At what point in the writing process could you imagine incorporating support for sorting and deliberating evidence?

WRITING STEP 2: DEVELOPING A CLAIM STATEMENT

Once students have sorted pieces of evidence that can back up claims in response to an essential question, they need to evaluate all of the evidence, decide what is convincing or useful given the question, and articulate their claim. Here, it is important to emphasize that the development of a claim should come from the consideration of evidence. That is, the claim stems from the evidence that is available.

Teachers can show students how to use the language of the question to address the question and make an overarching claim. For example, the essential question “Why did the boycott of Montgomery’s buses succeed?” could be transformed into the beginning of the claim “The boycott of Montgomery’s buses succeeded because….”

For advanced writers, teachers can teach students how to consider counterclaims, that is, the claims that could be made by someone taking an opposing side of the essential question. Moreover, students can be taught how to consider such counterclaims and then come up with a rebuttal that provides further evidence to support their own reasoning.

One method for supporting students in making claims is to provide a structured format that explicitly asks student to name the claim (e.g., “Based on the evidence, I think that _____________.”)

Explore: Revisit the Rosa Parks Inquiry of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956.

Reflect: What are some sentence starters that would be useful in scaffolding the writing of students?

Video and Reflection: Revisit Reading and Responding Like a Historian as an example of supporting students to develop a claim. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about where you see claims made in writing in your everyday life. What do these claims look like?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Mr. Votto helps students develop claims. What does writing like a historian involve in his class?
  • Reflect: How might the ideas about helping students develop claims and write like historians from this video be incorporated into your own teaching?

WRITING STEP 3: ORGANIZING AND STRUCTURING EVIDENCE

In this third step, otherwise known as planning, students have now made a claim but need to plan out how to support that claim with evidence in their writing. To make this explicit, teachers help students state the claim, name what evidence supports this claim, and explain why that evidence is trustworthy or useful given the essential question.

Graphic representations of what students’ written products should include can help support students in their organizing and structuring of evidence. Such representations might be a flow chart that has students list specific parts of the claim-making process. For example, teachers could have students develop three ideas at a time by asking them to (1) write their claim in response to the question, (2) share a piece of evidence that supports this claim, and (3) explain why this evidence is trustworthy.

Reflect: What types of graphic organizers have you used with your students? Which of these might be useful for supporting students as they organize and structure evidence?

Video and Reflection: Watch Making Writing Explicit in Social Studies as an example of organizing and structuring evidence. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about the following: When you ask students to write, what do you look for in their writing, and what do you want them to do in their written work? When you write arguments, what do you include? Or, when you read arguments, what do you see authors do that makes for a strong argument?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Mr. Lazar defines good argument writing. What does he do to teach students what is involved in writing arguments?
  • Reflect: How might the ideas about making writing explicit from this video be incorporated into your own teaching?

WRITING STEP 4: WRITING A DRAFT

This last strategy supports students in their writing of prose. As sentences grow into paragraphs, teachers can model and coach students regarding how to connect ideas in a coherent manner. In this step, topic and concluding paragraphs are also modeled and coached.

Teachers can support student prose by providing sentence starters and transitional words that link sentences. Graphic organizers can support student writing in this phase both for constructing sentences and for constructing paragraphs. One practice for doing so would be to provide sentence starters for students for each part of the essay. These sentences starters might include:

  • “I believe ____________ because ________________.”
  • “One piece of evidence that supports this idea is ________________.”
  • “I trust this evidence because __________________.”

Video and Reflection: Watch Thinking and Communicating Like a Historian as an example of organizing and structuring evidence. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about the following: How often do students write drafts in your classroom? What obstacles do you find in having students write in your classroom?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Mr. Lazar supports draft writing in his classroom. What supports does he offer to help his students write like historians?
  • Reflect: How might the ideas about supporting students’ writing and draft writing from this video be incorporated into your own teaching?

REFLECTION, FEEDBACK, AND REVISION

A written product might be seen as the end result of a class investigation. But reflection, feedback, and revising have roles in the development of good writing over time. By providing an opportunity for reflection, teachers can guide students through naming aspects of the writing process that are easy or challenging for them as well as the strategies they found useful in meeting particular challenges. This helps students become more aware of what aspects of writing they are working on and ultimately assists in the development of their meta-cognitive processes that support good writing. Another part of reflection that builds meta-cognition is giving students opportunities to use their insights about themselves as writers to set goals for their next steps.

Providing timely feedback can support the development of student writing—this doesn’t always necessitate reading and commenting on every single paper in its entirety. Rather, teachers can identify specific aspects of writing on which to focus their attention and use examples from a few papers to illustrate the feedback. This strategy may encourage students to work on aspects of writing without overwhelming them.

Additionally, a revision process can provide an opportunity for students to polish or extend their writing. Since good writers do not often produce their best work in a single sitting, it reasons that students will also need multiple instances of writing in order to achieve their best product. This again encourages a view of writing as a process that develops over time.

Rubrics can clarify key aspects of good writing and can be used to assess work and identify where students need to improve. Rubrics provide a method, both for teachers and for students themselves, for monitoring student progress toward the goals for writing. Possible goals could include:

  • Developing claims
  • Supporting claims with evidence
  • Explaining evidence and how it supports the claim
  • Evaluating and critiquing evidence
  • Writing a rebuttal and/or recognizing counterevidence

Video and Reflection: Watch Using Student Data to Plan Instruction as an example of a class focused on reflection, feedback, and revision. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about the kinds of feedback you tend to give students on their writing. What do students do with that feedback?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Ms. Westenberg structures class so that students work with her feedback and reflect on their next steps. How does Ms. Westenberg help her students understand their next steps?
  • Reflect: How might the ideas from this video be incorporated into your own teaching to support students as writers?

USING STUDENT MODELS IN TEACHING WRITING

One way to encourage and support student writing is to provide existing models of student work. Providing students with a range in the quality of models at each step of writing can support them in understanding what makes for higher-quality writing. The class as a whole can then dissect and notice the key features of argument in models to help become familiar with this type of writing.

Teachers can also look at models of student writing (generally obtained both outside the classroom and from other students within the classroom) to better understand how adolescents write and what they might have difficulty with. Examples of student writing may reveal that students struggle with some aspects more than others. This kind of analysis can help teachers shape and focus the feedback they give to their classes.

USING WRITING AS ASSESSMENT

While student writing can be used as a form of summative assessment (end product) to gauge whether students accomplished a specific objective, consider writing as a formative (ongoing) assessment of how well students are developing skills over time.

While each step of writing in this unit has been laid out in a progression toward writing prose, a teacher might want to only focus on only one aspect of writing within a single investigation. Therefore, student performance in annotating, graphic organization/conceptual mapping, and the writing of prose can be seen as developing over time, reinforcing the notion that writing is a long-term process.

Video and Reflection: Revisit Using Student Data to Plan Instruction as an example using writing as assessment. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about the kinds of data you collect on your students. What do you learn about your students’ understandings and skills from the data you collect?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Ms. Westenberg uses data to get a sense of students’ learning. What is the role of students’ writing in helping the teacher assess students?
  • Reflect: How might the ideas about assessing students from this video be incorporated into your own teaching?

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Credits

Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4