Teaching argumentative essay writing can be a real challenge. In addition to teaching writing, you’re also teaching skills like research and refutation. Luckily, this post includes the tips you need for effectively teaching argumentative essay writing.
I have great news for any of you gearing up to teach argumentative essay writing.
Those students of yours love to argue. (Don’t believe me? Just ask their parents!) Students love to stand up for their opinion, proving their view is correct. The challenge, then, is getting them to look at the whole picture, find supporting evidence and understand the opposing viewpoints. Only then can they craft an argument that is both factually strong and persuasive. Overall, it’s about moving them beyond the blinders of their opinions and taking a more sound evidence-based approach.
Teaching argumentative essay writing doesn’t have to be such a painful experience for both you and your students. Follow the steps and strategies below to learn how to approach the dreaded argumentative essay more easily.
The Challenge with Teaching Argumentative Essay Writing
Why is teaching argumentative essay writing so difficult, you ask? I’ve been there. The truth is, when teaching argumentative essay writing, you’re teaching more than writing. You’re also teaching research skills and encouraging critical thought and analysis. You also need to explain how to evaluate sources and evidence and the difference between fact and opinion. In many ways, you’re teaching tolerance and perspective. (The list goes on.)
Long story short, it makes sense that it’s a challenge. The key is to not rush into it. Take it step-by-step, building upon what students already know.
Moving Beyond Persuasion
The good news? Many of your students have a foundational knowledge of persuasive writing that you can use as a springboard for teaching argumentative essay writing. However, it’s important to note that, while many use the terms interchangeably, they’re not quite the same.
The main difference? Factual evidence. Your students might be used to persuasive writing, meaning writing to convince the reader of a claim rooted in their personal opinion. While it’s likely that students will argue something they are in favor of, argumentative essay writing involves using claims supported by factual evidence. Additionally, a hallmark of the argumentative essay is addressing the opposing viewpoint, a step that many students are unfamiliar with– and find rather challenging.
Consider the following steps as you move from persuasion to argumentative essay writing:
Step 1: Start with Casual Augmentation
Engage your students in a low-stakes debate before formally teaching argumentative essay writing. This approach will help get students in the right mindset as you begin to lay the foundation for effective argumentation. Don’t even mention the word essay at this point. Keep it fun and casual to break the ice.
There are many ways to approach casual argumentation in class. You can begin with an anticipation guide of controversial yet appropriate statements. After students fill it out, foster a group discussion in which students share their thoughts regarding each statement. Encourage them to move beyond simple opinions by asking why to get them to dig deeper as they support their stance.
To get your students up and moving, consider playing a game like Four Corners to get them to take a stance on a topic. Regardless of which activity you choose, spend time discussing the students’ stances. Small debates are likely to unfold right then and there.
Step 2: Add In Evidence, But Still Keep It Casual
You’ve causally engaged students in basic argumentation. However, before moving into a full-blown argumentative essay, dip students’ toes into the world of supporting evidence. Use the same activity above or write a simple yet controversial topic on the board for them to take a stance on. This time, give students a chance to gather supporting evidence.
It might be worth quickly reviewing what makes a sound piece of evidence (research, studies, statistics, expert quotes, etc.). Then, once they pick their stance, allow five to ten minutes to gather the best piece of supportive evidence they can find. After, give them another five to ten minutes to work with the others in their corner/on their side to determine the strongest two or three pieces of evidence to share with the class. Once each team does this, have them take turns sharing their stance and supporting evidence. I like to leave room at the end for “final words” where they can respond to a point made by the other side.
During this simple activity, begin to unpack the importance of solid and relevant supporting evidence.
Step 3: Bring in the Opposing Viewpoints
Don’t stop there. One of the most challenging aspects of argumentative writing for students to grasp is acknowledging and responding to the opposition. They are often blinded by their experiences, perspectives, and opinions that they neglect the opposing side altogether.
Here’s what you can do: Repeat either activity above with a slight twist. Once students pick their side, switch it up. Instead of supporting the side they chose, ask them to research the other side and find the best supporting evidence to bring back to the class. Therefore, students will engage in a casual debate, supporting an opposing viewpoint. (For a simpler, more independent version of this, write a controversial statement on the board, have students take a stance, and then find evidence for the opposing side, putting it all into a written response.) While many students might complain at first, you’d be surprised how quickly they get into the task.
Activities like these lay the groundwork for making evidence-based claims. Additionally, students will begin to recognize the role of perspective in argumentation.
Step 4: Introduce the Argumentative Essay
Now it’s time to introduce the argumentative essay. Many students will be tempted to jump right into writing. Therefore, make it clear that argumentative essay writing involves deeply investigating a topic before writing.
Next, explain how argumentative writing aims to take a stance on a topic and back it up with substantial supporting evidence. Additionally, include how argumentative essay writing requires acknowledging the opposing viewpoint. As for persuasion, explain that it must work in coordination with collected evidence rather than being rooted solely in one’s opinion.
When introducing the argumentative essay, it helps to outline the essay structure, showing students where it is both similar and different from the essays they are used to:
- Begin with an introductory paragraph. This is where the students will hook their readers and provide a summary of the issue, any relative background information, and a well-defined claim. (This is a great place to explain that claim is another word for a thesis statement used in argumentative writing.)
- Then comes the logically organized body paragraphs, each unpacking evidential support of the claim. While students are used to using body paragraphs to support their claim, remind them one body paragraph must reference and refute the opposing side.
- Finally comes the conclusion. Students are no strangers to writing conclusions. However, they should be moving beyond simply restating the thesis at the secondary level. Guide them through readdressing it in a way that acknowledges the presented evidence and leaves the author with something to think about.
Students will likely recognize the similarity between this and the traditional five-paragraph essay. Therefore, focus your teaching on the newer elements thrown into the mix that truly make it an argumentative essay.
Incorporate various mentor texts to help students grasp the elements of argumentative essay writing. There are tons you can pull offline written by students and experts alike. (The New York Times Learning Network has some great mentor text resources!) The more interesting your students find the subject matter, the better. Controversial topics always stir up an engaging conversation as well.
Teaching the Argumentative Essay Writing Process
Remember, students can quickly fall into old habits, neglecting some of the most imperative aspects of argumentative writing. Take it slow, walking students through the following steps – trust me, you’ll be thankful you did when it comes time to read a pile of these essays:
- Choose a topic. I recommend providing a list of argumentative essay writing topics for students to choose from. This prevents students’ classic “I can’t think of anything” roadblock. However, encourage students to choose a topic they are interested in or feel passionate about. With that said, I always give the option of letting students convince me (ha!) to let them use a topic they came up with if not on the list.
- Start the research. This is where students begin gathering evidence and is an opportunity to review what constitutes strong evidence in the first place.
- Understand the opposing side: Students are always confused about why I have them start here. One reason? It’s more challenging for students to see the other side, so this gets it out of the way first. Another? Some students never took the time to understand the other side, and in some cases, they switch their stance before writing their argument. It’s better to do so now than after you’ve done all your research and drafting. Lastly, I explain how understanding the opposing side can help guide your research for your side.
- Make a claim. While students may have an idea of their claim, the strongest claims are driven by evidence. Therefore, remind students that a claim is a statement that can be supported with evidence and reasoning and debated. Playing a quick game of two truths and an opinion (a spin on two truths and a lie) can reinforce the notion of facts vs. opinions.
- Write the body paragraphs. Each body paragraph should focus on supporting the claim with specific evidence. However, don’t forget to rebut the opposition! While they find it challenging, students learn to love this part. (After all, they love being right.) However, their instinct tends to be just to prove the other side wrong without using evidence as to why.
- Round out the intro and the conclusion, put it all together, and voila! An argumentative essay is born.
More Tips for Teaching Argumentative Essay Writing
- Begin with what they know: Build on the well-known five-paragraph essay model. Start with something students know. Many are already familiar with the classic five-paragraph essay, right? Use that as a reference point, noting out where they will add new elements, such as opposing viewpoints and rebuttal.
- Use mentor texts: Mentor texts help give students a frame of reference when learning a new genre of writing. However, don’t stop at reading the texts. Instead, have students analyze them, looking for elements such as the authors’ claims, types of evidence, and mentions of the opposing side. Additionally, encourage students to discuss where the author made the most substantial arguments and why.
- Provide sentence stems: As students adjust to moving beyond their opinion to include more evidence-based writing, sentence stems can be an effective stepping stone. If you want to avoid using red ink to mark up the same phrases over and over again (re: “I think,” “I believe,” “In my opinion,’ etc.), provide your students with a new bank of argumentative-friendly phrases:
- In [ARTICLE NAME/STUDY], the author states…
- According to…,
- This shows/illustrates/explains…
- This means/confirms/suggests…
- Opponents of this idea claim/maintain that… however…
- Those who disagree/are against these ideas may say/ assert that… yet…
- On the other hand…
- This is not to say that…
- Provide clear guidelines: I love using rubrics, graphic organizers, and checklists to help students stay on track throughout the argumentative essay writing process. Use these structured resources to help them stay on track every step of the way– and makes grading much easier for you.
The bottom line? Teaching argumentative essay writing is a skill that transcends the walls of our classrooms. The art of making and supporting a sound, evidence-based argument is a real-life skill. If our goal as teachers is to prepare students to be skilled, active, and engaged citizens of the 21st century, effectively teaching argumentative essay writing is a must.
So, what are you waiting for? Teach those kids how to argue the write way.