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Teaching Argumentation and Persuasion: 6 Engaging Activities Beyond the Argumentative Essay

how to teach argumentation and persuasion

There are many engaging activities to use when teaching argumentation and persuasion beyond the classic essay. While the argumentative essay can certainly be effective, try something new with one of these 6 engaging activities. Your students will be excited and eager to apply argumentation and persuasion in the classroom and beyond.

When it comes to teaching argumentation and persuasion, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning. I’m eager, excited, and full of energy. Yet, over the years, I’ve found that my students don’t always meet me with the same enthusiasm. Instead, they roll their figurative eyes at the thought of writing yet another essay.

I had to do something to save my favorite holiday– I mean unit– of the year.

I’ve spent more hours than I’d like to admit, wracking my brain for activities that would make teaching argumentation and persuasion, dare I say, fun! But the time and effort paid off. When I started implementing activities beyond the argumentative essays, my students were engaged and active participants. It was a win-win.

Lucky for you, I’ve done the work (and put in the time) so you don’t have to. Instead, simply keep reading to uncover some of my secret weapons for teaching argumentation and persuasion. The following activities can be used instead of or in conjunction with the classic argumentative essay. It’s totally up to you and what will best suit your students’ needs.

Regardless, you don’t have to spend the hours brainstorming from square one. You can thank me later. In the meantime, read on, my teacher friends!

Laying the Foundation for Teaching Argumentation and Persuasion

Before jumping into one of the activities below, you need to set your students up for success. Therefore, be sure to teach the essential concepts for effective argumentation and persuasion. Afterall, both argumentation and persuasion are cornerstone communication skills in the 21st century.

So, not only do you want to do these topics justice for the sake of your classroom. But, they’re also some of the most transferable skills your students will use in the real world.

Note: if you’re just looking for the activities, no problem! Keep scrolling– I promise they’re there.

Understanding the Difference Between Argumentation and Persuasion

While these two topics are often taught together, it’s important for students to know that they aren’t exactly synonyms. Instead, you could argue (see what I did there) these two concepts act as compliments to one another. In many cases, persuasion can strengthen an argument, and vice versa.

But again, they’re not exactly the same when it comes to speaking or writing. (However, I find it useful to remind students of one of the most important aspects they do share: there has to be at least two sides.) You can clarify the major differences between the two by looking at the main goal for each type of writing or speech:

  • The goal of argumentative writing is to get the audience to acknowledge your stance on a topic. Moreover, a strong argument shows the reader your viewpoint is valid and deserves consideration. Therefore, argumentative writing is heavily rooted in logic and facts and addressed counterclaims.
  • Goal of persuasive writing is to get the audience to agree with you and your stance on a particular topic or viewpoint. While logic most certainly strengthens persuasion, there is also a heavy emphasis on emotional elements as well.

The truth is, the two are often used hand in hand in the real world with everything from marketing and public service campaigns to politics and law. And, in most cases, persuasive writing is more personal and passionate for students. Therefore, I strive to teach the two together to increase student engagement and real word application. Talk about a dream duo for students and teachers alike!

Rhetoric and Rhetorical Appeals

I absolutely love comparing persuasion and argumentation to art. Why? Because it’s a true craft. Do I explain it that way to my students? Abso-freakin-lutely. Why? Because they need to understand that presenting a sound and persuasive argument is a skill. That these writing and speaking skills take time and effort to develop.

Enter: Rhetoric. I always begin this unit by defining argumentation, persuasion, and rhetoric, explaining how the latter literally means the art of persuasion. Then, I introduce the three main rhetorical appeals (shout out Aristotle). Rather than simply giving the students the definitions of ethos, pathos, and logos, I begin by asking questions to help reveal the definitions. Here are some of the questions I use– and that you can most certainly steal for your own classroom:

  • To introduce ethos, I ask, “Who would you trust to give advice about toothpaste? Why?”
  • To introduce logos, I might ask, “If you wanted to learn how to build a successful business, what is the benefit of a successful entrepreneur giving you step-by-step guidance?”
  • To introduce pathos, I ask, “Think about a time where you got emotional during a commercial, song, or movie. What was it that made you so emotional?”

The Power of Words

Once students have an understanding of these essential definitions, it’s time to move on to a more abstract, yet highly significant, concept: the power of words. This is where I introduce the importance (and power) of diction. This is the perfect time to explain how words impact reader/audience experience.

One of the simplest examples to make a case for this claim is asking students to analyze the difference between the terms house and home. I’ve never had a class not come to the conclusion that a house is a structure and place of living, where a home is a place filled with love.

To round out the discussion on why and how words have an impact on the audience, introduce connotation and denotation. Spending a handful of minutes explaining the emotional meaning behind words (connotation) can be a game changer. It reminds students that there is, in fact, emotional power in the words we use. To drive the point home, you can ask them to compare times when they were upset vs. angry vs. furious.

A Fun and Engaging Warm-Up Activity for Teaching Argumentation and Persuasion

What tween or teen doesn’t like arguing with adults? (Trust me. They’re far and few between.) In other words, students will eat this activity up. Rather than focusing on deep and heavy topics that require a great deal of research and unpacking, this activity is a lighthearted warm-up. The goal is to get students to start thinking about what goes into a sound and persuasive argument.

  1. Arguing with “Adults”

Working independently or in small groups, students will pick a “silly” or lighthearted topic. Encourage them to think of things they’d like to convince their parents, teachers, or other adults. Since these topics are light hearted and often come from a place of passion, students will have no problem coming up with reasons why their curfew should be extended by an hour or two or why homework should be abolished. They’re excited to argue why their parents should buy them a car or why a puppy is a must-have addition to their family.

Next, allow students five minutes to choose a topic and brainstorm their argument. Then, give them 10-20 minutes to write their argument. (The timing of this activity is flexible, so you can adjust it based on the structure of your class.) After they write out their argument, it’s time to share– and let the discussion unfold. As each student (or group) shares their argument, have fun playing devil’s advocate. Challenge them to push their arguments and reasoning further.

While you might want to guide the students through the discussion, let them really come to terms with the idea of what makes a sound and persuasive argument. And if you really want to play up the fun? Challenge the other students to play that role! Have your students in the audience play the role of the adults to whom the argument is targeted. This will challenge students to find holes in the arguments, brainstorming ways to make an argument even stronger. Additionally, it challenges them to think about the importance of audience perspective, looking beyond their own interests, blind spots, and biases. The end result? Develop a list of student generated “check-points” for an argument that is both powerful and persuasive.

Engaging Activities for Teaching Argumentation and Persuasion

Watching TV. Driving down the highway. Scrolling through social media. The art of argumentation and persuasion are everywhere. So, why not bring some of those real-life examples to your classroom? Because the truth is, persuasion and argumentation comes in all shapes and sizes. Therefore, it might be time to look beyond the traditional argumentative essay. And with these activities, you can.

  1. Mock Trial

An oldie but a goodie. In fact, discussing teaching argumentation and persuasion wouldn’t feel right without some sort of debate. So, to begin this student-centered activity, select (or have students choose) a topic to argue. This can be a murder or crime– and you can even have fun with historical topics like the Salem witch trials if it’s around Halloween or you’re reading The Crucible. Alternatively, you can root your debate in an ethical dilemma or an essential question. Generally speaking, you can look toward real life events or literature for inspiration. You can even head to your state bar association website for mock trial resources and cases– like these from the state of NH. As long as there is evidence to be found and a case to make, you should be good to go.

Before really diving into the mock trial, spend time reviewing the basics of the justice system and trials. Then, once you choose your topic, divide students into teams of prosecution and defense. Once the teams are determined, students can dive into researching and crafting their arguments. However, be sure to emphasize the need for evidence based claims while also discussing the power of persuasion in the courtroom. (There are plenty of video clips you can show and analyze to see these two elements in action.) Each group, both the prosecution and defense, are responsible for crafting an opening statement, a claim, a rebuttal, and a closing statement. For smaller classes, you can serve as the judge and jury. For larger classes, you can run several trials, letting the other groups act as the jury if they’re not presenting. Either way, students will be far more eager to win the jury over with their evidence than they are to write a paper.

There’s no better way for students to show off their new persuasive skills and knowledge of ethos, logos, and pathos than to craft their own arguments. And a mock trial allows them to do so in a way other than the classic essay. But with a verdict on the line, there’s a lot at stake. Therefore, this activity amps up eager participation.

Mock Trial Teacher Tip. Mock trials make debating more exciting– especially if you really play up the trial theme. (Have an old graduation gown? Use it as the judge’s robe! A wig? Yes please! A gavel? A must.)  So, grab your gavel and give this engaging activity a try!

  1. Students Do Shark Tank

This activity brings the worlds of business, marketing, and advertisements into the conversation. Talk about real world connection! Most older students will be familiar with this show. However, it’s always fun to show a clip for an episode or two just in case. Plus. Who doesn’t love watching videos in class? (Teachers and students alike.) Shark Tank is all about the pitch. So, have fun replicating this idea in your classroom! And instead of presenting to the likes of Mark Cuban, students will present to you. If you’re able, try getting a few other guest sharks on the “show”.

Before diving into the project, in addition to watching a few clips of the show, take some time to analyze the world of advertising. Encourage students to find connections between argumentative and persuasive writing and real-life commercials, social media campaigns, and print advertisements. Then, put students in small groups and together they will create their own product. Alternatively, you can have them pick an existing product they’re passionate about. Then, the fun begins.

Using their new knowledge of persuasive language techniques and argumentation, students must convince the sharks to invest in their product! For a fun twist that gets everyone involved, let the audience in on the investments. Print out a set amount of “money” for each student. After all the presentations, allow them to “invest” in their favorite products. As for the presentations themselves, I like to require a visual advertisement– like a poster– and a written component– like an elevator pitch. Students can then display their visuals as they give their speech. Later, students can view all of the visuals as they decide where to “invest” their money.

Shark Tank Teacher Tip. Looking to beef up the argumentative writing side of things? You can have students submit a short research-based argumentative paper that supports the need for their product. Regardless of the specifics, students will be eager to dive into this activity with such real world application.

  1. Speech Remix

From Abraham Lincoln’s  “The Gettysburg Address” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” history has its fair share of powerful speeches. And they’re great examples of argumentation and persuasion as well. So, begin this activity by analyzing a mentor text as a class. Then, turn it over to the students to showcase their knowledge on their own.

Have students choose a historical speech (you can refer to this bank of speeches here) to analyze. They can turn in annotations or a short response analyzing the rhetoric of their chosen speech. Here’s the twist. After analyzing the speech, they then use it as a mentor text, implementing its sentence structure, tone and rhetorical techniques as they write their own speech. This is where student choice really kicks up a notch. Allow students to choose a topic, cause, or issue they feel passionate about. However, I always recommend having a list of potential topics on hand for students who need a little more guidance.

Additionally, it might be useful to encourage a backwards design approach. Have students select their topic first, and then find a speech that is a good match. For example, a social justice issue might pair well with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. However, be sure students choosing unique and more modern topics are not dissuaded if they can’t find the perfect match. Regardless, in the end, this activity pays homage to great speeches of the past while allowing students to take ownership as they apply the argumentative and persuasive techniques to modern day.

Speech Remix Teacher Tip. Why limit yourself to the four walls of your classroom? This activity is a perfect opportunity for cross-curricular collaboration. Consider reaching out to the history teachers and focus your class study on a speech that lines up with the social studies curriculum. This will allow students to have a more in depth background knowledge, giving them more context for the speaker’s rhetorical approach. Similarly, a speech of this caliber might be less intimidating if they understand the context, allowing them to really focus on the rhetorical approach.

  1. #Influencer

In the age of social media, companies make a pretty penny using influencer campaigns. And it’s really quite fitting. Afterall, argumentation and persuasion is all about influence. So, to kick off this activity, spend some time looking at social media ads and influencer accounts. Be sure to analyze everything from photos to captions to hashtags.

After looking at real word examples, it’s time for students to take on the role of an “influencer” – they can be themselves or create an influencer persona. The next step is for them to choose which product of service they are “fit” to promote and, ideally, sell. Students should pick something they have experience with or knowledge about, from video games to make-up. Then, have students write a letter to the “company” (aka you) to convince them that they are capable of being an influencer. This is where they really need to tap into ethos. They should clearly explain why they are a reputable source and should be trusted to sell “your” product. If they’ve convinced you, then they can sign a “contract” (aka the assignment requirements) that outlines the agreement.

Here’s where the fun and creativity happens. While you can determine the specific requirements, students should create a portfolio of campaign materials to promote their chosen product. This is where you can determine how in depth or brief you want the assignment to be. The portfolio can include artifacts like a series of social media posts, youtube videos or scripts, an email funnel, or even blog posts– or a portfolio combining various types of artifacts.

#Influencer Teacher Tip. If you’re looking to amp up the requirements and turn this into a unit-long assignment or a full blown summative assessment, you totally can. Consider adjusting the assignment to be a multigenre project of sorts. Present students with a list and overview of various genres they can include as part of their project. Then, let them select the ones they wish to include in their multigenre portfolio.

  1. PSA – The Passion Project

The name alone screams engagement, right? Even better, this activity is engaging.  Instead of assigning a list of overused (and sometimes outdated) argumentative prompts, let students take the reins by choosing a topic that matters to them. So, after teaching your students about rhetorical appeals, the appropriate use of persuasion, and the basics of argumentative writing, let students showcase their newfound skills with the PSA Passion Project. In this project, rather than simply writing an essay for the sake of getting grades, students are diving into an issue of their choice in hopes of raising awareness.

Begin by having students select a social or environmental issue that is important to them. These can range from animal testing in the beauty industry to the impact of social media on mental health. In other words, there’s a wide variety of topics out there, so your students are bound to find something that matters to them. Then, they must plan, develop, and create a public service announcement campaign around the issue. This is where you can really drive home the idea of call to action with persuasion. The challenge with the PSA assignment is crafting an argument that is applicable and persuasive for a mass audience. Afterall, when it comes to wide-spread change, there is power in numbers. (This activity can serve as its own unit or work in conjunction with the study of classic essays like “On The Duty of Civil Disobedience” by Thoreau or “A Letter From Birmingham County Jail” by MLK Jr..

This activity has plenty of room for creativity and student choice. However, that doesn’t mean you have to give up a writing component. Instead, require students to complete a minimum of two items: a written piece and a visual or media element. The writing pieces can range from a more traditional argumentative essay to back up their media component. Alternatively, they can write a speech, persuasive letter, or educational blog post. Then, for the media components, they can create a poster, a video, a social media post, or an infographic– just to name a few. Now, if you’re really looking to diversify the elements of this project, consider turning the PSA Passion Project into a full blown multigenre project!

PSA Passion Project Teacher Tip. Despite your best efforts, some students will claim they can’t find a topic they’re passionate about. (Teenagers.) That’s why I always come prepared with a list of topics students can choose from. Even students eager to choose their own topic might like to see a list for inspiration. Save yourself some time by giving them ideas from this list of engaging argumentative writing prompts!

A Final Note on the Art of Teaching Argumentation and Persuasion

Remember, I’m not saying traditional essays are bad. But I think it’s worth looking beyond the traditions and asking ourselves, how can we make this better? Better for the students. More reflective of and applicable to the world we live in. If there’s some fun to be had along the way, so be it! (In fact, I encourage it!)

So, as you go one to try any one (or all!) of these activities in your classroom, feel free to make adjustments as needed. And If you’re still looking for a more traditional essay to be your summative assessment, that’s A-OK too! In fact, the activities above can be shortened and adjusted to serve as a mini-lesson or formative assignments before writing a more traditional argumentative essay.

The bottom line is this…

Ever since I changed my approach to teaching argumentation and persuasion, it’s become something my students and I enjoy together. Imagine that!

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