As a teacher who loves to write and engage students with writing, I’ve experienced many challenges in attempting to bring composition into the classroom. While some students readily fill up blank pages with words inspired by their lives and stories they love, others are seemingly always in search of the best words.
More challenging still are those moments when I’ve led students through the steps necessary for expository and research-based argument writing. I’ve found that my students who are comfortable with the narrative mode are now thrust into compositing in a way that is unfamiliar ground.
This article explores some ways I’ve applied graphic organizers and visual planning strategies to the work of argument writing—which is perhaps the mode I consider the most challenging in the classroom.
First among the challenges for argument is the way that debate and disagreement are often portrayed in popular culture—shouting matches and interruption rounds where it seems that the loudest voice wins out. In my classroom, the approach that I attempt to foster for argument is one of thoughtful intention and wisely applied rhetorical strategies.
As with much of the secondary curriculum I have worked with from middle-grades English to advanced composition, sorting information into categories (ethos/ethics, logos/logic, and emotion/pathos) is a helpful step once a topic is shared and resources are gathered.
But sorting through multiple paragraphs and pages in search of the “just right” evidence can be challenging and is a critical reading practice all on its own. To support these steps in criticality, I suggest that students create a simple three-column chart in which they can begin to sort the emotional, logical, and ethics-driven elements of their argument. Using a visual scaffold to support exploration of a complex reading is an essential step for me—and I used a similar strategy just this past week in my junior-level English class to sort out ideas and compare the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
By sorting ideas in this way, students can physically see how balanced their argument actually is, and they can begin thinking about what they need to ramp up for the eventual presentation of the case.
Gathering Further Ideas
Another challenge in composing arguments is not only sorting and interpreting information, but also applying it in a way that includes informative and persuasive techniques.
As students consider the ways to apply these skills, they can begin to think through additional sources that they can use to build their foundation for thinking about the issues they’re presenting and noting the sources that help them build the strongest case. This type of exploring and writing is especially important when practicing synthesizing ideas across multiple sources.
On the surface, this process sounds like reading and rereading multiple sources (and it is). However, I apply a visual scaffold to this process to help students think about how their resources are linked and support or contradict each other. I illustrate the claim, counterclaim, and rebuttal aspects of argument structure through a visual outline, but the work of fleshing out these sections of the discussion takes place best in a mind map structure.
A simple three-circle Venn diagram can help students begin placing ideas into the claim section, and they can explore how authors overlap ideas with one another through this graphic organizer format. Ideally, they reach a point where the strongest ideas are in the center “target” point of the argument structure. They can think about best placement of these strongest ideas as leading points or final rebuttals—depending on what they want to leave their audience with. This approach is also helpful for relieving some of the stress that can surround framing what might be a challenging and less comfortable form of writing.
The additional details they gather can then be sorted further into areas of the argument structure that make sense.
Further adapting the outline style, I encourage students to think about the argument as a timeline wherein their audience is most likely to connect with information early and remember information late. Outlining is almost always a building block of what I ask students to engage with when composing. For debates and discussions in our class, writing a timeline is an effective process.
From this timeline (prompting discussion and exploration of evidence and argument), students can practice writing their own arguments and responses by modifying it and including aspects of evidence and ideas they want to share (in whatever particular order they'd like to present their research).
Crafting Closing Arguments
By approaching an argument step-by-step, as discussion and collaboration that improves through a process, I have the goal of making what might seem complicated and overwhelming much more attainable and inviting—even, dare I say, active and interesting.
I recognize that many of my students might not have had vast experiences with all of the modes of writing and composing, and I take into account that some will be more naturally inclined to some ways of writing and sharing than others. Some students eagerly take the lead in an oral debate process, while others more readily engage in the research roles and independent writing components of the work.
As with much of my work in literacy, I attempt to make an invisible process clear and visual—in this case, through graphic organizers. I am aware that teachers might find other graphic organizer options that work more effectively at particular aspects of the argument process. For example, the Venn diagram might not communicate in the ways that a teacher may want, and so a flow chart/mind map or T-chart might work as a better substitute.
I encourage teachers to modify any steps in order to better support their students and focus on the importance of critical thinking and composing for all students.