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Argumentative Writing Is a Key Focus in Common Core Standards

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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I've been examining the Common Core Standards and the upcoming assessments lately in an attempt to tease apart this huge seismic shift that is about to go down. And while I think it will have its challenges, I have to admit that I like what I'm seeing. For one thing, they prioritize a more accurate alignment of school life versus real life, seeking to blur the lines more than ever.

I applaud this, as my own motto this year as a teacher is, "If it doesn't apply to the world outside of school, then it isn't worthy of being taught within school." One of the best examples of this is how the CCS highlights Persuasive, or rather, Argumentation, across the curriculum.

For it's true that in life everything requires persuasion. Therefore, in school, every problem, every subject, and every task should come from that perspective as well.

Across the Curriculum

If you look through the Common Core Standards, you'll see words peppered all over the place that point to persuasive writing: interpret, argument, analyze. The focus isn't to provide evidence as the sole means to prove, but rather to make an argument and bring in evidence that one must then justify through argumentation.

For instance, rather than merely solving a math problem, the equation serving as the answer in itself, and moving on to the next question, there is a possibility that persuasive writing will come into play that has the student selecting what formula to use, making an argument, and using the computations as evidence to back up that argument.

In my department, English Language Arts, we are already spinning Literary Analysis into a literary persuasive composition in order to address the future of this more meaningful writing. Rather than teach two compartmentalized writing genres, doesn't it make more sense to blend the two and have the student convince the reader of the theme or the character change or the author's intent? It comes at analysis from a different, more authentic angle.

And speaking of authenticity, this concept of scenario-based assessment is one about which I am very hopeful. Now, I have been a Dungeons & Dragons player in my time, but that's not what I mean by role-play. I mean putting a kid in an authentic scenario, one in which he might find himself trying to solve "out there in the real world," and giving him the skills to apply to the problem. This kind of role-play seems like a legitimate skill to me. If we are preparing them for college and career, should we not put them in some shoes, perhaps some Birkenstocks and pumps, to try to prove their readiness?

The CCS asks that vocabulary, academic language, is not learned through memorized lists, but rather through conversation, discussion, and debate. Again, argument appears even in the Speaking and Listening standards.

The CCS asks that students collaborate and give peer reviews, critique being another form of argumentation, before having their writing assessed independently.

Preparing Teachers

The CCS asks that argument writing rear its head in many subjects.

However, the question I have as a English language arts teacher is, who is responsible? Will the ELA teachers have the sole burden of teaching and assessing the inevitable formative and summative arguments that are sure to come in all subjects? Will math teachers and science teachers and history teachers have to teach writing? I think it's neither one of these options but rather a dividing up of the responsibility to come. As for me, I think that the ELA teachers have a responsibility to help other teachers get up to speed regarding some of the intricacies of argument writing so that other teachers can confidently hold students accountable for standards taught during English class.

Here are three mini-lessons that could perhaps help to prioritize a workshop on argumentation for teachers:

  • #1 The Thesis Statement/Main Topic Sentence The thesis is the map of the essay. It not only states the argument but also gives an indication of the organization of the essay. All subjects must standardize the need to see one in a student's argument regardless of the content.
  • #2 Evidence Evidence is the quote, the computation, the data, the statistics, and the findings. Evidence backs up the argument made in the thesis statement. This is the content that the teacher as subject matter expert must verify. But it doesn't end there.
  • #3 Commentary Commentary is the original thought. It doesn't just translate the evidence to the layman; it brings in a new layer to the information that brings the argument home.

There are other components of course: counterargument, transitions, organization, word choice, conclusions, etc. But these must be taught in the ELA classroom. Nevertheless, with just a few little lessons taught to teachers by teachers, I believe other core content and elective teachers will be able to easily hold the students to a certain standard of writing persuasively.

Life is persuasive. A lawyer persuades a jury. A job applicant pitches oneself as a potential employee. A scientist competes for a grant. A writer sells her idea in her query letter. This is the writing that unlocks a world of possibilities. It is a skill that we see at every stage of life from writing the inevitable cover letter to one day hopefully writing a letter of recommendation.

School must reflect the world around it, and writing persuasively is a key skill for college and career readiness regardless of the path a student takes.

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Diana AuBuchon's picture
Diana AuBuchon
Eighth grade English teacher in Santa Ana, California

Tanks for this. Ir's a great reminder for keeping writing real. I am making new goals for my writing teaching this coming year and your ideas are very helpful. I am still struggling with the "authentic" writing the Writing Project has advocated, so thanks for helping to clear some of the mud from my glasses!

Sandra Wozniak's picture
Sandra Wozniak
President, NJ Association for Middle Level Education

With all of our mandates around bullying, it seems like asking great questions and providing different perspectives can help students improve persuasive writing. Check out these resources and questions on current issues surrounding cyberbulling.

Debbie's picture

This year, we implemented a persuasive writing unit and the students loved it! We studied commercials, ads, and book reviews to see how the world around us persuades us to try and believe specific ideas. The commercial they loved the most was the commercial with the boy who is trying to convince his parents to buy him a puppy to he made a powerpoint presentation with three different slides. This ended up helping us a lot because as a class we studied his format and made it fit our format for writing our persuasive essays. The students chose topics, we did research to find evidence to support their stance, and then they constructed paragraphs to prove their point. The students really enjoyed this writing experience because they were so invested in it. I agree that role playing is a great way to practice the skill of persuasion, and this will help them to practice the vocabulary needed to support their arguments. I think to show the students commercials and ads they see everyday is a nice way to connect the writing with their worlds, and show them they are exposed to this everyday.

Kimberly's picture
Second grade teacher from Mohegan Lake, New York.

Since I have been teaching second grade, we always have taught persuasive writing. I like how the common core is making this a requirement because students often do not know how to persuade/argue with supporting evidence. This past year we started to try and implement the CCS to better prepare us for Sept. We began having students use evidence when writing persuasive book reviews and letters. In Sept. we will have to make sure we include this into all subject areas. I liked the idea of role playing and making the scenario authentic. Students need to learn how to persuade in purposeful ways and in real situations. I like how the author stated that if it's not going to be used in the real world then it should not be taught in school. This is very true. What students learn in school should be useful in the real world; otherwise, what is the purpose of teaching it to them. This was a great read. Thanks!

Kim's picture
2nd grade teacher

I agree with a lot of the points made in this article. Persuasive writing is a key component to the Common Core. For my 2nd graders, it is going to be challenging to shift from "all about ME" to thoughtful writing with evidence/proof to back it up. It is imperative, however, to teach children this skill. As the author mentioned... "Persuasive writing is a key that unlocks a world of possibilities."
I'm excited to guide my students in this new direction- and see where it takes them!!!

lori D's picture
lori D
Reading Specialist

I couldn't agree more...we live in a world that we need to constantly be persuading others of something. This is an important life skill that needs to be taught and practiced so that our students can be successful in the world . What is taught in school needs to support the real world. When kids understand why they are learning something and when they will use it it is more meaningful and has value.
The new standards now make every teacher a reading/writing teacher. All teachers need to be trained to be able to meet these standards in their classrooms. We need time to plan out who will teach what and how. Common planning needs to take place to ensure that the instruction is shifting to meet these standards.

Rebecca's picture
Second Grade Teacher from Westchester County, NY

I agree with the author's idea of using role playing to help students learn about real life situations. Kids love to role play and pretend, and if the goal of the CCS is to have students be better prepared for when they leave school, it makes sense to give them these role playing opportunities when they are in school. I was also interested to read about the heavy emphasis being placed on persuasion, through writing and speaking. The author writes, "The CCS asks that vocabulary, academic language, is not learned through memorized lists, but rather through conversation, discussion, and debate. Again, persuasion appears even in the Speaking and Listening standards." To have students role play and use the vocabulary key to the role they are playing, is a great way to immerse them in what they are learning.

K. Dunlap's picture

It is important to note that CCSS never uses the word "persuasion" or "persuasive" in reference to writing skills. Argument is a different animal. Persuasion often relies on emotional appeals, while argument needs to be based on factual information. It is an important distinction. From K-5 they require "opinion" writing - with a spiraling in of support. But at grade 6 we go straigt to argument - much more challenging. There are 5 parts to argument - the counterclaim and rebuttal distinquish this type of writing from opinion. As early as grade 7, students are expected to at least acknowledge an opposing view. Teachers need to read the standards carefull and really understand what they need to do - teaching persuasive writing is not the same as argument!

Karen Messina's picture
Karen Messina
Kindergarten Teacher

"If it doesn't apply to the world outside of school, then it isn't worthy of being taught within school." I think there are good intentions behind this statement, but to consider it to be the sole focus in all subject areas may not be the best way to approach things.

I just recently received a literary essay from a former student of mine, and within her essay, she wrote that her love for writing began in my 5th grade class. She mentioned that as she moved on to middle shool and high school, she slowly lost the excitement and joy in writing. She stated that she didn't enjoy writing anymore because of the types of writing she was being asked to do. This young lady who is now entering college, hopes to one day find that enjoyment again.

I hear this a lot from my former students and even though they are writing and being exposed to a variety of writing styles and making real world connections, I think it is important to have a balance because it may not be the best approach for all students.

I think the most important thing about writing is to get students excited so that they will write. If we could just get students to write more their writing skills will improve and then we can introduce other styles of writing such as persuasive writing. Furthermore, if everything is based on real world connections it may take away from the imagination.

Kyle's picture

After reading this article and listening to videos relating to the article I have mixed emotions regarding each. In one sense, I believe we must teach our students about relevant topics they will face in the real world. One the other hand, I don't think we need to kill creativity by taking away ideas that aren't related to real world lessons. I find myself thinking about lessons I teach during my health classes. Students in high school are faced with real world scenarios every single day.

Decisions are made daily with regards to their personal health and well-being, however, most students don't know how to arrive at those decisions. In my classes I make it a point to teach them the decision making model then give them situations in which they must use this model. Whether it be writing out the steps, role-playing or having a class discussion, students learn the proper way to make decisions and prove it through assessments.

Another theme I have noticed in the Common Core is the idea of making students better at expressing themselves through writing and social interaction. Being an effective communicator is essential to success after high school. Like the article stated, students will have to sell themselves to future employers. I feel in this day in age with texting, computers, iphones, etc., students are losing that critical social skill which may be part of the reason for the shift we are seeing in education.

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