How to Teach Argumentative Writing

Students discussing a topic

One of the ELA standards for teachers in grades 4 and up in most states is teaching students how to write an argumentative paper. While this may sound easy enough, many students do not understand how writing an argumentative paper differs from writing a persuasive paper. Here are a few ways to help students learn how to craft a high-quality piece of argumentative writing.

The Difference Between Persuasive Writing and Argumentative Writing

First, let’s make sure we are on the same page by clarifying the difference between persuasive and argumentative writing.

Persuasive writing is more personal, passionate, and often more emotionally laden. The writer’s goal in persuasive writing is to persuade the reader to change their view on a particular topic. In this type of writing, the author identifies a topic and their opinion and/or desire on the topic. The author then uses primarily emotional appeals to get the reader to change the reader’s opinion on the topic. For example, a child might argue with a parent to raise the child’s bedtime or increase an allowance.

Argumentation presents an idea and a sound rationale for the writer’s conclusions. This is true regardless of whether or not the reader agrees with the writer at the end. When creating an argumentative essay, the author researches the topic and states a perspective on the topic. They then acknowledge that other viewpoints on the topic may also have merit by objectively presenting these differing viewpoints. The writer merely states their position and provides the logic behind their conclusions and perspectives.  

For example, a writer creating an argumentative piece might say something like this.

“Due to rising concerns over rapid climate change in the world, governments should subsidize the development of vehicles that run on clean energy sources such as electric or solar power (claim). While some people might say that tax dollars should not be used to subsidize private businesses, speeding the development of electric and solar vehicles through clean energy subsidies for car manufactures can speed up the growth of more environmentally friendly vehicles for all Americans (counterclaim).”

The goal of persuasive writing is to convince the reader that their viewpoint is the “right” viewpoint. It may include a heavy reliance on emotional appeals and the author’s own opinions.  In argumentative writing, the writer offers credible facts, statistics, expert quotes, anecdotes and stories to give “sufficient evidence” for the position the writer has taken on the topic.  Opinions are generally not used as “evidence” to support the position of the argumentative essay.

Introducing Students to Argumentative Writing

The best way to introduce argumentative writing to students is to give them engaging and relevant topics to think about. Interesting topics for students include social issues like immigration or social justice. They might also be interested in environmental issues like climate change or deforestation. Other issues such as pop culture, school issues, or family-related concerns may also be topics of interest to students.

An easy way to get students started thinking about their views is to present a simple question giving two choices. Some examples are: Which is a better pet – a dog or a cat?  What is your favorite place to vacation – the beach or the mountains? Where would you rather live – in a city or in the country? 

Students who prefer option A move to one side of the classroom. Students who prefer option B move to the opposite side of the room. Once in position, students find a partner and compare notes on why they chose the same option. Students then choose a partner from the opposite perspective and share why they chose their perspective. This activity helps students choose a viewpoint and identify the pros and cons of this choice.

The next step is to have students apply their thinking to several articles with different viewpoints on the same topic. One of my favorite sources for articles with multiple perspectives on a contemporary topic is https://www.newsela.com.  Choose several articles from the Pro and Con category on the NewsEla website. Select at least 3 articles from each perspective that would be interesting and engaging for your students.  For example, one topic that my students enjoyed was the topic of driverless cars. Most students had some opinion on this topic before reading the selected articles. They learned more by reading three pro and three con articles on the topic. Students got into groups of 4 to discuss what they read. They also identified evidence they felt helped reinforce their perspectives. A few even changed their perspectives based on what they read.

Once students have identified how strong evidence supports the premise, students move to writing their own argumentative paper.

Helping Students Write an Effective Argumentative Paper

 An excellent way to help students start writing their own argumentative papers is to study a few, well-written model papers. A helpful place to find student-written model argumentative papers is on the website https://achievethecore.org.

As students examine the model papers, ask them how the author presents and supports their position on the topic. Point out that well-written argumentative papers present a central argument or claim that explains the author’s perspective on the topic. They then provide clear statements that logically support the author’s position on the topic. Evidence statements might be in the form of reputable expert quotes, statistics or anecdotes. Students might even find relevant stories that support the author’s position on the topic that support the topic.

The next step is to study how other students have presented counterarguments in their essays. Students research other valid positions on their topic. In their counterarguments, the writer points out the perspective and provides weaknesses in the logic of these arguments using transitions.

Teach students to identify transition words in the model papers such as “although…. I agree that;” “while some people believe that…”; “on the one hand…”; “that is not to say that…” and similar types of counter transition words.   Here is an example on the topic of the efficacy of driverless vehicles. The author wrote: “Some people believe that driverless trucks are dangerous on the road. The fact is that in 2018 nearly 5,000 Americans died in accidents involving human-driven trucks. Studies suggest that over 90% of road accidents are caused by human error. As self-driving trucks are improved in the future, they will save lives by being safer than human-driven trucks. “

As students did with the claim section, they can also use facts, statistics, anecdotes, expert quotes, and stories to support the evidence they provide in their counterclaims.

Argumentative Papers End with A Call to Action

Finally, a well-written argumentative paper should make a final appeal or a “call to action” to the audience. What action does the writer want the reader to take on the issue? Should they contact their congressperson? Should they go out and buy a new innovation?  What exactly action does the writer want the audience to take as a result of reading their essay?  Once again, help students see examples of good final appeals in an argumentative essay. This will help writers understand the elements of a solid argumentative paper. This will have them well on their way to mastering this form of writing.

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