Helping learners to develop written arguments
In this final article about teaching writing, we will look at another common essay genre: argument essays. Argumentation operates in different ways in different languages and cultures, so we cannot assume that learners will fulfil the expectations of one culture’s style of persuasion (the one from which the assessment is taking place), by using the techniques they have learnt in their first culture.
Argumentation depends on several factors: the selection of appropriate points to argue a case, logical organisation of these ideas, the development of paragraphs in line with the thesis and use of persuasive language. Working on each of these areas of student writing will raise the quality of argumentation that results in the finished essays that land on your desk.
Selection of appropriate points
You may be surprised at how difficult this step can be, especially when students are under time pressure in an exam or timed essay situation. Stress and pressure can send logic out of the window, and the most tenuous links between topics can end up on the page.
This stage represents part of the planning of the essay, something which rarely happens in timed situations. However, taking one or two minutes to map out a logical set of reasons, examples and paragraph topics can make the difference between a fragile argument and one that holds water.
As a guide, it is useful for students to map out the key features of a strong argumentative piece:
The thesis: Statement of which position the writer holds (for / against the essay prompt)
3 Positive or negative examples, causes and effects, reasons and topics to support the thesis (one per paragraph). For example:
Essay prompt: Fast food consumption causes more serious problems in areas other than human health.
Support - environmental problems - cause/effect - waste / deforestation
Support - loss of food culture - example - fast food chains take over / single culture of food
Support - employment - cause/effect - minimum wage / no chance for development / poor working conditions
A quick map of the essay in this way can prompt students for the language and structure they will use in their paragraphs, as well as the examples they will use, saving them time when they come to write the piece.
2) Organisation of ideas
Once students have a set of appropriate points to use, it is important to organise them into an appropriate structure for the argument to have a flow. Three positive points in support of a thesis is fine, but students need to think about which of these follow on logically to develop an overall line of argumentation.
Think about: What is the impact of each of the points? Is it better to build to the biggest supporting point towards the end of the essay (this is usually more effective), or hit the reader with the biggest point first? Is there a flow from general benefits / drawbacks to more specific examples of why the thesis is supported (or not)? Building to a line of argumentation through the total essay has a big effect on the reader.
3) Development of ideas
When developing a set of argumentative paragraphs, it is important that the writer returns to the thesis of the argument in different ways, to strengthen the point. Having supporting ideas prepared is only half the battle. Developing each point logically takes some care, remembering that it is the writer’s job to lead the reader through their points, rather than the reader’s responsibility to unpick vague links.
Make sure there is a clear, step-by-step connection between the reasons and the results / causes and effects / topic and examples, showing your train of thought through the argument. To do this, I often use a flow-chart with students to demonstrate a logical flow through a topic:
Start with an unexpected cause and effect: Fast food consumption —> water pollution
Ask students to explain the link between the two issues, then present them with a list of ideas to put in order:
Rising demand for hamburgers
—> More demand for beef
—> More land devoted to cattle farming
—> Rising deforestation
—> Runoff from cattle fields which would have retained water as forest
—> pollution in rivers and streams
Stating every step of the cause / effect process ensures that the reader is never left behind on the train of points being made. Spell out the positives and negatives step by step, and the reader is more likely to follow the writer’s points.
4) Use of persuasive language and structures
Finally, as the essay is unfolding, students need to be aware of the tone of the language they are using, which can strengthen an argument significantly. If they are arguing against something, then negative language is more effective when referring to it. In support of a point, a more positive bias will be needed. Some techniques for this are:
Using concession and rebuttal to strengthen the argument in the second part of the sentence structure: ‘Most people think that ____ is a good thing. However, in reality, it causes more problems than it solves’
Setting criteria for fulfilment: 1) set criteria in the introduction (‘in order to be an effective solution, X should be A, B and C), then, 2) in paragraphs, state how far each topic fulfils these criteria (Y is neither A nor B. This means that it cannot be an effective solution)
Avoiding subjective or opinion-based statements - any statement in support of a thesis should be backed up by evidence, logical structure (as above), and concrete reasons rather than the author’s opinion (which should be saved for more opinion-based essay prompts)
Selecting vocabulary with a positive or negative connotation to present a topic
All of these language and structural features can be taught and practised individually at sentence and paragraph level before getting students to incorporate them into their own essays for greater impact.
In summary, to develop student writing for argumentative essays, work can be done at different levels, looking at whole texts, paragraphs and sentences to help students to organise and strengthen their points at every stage of their writing.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on specific strands of TESOL, such as EAP, CLIL, exam preparation and working towards specific language assessments.