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For seven years, I was a writing teacher. Yes, I was certified to teach the full spectrum of English language arts—literature, grammar and usage, speech, drama, and so on—but my absolute favorite, the thing I loved doing the most, was teaching students how to write.
Most of the material on this site is directed at all teachers. I look for and put together resources that would appeal to any teacher who teaches any subject. That practice will continue for as long as I keep this up. But over the next year or so, I plan to also share more of what I know about teaching students to write. Although I know many of the people who visit here are not strictly English language arts teachers, my hope is that these posts will provide tons of value to those who are, and to those who teach all subjects, including writing.
So let’s begin with argumentative writing, or persuasive writing, as many of us used to call it. This overview will be most helpful to those who are new to teaching writing, or teachers who have not gotten good results with the approach you have taken up to now. I don’t claim to have the definitive answer on how to do this, but the method I share here worked pretty well for me, and it might do the same for you. If you are an experienced English language arts teacher, you probably already have a system for teaching this skill that you like. Then again, I’m always interested in how other people do the things I can already do; maybe you’re curious like that, too.
Before I start, I should note that what I describe in this post is a fairly formulaic style of essay writing. It’s not exactly the 5-paragraph essay, but it definitely builds on that model. I strongly believe students should be shown how to move past those kinds of structures into a style of writing that’s more natural and fitting to the task and audience, but I also think they should start with something that’s pretty clearly organized.
So here’s how I teach argumentative essay writing.
Step 1: Watch How It’s Done
One of the most effective ways to improve student writing is to show them mentor texts, examples of excellent writing within the genre students are about to attempt themselves. Ideally, this writing would come from real publications and not be fabricated by me in order to embody the form I’m looking for. (Although most experts on writing instruction employ some kind of mentor text study, the person I learned it from best was Katie Wood Ray in her book Study Driven). Since I want the writing to be high quality and the subject matter to be high interest, I might choose pieces like Jessica Lahey’s Students Who Lose Recess Are the Ones Who Need it Most and David Bulley’s School Suspensions Don’t Work.
I would have students read these texts, compare them, and find places where the authors used evidence to back up their assertions. I would ask students which author they feel did the best job of influencing the reader, and what suggestions they would make to improve the writing. I would also ask them to notice things like stories, facts and statistics, and other things the authors use to develop their ideas. Later, as students work on their own pieces, I would likely return to these pieces to show students how to execute certain writing moves.
Step 2: Informal Argument, Freestyle
Although many students might need more practice in writing an effective argument, many of them are excellent at arguing in person. To help them make this connection, I would have them do some informal debate on easy, high-interest topics. An activity like This or That (one of the classroom icebreakers I talked about last year) would be perfect here: I read a statement like “Women have the same opportunities in life as men.” Students who agree with the statement move to one side of the room, and those who disagree move to the other side. Then they take turns explaining why they are standing in that position. This ultimately looks a little bit like a debate, as students from either side tend to defend their position to those on the other side.
Every class of students I have ever had, from middle school to college, has loved loved LOVED this activity. It’s so simple, it gets them out of their seats, and for a unit on argument, it’s an easy way to get them thinking about how the art of argument is something they practice all the time.
Step 3: Informal Argument, Not so Freestyle
Once students have argued without the support of any kind of research or text, I would set up a second debate; this time with more structure and more time to research ahead of time. I would pose a different question, supply students with a few articles that would provide ammunition for either side, then give them time to read the articles and find the evidence they need.
Next, we’d have a Philosophical Chairs debate (learn about this in my discussion strategies post), which is very similar to “This or That,” except students use textual evidence to back up their points, and there are a few more rules. Here they are still doing verbal argument, but the experience should make them more likely to appreciate the value of evidence when trying to persuade.
Before leaving this step, I would have students transfer their thoughts from the discussion they just had into something that looks like the opening paragraph of a written argument: A statement of their point of view, plus three reasons to support that point of view. This lays the groundwork for what’s to come.
Step 4: Introduction of the Performance Assessment
Next I would show students their major assignment, the performance assessment that they will work on for the next few weeks. What does this look like? It’s generally a written prompt that describes the task, plus the rubric I will use to score their final product.
Anytime I give students a major writing assignment, I let them see these documents very early on. In my experience, I’ve found that students appreciate having a clear picture of what’s expected of them when beginning a writing assignment. At this time, I also show them a model of a piece of writing that meets the requirements of the assignment. Unlike the mentor texts we read on day 1, this sample would be something teacher-created (or an excellent student model from a previous year) to fit the parameters of the assignment.
Step 5: Building the Base
Before letting students loose to start working on their essays, I make sure they have a solid plan for writing. I would devote at least one more class period to having students consider their topic for the essay, drafting a thesis statement, and planning the main points of their essay in a graphic organizer.
I would also begin writing my own essay on a different topic. This has been my number one strategy for teaching students how to become better writers. Using a document camera or overhead projector, I start from scratch, thinking out loud and scribbling down my thoughts as they come. When students see how messy the process can be, it becomes less intimidating for them. They begin to understand how to take the thoughts that are stirring around in your head and turn them into something that makes sense in writing.
For some students, this early stage might take a few more days, and that’s fine: I would rather spend more time getting it right at the pre-writing stage than have a student go off willy-nilly, draft a full essay, then realize they need to start over. Meanwhile, students who have their plans in order will be allowed to move on to the next step.
Step 6: Writer’s Workshop
The next seven to ten days would be spent in writer’s workshop, where I would start class with a mini-lesson about a particular aspect of craft. I would show them how to choose credible, relevant evidence, how to skillfully weave evidence into an argument, how to consider the needs of an audience, and how to correctly cite sources. Once each mini-lesson was done, I would then give students the rest of the period to work independently on their writing. During this time, I would move around the room, helping students solve problems and offering feedback on whatever part of the piece they are working on. I would encourage students to share their work with peers and give feedback at all stages of the writing process.
If I wanted to make the unit even more student-centered, I would provide the mini-lessons in written or video format and let students work through them at their own pace, without me teaching them. (To learn more about this approach, read my post on self-paced learning).
As students begin to complete their essays, the mini-lessons would focus more on matters of style and usage. I almost never bother talking about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or usage until students have a draft that’s pretty close to done. Only then do we start fixing the smaller mistakes.
Step 7: Final Assessment
Finally, the finished essays are handed in for a grade. At this point, I’m pretty familiar with each student’s writing and have given them verbal (and sometimes written) feedback throughout the unit; that’s why I make the writer’s workshop phase last so long. I don’t really want students handing in work until they are pretty sure they’ve met the requirements to the best of their ability. I also don’t necessarily see “final copies” as final; if a student hands in an essay that’s still really lacking in some key areas, I will arrange to have that student revise it and resubmit for a higher grade.
So that’s it. If you haven’t had a lot of success teaching students to write persuasively, and if the approach outlined here is different from what you’ve been doing, give it a try. And let’s keep talking: Use the comments section below to share your techniques or ask questions about the most effective ways to teach argumentative writing.
Want this unit ready-made?
If you’re a writing teacher in grades 7-12 and you’d like a classroom-ready unit like the one described above, including mini-lessons, sample essays, and a library of high-interest online articles to use for gathering evidence, take a look at my Argumentative Writing unit. Just click on the image below and you’ll be taken to a page where you can read more and see a detailed preview of what’s included.
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Bring in a few print copies of a newspaper, whether The Times or a local or school paper, and have your students work in small groups to contrast a news page with an opinion page and see what they discover.
Though this piece, “And Now a Word From Op-Ed,” is from 2004, it still provides a useful and quick overview of The Times’s Opinion section, even if the section then was mostly a print product. It begins this way:
Here at the Op-Ed page, there are certain questions that are as constant as the seasons. How does one get published? Who chooses the articles? Does The Times have an agenda? And, of course, why was my submission rejected? Now that I’ve been Op-Ed editor for a year, let me try to offer a few answers.
This 2013 article, “Op-Ed and You,” also helps both readers of the section, and potential writers for it, understand how Times Opinion works:
Anything can be an Op-Ed. We’re not only interested in policy, politics or government. We’re interested in everything, if it’s opinionated and we believe our readers will find it worth reading. We are especially interested in finding points of view that are different from those expressed in Times editorials. If you read the editorials, you know that they present a pretty consistent liberal point of view. There are lots of other ways of looking at the world, to the left and right of that position, and we are particularly interested in presenting those points of view.
After students have read one or both of these overviews, invite them to explore the Times’s Opinion section, noting what they find and raising questions as they go. You might ask:
• What pieces look most interesting to you? Why?
• What subsections are featured in the links across the top of the section (“Columnists”; “Series”; “Editorials”; “Op-Ed”; “Letters”; etc.) and what do you find in each? How do they seem to work together?
• How do you think the editors of this section decide what to publish?
• What role does this section seem to play in The Times as a whole?
• Would you ever want to write an Op-Ed or a letter to the editor? What might you write about?
If your students are confused about where and how news and opinion can sometimes bleed together, our lesson plan, News and ‘News Analysis’: Navigating Fact and Opinion in The Times, can help.
And to go even deeper, this lesson plan from 2010 focuses on a special section produced that year, “Op-Ed at 40: Four Decades of Argument and Illustration.” It helps students understand the role the Op-Ed page has played at The Times since 1970, and links to many classic pieces.
2. Know the difference between fact and opinion.
In our lesson plan Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion, you’ll find activities students can use with any day’s Times to practice.
For instance, you might invite them to read an Op-Ed and underline the facts and circle the opinion statements they find, then compare their work in small groups.
Or, read a news report and an opinion piece on the same topic and look for the differences. For example, which of the first paragraphs below about the shooting in Las Vegas is from a news article and which is from an opinion piece? How can they tell?
Paragraph A: After the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, the impulse of politicians will be to lower flags, offer moments of silence, and lead a national mourning. Yet what we need most of all isn’t mourning, but action to lower the toll of guns in America. (From “Preventing Mass Shootings Like the Vegas Strip Attack”)
Paragraph B: A gunman on a high floor of a Las Vegas hotel rained a rapid-fire barrage on an outdoor concert festival on Sunday night, leaving at least 59 people dead, injuring 527 others, and sending thousands of terrified survivors fleeing for cover, in one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. (From “Multiple Weapons Found in Las Vegas Gunman’s Hotel Room”)
3. Analyze the use of rhetorical strategies like ethos, pathos and logos.
Do your students know what ethos, pathos and logos mean? The video above, “What Aristotle and Joshua Bell Can Teach Us About Persuasion,” can help. We use it in this lesson plan, in which students explore the use of these rhetorical devices via the Op-Ed “Rap Lyrics on Trial” and more. The lesson also helps students try out their own use of rhetoric to make a persuasive argument.
In the post, we quote a New Yorker article, “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You,” that explains the strategies in a way that students may readily understand:
In 350 B.C., Aristotle was already wondering what could make content — in his case, a speech — persuasive and memorable, so that its ideas would pass from person to person. The answer, he argued, was three principles: ethos, pathos, and logos. Content should have an ethical appeal, an emotional appeal, or a logical appeal. A rhetorician strong on all three was likely to leave behind a persuaded audience. Replace rhetorician with online content creator, and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely modern. Ethics, emotion, logic — it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to me, it makes sense. If you look at the last few links you shared on your Facebook page or Twitter stream, or the last article you e-mailed or recommended to a friend, chances are good that they’ll fit into those categories.
Take the New Yorker’s advice and invite them to choose viral content from their social networks and identify ethos, pathos and logos at work.
Or, use the handouts and ideas in our post An Argument-Writing Unit: Crafting Student Editorials, in which Kayleen Everitt, an eighth-grade English teacher, has her students take on advertising the same way.
Finally, if you’d like a recommendation for a specific Op-Ed that will richly reward student analysis of these elements, Kabby Hong, a teacher at Verona Area High School in Wisconsin, who will be our guest on our “Write to Change the World” webinar, recommends Nicholas Kristof’s column “If Americans Love Moms, Why Do We Let Them Die?“
4. Identify claims and evidence.
The Common Core Standards put argument front and center in American education, and even young readers are now expected to be able to identify claims in opinion pieces and find the evidence to support them.
We have a number of lesson plans that can help.
First, Constructing Arguments: “Room for Debate” and the Common Core Standards, uses an Opinion feature that, though now defunct, can still be a great resource for teachers. Use the archives of Room for Debate, which featured succinct arguments on interesting topics from a number of points of view, to introduce students to perspectives on everything from complex geopolitical or theological topics to whether people are giving Too Much Information in today’s Facebook world.
We also have two comprehensive lesson plans — For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials and I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments — that were written to support students in crafting their own editorials for our annual contest. In both, we first introduce readers to “mentor texts,” from The Times and elsewhere, that help them see how effective claims, evidence and counterclaims function in making a strong argument.
Finally, if you’re looking for a fun way to practice, we often hear from teachers that our What’s Going On in This Picture? feature works well. To participate, students must make a claim about what they believe is “going on” in a work of Times photojournalism stripped of its caption, then come up with evidence to support what they say.
5. Adopt a columnist.
We have heard from many teachers over the years that a favorite assignment is to have students each “adopt” a different newspaper columnist, and follow him or her over weeks or months, noting the issues they focus on and the rhetorical strategies they use to make their cases. Throughout, students can compare what they find — and, of course, apply what they learn to their own writing.
For example, here is a sample assignment we found online called “Summer Reading Columnist Project.” If you would like to try it with The Times, here are the current Op-Ed columnists:
Charles M. Blow
Thomas L. Friedman
6. Explore visual argument-making via Times Op-Art, editorial cartoons and Op-Docs.
The New York Times regularly commissions artists and cartoonists to create work to accompany Opinion pieces. How do illustrations like the one above add meaning to a text, while grabbing readers’ attention at the same time? What can students infer about the argument being made in an Op-Ed article by looking at the illustration alone?
In this lesson plan, students investigate how art works together with text to emphasize a point of view. They then create their own original illustrations to go with a Times editorial, Op-Ed article or letter to the editor. We also suggest that they can illustrate an Opinion piece or letter to the editor that does not have an illustration associated with it.
Recently, Clara Lieu, a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, told us how she uses that very idea to help her student-artists to create their own pieces. To see some of their work, check out “Finding Artistic Inspiration in The New York Times’s Opinion Section.”
If your students would like to go further and create their own editorial cartoons, we offer an annual student contest. Invite your students to check out the work of last year’s winners for inspiration. This year’s runs through Oct. 17, and we have a lesson plan, Drawing for Change: Analyzing and Making Political Cartoons, to go with it.
Another way to use visual journalism to teach argument-making? Use Op-Docs, The Times’s short documentary series (most under 15 minutes), that touches on issues like race and gender identity, technology and society, civil rights, criminal justice, ethics, and artistic and scientific exploration — issues that both matter to teenagers and complement classroom content.
Every Friday during the school year, we host a Film Club in which we select short Op-Docs we think will inspire powerful conversations — and then invite teenagers and teachers from around the world to have those conversations here, on our site.
And for a great classroom example of how this might work in practice, check out Using an Op-Doc Video to Teach Argumentative Writing, a Reader Idea from Allison Marchetti, an English teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, Va. She details how her students analyzed the seven-minute film “China’s Web Junkies” to see how the filmmakers used evidence to support an argument, including expert testimony, facts, interview, imagery, statistics and anecdotes.
Ideas for Writing Opinion Pieces
7. Use our student writing prompts to practice making arguments for a real audience.
Does Technology Make Us More Alone?
Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?
Is It O.K. for Men and Boys to Comment on Women and Girls on the Street?
Are Some Youth Sports Too Intense?
Does Reality TV Promote Dangerous Stereotypes?
When Do You Become an Adult?
Is America Headed in the Right Direction?
Every day during the school year we invite teenagers to share their opinions about questions like these, and hundreds do, posting arguments, reflections and anecdotes to our Student Opinion feature. Last year, we created a list drawn from this feature of 401 Prompts for Argumentative Writing on an array of topics like technology, politics, sports, education, health, parenting, science and pop culture.
Teachers tell us they use our writing prompts because they offer an opportunity for students to write for an “authentic audience.” But we also consider our daily questions to be a chance for the kind of “low-stakes” writing that can help students practice thinking through thorny questions informally.
This school year, we’ve also begun calling out our favorite comments weekly via our Current Events Conversation feature. Will your students’ posts be next?
8. Participate in our annual Student Editorial Contest.
What issues matter most to your students?
Every year, we invite teenagers to channel their passions into formal pieces: short, evidence-based persuasive essays like the editorials The New York Times publishes every day.
The challenge is pretty straightforward. Choose a topic you care about, gather evidence from sources both within and outside of The New York Times, and write a concise editorial (450 words or less) to convince readers of your point of view.
Our judges use this rubric (PDF) for selecting winners to publish on The Learning Network.
And at a time when breaking out of one’s “filter bubble” is more important than ever, we hope this contest also encourages students to broaden their news diets by using multiple sources, ideally ones that offer a range of perspectives on their chosen issue.
This school year, as you can see from our 2017-18 Student Contest Calendar, the challenge will run from Feb. 28 to April 5, 2018.
And, as we mentioned above, we have published two lesson plans to help guide every step:
• For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials and
• I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments
9. Take advice from writers and editors at the Times’s Opinion section.
How can you write a powerful Op-Ed or editorial?
Well, over the years, many Times editors and writers have given the aspiring opiners advice. In the video above, for instance, Andrew Rosenthal, in his previous role as Editorial Page editor, detailed seven pointers for the students who participate in our annual Editorial Contest,
This summer, the Times Op-Ed columnist Bret Stephens wrote his own Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers.
And on our Oct. 10 webinar, Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof suggests his own ten ideas. (Scroll down to see what they are, as well as to find related Op-Ed columns.)
Finally, if you’d like to get a letter to the editor published, here is what Tom Feyer, the longtime head of that section, recommends. Right now, from Oct. 9-Oct. 16, 2017, that section is offering a special letter-writing challenge for high school students. Submit a letter to the editor in response to a news article, editorial, column or Op-Ed essay in The Times from the past week, and they will pick a selection of the best entries and publish them on Sunday, Oct. 22.
10. Use the published work of young people as mentor texts.
Last year, five students of Kabby Hong, the teacher who joined us for our Oct. 10 webinar, were either winners, runners-up or honorable mentions in our Student Editorial Contest.
How did he do it? First, he helps his students brainstorm by asking them the questions on this sheet. (The first page shows his own sample answers since he models them for his students.)
Then, he uses the work of previous student winners alongside famous pieces like “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to show his class what effective persuasive writing looks like. Here is a PDF of the handout Mr. Hong gave out last year, which he calls “Layering in Brushstrokes,” and which analyzes aspects of each of these winning essays:
•“In Three and a Half Hours, an Alarm Will Go Off”
•“Why I, a Heterosexual Teenage Boy, Want to See More Men in Speedos”
Another great source of published opinion writing by young people? The Times series “On Campus,” where you can read essays by college students on everything from “The Looming Uncertainty for Dreamers Like Me” to “Dropping Out of College Into Life.”
Update: Oct. 10: Links from Our Oct. 10 Webinar
On our Oct. 10 webinar (still available on-demand), Nicholas Kristof talked teachers through ten ways anyone can make their persuasive writing stronger. Here is a list of his tips, along with the columns that relate to each — though you’ll need to watch the full webinar to hear the stories and examples that illustrate them.
Nicholas Kristof’s Ten Tips for Writing Op-Eds
1. Start out with a very clear idea in your own mind about the point you want to make.
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2. Don’t choose a topic, choose an argument.
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3. Start with a bang.
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4. Personal stories are often very powerful to make a point.
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5. If the platform allows it, use photos or video or music or whatever.
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6. Don’t feel the need to be formal and stodgy.
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7. Acknowledge shortcomings in your arguments if the readers are likely to be aware of them, and address them openly.
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8. It’s often useful to cite an example of what you’re criticizing, or quote from an antagonist, because it clarifies what you’re against.
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9. If you’re really trying to persuade people who are on the fence, remember that their way of thinking may not be yours.
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10. When your work is published, spread the word through social media or emails or any other avenue you can think of.
Related: You can find Nicholas Kristof on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, his Times blog, and via his free newsletter.Continue reading the main story