Teaching middle school and high school students how to write strong argument essays won’t only serve them in your class, but also in the real world. Think about how often you have to speak or write persuasively! Whether you’re convincing your friends which movie to see or encouraging your reluctant reader to give your recommendation a try, argumentative opportunities are all around us. Therefore, it’s an important, yet challenging task for teachers; there’s a lot weighing on this lesson!
The good news is that there are several strategies that can make teaching argumentative essays successful. In this post, I’m going to explain how I teach my students to write strong argumentative essays. The strategies in this post align directly to teaching argumentation and persuasion in AP English Language and Composition and the Common Core Standards for Informational Text.
Step 1: Start with Analyzing Arguments
The first and most important step when teaching argumentative writing is to teach argumentative analysis. Students must have a background in what makes a strong argument before they can write a strong argument.
I wrote all about how I teach argumentative analysis here. For a quick overview, students need to learn what makes a strong claim and how to support that claim with evidence. My favorite way to do this is with examples and mentor texts. The more examples they evaluate, the better. Through exposure to strong (and weak) arguments in other’s writings, students will be able to apply this analysis to their writing.
You may also want to check out my Analyzing Arguments Unit.
Step 2: Move from Claim to Thesis
Once students have a strong background in analyzing arguments, the next step is to write their own. Now, they need to move from claim to thesis. Once they have a stance, the goal is to turn that claim into a thesis that can set them up for an arguable line of reasoning. A line of reasoning is an essay structure that works from the claim in the thesis to the claims in the topic sentences to the evidence and back to the thesis.
Example thesis types
A closed thesis statement, a thesis that lists the main ideas of your essay, is great for shorter, timed essays in which you only need a few main points.
An open thesis statement, a thesis statement that provides the main claim, but does not include the main points, works well for longer essays with so many points that it wouldn’t make sense to list them all.
A counterargument thesis statement is an excellent option for an argumentative essay because it shows complexity and rationality by addressing the opposition of the argument.
A qualifying thesis statement is another great option because it shows complexity and builds credibility by providing terms for which your thesis statement holds.
If your students need more structure, you can provide them with a thesis template, like this one:
Although (counterargument), (reason 1 for your stance) and (reason 2 for your stance); therefore, (your argument).
I don’t expect students to follow this perfectly, but it can be a great starting point for beginning writers who are ready to add some complexity through the counterargument thesis type. Once students write a strong thesis, they can work to support that evidence.
Step 3: Collect Varied, Substantial, and Credible Evidence
Next up, students need to collect evidence to support the claims in their thesis and topic sentences, which will show up in their body paragraphs. If your students are researching their evidence, you should discuss how to find credible resources. Ad Fontes Media Guide is a great nonpartisan website to evaluate media bias and credibility.
If your students have to come up with evidence without research, like the task on the AP English Language and Composition exam, I give them an acronym to help them generate varied and substantial evidence from their heads. That acronym is REHUGO and it stands for reading, entertainment, history, universal truths, government, and observations.
Asking students to brainstorm their evidence before they start writing is a very important step. If they can’t come up with solid evidence before writing, then they should change their claim.
Step 4: Prep Your Points
Once students have a strong thesis and varied, substantial, and credible evidence, there is one last important step: prep their body paragraph points for a line of reasoning.
To establish a line of reasoning in their essays, they’ll need main points that serve as your reasons to support the main claim in your thesis. Then, they’ll need to work in the body paragraphs to support the thesis. While students often do well using and explaining evidence, they may be more likely to connect that evidence to the overall claim in the thesis, which is how the line of reasoning is successful.
Here is an example of a body paragraph outline that I share with students:
- Reason 1
- Evidence 1
- Connect evidence to reason 1
- Evidence 2
- Connect evidence to reason 1
- Connect everything to your overall stance in the thesis
Keep in mind this is just an example. Students don’t have to follow it exactly, but seeing it upfront can help them create their own format.
Step 5: Counter the Counterarguments
If your students are ready to add some complexity and sophistication to their argumentative essays, addressing the counterarguments is a must. Now, one caveat: students must address AND counter the counterargument. For many, they’ll be able to predict counterarguments and write about it. But, if they stop there, it actually works against their argument. Therefore, they should be prepared to not only address, but also counter or qualify the counterargument. This is vital for writing a strong argument.
One of the best ways to prepare students is to simply have them predict the counterarguments, choose the ones they think they need to address, and then be prepared with a counterargument. If they do this ahead of time, they’ll be prepared to write a strong argument.
For More Information
As you can see, a lot of what makes a strong argumentative essay is prepping for success. It might be tempting to just give them a task or prompt and have them go at it. While this can be a successful strategy down the road, on the first attempt, students need structure in their prep. Plus, it certainly wouldn’t be doing you any favors in terms of feedback. The less planning that goes in the more feedback that goes out!
If you’re interested in learning more about prep strategy, check out my Argument Essay Workbook that includes these steps, activities, and more to prepare students to write a strong argumentative/persuasive essay.
Also, if you want to learn more about how I plan and facilitate writing units for student success and easy grading, check out my course Grade School.