I think the most important text type we can teach is that of argument. Argument is
central to critical inquiry, to knowledge-making in any community of practice, and to
democratic working and living, as well as to democracy itself.
The most common text in American culture is the advertisement, a type of persuasion
that masquerades as an argument. Persuasion is neither nice nor fair, and uses
overstatement and emotions as it preys on our vulnerabilities. It pretends to argue but
subverts argument. As Robert Scholes points out, in democratic and capitalistic societies,
persuasion is used to do what coercion achieves in a totalitarian society. A typical student
will be bombarded by well over 100,000 advertisements in a single year.
Persuasion tries to put your mind to sleep so you will be susceptible; argument attempts
to wake your mind to reason and logic so you can make wide-awake and informed
decisions. Persuasion and argument are part of legislative and personal decision making
at every level of society. If students understand and use argument they will be forearmed
against persuasion and prepared to participate in democratic discussions about issues that
Argument is a very important tool for exchanging perspectives and creating knowledge in
any community of practice.
All arguments involve the following formal aspects:
1 Claim: the starting point for an argument - a clear statement of a thesis or position to
be argued. Good claims need to be both defensible and controversial.
2 Data: the orderly presentation of evidence that answers the question: What makes you
say so?" or "What do you have to go on?" in supporting your claim. For an argument
to progress the audience has to at least provisionally accept the data. Data must
provide a safe and acceptable starting point for proceeding with the argument.
3 Warrant: a convincing connection of the evidence to the claim. Warrants answer the
question "So What?" or "What allows you to move from that data/evidence to the
claim?" A warrant explains the evidence, usually through the use of some kind of
general principle. If warrants do not convince the audience, then backing must be
marshaled to support the warrant.
4 Backing: answers the question "how do you know . . . ? about the warrant. Backing
must sometimes be backed until the point that the audience shares the writer's value
regarding the data. (I usually don't teach backing until working with high school
5 Rebuttal: a fair consideration of what someone disagreeing with any portion of the
argument might say. Rebuttals or reservations can be addressed by qualifying the
claim or offerings a response.
6 A conclusion that emphasizes the importance of the claim.
Exhibit: Visual model of argument/template here.
If we apply Hillocks' inquiry square we see the following aspects of argument that
students will have to understand to write or to read one:
Purpose: to stake a claim, and promote a position on an issue, to convince others of your
point of view, to convince people believe or do something that you want them to believe
Procedural Knowledge of Substance: knowing how to collect data about the claim by
reading, doing Internet searches, combing data bases (doing topical research) and by
experimenting, field testing, interviewing informants, observing, etc. (doing critical
Procedural Knowledge of Form: knowing how to clearly present the claim and data, and
how to interpret the data by providing explanations (warrants) of how the data can be
understood so that it connects to and supports the claim. Back the warrants as needed in
ways to get your audience to value the data (evidence) and what it demonstrates in the
same way as you. Anticipate and respond to your audience's potential reservations about
Declarative Knowledge of Form: identify and name the claim, data, warrants, backing
and responses to reservations.
Declarative Knowledge of Substance: Identify the point made and explain how the
construction of the argument helps to make that point.
Michael Smith (1998) argues that writers and readers of argument should ask particular
questions that correspond to the different aspects of argument. Michael adapts Stephen
Toulmin's logic scheme for teaching students how to argue. Toulmin's scheme identifies
what counts as a good argument in various communities of practice like medicine,
history, ethics and the like.
I've worked with third and fourth graders who are able to read and compose excellent
arguments using claims, data and warrants (though I call these elements "your position",
"evidence" and "evidence explanation" when working with elementary students).
It is essential to emphasize that warranting is essential to arguments in all communities
of practice, since all arguments turn on the warrant, i.e. how the data (evidence) is
interpreted and connected to the claim. Many arguments in school, and most on tests, do
not require or reward warranting. This means that kids are learning to write lists of
evidence, without ever learning how to interpret evidence nor understand how evidence
works to support particular kinds of thinking or conclusions. In other words, we are once
again stuck with information, and do not move students into interpretive and critical
literacy. Students writing five paragraph essays regurgitate facts without interpreting or
operating on them for use. They do not learn how to think with, judge, or use ideas.
I try to emphasize that value laden interpretation of the facts is the key. As one student
told me this year: "You can't just list the facts. You have to do the fact interpretation
With middle and high school kids, I begin to introduce both backing and responses to
reservations that move them to critical, evaluative literacy. In an inquiry curriculum,
reading and making spoken as well as written arguments about various perspectives on
the essential question will obviously be on-going activities.
Questions for writing Argument
Claim (Thesis): What do I want the audience to believe or to do?
Data (Evidence): What makes the me say so? What evidence can I provide in support of
Warrant (Explanations of how evidence should be interpreted): So What? Why should
the audience care about this data and how should they think about it? What explanations
and implications tie the data to the claim? How am I convincing the audience to value
and share my viewpoint about the meaning of the data?
Backing for the Warrant - if necessary (Explanation of why and how the reader should
consider the warrant as the author does): How do I know the data should be interpreted
this way? What makes me value the data this way?
Reservations (Reader considers if all counter-arguments and alternative interpretations
have been considered): What other data, or interpretations of the data could be
presented? Have I considered and addressed these?
Response to Reservations: Am I satisfied that reservations to this argument have been
When I teach argument, I combine the teaching of procedural knowledge of substance
and form. I help them to know how to generate claims, data and warrants in general, then
about the topic of inquiry.
Generating Claims: The best way to assist students to generate claims is Edward
DeBono's (1986) P-M-I (Plus-Minus-Interesting). In my experience, students often
compose claims that are not controversial and with which no one would disagree (Holden
Caulfield is a confused adolescent) or that are not defensible (Kids shouldn't have to go to
school). Such claims are not worth arguing. DeBono's technique helps students generate
and test their claims as controversial and defensible.
In this technique, the teacher offers a claim. Students then list all the advantages (P=
Plus) of the claim. They then list all the bad points (M=Minus). They then list things that
occurred to them that are neither good or bad, but are interesting (I=Interesting).
So, for instance, a teacher might state the claim: All young people should spend two
years in the military or public service before they go to college or get jobs (the closer the
statement is to the inquiry topic you are studying, the better).
Or: Students and teachers should wear badges showing whether they are in a good or bad
mood that day.
By law, all cars should be painted bright yellow.
Then students list the Ps, Ms and Is.
For instance, a plus of cars all being yellow will be that all cars could be easily seen,
particularly at night or in fog. The cost of cars and repairing them would go down since
it would be easy to match paint. People might do less status seeking through their cars
since they would look alike.
Minuses might include the difficulty to finding your car at the mall, or that school buses
would have to be repainted to differentiate them.
Interesting points might be the question of whether people would drive differently or
dress differently to stake their identity.
Students learn that if you cannot provide a strong list of positives then the claim is not
defensible. They also learn that if you cannot cite both positives and minuses, then the
claim is not controversial. And the "interesting" list often helps students to see that
incomplete ideas can be interesting and lead to other ideas and claims.
By using P-M-I students are helped to generate and assess good claims.
Evidence Extracts: I can assist students to generate claims and warrants by providing a
list of evidence for them. Students can read through the evidence and decide what kinds
of claims this evidence might support. They can then evaluate and rank the evidence, and
write the necessary warrants and backing to match it to the chosen claim.
1 There were five fewer discipline referrals per week before recess was canceled.
2 The school handbook says that "students will be given those freedoms necessary to
their growth in becoming responsible adults."
3 Students need and deserve a place and time where they can be themselves and act a
4 A faculty member complained: "I spend almost half an hour a day trying to calm
students down each afternoon. When we had recess right after lunch I didn't have to
5 40% of students in the school newspaper survey said they bunk class, go late, or ask
for bathroom passes because they can't stand sitting in their seats any longer.
Identify a claim that can be supported by this data:
Rank the data in order of effectiveness in supporting your claim:
What warrants (and backing, if needed) is necessary to help readers see the connection of
this data to your claim?
You can obviously provide an evidence extract about any kind of topic. By finding the
evidence for students, they are freed to see the connections among the data, generate
claims, evaluate the data, and practice writing warrants.
Finding and citing evidence
Bracketed Evidence: Another technique that helps students find evidence is to provide a
claim and a reading. (I got this idea at the Maryland Writing Project when I was a fellow
there.) I like to use reviews of popular movies or books related to the inquiry for this
purpose, as it introduces the students to how the inquiry is played out in popular culture.
For instance, you could provide the claim that "Shelley DuVall gives a good performance
of Olive Oyl in the movie Popeye because she takes the character beyond the cartoon."
Then give students Pauline Kael's New Yorker review and ask them to bracket evidence
that supports this claim. If they needed more assistance, you could bracket several
quotes, both those that support this claim and those that do not, and ask students to find
the quotes that do, proving that they do by writing a warrant.
You could then add a second prong to the claim, for example: "Although Shelley DuVall
does a good job taking the character of Olive Oyl beyond the cartoon, Robin Williams
never brings Popeye any human dimension."
Students can re-read the review and find evidence to support the second prong, adding
Students could go on to find evidence (either bracketed or unbracketed) to support a third
claim: "Critics agree that the movie fails because of the poor directing of Robert
Students will learn that the same data set can support multiple claims, but that evidence
must be carefully chosen and then warranted to fit the claim.
The next step would be to provide other reviews without brackets and ask groups of
students to find and cite evidence. As they do so, you can have them practice writing
paraphrase notes (e.g. of a passage of at least 3 sentences), summary notes (e.g. of a
passage of at least 5 sentences), a quotation of at least 30 words using an ellipses,
combination notes, etc.
Students can work as a group to write a short 500 page argument, which is easy to do
since they already have the claim, evidence and warrants. Students can be taught to
properly cite quotes. They can also be given a bibliography of the reviews with the
information scrambled. By comparing it to a correct bibliography groups can be asked to
unscramble their info and induce the rules for citing the movie, reviews in books versus
magazines, Internet reviews, etc. This is much more powerful than giving them rules,
since in this case they construct their own understandings together.
By doing this, students are assisted actively be the teacher doing some of the work, so
students can focus on other kinds of work. Kids are helped to be successful through the
brackets, prompts and repeated practice. They are well on their way to becoming
competent before they work on their own.
Product Debates: Students can be provided with evidence extracts in the form of SFAs
(semantic feature analysis) about various products reviewed by Consumer Reports or
Zillions (Consumer Reports for Kids). Just teaching them how to read and analyze the
data in Consumer Reports does them a lifetime favor! This is also naturally engaging.
Let's say your kids are interested in the latest cell phone technology. You can provide the
data from Consumer reports which evaluates the latest cell phones along various
features. Students then need to decide which features are most important to them, and
which phone best meets their needs. They can then write a mini-argument claiming a
particular phone is the one to buy, citing the provided evidence and warranting it
according to their needs and values for a phone.
Since students will disagree, practice citing and responding to warrants will be provided.
Minute Mysteries: There are books and Internet sites filled with minute mysteries and
photo or picture mysteries. (find the URLs?) These also appear in magazines such as
Poser. Students can read the short mysteries (a la the old Encyclopedia Brown stories), or
study the picture mysteries and argue about what happened or whodunit by using the
evidence provided and explaining how it leads them to the claim.
Photos and Lithographs: My friend Michael Smith loves to use old Lithographs like those
of Hogarth. He asks students to write a claim about the scene or person who is featured,
for example "The Voluptuary" lithograph of the Prince of Wales. He then asks groups to
cite evidence from the picture to support their claim, and to warrant this. He can then
proceed to ask the students to write a claim about what kind of king Hogarth thinks the
prince will become, to cite evidence and warrant it to that claim. A similar thing can be
done with any photograph or painting. For instance, you could ask students to write a
claim about what is happening in Renoir's La Loge or Munch's The Scream, or what
comment Grant Wood is making about farm life or marriage in American Gothic and to
support it with warranted evidence. In this way, kids become familiar with great
artworks as they practice arguing.
Citing and Responding to Reservations
Dramas: A good way to practice recognizing and responding to reservations is through
dramatic role play. Groups of students can be cast as people who would resist a certain
claim and asked, in role, to list their concerns. For example, in the case of a claim that
middle school students should have a recess each day, students could be cast as the
principal, parents, teachers, or the curriculum committee responsible for the school
meeting all standards. These groups could list their reservations to the claim. Another set
of groups could be asked to respond to the reservations of particular groups.
Bringing it All Together:
Identifying and Naming the Elements in Ads and PSAs. All advertisements and Public
Service Announcements are a form of argument. They are short, easy to analyze, and
comment on various issues that students might be inquiring into. You can do several
examples in a short amount of time and give students practice reading and critiquing
arguments (and helping them to recognize how persuasion falls short as an argument).
Students can compose ads and PSAs to satirize or to practice composing simple
arguments. Ads, as persuasion, often use implied claims and warrants that cannot
withstand logical scrutiny. Since Americans are likely to "read" more advertisements
than any other kind of text (see Postman, 1994; Super Size Me, 2004) we do our students
a tremendous lifelong favor by helping them to understand how advertisements work to
manipulate them with faulty logic.
Example of student analysis of a Denaka Vodka ad used in my relationship unit:
The author wants you to buy Denaka vodka because you believe the implicit claim: you
should buy Denaka.
Data from ad: a beautiful Scandinavian woman says: "When I said vodka, I meant
Denaka". Denaka is the world's most expensive vodka. Denaka is made in Denmark.
Implied Warrants from ad: Beautiful Scandinavian women will like you only if you have
the class to buy them high quality, expensive vodka like Denaka. Expensive vodka is
superior. The more expensive a product, the better its quality. Products from Denmark
Our reservations: Do beautiful women really like you because of what you buy them? Is
the most expensive vodka really the best? Is everything made in Denmark really
Example of student argument from relationship unit:
Claim: We need better playground facilities including a skateboard park
Data - How do you know? Because kids are always fooling around in the neighbors'
driveways, skateboarding in the neighboring parking lots, and getting in trouble for doing
Warrant- So what? How does this support your claim? The neighbors and neighboring
businesses are always complaining about kids playing in their driveways and parking
Backing must be pursued until the audience shares the way you value and warrant the
data- So what? How do we know the data should be interpreted this way? It is important
that we keep the neighbors happy so they will support school activities.
More backing needed to get audience to share the value - How do we know? Who cares if
the neighbors support school activities? Because if they do not support our activities they
will not vote for the school levy and you as a teacher will not get a raise!
(At this point I, as a teacher, share the valuing of the warrant!)
Reservations: What other possibilities are there? We could just increase security around
Response: The school does not have jurisdiction for the neighbors' property and besides it
is the school's job to provide recreational opportunities for youth.
I have found that doing simple debates (such as that featured at the beginning of this
chapter) with my middle school students really helps them to internalize and use the
aspects of argument.
Rather than following formal debate structures, I simply divide students into teams. I
provide an issue or problem related to the inquiry and tell the team they must state a
claim about the issue and provide evidence and warrants. Generally, since we have been
pursuing the inquiry, plenty of evidence is available.
I give the team 1 point for stating their claim, and 2 points for every piece of evidence
they provide. Because I want to emphasize warranting, I give 3 points for every warrant,
and for each time a warrant is "backed". Once the presentation is made, other teams can
score 2 points for a reservation; and the presenters can score 2 points for responding to
the reservation. Other teams can also gain points by providing new evidence and
warrants, or steal points by providing what I believe to be a better warrant for a piece of
Because my students get very excited about these debates, I make it clear to them that I
am the sole and final judge and point giver.
Every year, when studying relationships, my students read fables about relationships. I
delete the morals and I ask teams to make a claim by stating the best possible moral for
the fable. Since fables are short, there is limited data. My students pay incredible
attention to every detail of the fable, sometimes stealing points from another team based
on their better consideration of a single word.
I can hardly describe the enthusiasm that accompanies these debates, with teams creating
names of themselves, nametags, and doing quite a bit of yelling as they respond to
reservations or attempts to steal points. It is great fun and great learning ensues.
Impromptu debates. You can practice brainstorming evidence and warranting with
impromptu debates on topics students already know something about. The more edgy
and the more students are invested, the better they work. These debates can be short
sessions on claims that can be argued in different ways:
-School should be year round.
-Schools should be ungraded.
-Students should not be allowed to view PG movies on their own until college.
-Students with C's, D's or F's should not be allowed to drive.
-Sports participation (or music, or . . . .) should be made mandatory for graduation.
-The driving age should be raised to 19.
-The school cafeteria should be replaced by a food court run by local restaurants.
-Families should be required to recycle all recyclables and be limited to 5 pounds of
-Tv violence should be censored
-Violent sports like football and boxing should be outlawed.
-Schools should not have soda or candy machines available.
-Schools should not accept money, scoreboards or anything else from local businesses.
By assisting students to write arguments through these activities, students engage in
socially rewarding activities that help them master the procedural knowledge of HOW to
get the stuff and shape the stuff into argument. They are given all the help and practice
they need to be independently competent in a complex but absolutely essential life skill
of argumentation. Students do plenty of Type 1, 2 and 3 composing before being asked
to do Type 4 and 5 on their own.