16 January 2012

Argument and Persuasion

“Mom, let me tell you three reasons why I should be allowed to have a TV in my bedroom.”  I guess my son thought the three reasons technique would work for every argument he constructed.  Not quite.

The topic of persuasion and argument has been on my mind for several months.  With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 46 states of the United States, teachers across the country have been discussing ways of teaching students to argue and ways to cite specific evidence from text. 

Is there a formula or quick fix to teaching students to write arguments?  I’d like to argue there’s not.  To illustrate my point, let’s look at two pieces of writing written by my son for school assignments.

Piece #1 A persuasive letter to mom and dad.

In this particular piece of writing, the child did not have a clearly stated argument. He did, however, state that he wanted a dog. He clearly knew his audience as evident in the way he directed comments such as “mom it is spring now and we will go on more walks. Mom you say you need more exercise. Well here is your answer.” The child stated three reasons he wanted a dog and supported the reasons with emotional appeals to tug at the heart strings of mom and dad. His audience was authentic and his reason for writing was real to life, even as a school assignment. One key factor here is that he was offered a choice for his writing topic. His persuasive techniques worked; we adopted our first family dog last weekend.

The CCSS ask students to write arguments (opinions in grades K-5). The standards also call for students to write for short and extended time frames and for a range of audiences and purposes. Take a look at a segment of writing this same child wrote a few weeks ago. This time he wrote for a timed writing prompt at school; the prompt asked students to write to county leaders and present their opinion or argument about dogs being kept on leashes.

Piece #2 Letter to county leaders

Notice, specifically, the second paragraph of this formulaic piece of writing. The writing lacks idea development as the child's three reasons fall short of supporting his opinion about dogs being kept on leashes. The line most troubling to me was “the last thing is that the dog could kill a baby.” Where did he get this idea? Was it from hearing a report on the news?

Even as someone who has taught writing for well over a decade, I must admit that I struggle to help my child become a better writer. He doesn’t want lessons from mom, and he thinks my suggestions might contradict his teacher’s instruction. Accordingly, I will continue my quest to teach my two boys the power of effective argument by modeling effective argument myself and by requiring that they provide textual evidence to support the argument of having TVs in their rooms. (Secretly, I’m doubting they will find evidence to support this argument, and I’m okay with that.)


PS. I heard this NPR report on my way home from work a couple of weeks ago--check it out.