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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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Updated, March 2, 2017 | We published an updated version of this list, “401 Prompts for Argumentative Writing,” as well as a companion piece, “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing.” We also now have a PDF of these 200 prompts.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter and get five new Student Opinion questions delivered to you every week.
What issues do you care most about? What topics do you find yourself discussing most passionately, whether online, at the dinner table, in the classroom or with your friends?
Our annual Student Editorial Contest invites you to write an evidence-based persuasive piece on an issue that matters to you. To help jump-start your brainstorming, we have gathered a list of 200 writing prompts from our daily Student Opinion feature that invite you to take a stand.
Though you won’t be limited to these topics for the contest, you’ll see that our list touches on every aspect of modern life, from politics to sports, culture, education and technology. We hope the range inspires you, and we hope the fact that each question links to at least one related Times article gives you a starting point for finding evidence.
So skim the list below to think about the topic you’d most like to take on.
For more information, here are links to our spring 2014 editorial-writing contest, a list of winners from that contest and a related lesson plan on argumentative writing.
- Is Cheating Getting Worse?
- Should Students Be Able to Grade Their Teachers?
- Does Your School Hand Out Too Many A’s?
- Should Middle School Students Be Drug Tested?
- Should Reading and Math Be Taught in Gym Class Too?
- How Seriously Should We Take Standardized Tests?
- How Well Do You Think Standardized Tests Measure Your Abilities?
- Do You Spend Too Much Time Preparing for Standardized Tests?
- Should Schools Offer Cash Bonuses for Good Test Scores?
- Should We Rethink How Long Students Spend in High School?
- Do Schools Provide Students With Enough Opportunities to Be Creative?
- What Are You Really Learning at School?
- How Important Is Arts Education?
- Does Gym Help Students Perform Better in All Their Classes?
- Who Should Be Able to See Students’ Records?
- Are Children of Illegal Immigrants Entitled to a Public Education?
- What Is the Right Amount of Group Work in School?
- Is Your School Day Too Short?
- Do You Think a Longer School Calendar Is a Good Idea?
- Should the Dropout Age Be Raised?
- Should Students Be Allowed to Skip Senior Year of High School?
- How Does Your School Deal With Students Who Misbehave?
- Should Schools Be Allowed to Use Corporal Punishment?
- How Big a Problem Is Bullying or Cyberbullying in Your School or Community?
- How Should Schools Address Bullying?
- Should Schools Put Tracking Devices in Students’ ID Cards?
- What Do You Think of Grouping Students by Ability in Schools?
- Do We Need a New Way to Teach Math?
- Does Class Size Matter?
- Should All Students Get Equal Space in a Yearbook?
- Is Prom Worth It?
- How Important Are Parent-Teacher Conferences?
- Should All Children Be Able to Go to Preschool?
- Should Colleges Use Admissions Criteria Other Than SAT Scores and Grades?
- What Criteria Should Be Used in Awarding Scholarships for College?
- Do You Support Affirmative Action?
- Do College Rankings Matter?
- How Necessary Is a College Education?
- Should Engineers Pay Less for College Than English Majors?
- Are the Web Filters at Your School Too Restrictive?
- Does Technology Make Us More Alone?
- Are You Distracted by Technology?
- Do Apps Help You or Just Waste Your Time?
- Do You Spend Too Much Time on Smart Phones Playing ‘Stupid Games’?
- Has Facebook Lost Its Edge?
- Does Facebook Ever Make You Feel Bad?
- Should What You Say on Facebook Be Grounds for Getting Fired?
- Should People Be Allowed to Obscure Their Identities Online?
- What Should the Punishment Be for Acts of Cyberbullying?
- Is Online Learning as Good as Face-to-Face Learning?
- Do Your Teachers Use Technology Well?
- Should Tablet Computers Become the Primary Way Students Learn in Class?
- Can Cellphones Be Educational Tools?
- Should Computer Games Be Used for Classroom Instruction?
- How Young Is Too Young for an iPhone?
- Should Companies Collect Information About You?
- Would You Trade Your Paper Books for Digital Versions?
- Are Digital Photographs Too Plentiful to Be Meaningful?
- Do You Worry We Are Filming Too Much?
- Would You Want a Pair of Google’s Computer Glasses?
- How Would You Feel About a Computer Grading Your Essays?
- What Role Will Robots Play in Our Future?
- How Many Text Messages Are Too Many?
- How Much Do You Trust Online Reviews?
- Why Do We Like to Watch Rich People on TV and in the Movies?
- Do TV Shows Like ‘16 and Pregnant’ Promote or Discourage Teenage Pregnancy?
- Does TV Capture the Diversity of America Yet?
- Is TV Too White?
- Is TV Stronger Than Ever, or Becoming Obsolete?
- Does Reality TV Promote Dangerous Stereotypes?
- What Current Musicians Do You Think Will Stand the Test of Time?
- What Artists or Bands of Today Are Destined for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
- What Musician, Actor or Author Should Be a Superstar, but Hasn’t Quite Made It Yet?
- Will Musical Training Make You More Successful?
- Should Video Games Be Considered a Sport?
- Should Stores Sell Violent Video Games to Minors?
- Can a Video Game Be a Work of Art?
- Do Violent Video Games Make People More Violent in Real Life?
- When Should You Feel Guilty for Killing Zombies?
- What Game Would You Like to Redesign?
- What Were the Best Movies You Saw in the Past Year?
- To What Writer Would You Award a Prize?
- Do You Prefer Your Children’s Book Characters Obedient or Contrary?
- Where Is the Line Between Truth and Fiction?
- Can Graffiti Ever Be Considered Art?
- Do We Need Art in Our Lives?
- What Makes a Good Commercial?
- Why Did a Cheerios Ad Attract So Many Angry Comments Online?
- Does Pop Culture Deserve Serious Study?
- Do Parents Have Different Hopes and Standards for Their Sons Than for Their Daughters?
- Is School Designed More for Girls Than Boys?
- Is There Too Much Pressure on Girls to Have ‘Perfect’ Bodies?
- How Much Pressure Do Boys Face to Have the Perfect Body?
- Do Photoshopped Images Make You Feel Bad About Your Own Looks?
- Is It O.K. for Men and Boys to Comment on Women and Girls on the Street?
- What Should We Do to Fight Sexual Violence Against Young Women?
- How Do You Feel About Rihanna and Chris Brown Getting Back Together?
- Do Fraternities Promote Misogyny?
- Why Aren’t There More Girls in Leadership Roles?
- Why Aren’t More Girls Choosing to Pursue Careers in Math and Science?
- Should Women Be Allowed to Fight on the Front Lines Alongside Men?
- Do You Believe in Equal Rights for Women and Men?
- Are Women Better at Compromising and Collaborating?
- Do Boys Have Less Intense Friendships Than Girls?
- If Football Is So Dangerous to Players, Should We Be Watching It?
- Should Parents Let Their Children Play Football?
- Should College Football Players Get Paid?
- When Do Pranks Cross the Line to Become Bullying?
- Has Baseball Lost Its Cool?
- Are Some Youth Sports Too Intense?
- Is It Offensive for Sports Teams to Use Native American Names and Mascots?
- Where Should Colleges and Sports Teams Draw the Line in Selling Naming Rights?
- Should Colleges Fund Wellness Programs Instead of Sports?
- Is Cheerleading a Sport?
- How Big a Deal Is It That an N.B.A. Player Came Out as Gay?
- Should There Be Stricter Rules About How Coaches Treat Their Players?
- Should Athletes Who Dope Have to Forfeit Their Titles and Medals?
- Should Sports Betting Be Legal Everywhere?
- Should Home-Schoolers Be Allowed to Play Public School Sports?
- Would You Want a Bike Share Program for Your Community?
- What Local Problems Do You Think Your Mayor Should Try to Solve?
- If You Were Governor of Your State, How Would You Spend a Budget Surplus?
- When Is the Use of Military Force Justified?
- What Is More Important: Our Privacy or National Security?
- Should the U.S. Be Spying on Its Friends?
- Do You Trust Your Government?
- What Do You Think of the Police Tactic of Stop-and-Frisk?
- Do Rich People Get Off Easier When They Break the Law?
- Should Rich People Have to Pay More Taxes?
- Do Laws That Ban Offensive Words Make the World a Better Place?
- Is It Principled, or Irresponsible, for Politicians to Threaten a Shutdown?
- Do Leaders Have Moral Obligations?
- Do Great Leaders Have to Be Outgoing?
- How Should We Prevent Future Mass Shootings?
- Should Guns Be Permitted on College Campuses?
- Would You Feel Safer With Armed Guards Patrolling Your School?
- What Is Your Relationship With Guns?
- Do You Support or Oppose the Death Penalty?
- When Should Juvenile Offenders Receive Life Sentences?
- Do We Give Children Too Many Trophies?
- When Do You Become an Adult?
- When Should You Be Able to Buy Cigarettes, Drink Alcohol, Vote, Drive and Fight in Wars?
- Should the Morning-After Pill Be Sold Over the Counter to People Under 17?
- Should Birth Control Pills Be Available to Teenage Girls Without a Prescription?
- Is Modern Culture Ruining Childhood?
- Are Adults Hurting Young Children by Pushing Them to Achieve?
- How, and by Whom, Should Children Be Taught Appropriate Behavior?
- What Can Older People Learn From Your Generation?
- Do ‘Shame and Blame’ Work to Change Teenage Behavior?
- How Should Children Be Taught About Puberty and Sex?
- Is Dating a Thing of the Past?
- How Should Parents Handle a Bad Report Card?
- Should Children Be Allowed to Wear Whatever They Want?
- How Should Educators and Legislators Deal With Minors Who ‘Sext’?
- Do You Think Child Stars Have It Rough?
- Is Smoking Still a Problem Among Teenagers?
- Are Antismoking Ads Effective?
- Is Drinking and Driving Still a Problem for Teenagers?
- Do You Think a Healthier School Lunch Program Is a Lost Cause?
- How Concerned Are You About Where Your Food Comes From?
- Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?
- Do You Prefer Your Tacos ‘Authentic’ or ‘Appropriated’?
- Should the Government Limit the Size of Sugary Drinks?
- Should Marijuana Be Legal?
- Should Students Be Required to Take Drug Tests?
- Do Bystanders Have a Responsibility to Intervene When There is Trouble?
- Should You Care About the Health and Safety of Those Making Your Clothing?
- Can Money Buy You Happiness?
- Does Buying and Accumulating More and More Stuff Make Us Happier?
- Are We Losing the Art of Listening?
- Do People Complain Too Much?
- Can Kindness Become Cool?
- Which Is More Important: Talent or Hard Work?
- How Important Is Keeping Your Cool?
- When Should You Compromise?
- Is Your Generation More Self-Centered Than Earlier Generations?
- Can You Be Good Without God?
- Have Curse Words Become So Common They Have Lost Their Shock Value?
- What Words or Phrases Should Be Retired in 2014?
- What Words or Phrases Do You Think Are Overused?
- Should Couples Live Together Before Marriage?
- How Important Do You Think It Is to Marry Someone With the Same Religion?
- How Long Is It O.K. to Linger in a Cafe or Restaurant?
- Does Keeping a Messy Desk Make People More Creative?
- How Important Is Keeping a Clean House?
- Should Scientists Try to Help People Beat Old Age So We Can Live Longer Lives?
- Given Unlimited Resources, What Scientific or Medical Problem Would You Investigate?
- When Is It O.K. to Replace Human Limbs With Technology?
- Do You Think Life Exists — or Has Ever Existed — Somewhere Besides Earth?
- Should Fertilized Eggs Be Given Legal ‘Personhood’?
- How Concerned Are You About Climate Change?
- Is It Wrong for a Newspaper to Publish a Front-Page Photo of a Man About to Die?
- What Causes Should Philanthropic Groups Finance?
- Should Charities Focus More on America?
- Should the Private Lives of Famous People Be Off Limits?
- Did a Newspaper Act Irresponsibly by Publishing the Addresses of Gun Owners?
- Would You Rather Work From Home or in an Office?
- What Time Should Black Friday Sales Start?
- Do You Shop at Locally Owned Businesses?
- How Much Does Your Neighborhood Define Who You Are?
Technology and Social Media
Arts and Media: TV, Music, Video Games and Literature
Sports and Athletics
Politics and the Legal System
Parenting and Childhood
Health and Nutrition
Personal Character and Morality Questions