One of the things students struggle with the most—and it’s relevant to every grade and subject—is distinguishing between argument and evidence. This problem manifests itself in both reading and writing: in reading, students often cannot pick topic sentences or thesis arguments out of a lineup; and when writing, they tend to construct paragraphs and essays that lack arguments. I have no doubt that many, many students have become turned off to writing after spending countless hours drafting an essay, only to be told that they would have to completely rewrite it because it lacked a thesis (PS—One way to prevent this disillusionment is to check students’ draft introductions before they go any further: it only takes a minute and can save hours of agony.)
Textbooks have contributed to this problem because they often fail to model good writing. Typically, they lack arguments; instead, they offer strings of facts that are occasionally indented. So we need to provide better models. But more broadly, we need to be strategic about teaching students how to distinguish between argument and evidence and how to build effective arguments with evidence.
So, let’s consider the specific skills that students must master.
THE BIG PICTURE
1. Given a list of statements, distinguish the arguments from examples of evidence.
2. Given a list of statements, identify arguments and their relevant evidence.
3. Given arguments, support them with your own relevant evidence and explanation.
4. Given questions, answer them with arguments and relevant evidence and explanation.
5. Generate your own questions that warrant research and debate.
6. Generate your own questions, then research and build arguments supported with evidence and explanation.
In college, professors expect students to be able to start with #4 during class discussions. Number 5 is used in seminar discussions (and online discussions, etc.), and number 6 is also known as writing a paper.
The sooner we in K-12 begin giving students opportunities to practice these skills, the better. But first let’s make sure they can do numbers 1, 2, and 3.
In the next few posts, we’ll look at how to teach 1-6.