In this blog, I have previously identified six key “argument vs. evidence” skills needed for effective writing. Some are discussed in The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, Nov. 2012), and all six are fully explained in my forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, Aug. 2014). Here is a sneak peek at the more elaborate explanation of how to teach Step 1:
The first argument-versus-evidence skill that students must master, Step 1, is to ensure that when given a list of statements, they can distinguish the arguments from examples of evidence.
It’s important to clarify for students that in this context, the word “argument” does not mean people yelling or throwing plates but instead refers to a claim, opinion, or debatable statement that requires proof or evidence for support….
Students may have had some exposure to differentiating between fact and opinion, which is useful background knowledge. Facts are often evidence, and opinions can be arguments, but they aren’t always. For example, “The Giants are the best team in the National Football League,” is only my opinion. If I can offer some evidence and explanation to support it, I might have an argument. Another way to frame this is that “arguments are opinions or claims that can be supported with evidence and explanation.”
I recommend this simple approach: give students a list of sentences about whatever content you’re dealing with at the moment. Some of those sentences should be facts (i.e., evidence) and some arguments. Model and explain a few examples; then solicit input from the class on a few; then let students try some on their own. In the process, see if they can figure out strategies for determining whether a statement is an argument or evidence (more on this in a moment). Here are a few examples:
On J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:
- “Allie, Holden’s brother, is dead.” This statement is a fact, so it has to be evidence.
- “Losing his brother has a major impact on Holden’s life.” This statement contains a debatable or arguable word, major, and raises questions about cause and effect (How or why does losing his brother cause a major impact?), so it requires evidence and explanation to prove it; therefore it’s an argument.
- “Holden wants to be nurtured and protected.” This statement raises “How?” and “Why?” questions, so it requires evidence and explanation to prove it; therefore it’s an argument.
On Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR):
- “In 1905, FDR and his fiancée (also his sixth cousin), Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, chose St. Patrick’s Day 1905 as their wedding date for the sole reason that it was the only day that FDR’s fifth cousin and Eleanor’s uncle, former president Theodore Roosevelt, could attend.” This statement is a fact, so it has to be evidence.
- “Eleanor Roosevelt can take credit for converting her patrician fiancé, Franklin, from a noblesse oblige steward into a sensitive and empathetic populist when she showed him the wretched state of the poor in New York City’s slums.” This statement raises “How?” and “Why?” questions, so it requires evidence and explanation to prove it; therefore it’s an argument.
As students should infer from the work you do to identify the statements that are arguments versus those that are evidence, there are three primary ways to determine whether a statement is an argument:
1. Notice whether or not it includes debatable or arguable words (often adjectives). In the statement, “Losing his brother causes a major impact on Holden’s life,” the word major is debatable or arguable. One person’s “major” is another’s “no big deal.”
2. Look for language that speaks to cause and effect, such as “causes a major impact,” because such assertions require evidence and explanation.
3. See if the statement raises any “How?” or “Why?” questions, as in, “How/Why does Holden want to be nurtured and protected?”
This might make a handy poster:
|Argument||Includes DEBATABLE/ARGUABLE WORDS|
|Deals with CAUSE and EFFECT|
|Raises HOW? WHY?|
If you’re a school leader: This exercise—designing a handout on how to distinguish arguments from evidence using your content—would make a terrific agenda item for a grade-level or department meeting. If you’re responsible for running such meetings, you can put together a handout with some exemplars for all to analyze, then offer some guided and independent practice until teachers are able to create items on their own and offer useful peer feedback.
If you’re a teacher: Before you try this with your students for the first time—even if your supervisor doesn’t run a meeting for practice—I recommend showing a colleague a draft list of statements to see if any confusion arises from the examples.