Category Archives: argumentative essays

Recognize argumentative writing on the SAT by writing better arguments

In most of the reading selections of the SAT (except for the literature selections), the passages present arguments.  But most students don’t realize this.  And because they don’t realize this, they may miss a shift in the writing from information the writer doesn’t agree with to information the writer does agree with.  And that leads to missed answers on the SAT

For example, in one reading passage from The Official SAT Study Guide 2020 edition, three paragraphs—34 lines—discuss public transportation—the number of people using it, the long waits, the overcrowding, the squalidness of it.  Paragraph 4 begins with, “It doesn’t have to be like this.”  Aha!  A shift from presenting a problem to arguing for a solution.  The next 50 lines discuss the solution.

In the same test, another passage discusses how a scientist set up an experiment to learn how bird ancestors learned to fly.  His experiment was challenged immediately by a rancher familiar with bird behavior.  The rancher’s argument led the scientist to change his experiment.  As a result, the scientist gained two kinds of knowledge about bird behavior which upset longstanding theories.

In still another passage from the same test, Talleyrand, a French diplomat argues in 1792 that denying women equal rights brings “mutual happiness” to men and women, and to society as a whole.  A companion passage by Mary Wollstonecraft, a British novelist, responds negatively to Talleyrand’s argument point by point.

How to help students recognize arguments in their reading?  One way is to teach students to write argumentatively.  And how to do that?  According to Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, authors of They Say / I Say, use templates to teach students how to write logical argumentative responses.

Their most basic template is “They say, I say.”  This means to summarize what someone else says, and then to say your response.  For example, News commentators [They] criticize President Biden’s withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.  I say. . . or. . . With Covid 19 spreading like wildfire in Florida, the governor [They] says masks cannot be mandated for students.  However, I say. . .

One fundamental point of the authors of They Say / I Say is that essays are written not in a vacuum, but rather in response to an event, a challenge, or the opinions of others.  Middle grade students learning to write essays write in response to a teacher’s prompt.  High school students are encouraged to discover their own topics but within parameters set by their teachers.  College students respond to texts, lectures and current events.  Adults respond to the world around them or to new information / arguments in their fields of study.

I Say / They Say offers good writing templates for weaving direct quotes into writing, for stating why your point of view matters, for repeating key words and phrases, for objecting to, and for using transitions.

By knowing the words and the templates to create argumentative writing, students can better recognize the words and form of arguments of others—including those whose reading passages are included in the SAT.

College writing is moving into high school

I am working with a high school sophomore who is writing an argumentative research paper, the kind of research paper I was required to write in college.

His teacher identified the type of information required for each paragraph in a handout.  It includes a hook leading into an introduction leading into a thesis, using a funnel effect to taper to the thesis.  The thesis must have several elements, all of which must be backed with data in the body.

The body must have at least three sections of data supporting the thesis, plus a counter argument which must be debunked.  The conclusion should not merely repeat the thesis but in some other way support the ideas of the essay.

This essay is due not for an A.P. course but for a regular sophomore English class.

With another high school sophomore, I worked on a Toulmin essay.  This kind of essay has a rigid structure for each body paragraph.  First comes a position statement or thesis; second, a claim or example supporting the position; third, data cited to support the claim; fourth, a warrant or a clarification of the connection between the claim and the data; fifth, a counterclaim which rebuts the thesis; and last, a rebuttal with data to destroy the counterclaim.

With another high school freshman I worked on a response to a news article using the SAOQ method:  summarize the article in a few sentences; analyze the main idea or some aspect of the article; offer your opinion on the ideas in the article, using logical arguments to back your opinion; and offer three discussion questions of a probing nature to show you have pondered the article.

These assignments call on higher level thinking skills:  analyzing information; researching, using and citing appropriate data; recognizing truth from stereotypes or “fake news”; recognizing valid counterclaims; evaluating ideas; and synthesizing information into new literary forms.

In short, these writing assignments require critical thinking, the kind of thinking the Common Core Standards advocate.  No matter what you may think of the Common Core Standards, they are putting pressure on schools to develop students who can think.  In the three schools where my three students study, the schools and the students are meeting the challenge.

Connect back to the thesis in persuasive essays

Click on the chart for a larger version.

Suppose you need to write a persuasive or argumentative essay, as do many seventh graders whose states are following the Common Core curriculum.  Suppose you need to take a position on the following statement:  Santa Claus is real.

You decide to take the position that yes, Santa is real.  For your evidence, you use the following points:

  • The Weather Channel and many other news media track Santa’s whereabouts all over the world on Christmas Eve.
  • Santa’s image is used in advertising by Coca Cola and retailers during the Christmas season.
  •  Many movies have been made featuring Santa, including Miracle on 34th Street, The Polar Express, The Santa Claus I, II and III and A Christmas Story.

For your first body paragraph topic sentence, you write, “Many television and radio stations track Santa’s sleigh and reindeer around the world on Christmas Eve.”  If you add, “thus proving Santa is real,” you have a perfect topic sentence.  Then to back up your topic sentence, you list  TV and radio stations which do this.

So far so good.

You start your second body paragraph with, “Second, Coca Cola and other retailers use Santa’s image to sell items.”  The problem here is, “second” what?  You need to say something like, “A second reason to prove that Santa is real is that Coco Cola and other retailers. . .”

Every sentence in every body paragraph should support the topic sentence of that paragraph.  Just as importantly, every topic sentence should support the essay’s thesis.  Some students think, well of course, if I say “second,” the reader knows that what I mean is that this is the second reason why Santa is real.  Not so.  You need to say that.

You always need to state the connections between the evidence and your topic sentences, and between your topic sentences and your thesis.

In working with students writing persuasive essays, I see this lack of connections all the time.  To show the flow of connections, I draw arrows on students’ essays.  One group of arrows goes from the data in a body paragraph to the topic sentence of that body paragraph.  Another arrow goes from that topic sentence to the thesis or topic sentence of the whole essay found in the first paragraph.  If the connections is not stated, I draw the arrows with dashes rather than with solid lines to show that the connection is not explicit.

Make your connections obvious.