Structuring the Argument

Writing an argument is a lot like putting together a puzzle.  The image itself might be beautiful.  However, if unable to put the pieces together effectively then the image doesn’t matter. The same is true with writing a persuasive essay.  Yesterday I presented ways to help students develop a deeper understanding of an argument.  However, it doesn’t matter how solid their argument is if they can’t effectively communicate it.  While it is important to teach students how to have a developed argument, it is equally important to teach them how to structure it.  One of the most effective ways to do this is to teach students to follow one of the key argument structures:

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  • Classical Argument Scheme
  • Rogerian Argumentation
  • Toulmin Model

Regardless of which argument scheme you use,  the key is to engage your students in meaningful inquiry about the structure.  A lot of teachers introduce the key components of the scheme and then provide students with a sample persuasive essay asking them to recognize and annotate those components in the text.  This is absolutely a fine way to introduce the argument structure, but there are a lot of ways to deepen this knowledge and get students to produce better, more authentic versions of their argument.

  1. Some teachers argue that teaching students the various argument structures creates formulaic essays.  While I think there is some merit to this claim, consider introducing this concept to students by stressing that experienced rhetoricians might stray from the formal structure.  Provide them a persuasive piece that might not clearly address all components of the argument scheme your students are familiar with.  Similar to the above described commonly used strategy, have students read the piece identifying which components the writer does utilize.  Then, engage them in a discussion about why the omitted components are missing.  Have students evaluate the effects of not fully following the form. Ask them to pretend they are editors and they must provide suggestions to enhance the argument.  Depending on the piece provided, some might argue that the rebuttal isn’t necessary while others might suggest including the rebuttal would strengthen the overall persuasiveness.  This can lead to a healthy discussion about the choices rhetoricians make, which will hopefully translate into their own writing.
  2. Another way to use persuasive writing to teach the structure of an argument is to study the persuasive essay yourself, labeling and identifying which paragraphs are using which component of the argument structure you have taught.  For example, if teaching the Classical Argument Scheme I would label one paragraph as including the confirmation, one for including the refutation, etc.  Then, cut the essay so each paragraph is on its own piece of paper, like a puzzle piece.  Provide students with an envelope that contains the contents of the argumentative essay.  Ask students to read through each paragraph determining which aspect of the argument structure is most prevalently highlighted.  This is something they should be able to do with relative ease.  However, up the ante by asking them to rearrange the paragraphs like a puzzle, evaluating how the order of the paragraphs (and the different components of the argument structure) affects the way the argument is perceived.  Have students debate the correct order of the paragraphs and consider which organization they think is most effective in communicating the argument.
  3. Lastly, before teaching students a specific argument structure have them construct an argument.  You might have them respond to an ACT, SAT, or GRE writing prompt or possibly partner the argument with a text they have read (i.e. writing their own declaration after reading and studying “The Declaration of Independence”).  Then, while teaching them the various elements of the argument structure have them recognize which of the devices they use naturally in drafting their arguments.  Then, have the students revise their writing enhancing the components.

Students respond well to each of the argument schemes (Classical, Rogerian, and Toulmin).  However, the key isn’t which structure you teach them; it is how well you teach them.

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