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Boiling Down Argument: Five Approaches to Teaching Argument

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Last time, we examined the challenges of boiling down critical thinking into something manageable for teachers and students, ending with the conclusion that, if we teach argument well, we're going to begin teaching the heart of critical thinking well. In short, we're wise to “go big on argument” all across the content areas making disciplinary distinctions as appropriate. [1]

Argument, however, is itself a term that we need to boil down. Though argument is now pervasive in the minds of secondary educators, thanks largely to its presence in so many standards (e.g., Common Core Mathematical Practice #3, Common Core Writing anchor standard #1, Next Generation Science Standards Science and Engineering Practice #7), I would argue that any 10 secondary educators, if selected at random from around the USA and placed in a room together, would struggle to formulate an actionably clear definition of what argument is or how it ought to be taught. This poses a teaching challenge, of course, because when the teacher doesn't clearly understand something, you can bet that many of the students won't.

So, what are the most effective means for conceptualizing what argument is and teaching students to improve at it? In this post, we'll examine five approaches.

Five approaches to teaching argument

Here are the five approaches I'm studying these days:

  • Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, leading thinkers in the American resurgence of teaching argument, boil argument down into They Say/I Say, which also happens to be the title of their very successful book on “Teaching the Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.” To elaborate on They Say/I Say, effective arguments enter into a conversation by summarizing someone's view — from a text, from a debate — and, from there, make claims of one's own. Graff and Birkenstein drill down from this starting point, teaching skills like summarizing and quoting in their treatment of They Say and skills like complicating, agreeing with additions, disagreeing with reasons, and planting a naysayer in their treatment of I Say. They make further distinctions in a section on what argument looks like in various academic contexts, including class discussions, digital communication, literary analysis, and the natural and social sciences. Importantly, Graff and Birkenstein teach students these skills through the use of explicit sentence templates. See their book, They Say, I Say, for these things and more.
  • Les Lynn, founding executive director of the Chicago Debate Commission and founder of Argument-Centered Education (an organization that Graff and Birkenstein serve as founding advisors for), boils academic argument down into the following five key components: Summary (They Say), Argumentative Claims (I Say), Evidence/Reasoning, Refutation, and Evaluation. Les expands on these in this “Key Components” pdf and regular posts at his blog, The Debatifier. The key difference, I think, between Lynn's work and Graff and Birkenstein's is that Les is focused on helping teachers to teach argument K-12, whereas Graff and Birkenstein's work focuses on college students [2].
  • Stephen Toulmin's model, dating back to his 1958 The Uses of Argument, is familiar to many of us because its four basic parts comprise the first Common Core Writing Standard, which is the central argument standard. Toulmin boils argument down into four basic parts: claims (clear, defensible, controversial statements), data or evidence (answers the question, “What makes you say so?”), warrant and backing (answers the question, “So how does that evidence support your claim?”), and counterarguments (which are dealt with through rebuttals, qualifiers, and responses). To best understand Toulmin's model and its practical implications for the classroom, I recommend Wilhelm, Smith, and Fredericksen's Oh, Yeah?!: Putting Argument to Work Both in School and Out.
  • Erik Palmer, the man and the mind behind PVLEGS, tackles argument in his Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning. Palmer rightly critiques the “lack of consistency in the language” around argument, and then simplifies argument into the following definition: A group of statements… that leads to a conclusion. And here we run into the central trouble with reducing anything, be it critical thinking or debate: with every reduction, something is lost. Argument purists would likely find fault in Palmer's formulation, but Palmer's primary concern in Good Thinking is, unsurprisingly, helping our students to think better. As a result, he treats argument as clearly and simply as he can, arguing along the way that “our goal as teachers is to make complexity clear” (p. 16) and that “teachers of adolescents should not be purists” (p. 29).
  • And finally, Jennifer Fletcher, author of Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response, calls for helping our students argue by teaching argument's “threshold skills”: rhetorical reading and writing. Specifically, Fletcher calls for learning experiences that strengthen student mastery of the rhetorical concepts of occasion, audience, purpose, ethos, pathos, and logos. This rhetorical approach to teaching arguments, Fletcher argues, helps students form responses to texts that go beyond the superficial. Fletcher goes on to say that “[R]hetoric is larger than argument. … [Y]ou might think of rhetoric as the Swiss Army knife of critical communication, of which argument comprises several blades” (p. xvi).

Is your head spinning yet?

Mine is, too. But the reason I'm taking up this line of inquiry is because I am convinced that I can be teaching argument better than I am; I am certain that if I was clearer on what argument is, how it works, how various people approach teaching it, that my students and I can break through the ceilings we've hit in previous years using pop-up debates.

To be clear, I still see pop-up debates as Step One. I still think they are the simplest means for getting kids on their feet and arguing. They help us to increase the volume of spoken argument, which in turn gives us so many segues into improving the quality of written argument.

But right now, I'm eager to strike out into deeper territory. For that, I need to keep pulling on these threads to see where they lead.


  1. Related post: “There’s No Such Thing as Critical Thinking Apart from Knowledge.”
  2. There is, however, a high school edition of They Say, I Say.

10 Responses to Boiling Down Argument: Five Approaches to Teaching Argument

  1. Ana February 6, 2017 at 11:39 am #

    Great information. I also feel it’s important for students to participate in discussions and dialogue as well as argument. Most importantly, they need to know the difference between them to “go big on character.”

  2. Kris Nystrom (@DrKNystrom) February 6, 2017 at 3:51 pm #

    Such a timely review! Aren’t we and our students are submerging in an informational onslaught dominated by argument now? I would recommend Cioffi, F. L., 2005 (Argumentation in a culture of discord, Chronicle of Higher Education, 51(37)) as a prescient analysis from a dozen years ago and a lifebuoy today. For the lifeboat, we might reconsider the whole notion of argument in the first place. We should be talking about argumentative discourse in a constructive framework. What is the underlying lesson argument writing teaches? Ultimately, it is about winning, and less so the market-place of ideas. Maybe building ideas through collaborative and critical thinking is more to the point of our teaching than proving my ideas are better than yours. I tried articulating this with a couple students here: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/ELQ/0382-oct2015/ELQ0382Translating.pdf. In any case, we’ve got plenty of models at our fingertips to parse distinctions between argument and argumentative discourse.

  3. Geri Beckman February 6, 2017 at 8:58 pm #

    Thanks for sharing the pictures. Precious.

  4. Erik Palmer February 10, 2017 at 4:25 pm #

    Hey, anybody want a free copy of Good Thinking https://goo.gl/c6uso2? Sign up for Dave’s newsletter. He’ll contact me, and we will set you up.

    • Erik Palmer February 10, 2017 at 4:40 pm #

      Shoulda said, “Be the FIRST to sign up for Dave’s newsletter…”

      • davestuartjr February 10, 2017 at 5:00 pm #

        I love it! Let’s do this: Be the first person to subscribe to my newsletter and then email me saying, “Hey, send me Erik’s book!” (You’ll get an auto-email from me right away — just reply to that.)

  5. Kim February 10, 2017 at 7:58 pm #

    You need to read George Hillocks Jr’s work. Love, love his methods and it aligns well with Toulon’s model.

    • MaryJo Casilio March 23, 2017 at 9:33 am #

      Yes!!! Agreed – Hillocks is an absolute MUST read.

  6. MaryJo Casilio March 23, 2017 at 9:32 am #

    Dave, I am a big fan of the Graff/Birkenstein and Fletcher work relative to argument. Have you had a chance to explore Reading Like a Historian -https://sheg.stanford.edu/rlh — in particular the Structured Academic Controversies (SAC). I just participated in a professional development where this content was unpacked. The website and related materials provide tremendous materials for the teaching of argument, particularly in the history classroom. I think you and your readers would find it valuable! — All best, Mary Jo Casilio, Erie I BOCES, West Seneca, New York

    • davestuartjr March 23, 2017 at 1:23 pm #

      Love SHEG’s stuff, MarJo — I did one of their SACs with Athens this year. Very, very good!

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