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Going a Bit Deeper with the They Say / I Say Two-Paragraph Template

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Two posts ago, I introduced Graff/Birkenstein's two-paragraph They Say / I Say template I've been requiring my students to use in response to our argumentative Articles of the Week (and, by the way, articles of the week are the original idea of Kelly Gallagher). And as a disclaimer, I'm about to nerd out pretty heavily on some intricacies of instructing with the template, so, if you're not interested, feel free to go check out some Vladimir Putin gifs like this one.

Since requiring the use of the template a month or so ago (previously, I simply offered it as a support for my students), I've noticed a few fruits:

  • My struggling students have grown increasingly confident in responding to arguments in Articles of the Week, as the template makes argumentative moves explicit instead of vague;
  • All of my students seem to have jumped a bit in their ability to write academically — for instance, in a recent trimester exam assignment in which students argued for the most significant event of the Middle Ages, I was happily surprised to find more of my students meeting basic proficiency in laying out their arguments with some sort of cohesion;
  • And finally, it's become easier for them and for me to see if they even understand the arguments they're arguing with. Within the first sentences of the template, it's pretty obvious if students get the argument they're responding to. This makes it much easier for me to check their understanding and remediate or reteach where necessary.
    • I'm tempted to give this lattermost point highest importance because it's from a deep understanding of what “they say” that my students — and me, and all humans — are able to develop deep, rigorous “I say” arguments.

All good things. Once again, I can't thank Graff and Birkenstein enough for works like Clueless in Academe and They Say / I Say.

Yet at the same time, I've been getting a few questions from my students (and from you, dear life-dominating Teaching the Core community members!) that merit a bit more exploration of how to most effectively leverage this template for all its potential. And so below, you'll find a few ways I'm working to deepen They Say / I Say work with all of my students.

Modeling the template with exemplars

So while I love giving my students argumentative articles of the week in part because various columnists model for them, again and again, how arguments work, I've also been learning my kids greatly benefit from seeing the work they're being asked to do modeled a bit more explicitly.

And so this week, when I introduce our latest AoW, I'm going to use the exemplar below to model more of the how and why of They Say / I Say work (this example is in response to one of our more recent AoWs):

The general argument made by the New York Times’ Editorial Board in their work, “E-Smoking Among Teenagers,” is that the FDA needs to prohibit e-cig manufacturers from marketing and selling their wares to teens and children. More specifically, the Board argues that even child-enticing flavorings should be banned. They write, “The new rules ought to… outlaw flavorings clearly designed to entice children” (3). In this passage, the editors are suggesting that fruit- and candy-flavored e-cigs are a ploy to get minors vaping. In conclusion, the Board’s belief is that e-cigarettes should be banned from in any way enticing minors.

In my view, the Board is right, because, while e-cigarettes may be healthy compared to adults with pack-a-day tobacco habits, they are in no way positive for teenagers to smoke. More specifically, I believe that the facts speak for themselves: “nicotine–delivered in any manner–can impair adolescent brain development, is extremely addictive, and can be dangerous at very high doses to people of all ages” (Editorial Board, 3). In other words, e-cigarettes still spell danger–and a lifetime of addiction–for minors. Although e-cig manufacturers might object that restricting e-cig flavorings is unnecessarily harsh, I maintain that flavorings are a form of marketing, and when those flavorings appeal to the tastes of middle and high school students, they should be banned. I do recognize that there’s a slippery slope here–after all, look at all of the alcoholic beverages that are fruit-flavored, for instance–but just because one addictive substance has teen-enticing flavors doesn’t mean every addictive substance has to. Therefore, I conclude that e-cigarettes ought to be regulated in the manner set forth by the Editorial Board.

(Bonus: If you'd like to see an annotated version with my teacher comments, check this out.)

Now, if you're sharpety-sharp, you might have noticed that the model above — gasp! — ventures away from the template at several points. And that's because I think my students are ready to start toying with…

…Letting the argument dictate the moves

Since some of my students are consistently pwning the They Say / I Say template, I want to introduce them to a list of templates and transitions to use within the structure of a two-paragraph They Say / I Say response. (You can access that list of templates and transitions here, and you'll find a beautiful treatment of the templates and transitions it contains in the aforementioned They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.)

In the model response above, I (the writer) was struggling in the second paragraph with the original template's call for a “for example” sentence. It didn't seem to fit, largely because in the preceding sentence, I had just quoted the article to illustrate why I agreed with the authors. So rather than force the “for example” sentence starter, I did what Cathy and Jerry advise their students to do: I used a different template that fit (in this case, I wanted to elaborate on the quoted material).

Moving forward, I want my students to keep in focus why we use the two-paragraph They Say / I Say template:

  • to structure our thinking in a manner consistent with public and academic discourse;
  • to force ourselves to spend time on what they say — on what has already been said in the conversation we're entering;
  • to internalize the way transitions and templates work with one another.

I'll still expect my 9th grade students to submit two-paragraph They Say / I Say responses with every complete article of the week; the only change I'm making is that I'll start encouraging them to play within that framework.

But Dave, why not give the kids complete freedom right now!? You're slaughtering their creativity, you butcher!

I know some believe we should always allow students to dictate form and structure — that this will ultimately make them real writers. After all, as an adult, we aren't often forced to write two-paragraph They Say / I Say arguments, right?

But it's like the Karate Kid analogy I used two posts ago: by giving my kids lots of “jacket on, jacket off” experiences with this simple template — and, now, the freedom to modify and adapt it without abandoning the basic They Say / I Say structure — I'm seeking to help them build a neural network of argumentative moves that, once unleashed in later courses that offer less scaffolding, will serve them well.

Basically, when they are presented with argumentative situations in the future, I believe practice with this template will allow them to 1) see the actual argument, 2) properly process it, and 3) respond productively.

And to get back to that whole “real writers don't use templates like this” argument: I totally do! Reading They Say / I Say has made me a better writer and arguer — I wish I had been assigned this in college!

So how's They Say / I Say going in your room? Are your kids getting better at it? What hang-ups are you still encountering?

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18 Responses to Going a Bit Deeper with the They Say / I Say Two-Paragraph Template

  1. Mary Lou January 8, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    I had been struggling with the They Say/I Say a little, so this came along at the perfect time. Thanks!

  2. Lynsay January 10, 2014 at 7:18 pm #

    Dave, I have to admit that I find the “They Say” portion of this template a bit repetitive. What The first three sentences each have an obvious function, but the last two are difficult to answer without repeating the ideas of the first three. Do you have more examples of this template filled out proficiently– ideally by students?

    Sidenote: Thanks so much for all you do. I learn something new in every post and have passed much of that on to my colleagues at Sci Academy.

    • davestuartjr January 29, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

      Lynsay, it is pretty repetitive — I think that, once kids do it well, we’ve got to release them into the greater responsibility of using a menu of templates to craft more intentional arguments. But may they never forget the importance of really understanding and accurately representing “they say” before launching into “I say.”

      Sidenotes like yours keep me going, Lynsay. They really do. Thank you 🙂

      • Lynsay January 30, 2014 at 6:46 pm #

        Agreed. Do you have samples you can share of the template filled out proficiently, but not perfectly? (Can we compile them on this blog, once students have done them?) Not only could we all use them as exemplars with students, but we could also start the dialogue of where the bar of “proficiency” is for 9th graders and how to see growth along the way.

  3. Mary Lou January 17, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    I thought I saw a document with Newt Gingrich’s article that you transformed into an article of the week but I can’t find it now. Am I just not seeing it or did I imagine it?

  4. Evan Freemyer January 29, 2014 at 8:02 pm #

    Hey, Dave,

    Putting together a AoW to use for tomorrow. Couple of questions:

    1. I have been wanting to increase rigor in my classroom, but not leave my students behind. What is a reasonable expectation time-wise for them to complete an AoW?

    2. I am piloting my first AoW tomorrow. They know nothing (I think) about annotating or They-say/I-say templates. Do you have advice on how to start it off smoothly? (I know this is late notice. As a first year, I feel like everything is by-the-seat-of-my-pants.

    Thanks for the help.

    Evan Freemyer, Thomas Jefferson High, Council Bluffs Public Schools.

    • davestuartjr January 29, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

      Hi Evan,

      I totally relate to the seat of the pants thing 🙂 Here are some pointers for AoW:

      –Timewise, it depends on length, but, assuming you are giving a 1-2 page article that’s grade-appropriate, they can easily complete it within a week. However, just remember:
      —-Unless they are super self-guided at home, they need at least some time in class for you to set the purpose, and part of that is you “hooking” them into the article’s contents

      –Remember to model the parts. When modeling, think “I” language. So if you are modeling annotating, you might read aloud the first paragraph and say, “I’m wondering why the author is starting like this, so I’m coding this paragraph with a question mark,” or, “I’m not sure yet where the author is going, so I’m going to hold off on annotating anything because, honestly, I don’t have anything to say yet.”

      –The same is true for the They Say / I Say — model for them how you go about completing some or all of it, perhaps on Day 2 when they’ve all had a chance to read it

      –Also, with TS/IS, remember to explain to them:
      1) that the purpose of such a rigid structure is to make sure they really understand the author’s argument before they launch into their own;
      2) we use this format to give you practice with the argumentative moves that matter in academic writing and speaking;

      Let me know how those works. Finally, just remember that it takes time and repetition for you as a teacher and them as students to get good at any one strategy. Give yourself some grace and observe how they (and you) do this first time around, and improve from there.

      Let me know how it goes, brother!


  5. Jenvillalpando January 30, 2014 at 10:56 am #

    First and foremost, THANK YOU! Your blog has saved my tail, inspired me and my colleagues, and upped the rigor for our students!

    I’m seeing some new things in your AoW’s that I’m curious about…
    1. In your rubric, you are calling for use of a “two column annoation method.” What specific method are you using with your kids?
    2. I’m also seeing a “window quote.” What exactly are the kids looking for here?

    Thank you again for making your work public and open to us all!

  6. Jeremy S. April 16, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

    Thanks so much for this Dave. I’ve used AoW’s and They Say/I Say templates for a couple years (urban, inner city, public high schools, AP and college prep, grades 10, 11, and 12), but never combined them. I’d like to offer a suggestion for a third paragraph that helps them explain “So What? Who Cares?” (drawn from Chapter 7 and the appendix of TS/IS). Here it is:

    X should be of interest to Y (specific group)/those who _____________ because _____________. Ultimately, Z (the topic) matters/is important because ____________.

    Nothing fancy, but something to try to get them to think about audience (who cares) and the bigger picture (so what).

    • davestuartjr April 22, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

      Jeremy, this is really interesting — I love that chapter and the task of getting kids to explain the significance of an issue is especially valuable for articles of the week. Love it — thank you, I’m going to play around with this!

  7. Keith Schoch October 7, 2016 at 10:47 am #

    I realize this is one of your older posts, but I came here via http://davestuartjr.com/nine-moves-teaching-texts/ and I’m glad I did. I’m always interested in reading different teachers’ takes on the They Say/I Say model, which I believe is an effective scaffold leading to more advanced argumentation.

    I actually use picture books and current events articles as content when my sixth grade students are first getting started with this structure. Check out my thoughts here: http://teachwithpicturebooks.blogspot.com/2013/02/fightin-words-using-picture-books-to.html.

  8. Rasheedah Mateen October 29, 2016 at 8:35 pm #

    Can this template be done using multiple articles.

    • davestuartjr November 1, 2016 at 1:20 pm #

      Rasheedah, I think it could be, but you would need to modify the first paragraph accordingly.

  9. Tori May 16, 2017 at 10:51 am #

    I love using the template with my struggling writers. The beauty is in the repetition. The more students practice the better! I encourage my students to choose good evidence and then explain. I have modified the template as follows to help them understand the parts of a good argument.

    The general argument made by (author) in her/his work, “(title),” is that (claim). She/he writes, “(evidence).” In this passage, the author is suggesting that (explanation). In conclusion, the author’s belief is that (restate claim).

    I am finding that the students are not skilled in choosing good supportive evidence and providing enough explanation.

  10. kate January 31, 2018 at 1:29 pm #

    Hi Dave and community!
    I’m wondering if you have a 4 point rubric (or variation of) that you use to evaluate their TSIS responses. Would love to see how all of you track mastery level of this writing approach!

  11. rachel March 4, 2018 at 8:01 pm #

    Dito on the rubric. Also, I’m looking for an argument template that will help move students to a hook, background info, thesis+counterclaim + reason 1,2,3 first paragraph(s) for an essay. And then of course, the many paragraphs and research in the essay 🙂 I like how this emphasis is on what the other person said, but it leaves a big leap to the argument essay. Any resources for that?

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