What's the Argument? Mentoring Readers of Argumentation in Disciplinary Texts

Doug Buehl

Abstract

As a pervasive strategy in informational texts, argumentation occupies a prominent place in the Common Core literacy standards. This article defines and exemplifies explanations, conclusions, generalizations, interpretations, hypotheses and propositions—common forms of argumentation that students will encounter as readers of complex disciplinary texts. To learn effectively within each discipline, students need to understand the nature of its argumentation and be able to recognize and practice its patterns of development and support. This article models three literacy practices that teachers can use as scaffolds to prompt and support the analysis of argumentation: claims/evidence charts, proposition/support outlines, and argument/question/response charts.

Argument—this word evokes a variety of images. Perhaps a spirited back-and-forth debate between unyielding parties. Or the ongoing, seemingly endless, frequently acrimonious exchanges of political adversaries. Possibly a contentious person whose conversation quickly becomes disputation. Or perhaps an intense disagreement among family members or friends. Some recall an old adage: "There are always two sides to every argument."

Of course the these images are all apt for one primary definition of argument, a common usage familiar to our students as well: people who differ about something disputing with each other. This understanding of argument—an expression of disagreement—can readily trigger connotations of entrenched opinion, competition, irritability, emotion, discomfort, even negativity. However, it is an alternate usage of the term "argument"—a proposition, arguable statement, or position supported by credible evidence and analysis—that occupies a central role in our teaching. Argumentation, the development and presentation of reasoning about some facet of our curriculum, is the foundation to learning within a discipline (Graf, 2003).

Argumentation as Represented in the Common Core

Standards. The Common Core literacy standards prize "the special place of argument in the standards" (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers [hereafter

referred to as CCSS], 2010, Appendix A, p. 24). Recurrent references to argumentation are significantly embedded across the standards, most specifically in the following anchor standards:

  • Reading Standard 8. "Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence" (CCSS, p. 10).
  • Writing Standard 1. "Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence" (CCSS, p. 18).
  • Speaking/Listening Standard 3. "Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric" (CCSS, p. 22).
  • Speaking/Listening Standard 4. "Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience" (CCSS, p. 22).

Arguments vs. opinions. This focus in the standards presents a definite contrast to how many students would conceptualize "argument" in the classroom—a vigorous offering of their opinions about something under discussion. Indeed, as teachers we often solicit students' "opinion" about some element under study, and students are generally very eager to weigh in with their personal takes. Unfortunately, opinion may very likely be the extent of what we get from our students. However, the emphasis in the standards on argument—the argumentation we wish to mentor in our classrooms—involves a more rigorous set of expectations than merely articulating an opinion. As the Common Core Appendix A explains:

Arguments are used for many purposes—to change the reader's point of view, to bring about some action on the reader's part, or to ask the reader to accept the writer's explanation or evaluation of a concept, issue, or problem. An argument is a reasoned, logical way of demonstrating that the writer's position, belief, or conclusion is valid. (CCSS, 2010, Appendix A, p. 23)

A significant requirement in the standards is for students to present text-based evidence to support arguments—extending a stated position beyond mere opinion, which may be based primarily on personal beliefs and experiences. When students reach beyond reliance on personal beliefs and experiences, learning to cite authority and use textual evidence to support their thinking, they have progressed from expressing opinions to practicing argumentation. Similarly, recognizing and tracking how authors develop arguments is essential for analysis of complex disciplinary texts.

Arguments in informational texts. Argumentation can appear in a number of guises in texts students read for information in the disciplines. Basically, an argument can be construed as an assertion of "something that is so"— a way of summing up an understanding that is supportable by accepted facts and scholarship and consistent with logical reasoning. Proposition uses an argument as an overall text structure. Essays, reviews, appeals, editorials, advocacy pieces, and other such expressions of viewpoint are examples of these texts, and the author's argumentation can be relatively easy to spot.

But argumentation is far more pervasive than these overt displays. In disciplinary literacy, students frequently encounter the following less obvious forms of argumentation, illustrated here by arguable statements that might be made regarding Utah's professional basketball team:

  1. Opinions, which are based on personal ideas and experiences

    The Utah Jazz play boring basketball.

  2. Explanations, which are arguments positing that a particular way of understanding—usually "how" or "why" something happens or happened—is valid based on an examination of what we know or can observe

    The Utah Jazz overturned their roster, have not drafted particularly well, and lost some talented players to other teams, which has led to a losing record.

  3. Conclusions, which argue that, given what we know, certain conclusions can be justified that pull the specifics together into a coherent understanding (i.e., "given all this, we can say it means this")

    If you examine the achievements of their current players, you will see that the Utah Jazz does not have a player of superstar abilities.

  4. Generalizations, by which authors guide understanding through detecting patterns within what is known that can be summed up as relationships, interconnections, or trends

    Teams that lack a superstar, like the Utah Jazz, have difficulty becoming consistent winners in the NBA.

  5. Interpretations, which present an individual or group's "take" on what can be understood or revealed after due examination and analysis.

    After a disastrous losing season, Dennis Lindsey, the Jazz general manager, characterized recent decisions as a step back in order to "take three or four forward" (Melnick, 2014).

  6. Theories or hypotheses, which are argued as consistent with what is known and thus should provide a foundation for further investigation and exploration:

    Sports history shows that it is significant decisions over time that eventually result in a "significant team"; thus current Jazz efforts will result in a significant team for the State of Utah (Lindsey cited in Melnick, 2014).

The opinion really does not stray beyond personal beliefs and preferences as a basis for justification. But each of the other statements is predicated on making a case for understanding that can be supported through an examination of known specifics. Of course, other observers could examine the specifics and suggest a variety of alternative arguable statements.

Argumentation Throughout the Disciplines

As the above discussion and examples show, argumentation can be almost ubiquitous, especially as a part of informational (expository) texts. Certain forms of argumentation are especially prevalent in the texts of different disciplines.

Arguments typical in various disciplines. Table 1 provides a sampling of typical forms of argumentation that students will encounter as learners in specific disciplines.

Table 1: Argumentation in Disciplinary Texts

History Explanations, generalizations, conclusions, and interpretations of the past based on historical evidence; proposition/support argumentation representing perspective/point of view, such as in primary documents or essays
Science Scientific claims (explanations, generalizations, conclusions, theories) supported by evidence derived through scientific methods; interpretations of scientific data
Literature Interpretations of literary texts; implicit author arguments that relate to possible themes of literary texts; proposition/support argumentation representing perspective/point of view, especially through essays
Mathematics Explanations of logical mathematical concepts and relationships derivce from mathematical "givens"; justifications of problem-solving methods
Technical Texts Presentations of a case (often implicit) that specific steps or procedural methods will lead to desired results and likely successful completion of a task, as in "how-to" texts, instructions, or manuals
Health & Fitness Explanations of cause/effect relationships regarding physical activity or aspects of personal health; recommendations for fitness actions or lifestyle choices
Art & Music Aesthetic judgments related to articulated criteria; explanations of how specific actions, procedures, or methods can achieve certain artistic or musical results

If students are to become accomplished with articulating arguments in their speaking and writing, they need to become practiced in analyzing the various arguments presented by the authors they study. Certainly as a foundation for their comprehension, they need to recognize when they are reading argumentation, as mandated by the expectations in Reading Standard 8.

Argumentation requiring new viewpoints. Some disciplines may require students to shift their habitual approaches to facts and arguments. History and literature, which are among the disciplines most studied in schools, require students to deal with argumentation that may not seem on the surface to be argumentation.

Wineburg (1991) found significant disparities between how students and historians approached the reading of texts central to the study of history. Students tended to read history as a series of statements of truth, while historians read the same texts expecting to encounter arguments. As Hynd, Holschuh and Hubbard (2004) related, "Students view history reading as fact collecting" (p. 142). Clearly instruction is needed that mentors students to perceive that reading history transcends mastery of a litany of facts. Ways that historians relate understandings about the past through argumentation should be a central focus for learning from texts of history.

Texts in literature also require new approaches and viewpoints where argumentation may be involved. Generally argumentation in literary texts is more subtle and implicit, as possible author arguments are embedded in storytelling or in forms of poetry and personal essays. Readers explore these arguments as they interpret conceivable themes of a story, novel, drama, or poem. For example, one can certainly argue that George Orwell was making arguments in both Animal Farm and 1984. In "Auto Wreck," one of the most powerful pieces of poetic persuasion students encounter, Karl Shapiro described the grim, gruesome details of an automobile accident, concluding,

For death in war is done by hands;
Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic;
And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.
But this invites the occult mind,
Cancels our physics with a sneer,
And spatters all we knew of denouement
Across the expedient and wicked stones.

The surface theme of "drive safely" is only surface; the argumentation in the poem extends into critical concepts of life and death.

Although there is no Reading Standard 8 on argumentation for literature, with the emphasis focused on detecting theme (Reading Standard 2) and point of view (Reading Standard 6), students can learn to perceive and respond thoughtfully to the persuasion of authors like Orwell and Shapiro.

Strategies to Mentor Argumentation in Disciplinary Texts

Following are three disciplinary examples of literacy practices that can mentor student analysis of argumentation as readers of complex texts in science, health/physical fitness, and history.

Science—Claim/evidence charts. A claim/evidence chart is a graphic organizer that prompts students to examine arguments presented by an author and evaluate the specific evidence and reasoning that support a claim. Although this strategy is appropriate for a variety of texts across disciplines, it is particularly applicable to science texts, as scientific thinking emphasizes this claims/evidence dynamic (i.e., Hand, Norton-Meier, Staker, and Bintz, 2009). As with all strategy instruction, using a claim/evidence chart needs to be sufficiently modeled, with teacher think alouds and guided analysis before the task is turned over to students for application. This strategy is especially valuable for engaging students in a second read of a text they have initially sampled, enabling more in-depth examination of an author's argumentation. The process works best when partners collaborate to evaluate the text together and discuss the elements of argumentation that emerge in their analysis. The first step involves identifying the overall argument presented by the author, which is briefly outlined in the "Explain the Claim" box (see Table 2).

Table 2: Evidence/Claim Chart: "Trees"

Explain the Claim -- scientific argment -- presented by the author (in your own words):

Trees play an essential role in the health of our environment. The loss of trees due to droughts, insect damage, and widespread cutting is doing significant harm to our planet.

Evidence Presented by the Author to Support the Claim

Causes (What the author says trees do):Effects (Why the author says this matters):
Trees turn sunlight into food through photosynthesis Trees provide food needed by insects, wildlife, people

Microbes in soil around tree roots break down
toxic wastes like chemicals, solvents, organic

Trees are nature's water filters; they are important for clean water

Trees can also filter out pollutants in the air A study showed more trees in urban areas lead to less asthma due to cleaner air
Trees release clouds of beneficial chemicals These chemicals seem to help regulate the climate & some of them are antiviral, antibacterial, or anti-fungal; one of these chemicals is now used for cancer treatment; aspirin comes from willows
Trees capture carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that makes the planet warmer, so trees combat global warming

Trees provide cover from the sunlight Tree cover can make the earth's surface ten degrees cooler and protect animals from UV sunrays; water vapor from forests lowers temperatures
Trees absorb excess chemicals that run off farm

Degraded water systems (like Gulf of Mexico) can be brought back to life from the damage caused by nitrogen and phosphorus

Decomposing tree leaves leach acids into the ocean

The acids help plankton thrive, which benefits the
entire food chain; forests planted next to streams & oceans have revitalized fish & oyster stocks

In the "Trees" example, the author's overall argument is a conclusion, that trees play an essential role in our environment. The author offers a number of supporting arguments with accompanying evidence, following a consistent cause/effect pattern. Students use the chart to dissect these various explanations, generalizations, and conclusions to form a strong visual outline of the author's line of argumentation in the text. The chart provides an excellent template for summary writing and further investigations. This method provides students with in-depth practice for realizing Reading Standard 8 for Science and Technical Texts, Grades 9-10: "Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author's claim or a recommendation for solving a scientific or technical problem" (CCSS, 2010, p. 62).

Health and physical fitness—Proposition/support outlines. The proposition/support outline (Buehl, 2014) is a graphic organizer that guides students in tracking the nature of the evidence presented by an author in an analytical manner (see Table 3).

Table 3: Proposition/Support Outline: "Sitting"

Proposition (Author's Argument—conclusion, explanation, generalization, interpretation):
Sedentary behavior, like long stretches of sitting, is harmful to a person's health.

Support—Evidence presented by the author

1

Facts:
Electrical activity in our muscles drops when we are sitting
Harmful effects on our metabolism result—calorie burning goes down to 1/3 compared to walking
Insulin effectiveness drops within a single day—risk of Type 2 diabetes goes up
Enzymes that "vacuum fats" from bloodstream plunge, causing good cholesterol (HDL) levels to drop

2

Research & Statistics:
Young thin fit subjects saw 40% reduction in insulin ability to process glucose after 24 sedentary hrs
Death rate of American men who sat 6 hours/day 20% higher than those sitting 3 hours or less
Death rate of American women who sat 6 hours/day 40% higher than those sitting 3 hours or less
Australian study found each additional hour of sitting to watch TV increased risk of death 11%
Mayo Clinic study found subjects who unconsciously move around more burned more calories & didn't gain weight compared with those who ate the same food & portions but gained weight

3

Examples:
The author worked with Mayo clinic researchers to monitor his own physical movements & calorie
burning rate for a 24 hour period
Obese people averaged only 1500 physical movements recorded by motion-tracking device & sat 600 minutes per day; Jamaica farm workers averaged 5000 daily movements & sat 300 minutes per day

4

Expert Authority:
2 Doctors who are Mayo Clinic researchers
An "inactivity" researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center
An epidemiologist at the American Cancer society
An Australian researcher who published his study in the journal Circulation
The author is a journalist who published this article in a Health issue of New York Times Magazine

5

Logic & Reasoning:
The negative effects of extensive sedentary behavior are not overcome by regular exercise
The author compared sitting to smoking—jogging won't overcome negative effects of smoking & won't
overcome negative effects of extended sedentary behavior
People who sit regularly at the job need to integrate more movement activities/breaks into their
routine—even minor movements like tying one's shoes add up & help

Several forms of evidence are highlighted. In the text on which this organizer is based, the author supports an argument by citing accepted facts, referencing relevant research and studies, elaborating with specific examples, accessing credible authorities, and developing a logical, well-reasoned synthesis of this material. The graphic outline enables students to examine closely the balance of types of evidence the author presents and to set up analysis of the argumentation. Questions emerge:

  • Are the facts generally accepted as valid?
  • Do the studies seem to justify the conclusions?
  • Are the examples typical?
  • Does the author rely too much on examples rather than other forms of evidence? (A common fault of student argumentation)
  • Do the authorities seem sufficiently credible?
  • Would other authorities concur?
  • Do the logic and reasoning seem consistent with the evidence? And so forth.

In the text on which the example "Sitting" is based, the author presents evidence that encompasses all of these forms of support. The author's overall premise—that research demonstrates the harmfulness of prolonged sedentary behavior—is developed through citations of experts and research studies as well as presentation of known facts about our physiology; illustration is provided by the author's participation in some of the research activities. The outline brings all of these lines of evidence into sharp focus, providing an opportunity for health and fitness students to examine in depth the author's case about the need for regular physical activity in our daily lifestyles.

This lesson provides students with systematic practice in deconstructing how an argument is developed and evaluating the case presented, as expressed in Reading Standard 8 for Informational Texts, Grades 9-10: "Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning" (CCSS, 2010, p. 40). Similarly, Science and Technical Texts, Grades 9-10 states, "Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author's claim or a recommendation for solving a scientific or technical problem" (CCSS, 2010, p. 62).

Proposition/support outlines can be especially useful as a tool for gathering evidence for students' own inquiry about topics under study, as they are prompted to seek evidence from a range of possibilities and to balance the types of evidence they display. The outlines provide a strong framework for presentation and analysis in student discussions—especially in debates—around a topic. Similarly, the outlines can be valuable as templates for student argumentation through writing, as outlined in Writing Standard 1, Grades 9-10: "Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence" (CCSS, 2010, p. 45).

History—Argument/question/response charts. The argument/question/response chart (Buehl, 2014) is a variation of a graphic organizer that engages students in questioning and summarizing arguments (Harvey & Goodvis, 2007). It can be a particularly effective strategy for texts examined in the study of history, given the central role of argumentation in historical thinking, as related earlier in this article. The strategy sensitizes readers to track arguments that are central to an author's message (see Table 4).

Table 4: Argument/Question Response Chart: "President Grant"

ArgumentQuestionResponse
Grant was one of the greatest Presidents of his time and one of the all-time greatest Presidents Why do we always hear about what a bad President Grant was . . . doesn't he often come out as one of the worst Presidents? The author says Grant's reputation will be restored to being positive; I wonder if this is really going to happen
Grant was a rigorous supporter of the rights of black Americans

How did Grant's actions help the people who were formerly slaves?

We always hear about Lincoln as a great civil rights leader, but maybe Grant's achievements have been overlooked

Grant was greatly admired by the public during his lifetime

Shouldn't the viewpoints of the people who lived during the time Grant was a general and the President count a lot? It is interesting that Grant should go from being admired to later on being regarded in a very negative way
Grant's reputation was later damaged by historians who had a pro-Southern view of history Does the author have a perspective that influences the way he regards history? It seems the author thinks Grant was a victim of a "smear campaign"; we've seen that happen to other politicians

After students have completed a first read, they return to the text, working as partners, for a second read, this time to tease out the arguments they detect the author is making: explanations, conclusions, generalizations, interpretations, theories, and so forth. Once they have identified the arguments, the partners prioritize them and settle on the three to six (depending on the text and teacher instructions) that seem predominant. These are recorded in the Arguments column of the chart, although the teacher may decide to have the whole class "argue" which are the most important arguments and decide which should be listed as preeminent. This exercise emphasizes Speaking/Listening Standard 3, Grades 9-10: "Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence" (CCSS, 2010, p. 50).

As a third read, partners return to examine the portions of the text that are relevant to each of the most important arguments. Their task is to raise a significant question relevant to the argument; in essence, they "continue the conversation" through a more in-depth analysis which includes questioning the author's evidence or reasoning. The questions are recorded in the middle column and then shared and discussed by the whole class. The final phase—summing up understandings—is accomplished by students working individually; these summary statements are recorded in the third column.

In the example of President Grant, four major arguments were targeted and discussed. In this essay, the author argues that Ulysses S. Grant is an under-appreciated President who made significant contributions, especially in civil rights. The author's point of view, as well as his case, clearly emerges through this analysis.

This lesson provides students with an analytical template for identifying and further exploring an argument, which addresses Reading Standard 8 for History and Social Studies Texts, Grades 9-10: "Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author's claims" (CCSS, 2010, p. 61).

Summary

Argumentation and analysis are two terms that surface repeatedly in the Common Core literacy standards—as they should. Understanding the nature of argumentation in addition to various ways arguments are developed and supported in different disciplines can be essential in learning within the disciplines. Literacy practices that prompt and support the analysis of argumentation can be especially valuable scaffolds for mentoring students in examining and developing argumentation. And by the way, you probably noticed as a reader that this article is an argument.

 

Doug Buehl was a teacher, literacy coach, and district adolescent literacy specialist for 33 years in the Madison Metropolitan School District, Madison, Wisconsin. For the past several years he has worked with schools and districts with professional development in disciplinary literacy and has taught adolescent literacy courses at Edgewood College. He is the author of two IRA books: Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines (2011) and Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning (4th ed. 2014).

References

Buehl, D. (2014). Classroom strategies for interactive learning (4th ed.).Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Graff, G. (2003). Clueless in academe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hand, B., Norton-Meier, L., Staker, J., & Bintz, J. (2009). Negotiating science: The critical role of argument in student inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A. (2007). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension for understanding and engagement (2nd ed.). Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Hynd, C., Holschuh, J. P., & Hubbard, B. P. (2004). Thinking like a historian: College students' reading of multiple historical documents. Journal of Literacy Research,36(2), 141-176.

Melnick, A. (2014, April). NBA rumors: Utah Jazz took a step back in order to "take three or four forward." Fanside. Retrieved from http://fansided.com/2014/04/25/nba-rumors-utah-jazz-took-step-back-order-take-three-four-forward/#!Gf07K.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of State School Officers. (2010). Common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org.

Shapiro, K. (19). Auto wreck. In K.J. Shapiro, Collected Poems 1940-1978. New York, NY: Random House.

Wineburg, S. S. (1991). On the reading of historical texts: Notes on the breach between school and academy. American Educational Research Journal, 28, 495-519.