W.CCR.1–that’s the 1st College/Career Readiness anchor standard within the Writing strand of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for ELA / Literacy–reads as follows:
Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
Before exploring the actual standard, let’s discuss the “specialness” of argument within the CCSS.
Why is argumentative writing first?
Well, according to Neil Postman, Gerald Graff, and a bunch of other people and reports cited by the CCSS, argument is a pretty big deal.
On page 24 of Appendix A (i.e., the appendix containing evidence supporting the CCSS and a glossary of key terms), there’s a section called “The Special Place of Argument in the Standards.” It’s not a long read, but it’s packed with useful insights into why argument (and, in the early grades, opinion writing) has primacy of place in the standards. Below is my Sparknotes version of the section:
- Academia is an argument culture (Graff).
- Therefore “argument literacy” is crucial for success in academia.
- Argument isn’t about winning; instead, it’s “a serious and focused conversation among people who are intensely interested in getting to the bottom of things cooperatively” (Williams and McEnerney).
- In the the world of work, being able to back up opinions and ideas with strong evidence and sound reasoning is crucial.
- It has strong ties with research and knowledge-building, both of which are also important within the CCSS.
- It’s an important element in curriculum frameworks for numerous high-performing nations.
- It develops “capacities are broadly important for the literate, educated person living in the diverse, information-rich environment of the twenty-first century.”
So what’s an argument, according to the CCSS?
In Appendix A, we find a meaty definition of argument. If you’ve read through Appendix A at all, you’ll easily believe that the below text was one giganto paragraph before I broke it down a bit:
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.
- In English language arts, students make claims about the worth or meaning of a literary work or works. They defend their interpretations or judgments with evidence from the text(s) they are writing about.
- In history/social studies, students analyze evidence from multiple primary and secondary sources to advance a claim that is best supported by the evidence, and they argue for a historically or empirically situated interpretation.
- In science, students make claims in the form of statements or conclusions that answer questions or address problems. Using data in a scientifically acceptable form, students marshal evidence and draw on their understanding of scientific concepts to argue in support of their claims.
- [In elementary school:] Although young children are not able to produce fully developed logical arguments, they develop a variety of methods to extend and elaborate their work by providing examples, offering reasons for their assertions, and explaining cause and effect. These kinds of expository structures are steps on the road to argument. In grades K–5, the term “opinion” is used to refer to this developing form of argument.
If you teach ELA, history/social studies, science, or elementary, I hope the above bullet points are helpful. One way we can help students see the “argumentative culture” of academia is by teaching the ways that arguments differ by discipline.
Now that we’ve got some why and what questions handled, let’s look at the three steps contained within W.CCR.1.
Step 1: Make a claim about a substantive topic or text
For the sake of explaining this standard, let’s look at an assignment I’m preparing for Fall 2012. As part of our first trimester Odyssey unit, my 9th grade students will be reading a document that compares life in Athens and life in Sparta, and they will be arguing which polis would be the better place to live. My purposes in doing this are twofold:
- I want them to build knowledge about the city states of ancient Greece.
- I want them to practice argumentation.
Also, for the sake of hitting multiple strands of the CCSS in one assignment, my students won’t just be writing their arguments; they’ll be using them in a back-and-forth, whole class, graded debate.
Once they’ve had time to closely read and annotate the document, I’ll ask them to decide which polis they’ll be arguing for. For my indecisive students, I’ll remind them that the best debaters are those who can argue any side of an argument, and that they do need to chose a side.
Any time that my students make an argument, I want them thinking about these kinds of questions when they’re preparing their claim:
- Is your claim debatable? Is it intriguing? Is it clear?
- In the Athens-Sparta example, I’ll prompt them to think about how they can enhance their claim. Instead of simply writing, “Sparta would be a better place to live than Athens,” I’d push them to consider how to strengthen their language and clarify their claim. E.g., “Since I’m a woman, I would rather be dead in Sparta than alive in Athens.”
- Are there other claims that yours might be confused for? How can you make this clear?
- Do you have evidence in mind that can support your claim?
Step 2: Support that claim with relevant and sufficient evidence
I teach my students that a great arguer starts with a ton of evidence, ranks it in order of relevance and strength, and then draws a line in the list where the evidence starts getting weak.
For the Athens-Sparta example, here’s a mini-list of prioritized evidence:
- Women in Athens were viewed as property. In order to live life out of the house, you had to be a priestess or a prostitute.
- Women in Sparta were educated. They could play sports.
- Although women were assigned their husbands in Sparta, they were never viewed as property.
- In times of war, Spartan women were responsible for overseeing their husbands’ estates. This is a much more noble calling than being one more possession for an Athenian man.
If this were an argument based on multiple texts or a longer text, the list of evidence would be longer and some evidence would need to be eliminated from the argument for the sake of keeping it focused.
Step 3: Tie it all together with valid reasoning
The reasoning of an argument often usually answers why or how questions that I need to teach my student writers to anticipate:
- Why does this piece of evidence support your claim?
- Why is your claim superior to your opponent’s?
- How is your claim limited?
- This one is key for students because they often think that argument is about winning, and that the only way to win is by making your claim appear perfect. But, unlike some kinds of persuasive writing, argumentation is based on logic and reasoning. An argument that strategically avoids mentioning any evidence contrary to its claim is always going to be a failed argument because the intelligent reader will smell a rat.
Once drafts of these Athens-Sparta arguments are written, I’ll have my students read them in pairs or triads, and then we’ll have our whole class back and forth debate.
Perhaps the biggest factor in developing “argumentative literacy” in my students has been giving them repeated exposure to reading, writing, speaking, and listening to arguments.
Even though I’ve only scratched the surface, I hope this helps