Teaching argument writing to 7–14 year olds

Richard Andrews, Carole Torgerson, Graham Low, and Nick McGuinn explain what research has revealed about teaching argument writing, and what the results might mean for practitioners in the classroom

IN 2006 WE PUBLISHED AN INTERNATIONAL systematic review of research literature focusing on the teaching of non-fiction writing; specifically on the writing of argument for 7–14 year-olds. Since then, more recent research has reinforced our key findings.

What we know
● Certain conditions have to be in place for the successful teaching of argument writing in the classroom.
● Oral argument can help to inform written argument.
● Successful modelling includes not just demonstrating, but also peer modelling of dialogue.

Non-fiction writing has been the least favoured aspect of writing in the English curriculum for many years. The reason for such neglect for much of the 20th century was, and is, that literature (especially fictional writing such as the novel) formed the “central civilising presence” in the English curriculum. Most English teachers, at primary or secondary level, still see a literary core to their practice, values, and professional training.

The emphasis on written argument is not confined to the English classroom. Argument has an important part to play in the history lesson, for example, or the science laboratory. Recent initiatives in citizenship education have reinforced the importance of members of a democratic state being able to argue their case or to weigh the arguments of others. Interest in meta-cognition has been renewed through the development of thinking skills in the classroom and through attempts to help pupils take responsibility for reflecting upon their own learning and achievement.

Policy and practice background

In our focus on writing argumentational non-fiction, we take it as given that reading and writing are reciprocal activities, particularly with regard to writing development. We also think that speaking and listening bear upon the writing of this kind of non-fiction, in that, for example, spoken forms of argument may well be better employed than they are now to help improvement in writing non-fiction.

It is important to note that the functions of writing at secondary school include persuading, arguing and advising, influencing the reader, analysing and reviewing, evaluating and presenting a case, as well as the more descriptive informing, explaining and describing. The distinction between “argument” on the one hand, and “description” on the other is an important one for our study, reflecting a high level but often simplistic categorisation between imaginative, descriptive and argument writing that derives from 19th century rhetorical theory and which has influenced the writing curriculum ever since. Argumentation includes skills of abstraction, conceptualisation and applied logic; description implies none of these.

Review question and methods

The core research question for our 2006 review was: What is the evidence for successful practice in teaching and learning with regard to non-fiction writing (specifically argumentational writing) for 7–14 year olds?

The review question looked for evidence of successful practice in teaching and learning with regard to non-fiction argument writing for 7–14 year olds. Therefore the relevant literature included studies that could be used to draw causal inferences, ie, inferences that various practices (strategies and methods) in the teaching and learning of non-fiction argument writing can improve pupils’ non-fiction writing. Case studies, explorations of relationships, and other non-experimental designs were included only where there was an evaluation.

Reviews such as this have strict inclusion criteria. In this case, studies had to be limited to the teaching and/or learning of non-fiction argument writing in English (as a first, additional or second language), to pupils aged 7–14, and be experimental or qualitative research and be published or unpublished (but in the public domain) between 1990 and 2005.

Summary of results

Our results suggested that certain conditions were either assumed or had to be in place to create a climate for successful practice. Overall, these conditions are not specific to argument writing but include:

  • A writing process model in which pupils are encouraged to plan, draft, edit and revise their writing.
  • Self-motivation, in the form of personal target-setting.
  • Some degree of cognitive reasoning training, in addition to the natural cognitive development that takes place with maturation.
  • Peer collaboration, thus modelling a dialogue that (it is hoped) will become internal and constitute “thought”.
  • Explicit explanations for pupils of the processes to be learned.

More specifically, we identified a number of strategies that have contributed to successful practice in teaching and learning with regard to argument writing for 7–14 year olds:

  • Teacher modelling of argumentational writing.
  • The identification of explicit goals (including audiences) for writing.
  • The use of oral argument, counterargument and rebuttal to inform written argument.
  • “Heuristics”, ie, scaffolding of structures and devices that aid the composition of argumentational writing – in particular, planning, which can include examining a question, brainstorming, organising and sequencing ideas and evaluating.

Practical implications

Further development of practice with regard to the teaching and learning of argument writing must take on board what has been said above about the links between conditions for learning and specific “heuristics” for improving such writing. To use a gardening metaphor, the ground needs to be well prepared for new practices to take root, and for sustained and vigorous growth to take place within a framed curriculum plan.

Our knowledge of textbooks and practices in the field suggests that few programmes for teaching argument address both aspects of the problem.

Practitioners – particularly those new to teaching – need the kind of guidance that this study can give on how to model good argument writing practice themselves, on how to coach their pupils in the most effective and proven writing procedures, and on how to establish engaging learning opportunities in which the skills of written argument might be developed and incrementally honed in the 7–14 age range and across all four modalities currently defined as constituting “English”.

Conclusion

In the light of continued problems with writing performance in England and the USA, particularly for ages 7–11, and specifically with argument writing because of its conceptual and structural demands, we feel that the results of our 2006 review continue to be significant. The key finding is that there is a need to distinguish between the conditions that have to be in place for successful writing of argument on the one hand, and the writing heuristics that are successful in these conditions on the other. We therefore feel we have gone some way to identifying the context for successful argument writing, though admit there is more work to do on defining the range or nature of these contexts. We have also managed to distil what are the key heuristics in the generation of successful argument writing in schools.

The full review, Teaching Argument Writing to 7–14 Year Olds: An International Review of the Evidence of Successful Practice, was published in the Cambridge Journal of Education 39(3), 291-310, September 2009.

About the authors

Richard Andrews is Professor in English in the Faculty of Children and Learning at the Institute of Education, University of London, Carole Torgerson is Professor of Experimental Design in Medical Education in the School of Education at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Graham Low and Dr Nick McGuinn are based at the Department of Education, University of York.

Further reading

De La Paz S & Graham S (1997) Effects of Dictation and Advanced Planning Instruction on the Composing of Students with Writing and Learning Problems. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89: 203–22.

De La Paz S & Graham S (2002), Explicitly Teaching Strategies, Skills, and Knowledge: Writing Instruction in Middle School Classrooms. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94: 687–698.

Englert CS et al (1991), Making Strategies and Self-talk Visible: Writing Instruction in Regular and Special Education Classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 28: 337–72.

Ferretti RP, MacArthur CA, & Dowdy NS (2000), The Effects of an Elaborated Goal on the Persuasive Writing of Students with Learning Disabilities and their Normally Achieving Peers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92: 694–702.

Midgette E, Haria P, & MacArthur C (2008), The Effect of Content and Audience Awareness Goals for Revision on the Persuasive Essays of Fifth- and Eighth-Grade Students, Reading and Writing: an Interdisciplinary Journal. 21: 1–2, 131–51.

Reznitskaya A et al (2001), Influence of Oral Discussion on Written Argument, Discourse Processes. 32: 155–175.

Troia GA & Graham S (2002), The Effectiveness of a Highly Explicit, Teacherdirected Strategy Instruction Routine: Changing the Writing Performance of Students with Learning Disabilities, Journal of Learning Disabilities. 35: 290–305.

Published

February 2011