Meeting the Common Core – Argumentative Writing in Grade 7

Meeting the Common Core, one assignment at a time.

Common Core State Standard

Grade 7 Writing:

Common Core State Standard 7.W.1 (2010) reads as follows:

Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

a.      Introduce claim(s), acknowledge alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.

b.      Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.

c.       Use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claims(s), reasons, and evidence.

d.      Establish and maintain a formal style.

e.       Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.

There is clear differentiation between writing argument and writing persuasion, and the Common Core State Standards emphasize this difference. Developing writers, particularly in middle level grades, have difficulty separating the purposes of these two modes. Their limited experience points to argument as winning a verbal debate. In that understanding, argument includes emotional appeals and persuading others to take sides, to move someone to agree with a particular stance because of ethical and emotional points that tug at one’s reasoning. This, however, is not argument. It is persuasion at its finest.

Mature writers know that argumentation involves substantiation of a position based on logical evidence. Argumentative writing requires the author to carry a single point from beginning to end, citing evidence that clearly and strongly supports a claim without involving emotion. A writer’s reputation is not the reason that an argumentative essay is successful.  Effective writing includes promotion of a stance using factual or empirical evidence that leads to solid reasons that a claim is true. It is apparent that depth of reasoning, specific information that is thoroughly analyzed, and language that connects ideas into logical presentation of a viewpoint is required by CCSS 7.W.1. But how do we accomplish this kind of writing with students in Grade 7?

Writing is one skill that includes many subsets. Not only is the writer learning about the topic in order to develop a claim, but he or she is also negotiating the task of composing. We tend to forget that writing is an art and not a science. It is not a task that can be completed by filling in the blanks. Okay, to some that might be one approach. Give the students a template and let them fill it in. The result is an essay that answers some standard questions, covers the bases, and might even be logically constructed; but usually these essays fall flat of engaging the reader, a minor detail that has major consequences in the success of a text. The many subsets of a text need to be addressed holistically. It is the big picture that we need to present to students if they are going to be interested in the hard work of writing.

Think about approaching the Grade 7 strand of writing from all of its parts. By looking through the multiple standards, teachers can detect an overarching approach that includes the big picture. Students are expected to develop practices of writing that include peer and teacher review and input, use of standard English language in their writing of coherent text that expresses ideas clearly, and production of finished writing that reflects research and utilizes technology appropriately. With all of these elements together, it makes sense to step back and breathe and to consider what is different about this standard that we don’t already know. The answer is probably “nothing.” What might have shifted is the clarity with which the standard expresses what we need students to be able to do in written text.

If we know that Grade 7 students must write argumentation, we should also know that they need to read argumentation and understand what it is and what it is not. So, the best place to begin might be with a few anchor texts that can be read together in class. Students should be encouraged to participate in small group conversations, with each group focusing on a different question about the elements of an anchor article. Select a contemporary piece that addresses the world of your students. Work through the article by asking students to identify the major claim and any minor claims. Have them highlight the facts that are used to substantiate the major claim. Digging deeper, ask them to determine if those facts are reliable. They may need to look at the sources the author has used to determine the reliability of the factual evidence.

Then, find a second anchor text that argues an opposing side of the same issue as the first article. Ask students to read the second article in the same way. Together, perhaps the class can develop a debate that helps them understand the topic even further by doing some of their own research. After a good class debate that is well structured with timed presentations and rebuttals of claims, students can write a response to an overarching question about the topic. At this point in the writing instruction, students are writing independently, perhaps in journal form. The objective is to get students writing everything they can recall, substantiating their own position with facts and reliable evidence. These journal writings become the basis of a much more formal essay.

The next step in the development of any argumentation session involves hard work. Writers must begin to hone in on exactly those features of the topic they wish to pursue. They become responsible for more research, more conversation, and independent selection of a more specific topic within the larger topic. At this stage, as a coach and not as a teacher, our jobs become more difficult. Keeping students in the game of going deeper and finding subsets of a topic to explore can be challenging. Some students will believe their work is finished when they have agreed with the anchor article. They find this a time of regurgitation; they want to write from emotional involvement and tell you everything they learned about the topic and why they believe what they do. The coach now needs to get to work helping students identify one area of great intrigue within the major topic. Teachers spend their instructional time during this phase helping students identify texts that provide more information that will feed their curiosity. The real teaching comes in assisting student as they develop questions that lead to new paths of investigation and exploration.

The most important practice in this type of writing instruction is providing time for students to read. Encouraging them to read about a topic from a perspective of interest, inquiry, and for the pleasure of learning about the topic will lead to self-directed investigation. Ask students to read everything they can find that relates to their topic.

After each student has multiple texts available, return to the writing. Ask them to revisit the journal entry they wrote after the class debate. Now is the time to expand that first journal entry. Use these questions to guide the next phase of writing:

  • What do I know now that I didn’t know when I wrote this journal response to the class debate?
  • How does that new knowledge affect my position on the topic?
  • What is my position on the topic?
  • Why do I take this position?

Ask students to do some kind of prewriting activity that will help them organize their thoughts into a logical sequence of argumentation. Remind them that argumentation requires logical organization of ideas. Students now have been through a process that consisted of multiple steps, but they still have not started writing their essay. So far they have spent time in each of these activities:

  • analyzing two anchor texts
  • developing a debate
  • responding in writing to the debate to check their own state of understanding and position on the topic
  • reading for pleasure and inquiry
  • developing more questions and seeking answers
  • revisiting their initial stance
  • evaluating their current position
  • prewriting to organize ideas

Students are now ready to begin drafting their arguments.

During the writing, students need to learn how to use transitional language to connect ideas. They need help understand that the reader must be led through the essay with ideas that connect and link to one another. Provide lists of transitional language that will help them accomplish coherent writing. Then let go.

Let students write and write and write. Give them space to fail. Give them space to find their own errors and to confer with you and other students. Help them understand that as they write, they will learn what they still need to investigate. As they struggle to support a claim, they may find holes in their logic or simply need to read more to be able to explain their ideas.  I am always amazed at how well the practice of providing space and time develop good writing.

We can’t expect students to write well unless we let them read and write more. It is obvious that the Common Core is requiring us to take that approach with all writing instruction. Without support of these activities in the classroom, students cannot become the sophisticated writers that they are expected to become at much earlier stages in their educational careers.

Good luck and happy coaching!