Why Study Argumentative Writing?

The ability to compose a high quality argument (and its claims, warrants, and evidence) in writing is a critical skill for the academic success of high school students (Graff, 2003; Kuhn 2005). We are adapting Toulmin’s (1958; 1972, 2001) model of argumentation which includes the structure of an argument across all domains in terms of claim, warrant, data, and backing. By extension, we define argumentative writing as a type of critical thinking and rhetorical production involving the identification of a thesis (also called a claim), supportive evidence (empirical or experiential), and assessment of the warrants which connect the thesis, evidence, and situation within which the argument is being made. Consistent with the 2002 RAND report and studies of reading and writing in the workplace (see Yeh, 2001; Smart, 1993; MacKinnon, 1993) argumentative writing is critical for academic and economic success.  As Graff argues in Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, (2003), “For American students to do better—all of them, not just twenty percent—they need to know that summarization and making arguments is the name of the game in academia” (p. 3).

Yet, nearly one third of high school graduates are not ready for the rigors of academic writing and, as a result, many struggle with college English composition courses (ACT, 2006). One possible explanation for low achievement in this area would be that high school teachers do not teach or assign tasks that involve argumentative writing. Although it is difficult to ascertain how often high school teachers teach and assign argumentative writing tasks, if the number of state-wide writing assessments that include prompts for argumentative writing are an indication, such writing skills are called for by the tasks encountered by students (Jeffrey, 2009). Thus, the question is not whether argumentative writing should be taught, but whether the ways in which it is taught are systematically related to student literacy learning and achievement.

We are identifying factors and instructional processes that are predictive of high quality argumentative writing that may lead to the development of an instructional model for teaching argumentative writing at the secondary school level.