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Decoding text types: One of these things is not like the others

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Career-Technical Education

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy are shifting the writing instruction landscape, articulating rigorous new expectations and emphasizing newly redefined text types. Amid this sweeping change, educators, publishers and providers of professional development are scrambling to understand the types of writing that students must master for college and career readiness: narrative, informative/explanatory, opinion and argument.

Perhaps the biggest change for most writing teachers is the shift toward opinion and argument writing. Despite what you may have heard from some experts, page 24 of the CCSS Appendix A makes it crystal clear: “Opinion” and “argument” are not simply new words that mean “persuasive.” These three words identify separate, distinct writing concepts.

Let’s begin with a basic definition for each. According to the standards, “persuasive” is not a text type; that is to say it is not a “design” or a “build” for composition. Rather, “persuasion” is a goal or a purpose for writing. Authors attempting to persuade an audience rely primarily upon credibility and emotion, often leveraging the reader’s sense of self-interest. In a nutshell, persuasion is generally accomplished by changing the way someone feels.

Argumentation is different. While the assertion of a specific argument can certainly be a purpose for writing, and while an argument can certainly change how a reader feels about a topic, an effective written argument also has distinct characteristics that set it apart from other writing forms. These characteristics define the text type, and, according to common core, they can be observed and directly instructed. An argument begins with a claim. A claim is an assertion that the writer intends to prove is valid. A claim is a specific type of thesis: an opinion that is to some extent objectively defensible (This is the best type of computer for people who travel). A well-constructed argument advances the claim using reasons (It is durable), examples (I have dropped it many times, and it still works) and evidence (Consumer reports gives this model a top score for durability). Notice a key difference between examples and evidence: Evidence tends to be factual information gleaned from sources more informed than the writer himself.

According to the standards, argument writing instruction is supposed to begin at about sixth grade. Notwithstanding the recommendations of the common core, it is highly advisable to begin argument writing instruction when students demonstrate that they are cognitively ready to think a bit more abstractly (to think more “outside” their own experience). With many students, this will occur long before sixth grade. So in accordance with best instructional practices, teachers must observe and assess carefully, determine the developmentally appropriate moment to begin argument writing and differentiate to meet the needs of students working at different levels of readiness and proficiency.

So what are we supposed to be teaching before argument instruction begins? According to the common core, opinion writing. This is simply a less sophisticated form of argument writing. It begins with an opinion statement and then supports it with reasons and examples. Opinion writing is often characterized by the lack of an objectively defensible claim and/or a lack of evidence to support the reasons and examples. But opinion writing and argument writing are not entirely separate from one another. These two text types exist on a developmental continuum, so it is possible for writing to exhibit characteristics of both simultaneously. From an instructional perspective, it is less important to identify the type of writing than it is to move students incrementally along the continuum from opinion toward argumentation. As writers develop, their compositions will gradually become less opinion-oriented and more characteristic of a true argument. For example, a first grader might render the opinion, “I like ice cream.” A seventh grader might argue about the same topic beginning with the claim, “Ice cream is unhealthy.” In both cases, the writer takes a position on the topic, but the first grader’s assertion (opinion) is far more subjective. The second example is more typical of a claim that might anchor a written argument, and it is more defensible from an evidentiary perspective.

Now that we have discussed the essential differences between persuasion, opinion and argument, we must recognize their interplay in authentic, real-world writing. Think analogously of any car commercial you’ve watched recently. The tag line is probably an opinion, but in some cases, it might be a claim. Reasons to buy the car are provided and visual examples are likely demonstrated by actors on the screen. Many car companies also cite evidence, such J.D. Power and Associates award or Car and Driver’s 10 best list. But the advertiser also spent a lot of money in an attempt to establish their credibility, appeal to your emotions, and influence you to act in your own self-interest. So the commercial you’re thinking of probably had characteristics of both persuasion and argumentation, like many other “real world” forms of communication.

This begs a simple question: If persuasion, opinion and argument often blend in the real world, why teach them separately? There are two simple answers. First, in order to effectively blend these concepts, students have to master each of them first. To do so requires explicit strategy-based instruction, and many of the proprietary strategies for each form are distinct. Second, the standards emphasize the opinion and argument text types for success in college and career. Why? College and career require written expression that is  compelling — writing that argues based upon reasonableness and proof. And because it’s easier to persuade than to argue, students often are better at the former than the latter. From an academic perspective, argument is more challenging. It requires a deeper level of understanding that comes from analysis, research, perspective-taking, and anticipation of counterclaims.

To summarize, persuasion, opinion and argument are distinct from one another. For this reason, they require strategy-based direct instruction for student mastery. But this does not mean they exist in mutually exclusive silos. Talented writers develop a commanding mastery of each and then blend them expertly to address specific purposes and audiences.

James Scott Miller is a Zaner-Bloser senior instructional consultant and consulting author. He is the author of Strategies for Writers. He has taught students in all grade levels, K-12 and holds a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from National University. While employed with Clovis Unified School District, Miller worked with many dedicated administrators and teachers to help establish the “Buchanan Area Writing Project.”