Writing An Argumentative Essay Lesson

When the purpose in writing is to persuade another of your opinion, using the correct logic and following the correct layout are very important, and your arguments, if not written clearly and with support, will fall flat. When it is time to walk your students through the process of persuasion, follow this guideline on the argumentative essay to achieve a convincing result.

  • Topic Choice

    When teaching a persuasive essay, you should make sure your students are clear on its purpose – to persuade or convince the reader that the position the writer takes is correct. This differs from other types of essays where the goal is to present information or show how something is similar to or different from something else. The persuasive essay is all about changing someone’s mind. Some topics are better suited to this type of essay, topics that can be logically argued with facts, examples, expert opinions or logical reasoning. Still, they must be a topic on which someone can take an opposing viewpoint. Some writers may be tempted to choose a matter of preference or faith, but these do not make good topics for the argument essay since it is highly unlikely the writer will be able to alter the beliefs of the reader, so encourage your students to stay away from issues of faith or preference, like ‘heaven is or isn’t real’ (since they cannot prove it,) and to gravitate toward questions they can support, such as ‘students should be able to choose their own college courses’.

  • The Opposition

    Though making assumptions is usually a bad idea, your students should start the argument essay with some assumptions about their readers. Since convincing the reader is the primary purpose of the essay, your students need to think about the person for whom they are writing, their audience. Knowing the audience can make the difference between a tolerable and a compelling essay. Your students should assume that the writer disagrees with the positions they are taking on their topic but they should not assume that the reader unintelligent. There would be no purpose to writing this type of essay if the reader already agreed with the writer’s position, but if the writer treats the reader as though he is less intelligent, the piece will have a condescending and offensive tone throughout. It is also important that your students think about why the reader holds the opposite point of view. This will be very important when it comes to writing the refutation.

  • The Arguments

    To prepare to write the persuasive essay, challenge your students to make two lists. One list should be reasons that they hold their opinion (or the pro side of the argument), and the other list should be reasons that the opposition holds their opinion about the issue (or the con side of the argument). If you are teaching a simple argument essay, the list of pros should be longer than the list of cons. If this is not the case, you may need to encourage your student to change to the other side of the argument.

    Your students can start with any style introduction that seems most effective, but the body of the essay should be rather straightforward. The writer should choose between two and four of the most convincing arguments and write one paragraph about each. It is very important that he supports his opinion with objective proof – facts, statistics, typical examples, and opinions of established experts – and not just statements of his own beliefs and opinions. Without this type of support, the argument will not be convincing. If you are teaching advanced students, this might be a natural place to look at logical fallacies and how to avoid them in this type of essay. Once the body paragraphs are written, have your students arrange their arguments in order – weakest to strongest – and end with the most compelling of the arguments.

  • The Refutation

    In this type of essay, just as important as arguing your points is arguing against the points of the opposition. When writing this type of essay, your students should not only show why they are right but also why the opposition is wrong. This part of the essay is called the refutation. Looking at the list of the reasons against their arguments, tell your students to choose the strongest point the opposite site might present. Then challenge them to think about why this argument is invalid. A strong refutation will address the argument and prove it is not logical, there is a better answer, or it is not true. Your students should spend one paragraph on the refutation, and it should come after the arguments in favor of their positions on the topic.

  • They will want to remind the reader of their points and end with a call to action. The overall tone of the essay should be logical and not emotional or manipulative. If your students are able to write this way, their essays will be convincing and effective.

    Bring in a few print copies of a newspaper, whether The Times or a local or school paper, and have your students work in small groups to contrast a news page with an opinion page and see what they discover.

    Though this piece, “And Now a Word From Op-Ed,” is from 2004, it still provides a useful and quick overview of The Times’s Opinion section, even if the section then was mostly a print product. It begins this way:

    Here at the Op-Ed page, there are certain questions that are as constant as the seasons. How does one get published? Who chooses the articles? Does The Times have an agenda? And, of course, why was my submission rejected? Now that I’ve been Op-Ed editor for a year, let me try to offer a few answers.

    This 2013 article, “Op-Ed and You,” also helps both readers of the section, and potential writers for it, understand how Times Opinion works:

    Anything can be an Op-Ed. We’re not only interested in policy, politics or government. We’re interested in everything, if it’s opinionated and we believe our readers will find it worth reading. We are especially interested in finding points of view that are different from those expressed in Times editorials. If you read the editorials, you know that they present a pretty consistent liberal point of view. There are lots of other ways of looking at the world, to the left and right of that position, and we are particularly interested in presenting those points of view.

    After students have read one or both of these overviews, invite them to explore the Times’s Opinion section, noting what they find and raising questions as they go. You might ask:

    • What pieces look most interesting to you? Why?

    • What subsections are featured in the links across the top of the section (“Columnists”; “Series”; “Editorials”; “Op-Ed”; “Letters”; etc.) and what do you find in each? How do they seem to work together?

    • How do you think the editors of this section decide what to publish?

    • What role does this section seem to play in The Times as a whole?

    • Would you ever want to write an Op-Ed or a letter to the editor? What might you write about?

    If your students are confused about where and how news and opinion can sometimes bleed together, our lesson plan, News and ‘News Analysis’: Navigating Fact and Opinion in The Times, can help.

    And to go even deeper, this lesson plan from 2010 focuses on a special section produced that year, “Op-Ed at 40: Four Decades of Argument and Illustration.” It helps students understand the role the Op-Ed page has played at The Times since 1970, and links to many classic pieces.

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    2. Know the difference between fact and opinion.

    In our lesson plan Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion, you’ll find activities students can use with any day’s Times to practice.

    For instance, you might invite them to read an Op-Ed and underline the facts and circle the opinion statements they find, then compare their work in small groups.

    Or, read a news report and an opinion piece on the same topic and look for the differences. For example, which of the first paragraphs below about the shooting in Las Vegas is from a news article and which is from an opinion piece? How can they tell?

    Paragraph A: After the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, the impulse of politicians will be to lower flags, offer moments of silence, and lead a national mourning. Yet what we need most of all isn’t mourning, but action to lower the toll of guns in America. (From “Preventing Mass Shootings Like the Vegas Strip Attack”)

    Paragraph B: A gunman on a high floor of a Las Vegas hotel rained a rapid-fire barrage on an outdoor concert festival on Sunday night, leaving at least 59 people dead, injuring 527 others, and sending thousands of terrified survivors fleeing for cover, in one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. (From “Multiple Weapons Found in Las Vegas Gunman’s Hotel Room”)

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    3. Analyze the use of rhetorical strategies like ethos, pathos and logos.

    Do your students know what ethos, pathos and logos mean? The video above, “What Aristotle and Joshua Bell Can Teach Us About Persuasion,” can help. We use it in this lesson plan, in which students explore the use of these rhetorical devices via the Op-Ed “Rap Lyrics on Trial” and more. The lesson also helps students try out their own use of rhetoric to make a persuasive argument.

    In the post, we quote a New Yorker article, “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You,” that explains the strategies in a way that students may readily understand:

    In 350 B.C., Aristotle was already wondering what could make content — in his case, a speech — persuasive and memorable, so that its ideas would pass from person to person. The answer, he argued, was three principles: ethos, pathos, and logos. Content should have an ethical appeal, an emotional appeal, or a logical appeal. A rhetorician strong on all three was likely to leave behind a persuaded audience. Replace rhetorician with online content creator, and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely modern. Ethics, emotion, logic — it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to me, it makes sense. If you look at the last few links you shared on your Facebook page or Twitter stream, or the last article you e-mailed or recommended to a friend, chances are good that they’ll fit into those categories.

    Take the New Yorker’s advice and invite them to choose viral content from their social networks and identify ethos, pathos and logos at work.

    Or, use the handouts and ideas in our post An Argument-Writing Unit: Crafting Student Editorials, in which Kayleen Everitt, an eighth-grade English teacher, has her students take on advertising the same way.

    Finally, if you’d like a recommendation for a specific Op-Ed that will richly reward student analysis of these elements, Kabby Hong, a teacher at Verona Area High School in Wisconsin, who will be our guest on our “Write to Change the World” webinar, recommends Nicholas Kristof’s column “If Americans Love Moms, Why Do We Let Them Die?“

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    4. Identify claims and evidence.

    The Common Core Standards put argument front and center in American education, and even young readers are now expected to be able to identify claims in opinion pieces and find the evidence to support them.

    We have a number of lesson plans that can help.

    First, Constructing Arguments: “Room for Debate” and the Common Core Standards, uses an Opinion feature that, though now defunct, can still be a great resource for teachers. Use the archives of Room for Debate, which featured succinct arguments on interesting topics from a number of points of view, to introduce students to perspectives on everything from complex geopolitical or theological topics to whether people are giving Too Much Information in today’s Facebook world.

    We also have two comprehensive lesson plans — For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials and I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments — that were written to support students in crafting their own editorials for our annual contest. In both, we first introduce readers to “mentor texts,” from The Times and elsewhere, that help them see how effective claims, evidence and counterclaims function in making a strong argument.

    Finally, if you’re looking for a fun way to practice, we often hear from teachers that our What’s Going On in This Picture? feature works well. To participate, students must make a claim about what they believe is “going on” in a work of Times photojournalism stripped of its caption, then come up with evidence to support what they say.

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    5. Adopt a columnist.

    We have heard from many teachers over the years that a favorite assignment is to have students each “adopt” a different newspaper columnist, and follow him or her over weeks or months, noting the issues they focus on and the rhetorical strategies they use to make their cases. Throughout, students can compare what they find — and, of course, apply what they learn to their own writing.

    For example, here is a sample assignment we found online called “Summer Reading Columnist Project.” If you would like to try it with The Times, here are the current Op-Ed columnists:

    Charles M. Blow

    David Brooks

    Frank Bruni

    Roger Cohen

    Gail Collins

    Ross Douthat

    Maureen Dowd

    Thomas L. Friedman

    Michelle Goldberg

    Nicholas Kristof

    Paul Krugman

    David Leonhardt

    Andrew Rosenthal

    Bret Stephens

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    6. Explore visual argument-making via Times Op-Art, editorial cartoons and Op-Docs.

    The New York Times regularly commissions artists and cartoonists to create work to accompany Opinion pieces. How do illustrations like the one above add meaning to a text, while grabbing readers’ attention at the same time? What can students infer about the argument being made in an Op-Ed article by looking at the illustration alone?

    In this lesson plan, students investigate how art works together with text to emphasize a point of view. They then create their own original illustrations to go with a Times editorial, Op-Ed article or letter to the editor. We also suggest that they can illustrate an Opinion piece or letter to the editor that does not have an illustration associated with it.

    Recently, Clara Lieu, a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, told us how she uses that very idea to help her student-artists to create their own pieces. To see some of their work, check out “Finding Artistic Inspiration in The New York Times’s Opinion Section.”

    If your students would like to go further and create their own editorial cartoons, we offer an annual student contest. Invite your students to check out the work of last year’s winners for inspiration. This year’s runs through Oct. 17, and we have a lesson plan, Drawing for Change: Analyzing and Making Political Cartoons, to go with it.

    Another way to use visual journalism to teach argument-making? Use Op-Docs, The Times’s short documentary series (most under 15 minutes), that touches on issues like race and gender identity, technology and society, civil rights, criminal justice, ethics, and artistic and scientific exploration — issues that both matter to teenagers and complement classroom content.

    Every Friday during the school year, we host a Film Club in which we select short Op-Docs we think will inspire powerful conversations — and then invite teenagers and teachers from around the world to have those conversations here, on our site.

    And for a great classroom example of how this might work in practice, check out Using an Op-Doc Video to Teach Argumentative Writing, a Reader Idea from Allison Marchetti, an English teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, Va. She details how her students analyzed the seven-minute film “China’s Web Junkies” to see how the filmmakers used evidence to support an argument, including expert testimony, facts, interview, imagery, statistics and anecdotes.

    Ideas for Writing Opinion Pieces

    7. Use our student writing prompts to practice making arguments for a real audience.

    Does Technology Make Us More Alone?

    Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?

    Is It O.K. for Men and Boys to Comment on Women and Girls on the Street?

    Are Some Youth Sports Too Intense?

    Does Reality TV Promote Dangerous Stereotypes?

    When Do You Become an Adult?

    Is America Headed in the Right Direction?

    Every day during the school year we invite teenagers to share their opinions about questions like these, and hundreds do, posting arguments, reflections and anecdotes to our Student Opinion feature. Last year, we created a list drawn from this feature of 401 Prompts for Argumentative Writing on an array of topics like technology, politics, sports, education, health, parenting, science and pop culture.

    Teachers tell us they use our writing prompts because they offer an opportunity for students to write for an “authentic audience.” But we also consider our daily questions to be a chance for the kind of “low-stakes” writing that can help students practice thinking through thorny questions informally.

    This school year, we’ve also begun calling out our favorite comments weekly via our Current Events Conversation feature. Will your students’ posts be next?

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    8. Participate in our annual Student Editorial Contest.

    What issues matter most to your students?

    Every year, we invite teenagers to channel their passions into formal pieces: short, evidence-based persuasive essays like the editorials The New York Times publishes every day.

    The challenge is pretty straightforward. Choose a topic you care about, gather evidence from sources both within and outside of The New York Times, and write a concise editorial (450 words or less) to convince readers of your point of view.

    Our judges use this rubric (PDF) for selecting winners to publish on The Learning Network.

    And at a time when breaking out of one’s “filter bubble” is more important than ever, we hope this contest also encourages students to broaden their news diets by using multiple sources, ideally ones that offer a range of perspectives on their chosen issue.

    This school year, as you can see from our 2017-18 Student Contest Calendar, the challenge will run from Feb. 28 to April 5, 2018.

    And, as we mentioned above, we have published two lesson plans to help guide every step:

    • For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials and

    • I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments

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    9. Take advice from writers and editors at the Times’s Opinion section.

    How can you write a powerful Op-Ed or editorial?

    Well, over the years, many Times editors and writers have given the aspiring opiners advice. In the video above, for instance, Andrew Rosenthal, in his previous role as Editorial Page editor, detailed seven pointers for the students who participate in our annual Editorial Contest,

    This summer, the Times Op-Ed columnist Bret Stephens wrote his own Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers.

    And on our Oct. 10 webinar, Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof suggests his own ten ideas. (Scroll down to see what they are, as well as to find related Op-Ed columns.)

    Finally, if you’d like to get a letter to the editor published, here is what Tom Feyer, the longtime head of that section, recommends. Right now, from Oct. 9-Oct. 16, 2017, that section is offering a special letter-writing challenge for high school students. Submit a letter to the editor in response to a news article, editorial, column or Op-Ed essay in The Times from the past week, and they will pick a selection of the best entries and publish them on Sunday, Oct. 22.

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    10. Use the published work of young people as mentor texts.

    Last year, five students of Kabby Hong, the teacher who joined us for our Oct. 10 webinar, were either winners, runners-up or honorable mentions in our Student Editorial Contest.

    How did he do it? First, he helps his students brainstorm by asking them the questions on this sheet. (The first page shows his own sample answers since he models them for his students.)

    Then, he uses the work of previous student winners alongside famous pieces like “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to show his class what effective persuasive writing looks like. Here is a PDF of the handout Mr. Hong gave out last year, which he calls “Layering in Brushstrokes,” and which analyzes aspects of each of these winning essays:

    •“In Three and a Half Hours, an Alarm Will Go Off”

    •“Redefining Ladylike”

    •“Why I, a Heterosexual Teenage Boy, Want to See More Men in Speedos”

    Another great source of published opinion writing by young people? The Times series “On Campus,” where you can read essays by college students on everything from “The Looming Uncertainty for Dreamers Like Me” to “Dropping Out of College Into Life.”

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    Update: Oct. 10: Links from Our Oct. 10 Webinar

    On our Oct. 10 webinar (still available on-demand), Nicholas Kristof talked teachers through ten ways anyone can make their persuasive writing stronger. Here is a list of his tips, along with the columns that relate to each — though you’ll need to watch the full webinar to hear the stories and examples that illustrate them.

    Nicholas Kristof’s Ten Tips for Writing Op-Eds

    1. Start out with a very clear idea in your own mind about the point you want to make.

    Related: Preventing Mass Shootings Like the Vegas Strip Attack

    2. Don’t choose a topic, choose an argument.

    Related: On Death Row, but Is He Innocent?

    3. Start with a bang.

    Related: If Americans Love Moms, Why Do We Let Them Die?

    4. Personal stories are often very powerful to make a point.

    Related: This is What a Refugee Looks Like

    5. If the platform allows it, use photos or video or music or whatever.

    Related: The Photos the U.S. and Saudi Arabia Don’t Want You to See

    6. Don’t feel the need to be formal and stodgy.

    Related: Meet the World’s Leaders, in Hypocrisy

    7. Acknowledge shortcomings in your arguments if the readers are likely to be aware of them, and address them openly.

    Related: A Solution When a Nation’s Schools Fail

    8. It’s often useful to cite an example of what you’re criticizing, or quote from an antagonist, because it clarifies what you’re against.

    Related: Anne Frank Today Is a Syrian Girl

    9. If you’re really trying to persuade people who are on the fence, remember that their way of thinking may not be yours.

    Related: We Don’t Deny Harvey, So Why Deny Climate Change?

    10. When your work is published, spread the word through social media or emails or any other avenue you can think of.

    Related: You can find Nicholas Kristof on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, his Times blog, and via his free newsletter.

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