Deconstructing Argumentative Texts from the Wild: From Small Group Analysis to Making Our Thinking Public with Our Peers


At the end of February, we began a gentle entry into a study of argumentative writing.  Though seniors have theoretically had instruction in this kind of writing the previous three years, it is part of our 12th ELA district ELA standards, and more importantly, I know a focal point of entry level English courses in most Georgia universities.  Students first began by reading and taking notes on the opening chapter of Everything’s an Argument; I chose this text since it is one frequently used in English 1101 courses.

Small Group Analysis

Our next step was to work in small groups of three that I organized and to analyze a piece of real world argumentative writing.  Each group received one of the three mentor texts:

I chose newspaper editorials as a logical starting point for a mentor text, but I also felt the reading level would be accessible though I discovered quickly that assumption was wrong since the texts included concepts new to many students.  However, this provided students an opportunity to do some informal research to help them fill in gaps of background knowledge.

Students had several analytical tasks; while some of the tasks were open-ended, I provided scaffolding to support them in their deconstruction of the text:

Task 1:  Outline or Mindmap Your Article

Students worked together to identify the structure of the article.  Some groups began by partner reading and mapping the structure as they worked through the text; other groups read silently and independently before coming back together to collaborate on the task.  Groups could present or formal outline or mindmap their work in a way that made sense for them.  It was fascinating to see the different approaches and how detail oriented some groups were while others were not.

Task 2:  Claims and Counterclaims

Next, I used a graphic organizer to help students identify a claim in the essay and a counterclaim.  If the writer did not present a counterclaim, I asked students to come up with one they would compose if they were writing or co-writing the essay with the author.

Tasks 3 and 4:  SOAPS

Using the same graphic organizer, students were asked to analyze the SOAPS of the essay:  Subject, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, and Speaker.  In addition, I asked students to go back into Chapter 1  of Everything’s an Argument and identify some specific information for:

  • Purpose–they were to identify which purpose they felt was the dominant one and why using the definition from Chapter 1 of Everything’s an Argument.
  • Occasion:  students were asked to identify which occasion for argument best fit the essay and why, again using the definition from our text.

Task 5:  What’s the Word? or Word Wheel

Using this tool from the graphic organizer pack, this task asked students to think about diction and choose 8 words that stood out from the essay.  I also asked students to be prepared to explain their choices and how they felt it impacted the argument presented by the writer.

Task 6:  Analyzing Logos, Pathos and Ethos

We used another graphic organizer help us identify textual evidence for each rhetorical appeal and explain language used to create logos, pathos, and ethos in the essay.

The small group work took students most of our 90 minute block last week.  Nearly every group spent the majority of their time on the comprehension aspect of their articles, something I didn’t anticipate as I thought I had selected texts at an accessible reading level, but I realize now I underestimated their background knowledge of the topics of each of the three essays.

Making Our Thinking Public

One thing I have done regularly this year with all my classes–juniors and seniors–is to give them low stakes opportunities to speak in front of their peers.  Though some students sometimes chafe—some because they are shy, some because this activity forces them to be accountable for critical thinking—I think this experience is important for many reasons, but I especially see value in students being able to articulate their ideas to their fellow students, and for students to practice their listening skills and to learn from their peers.  Today groups got together and took about 12-15 minutes to revisit last week’s work and to plan how and what they wanted to share from their work.  Each group then presented using our new document camera.   The document camera was especially helpful today as students presented (each group took about 10-12 minutes to share) since their work was so visual, so they could SHOW as they told us their thinking.  Here are some screenshot of their work I captured easily with the document camera software:

As groups presented, the rest of the class took notes with this graphic organizer.

Not only do these low-stakes presentations give students an opportunity to practice speaking skills and sharing their ideas publicly with their peers, but these presentations also provide me an opportunity to engage in formative assessment to see patterns of understandings as well as gaps.  After listening to all my groups today, I know we need to revisit the types of purposes for argument as well as the occasions for argument.  In addition, I can see students understand ethos and logos fairly well, but they need help articulating how and why language can serve as pathos.  Students can also engage in informal self-assessment; as they listen to their peers, they can easily see if their work had more or less depth.  In addition, they can see and hear ideas, argumentative elements, details, and noticings that they missed OR that they saw that others didn’t.

At the end of the presentations, students had a chance to do a short written reflection and share which group best enhanced their understanding of argumentative writing structures and elements and why.  Moving forward, we’ll now do some targeted inquiry, analysis, and writing of argumentative texts to develop our understanding of elements that need additional study and revisiting.

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