To Walk Away from Pro/Con Argument Writing, Step into Multiple Perspective Reading One Story of Teacher and Student Change
Teachers have told me pro/con argument writing is more accessible for younger students or first-time argument writers. It simplifies the task of finding evidence and writing a claim. Plus, pro/con prompts produce passionate class discussion and help students focus their searches to find pro/con articles.
They are right—argument writing is complex and focusing instruction is helpful. So why the big push to walk away?
Pro/con argument writing has unexpected outcomes. If teachers instruct argument writing from a pro/con stance, the actions that follow that choice can reduce thinking as students see issues as two-sided and classroom conversation as confrontational debate.
Pro/con arguments alter the purpose for reading. Reading becomes a search to confirm what a student already believes. Inadvertently, this simplification also teaches students to confirm a personal bias. One possible side-effect: students may never learn how to become informed or value exploring multiple views or nuances of an issue.
In some teacher’s great hands, pro/con argument might be benign and possibly effective. Unfortunately, it can also teach students counterproductive habits and a way of being that lasts a lifetime.
The Choice You Make Today
As a thinking partner for the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writer’s Program (C3WP), I support change in teaching practice by being a co-learner and collaborator. The first year I worked alongside Andrea and Ann, we agreed to instruct 4-cycles (5-7 day units) of C3WP argument writing and to live as co-researchers—studying our learning as well as student learning. In the past, they taught one pro/con argument 6-8 week unit each year. This year they chose to pilot one class of C3WP’s multiple perspective argument writing that went beyond pro/con. But they continued to teach the district’s argument unit the rest of their day. This choice allowed us to compare the instructional practices and student writing.
As co-researchers, they also made a commitment to study how C3WP’s principles, practices, and resources impacted their teaching and student learning and writing.
As expected, each cycle of instruction gradually changed argument writing for Andrea, Ann, and their students. Powerful and reflective conversations occurred as we faced challenges that emerged as they engaged with C3WP units. In the end, they choose to walk away from pro/con arguments and reconsider reading instruction.
This is only part of their story.
C3WP provides text sets that represent multiple perspectives on a topic. The text set is designed to address readability with accessible texts, graphics, infographics, as well as audio and visual texts. The unit also provides optional texts to add additional in-depth readings. It prizes and recommends supporting students toward
independent reading through a gradual release approach (I Do, We Do, You Do).
First challenge—Instructing toward independent reading for struggling readers. Ann and Andrea imagined they would use their past practices of round robin whole class reading aloud. This practice seemed to support all the students and reading levels in the room.
Our commitment to study the influences of established practices called us to collaboratively try gradual release reading with a non-leveled text. We broke the text into three chunks. I modeled the annotation strategy and my thinking process. We rehearsed the strategy in the second chunk, and I adjusted the strategy as I listened to the teacher’s rehearsal. They individually read the rest of text using the strategy.
They asked, can we change the Lexile for our struggling readers? To answer the Lexile question, we examined a pair of texts with on on-grade level Lexile and an adjusted one with a lower Lexile. Immediately, we noticed a reduction of details from authorities and general summaries of significant information. Then we reconsidered how the built-in support and formative assessment system of gradual release instruction would also enable use of high leverage strategies like annotation and space for adjustments before and while students read independently.
Ann and Andrea moved away from their established practices and adopted the strategy-based gradual release reading approach with their students. As students gained confidence with annotation, the result was stunning: students went from whole class reading of one article in an hour to independent reading of two or three articles in an hour.
Read for Emerging and Evolving Thinking
This first unit recommended an annotation strategy combined with exploratory notebook writing, drawing, and partner conversations. In this first unit, the annotation strategy was simple: Star information that seems significant. This simple strategy served as a foundation to shift the ways students interacted with texts calling them to think. Students would move to more sophisticated annotation in later units.
Next Challenge—Addressing angst over a right answer. After reading and writing in response to the first text, Andrea, Ann, and I shared the significant information we starred. When we saw we didn’t annotate the same information, they worried their students might have the same experience. They anticipated student questions and expressed how important it was that students felt confident about their annotations. Students needed to know they were selecting significant information.
There had to be a right answer. Right answers helped students know they were successful.
We reflected on why they wanted right answers, how a right answer approach takes away opportunities to think, why this strategy is an important opportunity to decide what seems significant to individuals. Andrea and Ann reviewed their reading process: they automatically took a side after reading a few paragraphs or just the title of the article. They were reading for evidence that fit their stance on the issue from the start. They hadn’t tried reading for emerging and evolving thinking. Their students might do the same thing.
So they asked: How can the lesson design imagine actions that would support students to shift their approach to reading? How can they encourage them to notice what thinking emerged as they read and how their thinking evolved as they read more texts with multiple perspectives?
They revised their instructional language to emphasize three things: Students were reading
- Information not Evidence. Changing this word allowed students to see emerging thinking from the information that seemed significant to them. They were open to new information and thinking as they read;
- Multiple Perspectives not Two Sides. Noticing multiple perspectives lead to seeing multiple stakeholders. Students saw issues as complex. They also changed their minds as they read;
- A Public Conversation not a Summary of Pro/Con Evidence. Engaging with non-fiction and argumentative source-based texts allowed students to see and hear the researcher, expert, and stakeholder perspectives as they entered a conversation that exists in the world today.
Designing for Actions
C3WP principles and practices focused our lesson design, but it also posed a challenge for Ann and Andrea who were adept at guiding instruction or ensuring directions were clear. C3WP focuses on a small set of skills that develop through recursive reading and writing.
Third Challenge—Imaging routine actions that change reading skills. Designing for routine actions gives students the responsibility for their reading. Yes, inevitably students will make errors as they try new strategies or work with more complex ideas and texts. However, these approximations are an essential and expected part of learning and building routines to read, write, think, and talk.
We asked ourselves: Would you rather design an assignment that reduced thinking or support approximation through routine actions that enabled students to engage with challenging ideas.
We deconstructed possible actions in just the first lesson—identifying ways students might read, annotate, write, and talk. We imagined how each action developed emerging and/or evolving thinking. Seeing the potential growth, they imagined ways to make space for this work in the lesson design.
Designing for actions would encourage and allow students to select different significant information. It called students to decide what seemed significant and to change their mind as they read. It recognized the need for students to gradually make sense of a topic independently as well as in conversation with peers. It also shifted teacher practices away from highly guided, step-by-step work and reduced repeating the directions as teachers checked-in with students during independent reading.
The Day Came
Eventually, the day came when one student said, “You don’t need to model this strategy again. We remember it from last year.” And several students echoed, “We got this.”
And they did.