What Our Students Can Teach Us About Argument

February 1, 2016 Les Lynn Argument and Literacy, Argumentative Writing, The Debatifier

By Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick

All is argument. Everything. Most individuals don’t even think of language and communication from this perspective, but most assuredly, Aristotle did. Often, we educators have made micro-delineations that are, frankly, too isolated and insular: expository writing is not similar to descriptive writing, is not similar to persuasive writing, is not similar to argumentative writing, is not similar to verbal expressions, and is not similar or relevant to any environment other than education. And not any of the previous delineations have any connections to literature or grammar and linguistics. However, argument undergirds and connects every verbal and written expression.

For example, I often ask students if they anticipate and desire an in-kind response when they say something as simple as, Hello? So far, they have always answered, yes. Simple, but an effective example of a persuasive act that has its roots in argument, this kind of beginning demystifies argument and intrigues students immediately; it becomes “the hook.”

The digital age introduced and continues to expand students’ awareness and growing acumen with argument through social media: Twitter, texting, email, blogs virtual meetings/conversation spaces that completely diminish space and distance, merge cultures and regions, and all in real time. This world of writing and “talking” for our students surrounds them 24 hours a day, 7 days every week. Consequently, their minds are active, inquiry-based, assertive, beset and teeming with opinions and ideas. They are ever-eager to share thoughts, beliefs, and experiences not only among themselves, but also, if afforded the least opportunity, to share with teachers.

If we drill more deeply into this emerging phenomenon, we would discover today’s students have re-appropriated their styles of reading and writing to reflect their intended audiences, purposes, and occasions, both contextualized in argument. Our challenge lies with channeling and blending their predilections and traits with the the courses we teach; for me, this challenge lies with English language arts at the secondary and college levels.

In instructional response, we educators must shuffle off our predilection to disregard the import of the digital age, its tools, and its forms if we are ever to leverage the interest and engagement of our students. Unlike earlier generations of students, today’s generation seeks, and sometimes even demands, their learning to be relevant—relevant to their realities, their way of making and comprehending meaning, their community, and the world around them. From this perspective, teaching English language arts, social studies, math, science, humanities, Pre-K through graduate school, provides educators with a keenly interesting and provocative instructional canvass, indeed.

Instructionally, there is no limit to how far we can intellectually stretch and challenge our students’ in the study and analysis of life—college and career—writ large. Through the lens of argument—its form, its purpose, its presence in all forms of language and communication, our teaching and our students’ experiences can take on new and more relevant significance, a life-long literacy.

English language arts teachers: I deliberately include, here, college English, writing, all of the myriad ways we have managed to divide our discipline into separate and isolated parts that seem to have absolutely no relation to each other that even our students don’t relate them—we must acknowledge that only we can make the requisite difference in enabling students to see and understand and distinguish the import of how argument plays a central role in how we as many peoples make meaning. We, too, must understand that argument permeates all forms of writing, speaking, listening, reading, viewing, and that the texts we teach and love are also contextualized in argument. We love Emerson’s “American Scholar,” James’ Washington Square, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, C. Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” Winston Churchill’s speeches to a frightened British populace, Elizabeth I’s speech to her army before the impending arrival of the Spanish Armada.

On a day-to-day basis we read carefully ingredients on packages. We watch and are constantly bombarded with commercials and advertisements. And we are bombarded electronically and via mail entreaties to spend money. With all of this, we must also traverse our way through documents, forms, and adjust to an ever-faster world. So must our students. Their ability to read, think, write, listen, and articulate, clearly understanding the argumentative context within which each occurs is essential not only for college and career but also for daily living.

Today’s global community requires we prepare our pre-K through post-college students to think, read, process, speak, listen, and write critically from within an argumentative context. We must no longer allow separating, isolating, and codifying genre, content areas, types/modes of writing to the extent that our students too often fail to see any “connectiveness” among reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and listening.

Rather, we must reunite and reconfigure the components within the context of argument, thereby creating and recreating protean, concise, effective forms of communication for varied audiences, purposes, and occasions.


Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick is a guest lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, and she is Vice-President of the National Council of Teachers of English.