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The Moves That Matter: The Art of Argumentation

Whenever I think of arguments, I think of Mark Bradshaw. Although there are other reasons I connect Mark with argumentation, he shared a great little resource for writing argumentative essays called They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. Based on the premise that good writers enter existing conversations, They Say, I Say provides students with the “moves” needed for writing argumentation and scaffolds the process using templates with the goal of demystifying academic writing.

Just like good athletes work on their “moves” for a game, student writers need to practice the “moves” that create convincing arguments. For both the athlete and the writer, with enough practice their moves become automatic and no longer require conscious effort.

So, what are these moves?

Move #1: Start with what others say

            Argumentation by nature is part of an ongoing dialog. Therefore, students need to view their writing as entering an existing conversation that gives background for their essays. By starting with what others say, the student identifies the larger discussion surrounding the topic and introduces her response within that context. Other moves for introducing the topic include using an illustrative quotation, a revealing fact or statistic, or a relevant anecdote.

Move #2: Summarizing

            The art of summarizing in an argumentative essay involves a balance between what others are saying and the writer’s own focus. The summary should reflect the original author’s stance while anticipating the student’s own slant in order to prepare the reader for the essay’s claims. In addition, the writer aligns opposing views for relevancy and avoids list summaries.

Move #3: Use quotations as proof of evidence.

            According to Graff and Birkenstein, “Quoting someone else’s words gives a tremendous amount of credibility to your summary and helps ensure that it is fair and accurate” (p. 42). However, writers should choose quotations carefully and not let them speak for themselves. Instead, students should create “quotation sandwiches” with the quote surrounded by introductory and explanatory statements.

Move #4: Use signal verbs that match the strength of the statement.

            When introducing summaries or quotations, good writers choose strong verbs that equal the author’s conviction.   Does the author merely “believe” something to be true or does she “insist” on its veracity?

Move #5: State your thesis.

            Even though the writer begins with another person’s position, he should state whether he agrees or disagrees with that position and directly move to his thesis statement. Having created the context for the discussion, the writer identifies where he stands in the conversation and proceeds to offer evidence in support of his opinion, further anticipating potential objections with sound reasoning. As the writer accomplishes this, he uses “voice markers” to identify various positions.

Move #6: Connect the parts.

            Good writers use transitions and other connective devices, including pointing words, repetition of key terms, and rewording.

Move #7: Create your own voice.

            Students can maintain the rigor and precision of academic writing while still inserting their own voice into the writing. In doing so, students must keep audience and purpose in mind.

Move #8: Say why it matters.

            Writers should address the relevance and importance of their content by answering “So what?” and “Who cares?” directly in their argumentative essay. Even though the writer’s position is supported with evidence, the relevance of the issue should be framed in a manner that makes the reader care about the thesis. If possible, the essay might contain a real-world application or create a sense of urgency.

 

In They Say, I Say, Graff and Birkenstein present good instruction for argumentative essays and provide exemplars and templates for developing “an arsenal of basic moves” that matter in academic writing. Beyond writing achievement, however, the authors help students develop critical thinking and their ability to consider topics from different perspectives: to become “a critical, intellectual thinker who, instead of sitting passively on the sidelines, can participate in the debates and conversations of our world in an active and empowered way”( p. 13).

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