Media Literacy & Speaking (from Channel One Blog)

(See the original post here.)

After two decades teaching, Erik Palmer has coached countless students through the basic steps of forming a good argument. Drawn to debate in high school, his fascination with spirited discourse propelled him from the debate stage to law school. Later, he moved into business and helped grow a commodities exchange firm. When he became a father, he needed a more family-friendly schedule. “I loved playing with my kids. As a single dad, I wanted to be on the same schedule as my boys and was drawn to teaching.”

Early on, Palmer decided to bring his love of presentation and debate into the classroom. He quickly realized that kids didn’t speak well and was surprised at the lack of materials to teach it. “The limited information on speaking well was focused on esoteric, hard to understand jargon like ‘elocution,’” Palmer said. So he created his own curriculum that became known as The Palmer Method.

His eleven-step process (shown below) covered the two phases of speaking: what you do before you open your mouth and what you do as you are speaking.

Public Speaking and Media Literacy

Erik’s method became popular within his district and at professional development conferences. After becoming known as the “guru” for this topic of teaching kids how to speak, he was asked to write a book about it.

When researching the book, he found the speaking and listening standards required integrating and evaluating diverse media and formats. “That was my lightbulb moment,” Palmer said. “Wait, kids will need to be media literate to do that!” Listening standards also required the ability to evaluate arguments and reasoning skills.

Restoring Civility in Debate

Maintaining civility through heated debate is tough, especially when parties are anonymous on social media and debates are limited to 140 characters. One teacher of gifted students in Mississippi reported becoming reticent to discuss politics in the classroom, after moderating fights among her students during last year’s presidential election. “We have a bad model right now with tweeting and public name calling,” Palmer said. But we can teach students “don’t attack the person, attack the idea.”

In his classes, Palmer always assigned a “public defender” during student discussion and debates. The public defender knew to stop conversations that became heated and say, “You need to rephrase.”

“Over time kids learned to express an idea passionately without ever having to attack another individual,” Palmer said.

Palmer Method

Building a talk (what to do before you begin speaking):

  • Audience. Understand the people you are talking to. “There are differences between a group in Manhattan, New York and a group in Manhattan, Kansas.”
  • Content. Include relevant material that connects with the audience.
  • Organization. Have a strong opening, good transitions and a powerful closing.
  • Appearance. Make sure you look your best for the group you’re speaking to.
  • Visual Aids. Incorporate graphics that support your overall message.

Performing a talk (what you do as you speak):

These steps were given the catchy acronym kids could remember “PV Legs.”

  • Poise. Appear calm and confident and get rid of odd tics.
  • Voice. Make sure every word is heard.
  • Life. Add feeling, passion and emotion to your voice.
  • Eye contact. Look at each member of the audience.
  • Gestures. Use hand motions, facial expressions, and body motions to enhance your words.
  • Speed. Pay attention to pace and adjust it during your talk.

(From Erik Palmer’s Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students)

How do you teach civil discourse in your class? Share your experience in the comments.  We’ve also gathered additional links and resources to help you make the most of Media Literacy Week.

Additional Resources:

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Media Literacy (from Channel One Blog)

(See the original post here.)

“I don’t like football, it’s bad. It causes concussions,” he said, his small brow furrowed with conviction.

“Okay. Why do you feel that way? Help me and the class understand.” The boy’s teacher, Erik Palmer, gently probed for the rationale behind his statement. The child looked up, shifting his weight uncomfortably, before sitting back down. “I’m not sure, Mr. Palmer. I just heard it.”

“Fake News” remains a hot topic underscoring media literacy as an essential part of civic understanding. In celebration of Media Literacy Week, Erik Palmer, media literacy expert and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt thought leader, shared his perspective after 20 years of teaching the topic in classrooms and to educators.

“Spouting conclusions, unfortunately, has become the norm in today’s political discourse. We need to teach kids to construct the points that led to the conclusions,” Palmer said. “What sticks in people’s minds is what’s available to them. Topic X is bad, they recall hearing it, but don’t remember where.” In order to bring the concept to life in the classroom, a difficult one for many adults to grasp, students need to understand, “that’s a conclusion. What statements led to that conclusion?”

How to Know Which Sources to Trust

“The default used to be ‘I believe’ and is shifting to ‘I don’t believe anything,’” Palmer said. “When our top elected officials describe news from our most credentialed media outlets as fake, all sources of information are undermined.”

This mistrust is the troubling byproduct of both the rhetoric around fake news, as well as the actual presence of false news reports pumped into the internet by disreputable sources. Although the overall impact on children’s beliefs is still unknown, the trust gap among adults is visible. According to a December 2016 Pew Research study, nearly one-in-three U.S. adults (32 percent) say they often see fake political news online. An earlier report (January 2016) from Pew showed trust in the media among Millennials is trending down. Just 27 percent of Millennials now say the media has a positive impact, compared with 26 percent of Gen-Xers and Silents and 23 percent of Boomers.

Media bias, also widely discussed, perhaps more so after the 2016 election is one that journalists are honor bound to take seriously. “Many people may not realize that reputable news organizations follow strict journalistic ethics and standards and they have a lot of checks and balances along the way,” said Angela Hunter, Executive Producer of Channel One News. “So when you compare a legacy news organization to a blog or some other less traditional news organization, it is helpful to understand the journalistic process and what goes into the report.”

Educators and media have stepped up to teach the fundamentals of analyzing every source and evaluating it for trustworthiness. For instance, “fake and bias are different things,” Palmer said. “You can show images of Donald Trump that make him look like a wonderful or a terrible person. Both images are true — the photos exist. Choosing one image over the other displays your bias.”

It takes a long time for kids to grasp subtleties on the continuum from fiction to fact across categories. Palmer suggested that, “a little bit of suspicion should be the new default. Let’s help kids move to ‘even if I believe most of what I see is true, let me check.’”

Standards for Media Literacy

Media literacy concepts are now baked into state and national standards across subjects, including the C3 Framework for Social Studies, which includes “making and supporting evidence-based claims and counter-claims” as a key component. They require that students demonstrate the ability to access, analyze and evaluate all media types, from movies and TV shows to news articles and YouTube clips. “Teaching students how to think, not what to think, is the goal of social studies educators,” said Geraldine Stevens, Product Marketing Director for HMH Social Studies. “In this way, skills are paramount. When students look at evidence — in all its modern forms — they analyze point of view, bias, context and authenticity. This is critical to successfully navigate today’s media-saturated society.”

How do you teach media literacy in your class? Share your experience in the comments. We’ve also gathered additional links and resources to help you make the most of Media Literacy Week.

Additional Resources:

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Understand the audience!

What do these three articles have in common?

  • Amy Dinning ( wrote about networking. She said that if you want to be a successful networker, you should do something before attending an event: find out who will be there and do some research online to find out about the people you want to meet. TD Magazine 8/17
  • Phylise Banner ( wrote about content strategy and how to target content for a specific community. She suggested creating learner personas based on surveys or interviews with learners to find out their preferences, attitudes, motivations, and so on. TD Magazine 8/17
  • Howard Pitler ( wrote about six questions teachers should ask their students on the first day of school including “What are you passionate about?” “What is your greatest strength?” and “What characteristics do you want in a teacher?”

I found all of those articles as I was reading yesterday, and I realized that all of them are about what I call “Step One: Analyzing the Audience.”

Readers of Own Any Occasion know that there are two parts to being an impressive speaker: one, creating a good message and then two, delivering the message well. There is no point in speaking if you don’t have something worth saying. There is no point in having something worth saying if you can’t say it well. The three articles above all refer to an aspect of creating a message. Before speakers ever open their mouths, I wrote that there are five steps needed to take to make sure the talk will be well-received. The first step is to analyze the audience. I am surprised at how often speakers underestimate the importance of this. Indeed, some speakers never even think about it, yet all talks are doomed if the audience analysis isn’t done. All three of the articles are really telling readers the same thing: find out about the folks you’ll be talking to.

It is quite common for managers, trainers, teachers, and salespeople to have content they must cover. The employees/trainees/students/buyers must be told about the new procedures/safety regulations/sales promotion/whatever and so that’s that. The content is the content, and it must be presented. Pretty PowerPoint slides are made; another handout for the binder is created; an evaluation form with smiley face/frowny face is run off; and the text of the talk/lesson is prepared with all the important information. Then the thought is, “I covered it so I’m done.” Unfortunately, this forgets the most important people, the audience. Did the listeners get it? Was there an impact? You know that way too often the answer is “No.” So what went wrong? The speakers only thought about themselves as they prepared: what do I have to say? Big mistake.

All talks are for an audience. That audience may be one person, a few, or many, but the audience must be understood before any other preparation takes place. What do they know? What do they need to know? What do they want to know? What mood are they in? What are their interests? What filters/mind-sets do they have? (A baby-boomer with 28 years of experience “hears” messages differently than a Gen-Xer with 8 months of experience even though the words spoken were the same.) What will they be able to get out of the talk? All three articles feel the need to remind their readers about Step One: before a word is spoken out loud, it is critically important to know about the people being addressed. Implied is that once you know who they are, you must make adjustments to your talk.

  • Adjust your language. What level of vocabulary is appropriate?
  • Adjust your style. Should you be formal or informal?
  • Adjust your look. What will the listeners be expecting?
  • Adjust your content (Part A). Is it all necessary? (No.) What will the listeners be able to grasp right now?
  • Adjust your content (Part B). What can you add that connects you and your content to their lives?
  • Adjust your expectations. Realistically, will all listeners respond exactly as you hope?

Every talk is more effective if it is adapted to the audience. It may seem difficult to accept, but listeners are your number one concern, not your topic. Amy, Phylise, and Howard want us to know that.



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Looking Into Education’s Crystal Ball

(Larry Ferlazzo is an educator worth following. He collects, curates, and shares great ideas from educators around the world and contributes brilliant ideas of his own as well. He asked educators to predict the future, and included this comment from me. This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here. –Erik Palmer)

Response From Erik Palmer

Erik Palmer is a professional speaker and educational consultant from Denver who ran a commodity brokerage firm before spending 21 years as a classroom teacher. Palmer is the author of Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking (ASCD, 2014), Researching in a Digital World: How do I teach my students to conduct quality online research? (ASCD, 2015), and Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology (Stenhouse, 2011). Learn more about Erik’s work at or connect with him on Twitter @erik_palmer:

Oral communication will be by far the number one language art taught.

Actually, it is the most important and most used language art now, but we fail to recognize that. In the near future, speaking and listening will so dominant that it will be impossible to not realize their importance. How will people communicate? By writing? Nope, by Skype 4.0 or FaceTime 6.0 or ThisIsBetter 7.37. How will people text? By thumbing a small keyboard? Nope, by talking the message. How will people communicate internationally? By writing and email? A little, but mostly by speaking. Some will use digital tools such as WhatsApp 8.9 or GoToMeeting 11.14 or NotYetInvented 7.2. Some will speak their native language into a translation app and play the audio translation for foreign listeners. How will people get hired? By analyzing a novel well? Nope, by speaking well. The resume you speak into a resume-creating app will get you in the door, but your speaking will get you the job. The hiring process will involve digital speaking tools: interviews are now being done over Skype; voice-analyzing software will be a big part of hiring decisions. How will people write? By typing on a keyboard or mobile device? Nope, by speaking into voice-to-text apps. How will we research? By verbally asking a device a question and listening to the answer. You can read more of my predictions here.

Of course, all of those are happening now so it is not very bold to suggest that our future will see more verbal communication tools and an increase in their prominence. What is bold is say that we should decrease emphasis on haiku and increase emphasis on speaking. No one will ever say, “Palmer, fire off a haiku to our affiliate in Beijing,” but every day of our lives how we speak will matter. Oddly, my son had haiku units in five different grades but never had one oral communication unit. Yes, after the haiku unit, he was asked to get up and say a haiku poem, but he was never taught how to say that poem well. Lessons about word choice, yes. Lessons about syllables, yes. Lessons about where to put commas, yes. Lessons about adding life to the voice, no. Lessons about speeding up and slowing down for effect, no. Lessons about descriptive hand gestures or body gestures or facial gestures, no.

It is already true that the odds of professional and social success dramatically improve if you are well spoken. In twenty years, those who speak well will have an even bigger advantage. At some point, schools will be forced to pay attention to this reality. The favorite lessons teachers have trotted out for the last fifty or sixty years will go away, and curricula will be adjusted to specifically teach the most important language art, speaking, as much as the language arts of reading and writing. 

Copyright Erik Palmer


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Fake News! ALTERNATIVE FACTS!! (Part Two)

Fake news!! ALTERNATIVE FACTS!!! (Part Two)

In my first post about fake news (, I mentioned Bat Boy, the Pope carving roast cherub for Christmas, and the imminent destruction of Earth by the planet Nibiru.

I suggested that no one would believe any of those stories and would recognize that they are all fake. Well, almost no one.

Since that post, our new administration has given us other stories to challenge our thinking about news, including President Trump’s press secretary statement that Trump’s inauguration attendance was the largest in history, disagreeing with many of the news reports. Whose “news” was accurate? A Trump surrogate suggested that the press secretary didn’t lie but rather used “alternative facts.” So here we are discussing whether comments from the White House are in the same category as Bat Boy, cherub carving, and Nibiru. The problem of fake news is much bigger than we might have thought and certainly bigger than we wished.

(You’ll recall that one of the strategies from my first post was to analyze sources. That can’t be done if no sources are given so I have provided many here. Consider asking students to provide sources for all their comments, too. Ban discussion comments such as “The Keystone Pipeline will wreck the environment” and encourage “According to an article in the Huffington Post, the Keystone Pipeline will cause environmental damage.” Then you can discuss sources—why should I believe the Huffington Post?—as well as the pipeline.)

Teach students to verify

 Don’t take any one person’s word as gospel. Don’t believe one source. Check everything out. For example, watch candidate Trump describing Obama dealing with a protestor:  Notice that Trump said, “You have to go back and look and study.” Good advice. Did Trump accurately describe where “they put the cameras”? Did he accurately describe what Obama said and how he said it? You can check it out yourself. Here is a video of the event Trump was talking about: Unfortunately, we live in an era of fake news and alternative facts. Fortunately, almost everything is recorded somehow which makes verification easier. If there is no recording, remember the tip from my first post about looking for multiple sources. Are other reputable news outlets reporting the event in a similar way?

Teach students to verify images

My presentations about how to teach students oral communication skills are enormously popular. Here is a picture of the crowd that came to see my last presentation:


Except that isn’t true. Well, it is true that I do presentations about teaching speaking ( but that picture is not from my show. Use Google’s reverse image search. Upload an image, and Google will tell you where it is from:


Oops. Busted. If you wonder if an image is accurate, verify.

Teach students to demand evidence

As I write this, news outlets are talking about Trump’s claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal votes. Trump said that three to five million votes for Clinton were fraudulent. A simple and very specific statement. Where did that number come from? What evidence supports that statement? Turns out, none. As I write this, the President is going to launch an investigation into voter fraud so maybe some evidence will turn up later.


Of course, asking to students to look for evidence is not worth much if they haven’t been taught what evidence is. Teach them the five types of evidence. I talk much more about evidence in Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning (, but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the questions this teacher asked a student during a discussion about football:

Teacher: Can you give us a number of how many concussions occur? Do you have any facts about how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the example of your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quote from some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogy perhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?

As I said in my first post, there must be a healthy level of skepticism. It is not the case that there is no news, no truth, and it is all lies. Don’t give up. Be a detective. Investigate.

Why are we susceptible to fake news?

Partly because we are lazy. It takes effort to investigate. Partly because we haven’t been taught about argument and reasoning. We make errors in thinking because we don’t know what to look for. Good Thinking also gives teachers ideas for teaching about how to avoid reasoning errors. I’ll share a couple of ideas from that book here.

Teach the availability bias

For years, my father gave money to an organization that claimed to be committed to eliminating pork barrel spending, money Congressmen and women earmark from a large budget bill to send to a local project in their district. For example, in 2006 the federal government authorized $500,000 to Sparta, North Carolina to construct a teapot museum to showcase Gloria and Sonny Kamm’s 6,000 teapot collection. Frequently, my dad would get an email with another example. Over time, my father came to believe that pork barrel spending was the largest part of the federal budget. I told him that pork barrel spending is between 0.5% and 1% according to most studies, and eliminating all of it wouldn’t dent the federal deficit. He didn’t believe me. What he saw was what he believed. My father was misled. Easily available information crowded out significant other information. This doesn’t apply only to repeated messages. The first message we see colors our subsequent thinking. We have all said, “I think heard somewhere that…” We didn’t research it, we don’t remember exactly where we heard of saw it, but it stuck. Teach students to be wary of believing something just because it was easily available.

Teach the confirmation bias

You have opinions. Unfortunately, those opinions alter the way you view reality. Humans are apparently wired to notice things that confirm what they believe. Ever have parents who think you are treating their child unfairly? You do several hundred things well but mismark one paper: “See? You hate my kid!” None of the good stuff got noticed. We want to be right, and we notice the things that “prove” what we already think. Fake news creators know this. You are more susceptible to falsehoods if they fit your pre-existing narrative. You hate Hillary? I will write a fake story alleging she did something horrible, and you will be inclined to believe it. You hate Trump? I will write a fake story alleging he did something horrible, and you will be inclined to believe it. You don’t need to verify the because you already feel it is true. The flip side is that you will call something that doesn’t agree with you fake news even if it is true. Teach students to be very careful about making decisions about news stories based on what they want to believe.

Critical thinking is a good thing to teach students (and adults). I worry that many of us are letting down our guard, and fake news creators are counting on exactly that. I hope these two posts are useful start for media analysis. Give students tools they need to be intelligent consumers of news. Keep them from being duped.

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Fake news!! FAKE NEWS!!! (Part One)


For years, as I checked out in the grocery store, I saw Bat Boy on the pages of the Weekly World News. That “news”paper is no longer being printed, but exists. According to an article on the site, Earth is going to collide with the planet Nibiru on October, 17, 2017, so don’t sweat that your retirement accounts are not up to par.

Did you know that Pope Francis carved roast cherub for the Vatican Christmas feast this year? You can see the story and the picture of him carving the slow-roasted 18-pound cherub at The Onion website.

My point is that fake news is nothing new. Weekly World News started in 1979, The Onion in 1988. Others could be mentioned—others who had the idea of writing silly news stories for our amusement. No one thought this was real stuff. We all knew it was satire or farce. Right?

But something has changed. We have an increasing number of websites putting out stories intended to deceive, to attack, and to influence in addition to the ones putting out stories to entertain. Fabricated stories are mixed in with legitimate news stories, and it is less clear which is which. The new President of the United States said that Ted Cruz’s father was “with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot.” Is that fake news? The President often tweets “Fake news!” to dismiss stories and at a press conference said, “You are fake news!” to insult to a CNN reporter. Is the reporter fake news? When the leader of the free world uses “fake news” so often, it is a term worth exploring.

Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” to be 2016’s international word of the year. They define “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Truth doesn’t matter to the body politic anyhow, so why worry about fake news?

The Founding Fathers thought that protecting the press was so important that they put in the First Amendment. They realized that a free (and respected) press would help hold government leaders accountable, publicize important issues, and educate citizens so they can make informed decisions. Attacking the press, then, is a very dicey proposition. If the press is demeaned, those three things don’t happen. Who will perform those functions? I understand that it is a brilliant strategy for rulers to discredit all news sources. Take away all possibility of being examined or critiqued or caught? Nixon would have loved the “fake news” gambit.

The Public: These reporters uncovered some evidence linking you to Watergate.

Nixon: Fake news!! You know they are all scum!

The Public: OK, sir. Then play on.

In a scenario where “fake news” get shouted all the time, truth gets buried with all the falsehoods.

But what if you think that there is truth? What if you believe that quality sources exist and we should try to find them? What if you want to help students separate fact from fiction? Let me share some ideas here and some in an upcoming post. (Now available here.)

Teach a healthy level of skepticism

 Unfortunately, we must be suspicious. Just because it popped up on your computer feed does not mean it is accurate. Just because it has a great sounding name that includes the word “news,” does not mean it is news. Also be skeptical about what has been called “fake news.” Just because the President says, “That’s fake news” does not mean you should not believe the information he is attacking. What has been called news may be fake; what has been called fake may be true. But there must be a healthy level of skepticism. It is not the case that there is no news, no truth, and it is all lies. Don’t give up. Be a detective. Investigate.

Teach checking sources

Did you have the thought, “Were there really news articles about Nibiru and Pope cherub-eating?” I hope so. You want sources so teach students to demand sources. Legitimate articles will name sources. To prove that I did not make up the Nibiru and Pope stories, here are my sources:

What about the other stories I told? Did Trump really say that Cruz’s father was with Oswald or was that fabricated by me? He did say it, and here is the source:

Was Cruz’s dad really with Oswald or was that fabricated? That was made up, and here is a source verifying that it was false:

Did Trump really call a CNN reporter “fake news”? He did, and here is a source:

Obvious question: how do I know if the source used is good?

Teach about analyzing sources

 I wrote Researching in a Digital Age—How do I teach my students to conduct quality online research because too many teachers are sending students online without properly preparing them to think critically about what they will find. Lessons in that book about how to evaluate websites should be used to look for fake news, also. (Look at that book here for more detail.) As an example, teach students to look for the “About us” or “Home” or “FAQ” tabs. If there is no such tab, be suspicious. Ask how long they have been around. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have some pretty good history. Not so for lots of sites on Facebook with “news” in their name that were created in the last couple of years. See if you can find their purpose or a statement of beliefs. Do a web search. Someone sent me an article from “Truth Examiner.” Sounds great, right? A web query made me doubt everything on the site. Look for bias. Scan a list of recent articles. Do they lean a certain way? Share examples: Huffington Post seems to have lots of articles about how bad conservatives are; Breitbart has articles about how bad liberals are. That doesn’t mean everything at those sites is “fake news.” But maybe you shouldn’t believe everything.

Teach about using multiple sources

 When I grew up in Detroit, if the Detroit News said something had happened, it had happened. Now life is trickier. About one million people engaged with an article that appeared on Facebook saying the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump. Did the Pope do that? Well, had you looked for the source, you would have found Southend News Network. If you looked at their “About SNN” tab on their site, they admit that they are bogus. If you did a web search, you’d see lots of evidence that they are bogus. But assume you didn’t analyze the source as I suggested above. Then look for multiple sources. The leader of one of world’s largest religions makes a statement? That will get lots of coverage, yet no other news source had that story. CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, Reuters, The Guardian, The Washington Post—all of them missed it? Nope. It never happened.

Use “fake news” detectors,,, and others have as their express purpose to verify information. Can you be sure they are legit? Remember: multiple sources. You don’t need to believe one of them. Check a few.

This is a pretty good start for ferreting out fake news. I wish none of this were necessary. I wish we lived in an age where complete disregard for the truth was not common. I wish “post-truth” was a term never invented. Unfortunately, my wishes don’t matter. Begin the process of teaching about fake news.




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Creating an argument worth delivering

[Originally published in a blog at Stenhouse Publishers: ]

A fairly typical classroom current events discussion:

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

            Yes, they should! Football is fun!!

            Denver won the Super Bowl!

            Yes! That was a great game.

            But kids get hurt playing football.

            I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous.

            My cousin broke his knee playing soccer.

And so it goes. Fairly random statements. Kids spouting opinions. How can we improve upon this type of discussion? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

You are probably being asked to give more attention to argumentative and persuasive writing and speaking. Has your school or district provided resources and/or training to help you with this? When I ask that question at workshops I lead, by far the most common answer is “No.” It is grossly unfair to ask teachers to teach something without giving them resources and training to do so, but unfortunately, it is quite common. How can we help students with argumentative assignments? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

Let’s start with the most fundamental piece of good thinking, the argument. What is an argument?

That seems like a pretty easy question, but do an experiment. Ask the teachers at your school to write down an answer without using a dictionary or searching online. You won’t get the same answer twice. We all sort of know what an argument is and it seems like a common term, but we don’t have an exact, agreed upon definition. You will see claim, warrant, reason, plausible argument, stance, strong reasons, position, conclusion, facts, details, quotes, evidence, backing, premise, correct logic, logical progression of ideas, statement, thesis, and various other related terms. No agreement. Competing ways to say the same thing. Confusing to students and adults. Because all of our students have heard the word before, too, we think they understand when we say, “Analyze the argument…” or “Write an argument supporting…” but they really don’t. Ask students to define argument. You’ll see what I mean.

Don’t think that because words are recognizable, they are understood. Argument, persuasion, evidence, and reasoning are common words (rhetoric less so), but that doesn’t mean students (or teachers) can master them without direct instruction. I wrote Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning to give teachers an understandable, practical way to teach students these important skills. There are some core principles in the book.

  • A common language is important. Shifting vocabulary from class to class, grade to grade is not OK. “Position with reasons and quotes” in English and “Conclusion with warrants and backing” in social studies and “Opinion with evidence” in health is not optimal for students.
  • Take nothing for granted. Define and teach “argument.” Explicitly explain the steps needed to build an argument. Teach five types of evidence and give students practice finding them. Teach persuasive techniques and give students practice with them. Teach grade appropriate rhetorical techniques and give students practice.
  • Every discussion, every book, every news story, every math problem, every “Can we go outside?” is an opportunity to teach good thinking. You have activities that can be tweaked to make all of the needed teaching possible, workable, and even fun.
  • Teaching students about argument, persuasion, and reasoning will benefit them for their entire lives. Knowing how to evaluate and create these will be important every day in their professional and social lives.

Let’s start building that common language. In Good Thinking, I offer this definition of argument:

An argument is a series of statements leading to a conclusion.

This is an important definition that will ultimately make life much easier. If we get in the habit of using this definition, thinking improves. Some examples:

Example #1:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting argument. What is the reason you said that?

Error #1: That is not an argument, Teacher. That is a conclusion. It is the end product of some line of thinking, the last piece of some argument.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

Error #2:  Imprecise language can lead to misunderstanding.

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

  Student: Because you asked me to tell you what I thought about football.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements would lead us to that conclusion.

Example #2:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. Give me two reasons for that.

 Student: My cousin got a concussion. Football is a dumb game.

Error #3: Why two? What if it takes more statements to lead to the conclusion? Never put a number on this.

Error #4: The student gave two statements but how do they add up to “Don’t let kids play football”? Your cousin got a concussion. So? The student hasn’t built an argument yet, but has given random statements. Don’t be satisfied with this.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements led you to that conclusion?

Student: Football has a lot of violent contact. Sometimes that contact causes kids to get concussions. Concussions can cause big problems. So we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

With consistent, precise language, students know what is required, and quickly get the idea of how to build an argument.

There are some simple steps we can take to teach students to build a good argument. First, of course, give them the precise definition: statements leading to a conclusion. Then, offer the same sort of little lessons you use for all other subjects. Before we ask students to write a paragraph, we have been clear about the pieces needed, and we (or someone before us) taught specific lessons on each of those pieces. We taught sentence structure and gave students practice activities with fragments and run-ons. We taught topic sentences, supporting sentences, word choice, punctuation, capitalization, and so on. Let’s do the same with argument.

Let students practice with three-step arguments (syllogisms, if you want to use the language of logicians). These little exercises [See the Stenhouse blog to see the exercises: ] get students thinking about how to make statements that lead us to some conclusion. The first one is a completed example. Students can fill in the others. Note: there is no one answer. One student could say, “Students can’t think well when they are fidgety. Recess gets rid of fidgety. So we need more recess.” Another might suggest, “Childhood obesity is a problem. Recess provides calorie burning activity. So we need more recess.” In some cases, a statement is offered and students need to come up with another statement and a conclusion. Again, there is no one answer. “The U.S. spends billions on defense. We have never been invaded. Therefore, we should keep spending.” Or, alternatively, “The U.S. spends billions on defense. Lots of that money is wasted. Therefore, we don’t need to spend that much.”

Some arguments need more than two statements to get us where we want to be. I use this example in the book:

            Schools should model healthy lifestyles for children.

            The French fries the cafeteria serves are full of fat and calories.

            Fat and calories contribute to overweight kids.

            Childhood obesity is a problem.

            Therefore, we should stop selling fries in our cafeteria.

 We can use a graphic organizer such as the one below. [See the Stenhouse blog for the organizer: ] Statements leading to a conclusion are represented by steps for us to get across the bridge. Put up some conclusions and let students practice building the bridge:

           The United States should ban handguns.

            Homework should be abolished.

            Plants are good for people.

            All squares are rectangles.

How many boards do you need?

The trick is to be sure that each board is needed. An example:

           The United States leads the world in handgun deaths.

            There are many kinds of hand guns.

            The high number of deaths is the result of how easy it is to get a handgun.

            If people couldn’t get handguns, they couldn’t kill someone with a handgun.

            The United States should ban handguns.

Which one of those statements does not help us get to the conclusion? Make sure you have students critique each other’s arguments checking to see if statements are missing and if all the statements are needed.

Arguments should be supported so we are tasked with teaching how to evaluate and use evidence. I ask teachers how they teach evidence and this is a typical response: “I tell students to add facts, evidence, etc.” Actually, facts are one type of evidence and I’m pretty sure “etc.” means “I don’t know anything else.” Do all of your students understand that there are types of evidence? How do you teach those? Let me guess: you have been given no materials and had no training about this, either.

Let’s go back to the football argument. We left off here:

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

Here’s how that discussion should continue:

Teacher: Now we have an argument. But it seems some of your statements need support. “…causes kids to get concussions?” Do you have any evidence for that? “Concussions can cause big problems?” Do you have evidence for that?

I fear that most often when teachers ask for “evidence,” they mean “find me the place in the reading where it said that.” That is asking for the source, not for “evidence.” Another fear is that teachers give the impression that “quote” equals “evidence.” Too often, we say, “You need some evidence for that. Can you find the quote in the book where that was said?” I get really picky about imprecise language. Muddied vocabulary leads to muddied thinking. Students can get confused or, worse, misled.

I talk much more about evidence in the book, but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the question the teacher asks:

Teacher: Can you give us a number of how many concussions occur? Do you have any facts about how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the example of your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quote from some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogy perhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?

That wasn’t so hard, was it? We change our language to be consistent and specific, and we teach a couple of mini-lessons just as we do with every other subject. We are well on the way to having arguments supported with evidence. A little upfront investment in teaching these skills will make so many things better in your class and beyond. Look back at the discussion that opened this article. With lessons about argument and evidence, discussions such as that are transformed.

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

Why would you say that? [Student version of “what statements lead to that conclusion?”]

 Kids get hurt playing football. [Nice! Student gives a statement of the argument!]

I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous. [Direct challenge of the statement.]

You are one example only. Lots of articles talk about the number of concussions kids get.

Denver won the Super Bowl!

Where did that come from? What does that statement have to do with this argument?

Notice the improvement? The lessons we teach will spill over into every part of your class. I hope the lessons spill over into every part of our lives. I don’t know about you, but the election season drives me crazy.  Seems lots of candidates count on us not being able to recognize good thinking. Make sure your students don’t end up in that group!

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