Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response

I first met Jennifer Fletcher when she joined our ERWC Task Force as a high school representative. At the time she was Chair of English at Buena Park High School, but she was working on a Ph.D. at UC Riverside (and raising two kids!). Soon she surprised us by taking an English Education position at CSU Monterey Bay. Jennifer has an amazing resume: high school teaching, chairing a department, scholarship, and publications. She is quite agile in moving from theory to practice. And she lives and breathes ERWC.

So it was no surprise to me when she published this wonderful and timely book, Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response.


The book synthesizes concepts from classical rhetoric, modern rhetoric, Common Core State Standards, and Jennifer’s teaching experience and wisdom. It manages to be both academic and personal, with practical teaching strategies on every page. As Jennifer herself says in the introduction:

This book is about opening doors to deeper learning for all our students through a rhetorical approach to arguments—an approach based on situational awareness and responsiveness instead of rules and formulas. Throughout the chapters, you’ll find detailed examples of activities, such as the rhetorical précis, descriptive outlining, and the doubting and believing game, that show students how to move beyond a superficial response to texts (xiv).

A bit later she offers a justification for teaching rhetorically:

Rhetoric targets the conventions and processes of high academic literacy, including the sophisticated responsiveness to context that characterizes college and workplace writing. Writing rhetorically means writing with attention to argument, purpose, audience, authority, and style demanded by academic texts (xv).

The first chapter is about “open-minded” inquiry. It begins with activities for closely attending to the features of a text, even a visual text such as a painting. Then Peter Elbow’s “believing game” is introduced (the “doubting game” will appear in the next chapter) along with checklist questions for facilitating the activity. This is demonstrated through a detailed analysis of an op-ed by David Brooks, followed by a section on “Discovering the Question at Issue” which is built around the Ciceronian concept of stasis. Stasis theory is presented with lots of examples and sample questions, making it clear how it might be used with students. Though the theories deployed span centuries, everything is tied together by the focus on the classroom and the students and by the author’s personal experience.

Subsequent chapters discuss critical approaches to text, modern application of the ancient Greek concept of Kairos (timeliness and appropriateness), audience, purpose, and the three appeals–ethos, pathos and logos. The chapter on the appeals is especially useful because it goes deep into each appeal rather than engaging in the checklist sort of approach that many teachers fall into. Every rhetorical concept is described, contextualized, demonstrated, and explained, often with charts, handouts and other activities that can be used directly in class, with more available in the appendix.

The final chapter is called “Aristotle’s Guide to Becoming a ‘Good’ Student,” but it is really Jennifer’s guide. It focuses on habit, identity, confidence, self-perception, performance, insiders versus outsiders, modeling, mentoring, teachable moments, imitation, and flow. Obviously these concepts go far beyond Aristotle. Reading this book is like accompanying the author on a personal intellectual journey through rhetoric and teaching, a journey on which you learn, grow, and pick up handouts that you can use on Monday morning. I recommend it highly.

Fletcher, Jennifer. Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse, 2015.

The ERWC and the CAASPP

Teachers have been asking, “Does the ERWC prepare students for the CAASPP (California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress)?” The CAASPP includes the Smarter Balanced English Language Arts assessments, part of which is the “Argumentative Performance Task Full Write.” The sample “Performance Task” on the Smarter Balanced website concerns “Financial Literacy.”

In the sample task, the students are told that their school is considering offering a financial literacy course. The students read four journalistic sources: an article from the New York Times about the need for financial literacy, recommending a particular kind of course; an article from the Chicago Tribune about problems with financial education, citing research showing that such courses are not effective and in fact may be a “racket”; a second article from the New York Times about the drawbacks of financial literacy courses, recommending “just in time” education, simple rules of thumb, and making the financial system more user-friendly; and an article from the Baltimore Sun about the issues involved in implementing a mandated financial literacy course at a particular school.

The first article claims that “Research shows that this type of financial education tends to resonate with the students later,” but cites only one study. The second article reports on another study of a financial literacy course, which concludes “We find no effect.” The third article reports on a meta-analysis of 168 studies and concludes, “financial education is laudable, but not particularly helpful.” The fourth article cites no research, but costs out a required financial literacy course at a single school at $600,000 a year.  Financial literacy courses don’t actually seem like a good idea, given these sources.

In Part 1 of the task, the students are asked to do two things: 1) Determine which source “would most likely be relevant to students researching new approaches to increasing people’s financial literacy,” supporting their choice with two details from the article, and 2) “Paraphrase information from Source #1 that refutes information from Source #2 without plagiarizing.” (I would have put a comma after Source #2, to clarify that they mean that the student is the potential plagiarizer, not Source #2. By “without plagiarizing” I suppose they are emphasizing the imperative to “paraphrase,” not to quote, though proper quotations with citation would not be plagiarizing.)

In Part 2, they are given the following prompt:

Today, in preparation for the school board meeting, you will write a multi-paragraph essay in which you take a stance on the topic of financial literacy courses. Make sure you establish an argumentative claim, address potential counter arguments, and support your claim from the sources you have read. Develop your ideas clearly and use your own words, except when quoting directly from the sources. Be sure to reference the sources by title or number when using details of facts directly from the sources.

Then the students are instructed to plan, write, revise, and edit their “multi-paragraph argumentative essay.”

One could look at the questions in Part 1 as a kind of scaffolding for the writing task in Part 2. In fact, this performance task is rather like an ERWC module at the end of the process of gradual release of responsibility. It has multiple texts that take different positions from different perspectives, and it asks students to synthesize the material, take a position, and support it with evidence from the sources. This is basic ERWC practice.  The questions in Part 1, sitting in between the readings and the writing task, face both ways. They cause the student to re-read the texts in relation to one another and also to think about how they might use them in writing.

The scoring guide is also consistent with ERWC. The sample papers that are now available for most ERWC modules, at least the ones from 7th to 10th grade, were scored using the Smarter Balanced scoring guide (12th grade samples were scored with the EPT rubric because those students may be taking the EPT.) The Smarter Balanced scoring guide is really three scoring guides in one, and is an unwieldy beast. Here I have reduced it to its basic categories:

Organization/Purpose (4 points)

  • A clear claim, focused for the purpose and audience
  • Varied transitional strategies to clarify relationships
  • Effective introduction and conclusion
  • Logical progression of ideas; connection of ideas; syntactic variety
  • Acknowledgement of opposing arguments

Evidence/Elaboration (4 points)

  • Relevant evidence from sources is specific and well-integrated
  • Clear citations and attribution
  • Effective elaboration (may include relevant personal experience)
  • Vocabulary appropriate to audience and purpose
  • Effective style

Conventions (2 points)

  • Sentence formation, punctuation, grammar and spelling

The original scoring guide is available on the Smarter Balanced site. The 11th grade version is on page 96. I have also created a rudimentary Word version.

One important thing I noticed when I was reviewing the sample papers was that they ding students for formulaic organization. One student wrote a typical five-paragraph essay with a claim-and-three-reasons thesis: “Cities and government should not be paying money to have public art pieces put up around towns because it could raise taxes, the art could get ruined and some people could find the art offensive.” The scorer’s response is:

  • Introduction is present. Conclusion simply repeats much of the introduction.
  • Progression of ideas is formulaic

They give the student only “2” out of “4” points for “Organization and Purpose.” So the five-paragraph essay is not going to fare well on the CAASPP. Either the Roman speech or the sort of modified version of it I created for the “Essay Process” post would work better.  Both implement rhetorical principles that are embedded in this scoring guide and address opposing viewpoints.

In a future post I will analyze this scoring guide in more detail. We have also received questions about what they mean by “elaboration,” so I will discuss that.

An Essay Writing Process

In recent posts I have explored alternatives to the five-paragraph essay.  The five-paragraph essay is a formidable adversary.  It is nearly ubiquitous in educational contexts, and it serves simultaneously as invention strategy, writing process, and pattern of arrangement.  It also appeals to what Holcomb and Killingsworth call “the ritual of three” (Performing Prose).  What I tell you three times is true.  Three points and we are convinced.

So whatever we try to substitute for this ubiquitous form must have at least as many advantages, plus some more.

The biggest disadvantage of the five-paragraph essay is that it does not address an audience.  The rhetorical concerns–audience, purpose, situation–are not built into the format.  Of course, it is possible to write a five-paragraph essay while considering the rhetorical situation, and such an essay will probably be a superior one, but taking such considerations seriously is also likely to result in a product that has more or fewer paragraphs and a somewhat different organization.

Thinking about the above concerns and both the Roman six-part speech and Ken Bruffee’s Short CourseI decided to combine some things together into a process that is potentially as simple as the five-paragraph essay, but allows for audience and some choices about arrangement.  One way of implementing this might be to have students write the paragraphs and other components on 3×5 cards or slips of paper and move them around.  It doesn’t call for multiple drafts, which usually don’t happen anyway, because revision happens as part of the built-in writing process.  I haven’t used this in class yet, but I will in the fall.   It looks like this:


What is your topic? Why is this topic important now? Is it urgent? Are people talking about it? Is it trending on social media? Is it in the news? Write a paragraph about this.


What is your main claim about your topic? Write it down, but save it for later.


What background does your reader need to understand your claim? Write a paragraph about the background.


Should your main claim go after the introduction of the topic or after the background? Which would work better? Try it out both places.

Strongest Support

What is your best support for your claim? Is it an example or an argument? Do you have facts, words from authorities, or other support? Write this paragraph.

Additional Support

Do you have more support? Write another paragraph about it. Keep writing paragraphs for each supporting argument until you run out of ideas.  You might find later that you can combine some of them into one paragraph. Make sure that each example or argument is related to your main claim in some way.


What would people say who disagree with you? How can you refute their arguments?  Write a paragraph about it.


Should your best argument go last, or should you lead with it? Reorder your paragraphs if you think another order would be more effective.


How do you want to conclude? Do you want to remind the reader of something? Do you want to talk about what might happen if he or she doesn’t listen to you? Write your concluding paragraph.


Reread your essay. Are things in the right order? Do you need some transitions to make connections clearer? Did your main claim change a bit as you argued for it? Do you need to restate it?  Make the changes you want to make, proofread for errors, and submit your draft.

Ken Bruffee’s Short Course on Writing

In Reading Rhetorically, Bean et al cite Ken Bruffee’s A Short Course on Writing as their source for the “Descriptive Outlining” activity. The first edition was published in 1972. I started teaching writing around 1979, and I had a copy. I don’t think I ever ordered it for a class, but I may have. It is still in print in a 4th edition, but it is from Pearson now, so it costs $95. I found a copy of the 3rd edition from Amazon for $5. The forward to the 4th edition, by Harvey Kail and John Trimbur, was published separately as an article in Writing Center Journal. It provides a good summary of the history of the book and the influence it has had.


This is a book that has origins similar to Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations. Bruffee found himself in the early ’60’s teaching writing with no clue about what to do or how to respond. He had trouble filling the class time productively and was spending inordinate hours marking every error, but seeing no improvement. We have all been there, I think. His solution to filling class time was to organize the course as a writing workshop with students helping students, the collaborative learning for which he is famous. His solution to the response problem was to teach simple forms of organization and insist that the paragraphs accomplish specific rhetorical tasks. He talks about the “Short Course Form” which is a three-paragraph essay, and he has a four-paragraph form, and others. These can be expanded and adapted. He also teaches “propositions” “assumptions” and support. It is pretty Aristotelian, but not overtly so. The theoretical background for the collaboration is the usual collection of social constructionist suspects.

Two things struck me as I started revisiting Bruffee: 1) This is very similar to the approach to writing we are developing in ERWC (I was probably retaining stuff from the 1st edition without remembering it consciously) and 2) Bruffee’s approach is sort of timeless. One of his goals was “to find out what the students are thinking.” That strikes me as an excellent goal for a writing class!

The course starts out with exercises in storytelling, brainstorming, focused freewriting, and generalizing. Then he begins to work on turning generalizations into “propositions” that can be defended. The next exercises and writing assignments work through proposition plus two reasons, “Nestorian” order (putting your best reason last), strawman plus one reason, and then “concession.” You can see that this gently introduces opposing viewpoints. Along the way, he works on transitions and coherence. He does not allow students to write conclusions until later in the course because the students have a tendency toward unnecessary summarizing and saving their main proposition until the end.

Descriptive outlining is introduced as a way for the student writer to “know exactly what is going on” in his or her own essay. They are to create one for every essay they write, and if there is a discrepancy between the essay and the outline, they are supposed to revise the essay to make it do what they want it to do. However, example essays are included with both “basic” and “detailed” descriptive outlines, so the technique also serves as a way to analyze other texts. It is an essential part of the course, something they apply to everything they read and write.

Section Four is about creating a “meaningful ending.” It is about conclusions. Students don’t write conclusions until page 153 of the book. Section Five is about research writing.

In summary:

  • Students write in class about topics of their own choosing.
  • Students help each other improve their writing through questions and structured activities similar to ERWC activities.
  • Students mostly write essays that take a “proposition plus two reasons” three-paragraph form.
  • Opposing arguments are introduced first through a “strawman” paragraph, then later by presenting a more valid argument and conceding its validity.
  • Students write basic descriptive outlines of each essay they read or write. In some cases they write “detailed” descriptive outlines. Descriptive outlines are a normal part of the revision process.
  • The simple formats allow the instructor to respond easily to the ideas in the paper, saving much time and making comments more productive.
  • When students are more fluent, they can begin writing conclusions and otherwise expanding the format.

It seems to me that there is much here that could be adapted to ERWC. The spirit of Bruffee’s approach is quite consistent with our own principle of respecting the student’s intelligence and being interested in what they think. And what we are principally struggling with right now is the form of the essay: five-paragraph essay, Roman six-part speech, or more organic structures. Bruffee solves the formula problem by teaching a reasonable, but incomplete format that builds skills that will be very useful later. He even says that it is good if students strongly feel like writing a concluding sentence because that means they are developing a rhetorical feeling for the essay. They can write that sentence, he says, but they shouldn’t turn it in with the essay. I have often said that if we teach a formula, it should contain the seeds of its own destruction. Bruffee’s certainly does.

Bruffee still seems fresh to me–practical, doable, principled, grounded.  And his question, “What are the students thinking?” asked in a course that helps them communicate their ideas but leaves them pretty much in charge, seems consistent with both the psychoanalytic approaches and the postprocess/postpedagogy anti-theory that is prevalent in composition these days. Definitely worth a look.


Aristotle begins his work on rhetoric by noting that the framers of previous treatises on rhetoric “say nothing about enthymemes, which are the substance of rhetorical persuasion,” but instead deal mostly with with non-essentials, “such as what must be the contents of the ‘introduction’ or the ‘narration’ or any of the other divisions of a speech.” For Aristotle, arrangement is not the essence of persuasion. The big new concept in his rhetoric is the enthymeme.

Aristotle considers rhetoric to be a counterpart of dialectic, which is the art of discovering what is true through syllogisms and inductive arguments.
Rhetoric is a parallel art which deals with the “apparently true” through enthymemes and examples. He defines the enthymeme as “a sort of syllogism,” but perhaps with fewer propositions because

If any of these propositions is a familiar fact, there is no need even to mention it; the hearer adds it himself. Thus, to show that Dorieus has been victor in a contest for which the prize is a crown, it is enough to say ‘For he has been victor in the Olympic games’, without adding ‘And in the Olympic games the prize is a crown’, a fact which everybody knows.

The most famous example of a syllogism is this

  • All men are mortal.
  • Socrates is a man.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

However, the premise, “All men are mortal” is known by all, and could be omitted, bringing this syllogism closer to the status of an enthymeme.

Enthymemes are based on probable truths, not certain ones, because we are usually deliberating about future actions, the outcome of which is never certain. Thus rhetoric is the art of speaking logically about probabilities and uncertainties.

Aristotle’s observation that in an enthymeme (which he also calls a rhetorical syllogism) we can leave out a premise that everyone knows has lead to some controversy and confusion. Sometimes we leave it out because people will assume it, even if it is unexpressed. However, Aristotle also connects this practice to audience. He says

Before some audiences not even the possession of the exactest knowledge will make it easy for what we say to produce conviction. For argument based on knowledge implies instruction, and there are people whom one cannot instruct.

To summarize:

  • Enthymemes are based on probable truths or contingencies.
  • Enthymemes may have assumed or omitted premises that everyone already knows.
  • Enthymemes may also leave out premises because an audience is either incapable or unwilling to be instructed.

Could a devious rhetor leave out premises that would be uncomfortable or disagreeable to an audience if expressed? Do different audiences make different assumptions and believe different things to be probably true? Do shared but hidden assumptions make an argument more persuasive to the audience? Aristotle does not deal with these possibilities directly, but the answer to all three questions is clearly yes, though one does not have to be devious in order to use enthymemes. That means that an important part of a rhetorical analysis is ferreting out and evaluating hidden assumptions. Let’s look at some examples.

Here is President George W. Bush, in a White House statement delivered on Feb. 24, 2004

THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. Eight years ago, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for purposes of federal law as the legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.

The Act passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 342 to 67, and the Senate by a vote of 85 to 14. Those congressional votes and the passage of similar defensive marriage laws in 38 states express an overwhelming consensus in our country for protecting the institution of marriage.

In recent months, however, some activist judges and local officials have made an aggressive attempt to redefine marriage. . . . Unless action is taken, we can expect more arbitrary court decisions, more litigation, more defiance of the law by local officials, all of which adds to uncertainty.

Often a single word implies an argument. The word “defense” implies an argument such as this:

  • The institution of marriage is in danger.
  • Re-defining marriage threatens marriage.
  • Therefore, marriage should not be re-defined.

The word “arbitrary” implies something like the following:

  • The majority view is that marriage is between a man and a woman.
  • Decisions that do not reflect the majority view are arbitrary.
  • Therefore, marriage needs to be defended from arbitrary decisions.

Lets look at another example.  Earlier this month (August 4, 2016), President Barack Obama published an essay about feminism in Glamour magazine. He writes

Growing up without a dad, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, how the world perceived me, and what kind of man I wanted to be. It’s easy to absorb all kinds of messages from society about masculinity and come to believe that there’s a right way and a wrong way to be a man. But as I got older, I realized that my ideas about being a tough guy or cool guy just weren’t me. They were a manifestation of my youth and insecurity. Life became a lot easier when I simply started being myself.

There are lots of assumptions operating here. First

  • Dads are role models for young men.
  • Without a dad, young men learn how to be men from social messages.
  • Society teaches men to be tough and cool.
  • Therefore, Obama tried to be tough and cool.

But a more subtle assumption is present too. It’s called “being yourself.”

  • Every person has a a true self.
  • Society pressures us to be different from our true selves.
  • Youth and insecurity cause us to succumb to social pressure.
  • Being your true self is better than succumbing to pressure.
  • Therefore we should reject society’s norms and be ourselves.

Imagine a world in which everyone simply did their own thing without adapting to any social norms. Would you want to live in it? Most of us would prefer to live in a society that balanced the needs of the individual and the needs of the group. But there I go making assumptions about my audience!

However, as Aristotle notes, it is not wrong to use enthymemes. They are necessary. It is just that it is sometimes instructive, even necessary, to make the assumptions explicit in order to understand the whole argument.

(Quotations from Aristotle’s Rhetoric are all from Book I available online in the the Internet Classics Archive at M.I.T.)

Descriptive Outlining and Arrangement

The New York Times recently published three interesting pieces on politicians and military service.  Each piece has a different organizational strategy.  The first looks similar to the Roman six-part speech I described in a previous post. The second is closer to the five-paragraph essay structure, though it has seven paragraphs.  The third has yet another pattern.

The first two paragraphs of the Brian Adam Stone piece are narrative background about H.W. Bush and Donald Trump. The first sentence introduces the topic of risking everything to serve in the military. The thesis comes in the third paragraph as an answer to the question, “Does it matter if a person who aspires to be president avoided service in Vietnam?” His answer is “yes.” Then there is one paragraph in support. The following paragraph notes that many men avoided the draft and that they have to “live with their decision.” It ends with a quote from Dick Cheney, who like Trump had five deferments and never served, who said he “had other priorities.” I would say that this essay roughly follows the Roman six-part pattern.

The Brandon Willitts piece is closer to the five-paragraph essay. It has the thesis in the first paragraph: “We should stop pretending as though military service matters so much for our elected officials.”” Note however that the thesis statement does not have the claim-and-three-reasons form that many student thesis statements have. This is followed by five paragraphs in support, the first three of which are personal examples, the latter two about politics and history. Then there is a conclusion. This ends up being a seven-paragraph essay, but these are journalistic paragraphs and the third and fourth paragraphs and the fifth and sixth paragraphs could easily be combined. I would say that this is pretty much a five-paragraph essay, a very good one.

I would argue that the Andrew J. Bacevich piece is not really an essay, but more like an answer to an academic test question. The first sentence is an answer and a thesis: “Those who avoid wartime service out of conviction–persuaded that a specific war is illegal, immoral, or wrongheaded–deserve our respect and even admiration.” Note, however, that this implies a counter-thesis: Those who avoid service for other reasons do not deserve our respect. And indeed, this counter-thesis appears in the third paragraph. The pattern is thesis, support, counter-thesis, support, conclusion. The overall implied thesis is that our respect depends on motivation. The title, “Motives Matter,” reflects this, but the title was probably added by a headline writer, not the author. This sort of writing depends a lot on the context the article is placed within, and indeed, the New York Times feature “Room for Debate” sets up the necessary context. In that sense, this is the most rhetorically savvy of these pieces. It is well-adapted to the rhetorical situation and the exigency.

When students read essays and op-ed pieces such as these, they are exposed to a wide variety of organizational patterns. However, when they write, they are often limited to one—: the five-paragraph essay.  I think that we create cognitive dissonance and disengagement when we teach them very strict formulas for writing essays. Why can’t they do what they see published authors doing?  One argument might be that they are not ready to make the rhetorical decisions necessary to adapt the form to their audience and purpose.  OK, how do they learn to make rhetorical decisions about arrangement?

One activity that will help is “descriptive outlining,” an exercise I first encountered in Reading Rhetorically by John Bean, Virginia Chappell and Alice M. Gillam, but which originally came from Ken Bruffee’’s A Short Course in Writing. In this activity, students learn about form by dividing a piece up into sections by topics and stating what the section does for the reader and what it says about the topic.  What follows is my own version of the activity.

Dividing the Essay

This activity works best with a relatively short essay-like piece. Have your students read the piece and divide it into sections based on topics. The first time you do this, it might be useful to start by simply asking them to draw a line where the introduction ends. Then ask individual students to report where they drew the line and why. Students may have drawn lines in different places, but that is ok. The important thing is the kind of thinking they do in making the decision. Once the line is drawn, they will want to defend their decision, and this leads to more thinking and discussion.

One discovery they will make after doing several of these is that the thesis statement is often not in the first paragraph.  This is mind-blowing for students who have been brought up on a strict regime of five-paragraph essays.

After the introduction has been discussed, ask the students to move on to the task of dividing the piece into sections based on topics. Again, students may divide it differently.

Do/Say Analysis

After the sections have been divided, ask the students to write brief statements describing the rhetorical function and content of each paragraph or section.

  • What is the section about? (The topic)
  • What does the section do for the reader? (Rhetorical function)
  • What does it say about the topic? (Content)

This is often called a “Do/Say” analysis, but I think that it is useful to identify the topic as well because topics function at a higher level than paragraphs (some languages, such as Japanese, have special words that serve as topic markers). I have extracted a sample descriptive outline of “”A Change of Heart about Animals“” from my ERWC module, “”A Rhetoric of the Op-Ed Page.””

Descriptive outlining helps students explore different organizational patterns and their effects on readers.  The resulting analysis is useful in creating a summary, abstract, or rhetorical précis of the article, and certainly helps in comprehension.

The Roman Six-Part Speech as an Essay

In a previous post, I discussed the problem that can be created when students combine a rudimentary understanding of Aristotle’s three appeals–ethos, logos, and pathos–with the five-paragraph essay format. Instead of rhetorical analysis it is easy for students to fall into a pattern of a paragraph about ethos, a paragraph about logos and a paragraph about pathos. I think the solution is to teach more rhetoric! However, we might also provide an alternative to the five-paragraph essay.

I mentioned this in a previous post, but I will go into more detail in this one. The ancient Romans had a six-part format for persuasive speeches that is still used by orators today and which can easily be adapted to essay writing. In fact, most editorials and op-ed pieces follow a similar pattern today. The format is organized by rhetorical purpose and can be expanded or contracted to fit different kinds of content.


If the five-paragraph essay seems too constraining, this pattern is a good alternative. It has several advantages. The “narratio” section provides more background and context for the reader, so that when we finally get to the thesis in the “divisio,” we feel like we are well-informed about the nature of the issue and why it is important at this particular moment. Then we have arguments in favor of the position in the “confirmatio” and arguments against in the following “refutatio.” The result is that when we get to the conclusion, we feel both informed and persuaded, and that the issue has been viewed from more than one perspective.

In a short paper, the first three categories might be combined into a one-paragraph introduction, but if the issue is complicated, the “narrative” section might take two or more paragraphs. The “confirmatio” and “refutatio” form the “body” of the paper, and the “peroratio” the conclusion. Each of these sections might be one or more paragraphs.

This pattern can be taught as a series of questions:

  1. What is my paper about? How can a make my reader interested in it?
  2. What background information does the reader need to know to understand the issue I am writing about? What is the story behind the issue? How did things get this way?
  3. What are the possible positions someone could take on this issue? What position will I take and why?
  4. What are the arguments in favor of my position? How can I support them?
  5. What will people who disagree with me say? What are the arguments against my position? How can I refute them?
  6. What do I want my reader to believe or do after they finish reading my essay? How do I want them to feel?

These are good prewriting questions even if the student ends up writing a five-paragraph essay. They also work well in collaborative activities. Students can help each other brainstorm arguments for and against the writer’s position, and explore different possible positions on the issue.

This pattern can also be used to analyze published editorials and op-ed pieces. We can ask:

  1. What is this piece about? Why is the issue or topic important, according to the writer? What kind of impression does the writer create?
  2. What background information does the author give us? What is the story behind the issue? Does the writer do a good job of putting the issue in context?
  3. What are the possible positions on this issue? Does the writer do a good job of laying them out? What position does the writer take? Is it clear and well-defined, or a little vague?
  4. What arguments does the writer make in favor of his or her position? How are they supported? Do they make sense?
  5. What arguments against the position does the writer describe? Does he or she do a good job of refuting them? Can you think of other arguments against the position that the writer does not deal with?
  6. How do you feel at the end of the piece? Are you persuaded? Why or why not?

These questions, and the Roman pattern from which they derive (Cic. De Inv. 1.7; Cic. De Or. 1.31.143), are useful for organizing discussions of persuasive texts. They can help the student think about the pros and cons of multiple positions rather than simply taking one position and supporting it with one-sided arguments and cherry-picked examples. They also might reveal gaps or problems with a published writer’s position or arguments, allowing the student to see that just because something is in print, it doesn’t mean it is well-argued.

This post is also available as a handout for teachers in .pdf format. I have also included two analyses of op-ed pieces, one about reconsidering the use of QR Codes in mediating between real and online worlds and one by Stanley Fish about whether history professors should speak out politically as history professors.  (For copyright reasons I have only quoted the first few words of each section.  It is best to go to the URL I have provided to see the full article.)  The QR codes article fits the pattern quite well.  The Fish piece less so, but then I find his arguments unconvincing as well.  Doing the analysis reinforced my opinion that he was less than persuasive.  Picking apart the organizational structure leads to insights about the arguments as well.