Argument texts are fine; argumentative texts are not

I thought a million years of teaching freshman composition had inured me to people using the wrong word, but I was wrong.

Lately I’ve seen the word argumentative used in place of argument all over my Twitter feed, and the mistake is being made by English teachers.

Argument means polite discussion

An argument is a discussion in which differing perspectives are offered on a single topic and discussed within certain rules of logic and civility that are traditionally referred to as argumentation.

Traditionally, English teachers spoke about argument essays, which meant a text in which the writer was expected to know what people who disagreed with her position believed and, whenever possible, to show that the opposition’s logic or was flawed or its evidence inadequate to support the opposition’s position.

Argument is a forensic activity

When I was a teenager, the organization that’s now known as the National Speech and Debate Association was the National Forensic League.  Forensics in that context meant the study of the formal art of argumentation. In other contexts, forensics is the use of science and technology to investigate and establish facts in, for example, an accident or legal proceeding.

Arguments are supposed to be forensic activities.  Their goal is to establish facts upon which people can agree.

That means arguments are not argumentative. 

Argumentativeness is a negative quality

Being argumentative is anything but civil. All the meanings of argumentative are negative. It means, according the American Heritage Dictionary 5th ed., "contentious, disputatious, quarrelsome, scrappy."

The American Heritage Dictionary gives these examples of how argumentative is used: "an argumentative child; a contentious mood; a disputatious scholar; a quarrelsome drinker; a scrappy exchange."

When English teachers use the term argumentative writing, they suggest to their students raised voices, slammed doors, and hurled insults.

Let’s not give that impression.

Twentieth century society is uncivil enough without teachers implying argumentative behavior belongs in academic classrooms.

Bigger isn’t better when it comes to vocabulary

Using a long word doesn’t make you look smarter.

The long word can make you look dumber.

In this help wanted ad, for example, unless the employer was offering a virtual position, using figurative instead of the shorter word figure reversed the intended meaning:

FIGURATIVE MODEL needed for sculpture class at Johnson’s Sculpture Park, Maryland, NY. 607-638-5544.

What the employer wanted was a literal figure model.

A teacher on Twitter gloried in giving her students a plethora of choices.

Plethora was originally a medical term referring to a fatal blood condition. A plethora is an excess of choices;  a plethora is so many choices that it overwhelms.

You may think using plethora may sounds smarter than saying several or many, but giving students a plethora of choices isn’t a positive accomplishment.

You know the feeling you get when you look at your choices in the cereal aisle of the world’s biggest grocery store under one roof? That’s what giving them a plethora of choices will do to students.

Many teachers say they teach argumentative writing rather than argument writing.

Argumentative writing doesn’t make you look smarter than argument writing. In fact, just the opposite is true.

Argument writing generates respectful, polite, reasonable, and emotion-free discussions of differing perspectives.

Argumentative writing is angry, emotional, unreasonable, sometimes vicious, and always disrespectful.

Choose the shortest, most common word that conveys your message.

Snake oil and double meanings

cover of The Redemption of David Corson by Charles Frederic GossIn our era of fake news, it is useful to introduce students to the way words can be used to deceive.

In the 1900 bestselling novel The Redemption of David Corson by Charles Frederic Goss, which I reviewed over on GreatPenformances blog, one funny scene presents a patent-medicine salesman’s sales pitch for worthless cures.

The snake oil salesman has gathered a clutch of people around and is reading testimonials from satisfied customers:

‘Dear Sir: I was wounded in the Mexican war. I have been unable to walk without crutches for many years; but after using your liniment, I ran for office!’ Think of it, gentlemen, the day of miracles has not passed. ‘I lost my eyesight four years ago, but used a bottle of your “wash” and saw wood.’ Saw wood, gentlemen, what do you think of that? He saw wood! ‘Some time ago I lost the use of both arms; but a kind friend furnished me with a box of your pills, and the next day I struck a man for ten dollars.’ There is a triumph of the medical art, my friends. And yet even this is surpassed by the following: ‘I had been deaf for many years, stone deaf; but after using your ointment, I heard that my aunt had died and left me ten thousand dollars.’ Think of it, gentlemen, ten thousand dollars! And a written guarantee goes with every bottle, that the first thing a stone-deaf man will hear after using this medicine will be that his aunt has died and left him ten thousand dollars.

If I were to use this, I’d probably have students read it and then pose some informal writing questions about the text:

  • When you read the paragraph, what do you visualize the speaker doing? How does the salesman act?
  • What would you say is the salesman’s attitude toward his audience? On what do you base your impression?
  • How would you describe the audience? Is your attitude the same as the salesman’s?
  • The text doesn’t tell you how the audience responds. What you do think their response would be?
  • How would you describe this passage : descriptive? expository? persuasive? comic? serious? sad? Why did you choose that description?

I think it would be fun to have the class ham¹ act the role of the salesman, maybe shoot a video of the re-enactment.

The Redemption of David Corson is available as Project Gutenberg  eBook #14730. The paragraph quoted above is in chapter 12.

¹ ham  is a word with a double meaning.


Have a challenge? Need a challenge?

Challenge is a challenging word.

We in education most often use the singular noun to mean a task that demands special effort or dedication, but which is within the ability of the person who accepts the challenge.

We like kids who accept a challenge.

By contrast, we typically use the plural form, challenges, to mean things that require more ability than an individual has, as in “that kid has serious challenges.”

We prefer kids with challenges be in another teacher’s classroom.

I ran across two items today on Twitter that made me think about those two opposing usages.

Challenged workers

The first is a National Skills Coalition report showing roughly 20 million Americans employed in key service-sector industries lack basic skills in literacy, numeracy, or digital problem-solving.

These are people that we educators would probably say “have challenges.”

A large proportion of these people work in just three areas: retail, health care and social assistance, and in food services and accommodations. Surprisingly, 58 percent of them have been with their current employer at least three years, and 23 percent of them are supervisors.

Here’s the most astonishing fact about these workers:

More than one in three (39%) participated in a learning activity over the past 12 months, including 27% who are pursuing a formal degree or certificate.

Ignore for the moment the question of how all those people get into post-secondary education when they trouble with reading, writing, arithmetic, and problem solving: Think about how someone with challenges becomes someone who accepts a challenge.

Workers who take on challenges

There may be many factors the lead to someone accepting a challenge, but they certainly include:

  • Having a personal reason for accepting the challenge of learning.
  • Sensing that doing nothing will produce a bad outcome.
  • Believing the desired outcome is worth the effort it requires.

At some point, we educators have to start figuring out how to get those “kids with challenges” to accept the challenge of learning how to learn what they will need to know in their work and in their lives. It’s particularly important for us to do that for the students who aren’t natural, book-learning scholars: the hands-on, vocational, CTE students.

They crave a challenge, too, and they deserve it.

What else could we be doing to see that all students have opportunities to take on challenges?

Build in-context vocabulary lists

List of word lists for SAT preparation
Words without context

Most vocabulary builders work in isolation. VocabGrabber works on vocabulary in the context of reading material that you — or your students — create from assigned reading.

By using VocabGrabber, you can develop vocabulary lists from any digitized text.  That means you can build a vocabulary list for your students knowing they will encounter those words in their reading. Words they use are more likely to be remembered than those they merely memorize for a quiz.

VocabGrabber is easy to use

You (or your students) paste a copied passage into the box on the VocabGrabber page and hit the button. (Or if you’ve installed the program in your browser, you can just click the bookmarklet to start the analysis without copying and pasting.) The software analyzes the passage and produces information about words used in it.

The data includes:

  • Word frequency (a key to thesis or theme identification).
  • Relationships of words to each other.
  • Parts of speech of the words as used in the passage.
  • Whether the word is part of a specialized vocabulary, such as technology, history or geography.
  • Definitions of words in the passage with illustrations of the word use in context.

Lists aid reading of complex texts

Being able to generate vocabulary lists easily simplifies preparing students for the kinds of deep analysis they need to read complex texts. By creating and comparing lists for different texts your students must read within a course or across the curriculum, you can determine which terms are most important to teach: They’ll appear on several lists.

Although VocabGrabber is a great tool for teaching literacy, it has two limitations:

  • It does not replace teaching. You have to show students how and why to use the tool.
  • Users need digitized text; print materials won’t work.

If you are teaching a literary classic in the public domain (a Jane Austen novel, for example), or using articles from an online database, finding digital copies won’t be a problem.

If you want Josh and Caitlin to work with their history textbook, you may not find a digital copy.


An earlier version of this article appeared in June 2009 issue of Writing Points © 2009 Linda Aragoni

Harness the Power of Words in Teaching Writing

Those of us who teach writing know that words are powerful. All too often, however, we slouch into using comfortable terminology rather than exerting ourselves to find words that will clearly communicate to our students ideas and attitudes we want them to adopt.

We need to train ourselves to think like marketers and advertisers, using language that conveys precise information to our audience, leading them to believe that being able to write competently is both desirable and achievable.

Here are three ways writing teachers can harness word power:

Avoid confusing terms

Many terms in the English/communications teachers’ vocabularies have two or more meanings; sometimes the definitions are even contradictory. For example:

  • A thesis can refer to a single sentence or a book length manuscript.
  • Narrative and exposition are different ways of organizing writing, but narrative writing often includes expository paragraphs.

Such dual meanings can easily bewilder students.

Probably the single biggest source of confusion for writing students, however, is grammar terminology. Many grammar terms are used today to mean what they meant to students clutching quill pens, not what they mean to students scrolling iPads.

For example, students are told that a verb shows “action or state of being” even though the only place they have encountered the word state it referred to a geo-political entity, like Nebraska. Other grammar terms whose everyday contemporary use is different from their original meanings include run-on, tense, and perfect.

Seize alternative language

If students find a term vague or confusing when they first encounter it, their bewilderment is a signal that teachers should look for alternative language. Telling students that an essay is a short piece of nonfiction, for example, does not help them distinguish an essay from a newspaper article or from a travel brochure.

If you teach in a school that uses Common Core State Standards you probably know the CCSS avoids the term essay, preferring terms that describe the content of the writing: arguments and informative or explanatory text. Common Core also avoids the term thesis statement (or thesis sentence), using the term claim instead.

Alternatives to bewildering language could be a circumlocution that uses language students already. Calling an introductory element “a fragment that appears ahead of the main sentence” is an example of such a circumlocution.

Inventing a term that students will understand is another option. I use the term writing skeleton™ instead of outline because I found students associated outlining with identifying points in already-written content. By changing my language enabled them to see how outlining can be used to structure writing they plan to do.

Use positively emotional words

Way too many terms we use in education have unfortunate connotations in the wider world; those connotations scare students in the classroom. By choosing terms that students will hear as positive, useful, and achievable, we can reduce class-induced stress to manageable levels that won’t interfere with learning.

For example, we tell students they must meet terminal objectives, which sound deadly, when we could talk about ultimate objectives, which sound superior to others. Or we urge students to use critical thinking, which sounds nasty, when we could talk about smart thinking or reliable thinking or genuine thinking. Each of those sounds honest and useful.

By matching our terminology to the needs of our students, we can avoid many of the perpetual problems of teaching writing—which would be good for them and us.

[2014-04-25 removed broken link]


Vocabulary lesson plans gain from broader learning focus

Lesson plans for teaching vocabulary to students in the early grades routinely use word-picture associations.  Using such associations teachers can present reading concepts such as how the letter combination a + n becomes imbedded in words such as can, fan, and pan.

The strength of word-picture associations can be so strong that they interfere with students developing more sophisticated understanding of vocabulary later.  Let me illustrate.

Vocabulary lesson at the checkout

photo of tower fan
Could this be a fan?

I was in K-mart one afternoon last summer buying a replacement for my late, lamented tower fan. The cash register in the only open checkout line was operated by a pleasant young man. As there were no other shoppers for him to wait on, we fell into conversation.

“I’m going to be an engineer, ” he said as he handed me the fan.  “I know how air conditioners work. I hope I’ll learn how one of these works.”

I said, “It’s a fan.”

He smiled at my ignorance of engineering.

“Fans,” he said, “are round.”

Rather than debate the point, I asked him if he had ever seen photographs of Japanese geishas with fans.

He had.

I asked him if the fans were round.

They were not.

I asked if he’d ever seen a movie mystery where the police were told to fan out to look for evidence.

He liked those movies.

I asked him whether when the police fanned out they went around in circles.

They did not.

Then I asked him if he’d ever built a campfire.

His family did a lot of camping, so he knew how to build campfires.

I asked if he sometimes had to fan the fire to make it burn.

He did.

“When you fan a fire, do you make circular motions?”

By that time,  I had the budding engineer’s full attention. He realized there was something missing in his understanding of a vocabulary word he’d learned in his Sesame Street years.

In a few sentences, I explained what each of those uses of fan had in common. He could see a general shape and movement were involved in each of the uses of fan.

And he was excited to learn that were he to take my tower fan apart, he would find the blade mechanism bears a striking resemblance to some engineering designs for marine current turbines.

Implications for vocabulary lesson plans

I know that elementary teachers don’t have time to discuss all possible uses of words like fan, can, and pan in a vocabulary lesson. That’s not feasible or necessary.For long-term learning, however, whenever teachers can build into their lesson plans multiple images suggesting different ways vocabulary words can be used—a frying pan, pan for gold, a pan shot in video—they will greatly enhance students’ learning.

Three unacceptable word confusions

The local Rotary Club has signs up around town about its winter fundraiser at which it is excepting [sic] donations of canned goods for the local food pantry.

Confusing  words with similar sounds or similar spellings, such as  except and accept, is an error not limited to Rotarians.  In fact, most of us occasionally fall into the trap.

Sometimes we fall  because we aren’t sure of the difference between a pair of words. (It took me decades to master the difference between bear and bare.)

Sometimes we slip because our fingers are used to typing certain keystrokes when the dictating voice in our heads pronounces a particular set of sounds.

Sometimes, though, people are confused about terms that neither sound nor look anything alike. Here are three I’ve run across in the last few weeks that people in the education arena need to know.

1. Reprints and citations

I’ve had a rash of people lately requesting permission to reprint material from my website in term papers for graduate courses.  It’s usually obvious that the individual wants only to borrow ideas or quote a couple of sentences with appropriate credit.

Reprints are duplicates of the original, nothing omitted. A reprint request is essentially a request for a one-time use of copyrighted information. The person who intends to copy the material gets advance permission so as not to be charged with copyright infringement.

By contrast, using a small portion of information from a source in a review or analytical paper is considered fair use within the US copyright law and requires no pre- (or post-) approval from the copyright holder. Fair use does require a citation, but that citation is a matter of ethics and academic etiquette rather than a federal copyright issue.

2. Text and graphics

When asked what kind of material they wish to reprint from my website, people invariably check graphic. In most every case, what they explain they want to use is text. Apparently, they think that anything that is visible is a graphic.

In the publishing world, when text and graphic are used as distinct categories, text is written words, such as the material you are reading now. A graphic is an image, such as a diagram, a photograph, or a sketch. A graphic may include text, but it is more than just text.

A small amount of text may make sense out of context. A sentence, for example, may sum up an entire chapter or book. By contrast, a small portion of a graphic almost never is capable of summing up the entire image.

Anyone who wants to use a graphic  is likely to need to seek permission before using the image unless its use is specifically permitted by a Creative Commons license.

3. Royalties and copyrights

A blogger recently recommended websites where people could get royalty-free photographs, which the blogger said could be used without getting the photographer’s permission. The post left the impression that royalty-free means copyright-free.

Not so.

Royalty free means no payment is required; it does not mean no permission is required. Except in cases of works made for hire, the creator of intellectual property is the copyright holder and has the right to restrict where his property is used.

Unless material is labeled for reuse (with a Creative Commons license, for example) or is in the public domain, photographs and other works, once in fixed form, are considered the property of their creator. The creator doesn’t have to register a work or put a copyright notice on it to own the copyright.

Incidentally, under US copyright law, “copyright free” intellectual property doesn’t exist. In the US, intellectual property goes from copyrighted to public domain without a purgatorial copyright-free period; intellectual property either belongs to one person/organization or it belongs to everybody.

Many of the photographs I use are royalty-free photos from Stock.XCHNG . Although the photographers don’t require payment, they typically require both notice to the copyright holder and a credit line in the work in which they are used.