Persuasion: Children can’t “just do it”

by Brad Bosler

Delaware Writing Project

H.B. duPont Middle School

boz@fast.net      So, it’s time to teach persuasion again. Is it third marking period? You’ve covered narratives and expository writing. Now it’s time for the big one. “I want you to choose a topic you feel strongly about and convince someone to see your position. Be sure to follow all steps of the writing process.” With all their energy for arguing, this should be all they need to channel their opinions. Wrong.


     What is it about persuasion that is so tough for children? They argue their points to us everyday. I can’t remember a day where every child I gave a command to just said, “Yes, sir.” In fact, that has never happen in my ten years of teaching. What I usually get are reasons why they shouldn’t have to do what it is that I am asking: “I can’t have that paper in on Monday. I have a soccer tournament this weekend,” “Why do we have to have the quiz on Wednesday? All the other teachers have their tests on Friday.” And so on ad-nausea.


     What is it, then, about writing persuasion that these children find so difficult? In Eisenberg and Garvey’s (1981) study of children’s use of verbal strategies to resolve conflicts, they found that three to five year old children interacted and argued with each other to accomplish an objective like playing with a toy. They observed how children begin to understand that when you want to convince someone else to do something, using “because” isn’t enough. Even young children know that some sort of reason must follow. Honestly, what kind of support is “Because I said so!”? When they studied the interactions of children wanting to get on the same toy, they found a give and take, the same steps adults would use. Sometimes there was a concession. The child knew that the way to get what they wanted was to give in for a while. Then they would get their turn. The most effective solution to getting the toy, though, was to use reasons (Eisenberg & Garvey, 1981). These are what we want in our persuasive essays: recognition of the other side and supports for your own side.


     Wilkinson (1986), cited in Crowhurst (1990), claims that persuasion is one of two “natural or universal genres rooted in the human psyche.” So if three year olds can argue, why can’t our students write a persuasive essay? For one thing, writing persuasion was thought to be too hard for young writers, so it wasn’t taught until high school (Crowhurst, 1990). But the main reason children have trouble writing persuasion at an early age is they don’t have the schema for persuasive writing (Knudson, 1992).


     Young students can write persuasion if they are given clear steps. They can find supports and begin to persuade, but what they are doing at that age is more of filling in the blanks. They don’t really know why their argument is convincing or not convincing; when asked why the paper is weak, they will respond with, “I need more supports.” What happens, though, is their papers end up with weak supports and don’t resemble a persuasive piece. They read like narratives. There is a reason they look like narratives. Narrative is the most familiar format for children. It’s what they were raised with. They have been read to, and they are encouraged to write creative stories and tell about their own lives. So when inexperienced writers try to write persuasion, they begin with what they know (Crowhurst, 1990). If you have played tennis for years, you don’t have to think about how to swing a racket. You just do it. But when you want to try a different serve, you think about all the new movements. And, if you are like me, if it’s too hard or doesn’t work for you, you go back to the old way. Growing writers do the same thing.

My seventh graders are beginning to understand the format of a persuasive essay; it is just beginning to feel a little comfortable. Think about yourself. When you are asked to write a paper for a college class now, you don’t have to worry about the format or how to write it. You can focus on what goes into the paper. You know all the blanks to fill in. At their age, my students are becoming a little comfortable with the format, but it is new for them. What is missing for these students, developmentally, is the ability to reason.


     The ability to reason is something that develops over time. What is needed in a convincing essay? There must be reasons why the other side should see things your way. Children understand that. They know how to tell you what they think. But think about how an essay is structured. They have one shot to not only tell you the reasons they have, but they need to convince you that what you think is not right. Then they must rebut the things that you might be thinking as you read the paper, so that by the end, they have disqualified your reasons while explaining why theirs are better. I don’t know about you, but this sounds hard to me.


     This process will become easier as the students experience life and develop mentally (Crowhurst, 1990). They will begin to see that simply listing their reasons isn’t enough. As humans we learn what works and what doesn’t work. All the processes of writing a persuasive paper will begin to become more automatic by the time students finish high school. That doesn’t help me! I teach twelve year olds, and I am supposed to focus on the persuasive paper. I have a tough challenge, and so do my students.

My students need to learn strategies and steps that they can use when they are faced with the challenge of writing a persuasive essay, alone or in the class. Ultimately, I want them to be able to write for the state exam. First, they need to be aware of their goal and check back on it as they are doing all steps of the writing process (De La Paz, 1997; Ferretti, MacArthur & Dowdy, in press). If their goal is to convince me that the moon is made of cheese, they should be checking themselves along the way that they are sticking to that. Many of the skills we need to teach them are metacognitive skills that we use all the time (Coirier, 1996). Children are not always aware that the sentences they are writing have a goal other than to finish.


     The next skill children need is to know the format of a persuasive essay. For my regular students, I use the mnemonic device D.A.R.E.: Develop a thesis, add reasons, reject possible arguments, and end with a conclusion(DeLaPaz 1997). By having the students know that these are the steps they need to follow, it helps them overcome their lack of schema for persuasion. They can now fill in the blanks. For my more advanced students, I have them memorize these seven steps of the persuasive essay: Define goal, Decide on position, Anticipate audience position, Provide your reasons, Consider justification for the other side, Present reasoned rebuttal, End with a conclusion ( Ferretti, MacArthur & Dowdy, in press). The writing of a persuasive essay involves a series of tasks, among them the textualization of what they see as the oral skill of arguing (Coirier, 1996).


     If this were all students had problems with, my job would be a lot easier. The next difficult task is to make students aware of the other side (Gleason, 1999). When I write to my own principal, I know him from daily interactions, meetings, and activities outside of work. If I needed to write him a letter convincing him to give me money for a show, I have a real audience (important), and I know him as a person (Knudson, 1992). I have a good idea of the things he will say and how he feels about the topic. Think about how important this is to students! For some students, the principal is this man who runs the school. He may be nice and friendly for some; for others, he is the ultimate power. “Write a letter to the principal convincing him to allow students to choose their own schedules.” If the principal were to read a truly persuasive letter, by definition, it should have addressed his reasons not to change the schedule and rebutted them. How can the students do this?

In Wagner’s (1987) study, she had the students role play the other side. This is a good idea, but there is one problem: the students don’t always know what the other side believes. So for the topic of students choosing their own schedules we had to make a study of the principal and list who he is, what he thinks, and what he believes. We developed questions that we would ask him about the topic. Then we role-played. The students were then asked to act like the principal and answer the questions. Then, for fun, I brought in the principal, and they asked him the questions to see how close they were. The activity also helped them add more supports to their essay by merely having the students interact and learn from each other (Kuhn, Shaw, & Felton, 1997). But again, what do students do when they are alone on a state test? Ultimately, they will have to do this themselves in their heads, but as they get older and have a better understanding of the world and people, this gets easier.


     The final problem that young writers of persuasion have is reasoning. Their papers are filled with weak supports (Crowhurst, 1990). If they can fill a page with words, many are satisfied. Even when I taught them the format, the supports they gave were ridiculous if you really think about what they are saying. For example, “The principal should allow us to schedule our own classes because we will like the classes we choose, and our grades will go up.” I can’t tell you how many used this support. They think it’s a great support. But let’s think about this: even if they could choose which class they took, why would they like it better? And if they like it, does it follow that their grades would go up? I took a philosophy class in college. I loved it. I loved going to it. I bombed the tests! I liked the class, but I didn’t do well. Liking a class isn’t a prerequisite for doing well in a class.

How do we then improve this weakness of children? We need them to improve their critical thinking skills. Skepticism is a result of three things: maturation, education, and contrasting (Forsberg, 1993). As we get older, we learn how the world works: therefore, when we hear someone trying to convince us, we contrast what we know against what they are saying. Children don’t have that knowledge. They have some, but this is why TV advertisements are so effective for children. They don’t have the background available to contrast with the messages. They aren’t critical of the messages and take the advertisements at face value.


     The education part is something that we as teachers and parents need to be doing more of. Media literacy is included in the Delaware Content Standards. We need to give students the skills to be critical consumers of media and advertising. One way I teach more advanced students to become critical of the supports they use in their persuasive essays is to study magazine advertising. I give them the tools to take apart an advertisement. Aristotle, in his study of argument, discovered that a lot of convincing arguments were not better because of the strict use of logic. They used artificial means of persuasion. They appealed to the character of the speaker (Ethos). If the speaker is credible, you are more inclined to accept his position. They appealed to the audience’s emotions (Pathos). If you make the audience fearful, and then sooth them, you can win them over. And finally, he found that most arguments weren’t logical, like the undeniable fact that the sun will rise in the east. Most were plausible: fathers love their children. Most people would accept it, but it is not a truth (van Eemeren, Grootendorstt, & Henkenmans, 1996). In Walton’s (1992) study of argumentation, he found that most of the reasons we use to support our side were ones that most people would accept, but when scrutinized, had faults. These faults were later called fallacies. A fallacy is an argument that is put forth as a support for a position, but when it is scrutinized, it contains problems with the reasoning (Walton, 1996).

With that said, the study of advertising is used to discover these faults. We look at advertisements to find artificial means of persuasion, but we also look for the parts that are true. One advertisement we studied was for Neutrogena face wash. The advertisement listed how their soap cleans your face and has no oil. Those are facts. But the advertisement also states that it is the “number one dermatologist recommended soap.” Recommended doesn’t mean that everyone uses it. It doesn’t even mean it is the best soap. It is a vague statement that they want you to see as powerful proof that you should buy their soap. We even studied an advertisement for Corn Nuts. The advertisement was a parody of a WWF wrestling show. They made the mascot of the company a wrestler with signs in the crowd and used fancy pyrotechnics in the background. The problem with the advertisement is there isn’t one argument in the whole advertisement, nothing except the idea that Corn Nuts are cool like the WWF.


     One reason I use the study of magazines is to cover a content standard. I love teaching it, though. Another reason I teach critical study of advertising is it helps students get into a questioning mood. Once they are in that mood to question, I let them begin to take apart the arguments of their essays. I list the supports the students used and have them begin to question everything. My average students did this with very few problems, even without doing the advertisement exercise. I think the technique that helps them examine their supports is to have them question, question, question.


     Finally, the study of good models is important (Thornburg, 1991). As teachers of writing, we have to realize that for some children, school is the only place they are exposed to reading. But it’s not just that. Like anything that can be learned, we see what others are doing well and try to imitate it. In my class we read good student examples and bad ones. We read examples that are above their heads, like columns from the newspaper. Just as a coach uses a slow motion film of a game, we examine pieces to see what good persuasion looks like. Then we practice it.


     The writing of persuasion at the seventh grade level is difficult. It requires a lot of help from me, including me teaching them the many steps that they can follow, and realizing that I can only expect as much from the students as they are ready for. I can’t make a twelve year old write the way a high school student would write, but I can help them begin to understand the process. I can help them learn the steps and the format. Just like a tennis coach teaching them a new serve, I am giving them many opportunities to practice the new serve. Right now it’s new, and they are making bad serves because they are thinking about everything: arm movements, ball throw, swing. But as they get older, with some guidance, the new serve will become repetitive, and they can then think more about other parts of the serve and how to build on what they know.


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