Our state standards spell it out pretty clearly. My third graders need to be able to write opinion pieces on topics or texts that state an opinion within a framework of an organizational structure that provides reasons that support the opinion and provides a concluding statement. Oh, and they better use transitional words and phrases throughout. These would be the same 8-year-olds who still can't figure out it's not a good idea to put your boots on before your snow pants.
With all this in mind, meeting those standards seemed like a huge mountain to climb when I was planning out my persuasive writing unit a few weeks ago. I have students who still haven't mastered capitalization and punctuation, so I knew I would have to break down the mechanics of writing an opinion statement into a step-by-step process for them. This week I am happy to share with you a few tips along with the graphic organizers I created to help get my students writing opinion pieces that showed me that my students, while not quite there yet, were fully capable of making it to the top of that mountain.
Introduce the Language of Opinion Writing
The very first thing we did during a writing mini-lesson was go over the language of opinion writing and how certain words, like fun and pretty are opinion clues because while they may be true for some people, they are not true for everyone. We also discuss how other words, called transitions, are signals to your reader as to where you are in your writing: the beginning, middle or end.
After the initial vocabulary is introduced, I challenged my third graders to look for examples of these types of words in their everyday reading. Over the next couple of days, students used sticky notes to add opinion or transition words they found to an anchor chart posted on a classroom wall. Next, I took the words and put them into a chart that I copied for students to glue into their writer's notebooks. You can see our chart below. If you would like to print your own copy, just click on the image.
Introduce Easy-to-Read Opinion Pieces
Most of my third graders have read a wide variety of genres by this point in third grade, but when asked if they had ever read the "opinion genre," they answered with a resounding, "No!" I pointed out to them that they actually read opinion articles nearly every week in our Scholastic News magazine. At that point, I let them dive into the archives of old articles online and they were quickly able to find opinion pieces in several of the issues we had read this year. Students also used the debate section of the online issues.
On the board we listed some of the articles students found in Scholastic News that contained opinions:
Many Scholastic news articles are perfect to use because they are short, and for the most part have a structure that is similar to how I want my students to write. The articles often include:
- Both sides of the argument
- Clearly stated opinions
- Reasons for holding that opinion
- Examples to support the reasons
- Conclusions that are restated with enthusiasm
In the image below, you can see below how easy it was for my students to find the opinions, supporting reasons and examples in the "Debate It" feature we read together on whether the U.S. Mint should stop making pennies.
Model, Model, Model!
Once students read the article about pennies, they were ready to form an opinion. After discussing the pros and cons with partners, the class took sides. With students divided into two groups, they took part in a spirited Visible Thinking debate called Tug of War. After hearing many of their classmates voice their reasoning for keeping or retiring the penny, the students were ready to get started putting their thoughts on paper.
At this time, I introduced our OREO graphic writing organizer. Using the name of a popular cookie is a mnemonic device that helps my students remember the structural order their paragraphs need to take: Opinion, Reason, Example, Opinion. In our class, we say our writing is double-stuffed, because two reasons and two examples are expected instead of one.
Because this was our first foray into example writing, we worked through the organizer together.
My students did pretty well with the initial organizer and we used it again to plan out opinion pieces on whether sledding should be banned in city parks.
Once students had planned out two different opinions, they selected one to turn into a full paragraph in their writer's notebooks. The organizers made putting their thoughts into a clear paragraph with supporting reasons and examples very easy for most students.
With each practice we did, my students got stronger and I introduced different organizers to help them and to keep interest high. Giving each student one sandwich cookie to munch on while they worked on these organizers helped keep them excited about the whole process.
After we worked our way through several of the Scholastic News opinion pieces, my third graders also thought of issues pertinent to their own lives and school experiences they wanted to write about, including:
- Should birthday treats and bagel sales be banned at school?
- Should all peanut products be banned?
- Should we be allowed to download our own apps on the iPads the school gave us?
As we continued to practice, different organizers were introduced. Those are shown below. Simply click on each image to download and print your own copy.
The organizer below is my favorite to use once the students are more familiar with the structure of opinion paragraphs. It establishes the structure, but also helps students remember to use opinion-based sentence starters along with transition words.
Below is a simple organizer some of my students can also choose to use.
Other Resources I Have Used
Scholastic offers many different resources for helping your students become better with their opinion writing, or for younger writers, understanding the difference between fact and opinion. A great one to have in your classroom is: 12 Write-On/Wipe-Off Graphic Organizers That Build Early Writing Skills.
Click on the images below to download and print. There are many more sheets like these in Scholastic Teachables.
A couple weeks into our persuasive writing unit and I have already seen a lot of progress from our very first efforts. We may not have mastered this writing yet, but we are definitely on our way and that mountain doesn't seem quite so high anymore. I hope you find a few of these tips and my graphic organizers helpful! I'd love to hear your tips for elementary writing in the comment section below.
I'd love to connect with you on Twitter and Pinterest!
Teacher Store Resources
I love using the graphic organizers in my Grade 3 Writing Lessons to Meet the Common Core. Other teachers in my building use the resources for their grade level as well. They make them for grades 1-6.
Bring in a few print copies of a newspaper, whether The Times or a local or school paper, and have your students work in small groups to contrast a news page with an opinion page and see what they discover.
Though this piece, “And Now a Word From Op-Ed,” is from 2004, it still provides a useful and quick overview of The Times’s Opinion section, even if the section then was mostly a print product. It begins this way:
Here at the Op-Ed page, there are certain questions that are as constant as the seasons. How does one get published? Who chooses the articles? Does The Times have an agenda? And, of course, why was my submission rejected? Now that I’ve been Op-Ed editor for a year, let me try to offer a few answers.
This 2013 article, “Op-Ed and You,” also helps both readers of the section, and potential writers for it, understand how Times Opinion works:
Anything can be an Op-Ed. We’re not only interested in policy, politics or government. We’re interested in everything, if it’s opinionated and we believe our readers will find it worth reading. We are especially interested in finding points of view that are different from those expressed in Times editorials. If you read the editorials, you know that they present a pretty consistent liberal point of view. There are lots of other ways of looking at the world, to the left and right of that position, and we are particularly interested in presenting those points of view.
After students have read one or both of these overviews, invite them to explore the Times’s Opinion section, noting what they find and raising questions as they go. You might ask:
• What pieces look most interesting to you? Why?
• What subsections are featured in the links across the top of the section (“Columnists”; “Series”; “Editorials”; “Op-Ed”; “Letters”; etc.) and what do you find in each? How do they seem to work together?
• How do you think the editors of this section decide what to publish?
• What role does this section seem to play in The Times as a whole?
• Would you ever want to write an Op-Ed or a letter to the editor? What might you write about?
If your students are confused about where and how news and opinion can sometimes bleed together, our lesson plan, News and ‘News Analysis’: Navigating Fact and Opinion in The Times, can help.
And to go even deeper, this lesson plan from 2010 focuses on a special section produced that year, “Op-Ed at 40: Four Decades of Argument and Illustration.” It helps students understand the role the Op-Ed page has played at The Times since 1970, and links to many classic pieces.
2. Know the difference between fact and opinion.
In our lesson plan Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion, you’ll find activities students can use with any day’s Times to practice.
For instance, you might invite them to read an Op-Ed and underline the facts and circle the opinion statements they find, then compare their work in small groups.
Or, read a news report and an opinion piece on the same topic and look for the differences. For example, which of the first paragraphs below about the shooting in Las Vegas is from a news article and which is from an opinion piece? How can they tell?
Paragraph A: After the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, the impulse of politicians will be to lower flags, offer moments of silence, and lead a national mourning. Yet what we need most of all isn’t mourning, but action to lower the toll of guns in America. (From “Preventing Mass Shootings Like the Vegas Strip Attack”)
Paragraph B: A gunman on a high floor of a Las Vegas hotel rained a rapid-fire barrage on an outdoor concert festival on Sunday night, leaving at least 59 people dead, injuring 527 others, and sending thousands of terrified survivors fleeing for cover, in one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. (From “Multiple Weapons Found in Las Vegas Gunman’s Hotel Room”)
3. Analyze the use of rhetorical strategies like ethos, pathos and logos.
Do your students know what ethos, pathos and logos mean? The video above, “What Aristotle and Joshua Bell Can Teach Us About Persuasion,” can help. We use it in this lesson plan, in which students explore the use of these rhetorical devices via the Op-Ed “Rap Lyrics on Trial” and more. The lesson also helps students try out their own use of rhetoric to make a persuasive argument.
In the post, we quote a New Yorker article, “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You,” that explains the strategies in a way that students may readily understand:
In 350 B.C., Aristotle was already wondering what could make content — in his case, a speech — persuasive and memorable, so that its ideas would pass from person to person. The answer, he argued, was three principles: ethos, pathos, and logos. Content should have an ethical appeal, an emotional appeal, or a logical appeal. A rhetorician strong on all three was likely to leave behind a persuaded audience. Replace rhetorician with online content creator, and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely modern. Ethics, emotion, logic — it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to me, it makes sense. If you look at the last few links you shared on your Facebook page or Twitter stream, or the last article you e-mailed or recommended to a friend, chances are good that they’ll fit into those categories.
Take the New Yorker’s advice and invite them to choose viral content from their social networks and identify ethos, pathos and logos at work.
Or, use the handouts and ideas in our post An Argument-Writing Unit: Crafting Student Editorials, in which Kayleen Everitt, an eighth-grade English teacher, has her students take on advertising the same way.
Finally, if you’d like a recommendation for a specific Op-Ed that will richly reward student analysis of these elements, Kabby Hong, a teacher at Verona Area High School in Wisconsin, who will be our guest on our “Write to Change the World” webinar, recommends Nicholas Kristof’s column “If Americans Love Moms, Why Do We Let Them Die?“
4. Identify claims and evidence.
The Common Core Standards put argument front and center in American education, and even young readers are now expected to be able to identify claims in opinion pieces and find the evidence to support them.
We have a number of lesson plans that can help.
First, Constructing Arguments: “Room for Debate” and the Common Core Standards, uses an Opinion feature that, though now defunct, can still be a great resource for teachers. Use the archives of Room for Debate, which featured succinct arguments on interesting topics from a number of points of view, to introduce students to perspectives on everything from complex geopolitical or theological topics to whether people are giving Too Much Information in today’s Facebook world.
We also have two comprehensive lesson plans — For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials and I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments — that were written to support students in crafting their own editorials for our annual contest. In both, we first introduce readers to “mentor texts,” from The Times and elsewhere, that help them see how effective claims, evidence and counterclaims function in making a strong argument.
Finally, if you’re looking for a fun way to practice, we often hear from teachers that our What’s Going On in This Picture? feature works well. To participate, students must make a claim about what they believe is “going on” in a work of Times photojournalism stripped of its caption, then come up with evidence to support what they say.
5. Adopt a columnist.
We have heard from many teachers over the years that a favorite assignment is to have students each “adopt” a different newspaper columnist, and follow him or her over weeks or months, noting the issues they focus on and the rhetorical strategies they use to make their cases. Throughout, students can compare what they find — and, of course, apply what they learn to their own writing.
For example, here is a sample assignment we found online called “Summer Reading Columnist Project.” If you would like to try it with The Times, here are the current Op-Ed columnists:
Charles M. Blow
Thomas L. Friedman
6. Explore visual argument-making via Times Op-Art, editorial cartoons and Op-Docs.
The New York Times regularly commissions artists and cartoonists to create work to accompany Opinion pieces. How do illustrations like the one above add meaning to a text, while grabbing readers’ attention at the same time? What can students infer about the argument being made in an Op-Ed article by looking at the illustration alone?
In this lesson plan, students investigate how art works together with text to emphasize a point of view. They then create their own original illustrations to go with a Times editorial, Op-Ed article or letter to the editor. We also suggest that they can illustrate an Opinion piece or letter to the editor that does not have an illustration associated with it.
Recently, Clara Lieu, a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, told us how she uses that very idea to help her student-artists to create their own pieces. To see some of their work, check out “Finding Artistic Inspiration in The New York Times’s Opinion Section.”
If your students would like to go further and create their own editorial cartoons, we offer an annual student contest. Invite your students to check out the work of last year’s winners for inspiration. This year’s runs through Oct. 17, and we have a lesson plan, Drawing for Change: Analyzing and Making Political Cartoons, to go with it.
Another way to use visual journalism to teach argument-making? Use Op-Docs, The Times’s short documentary series (most under 15 minutes), that touches on issues like race and gender identity, technology and society, civil rights, criminal justice, ethics, and artistic and scientific exploration — issues that both matter to teenagers and complement classroom content.
Every Friday during the school year, we host a Film Club in which we select short Op-Docs we think will inspire powerful conversations — and then invite teenagers and teachers from around the world to have those conversations here, on our site.
And for a great classroom example of how this might work in practice, check out Using an Op-Doc Video to Teach Argumentative Writing, a Reader Idea from Allison Marchetti, an English teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, Va. She details how her students analyzed the seven-minute film “China’s Web Junkies” to see how the filmmakers used evidence to support an argument, including expert testimony, facts, interview, imagery, statistics and anecdotes.
Ideas for Writing Opinion Pieces
7. Use our student writing prompts to practice making arguments for a real audience.
Does Technology Make Us More Alone?
Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?
Is It O.K. for Men and Boys to Comment on Women and Girls on the Street?
Are Some Youth Sports Too Intense?
Does Reality TV Promote Dangerous Stereotypes?
When Do You Become an Adult?
Is America Headed in the Right Direction?
Every day during the school year we invite teenagers to share their opinions about questions like these, and hundreds do, posting arguments, reflections and anecdotes to our Student Opinion feature. Last year, we created a list drawn from this feature of 401 Prompts for Argumentative Writing on an array of topics like technology, politics, sports, education, health, parenting, science and pop culture.
Teachers tell us they use our writing prompts because they offer an opportunity for students to write for an “authentic audience.” But we also consider our daily questions to be a chance for the kind of “low-stakes” writing that can help students practice thinking through thorny questions informally.
This school year, we’ve also begun calling out our favorite comments weekly via our Current Events Conversation feature. Will your students’ posts be next?
8. Participate in our annual Student Editorial Contest.
What issues matter most to your students?
Every year, we invite teenagers to channel their passions into formal pieces: short, evidence-based persuasive essays like the editorials The New York Times publishes every day.
The challenge is pretty straightforward. Choose a topic you care about, gather evidence from sources both within and outside of The New York Times, and write a concise editorial (450 words or less) to convince readers of your point of view.
Our judges use this rubric (PDF) for selecting winners to publish on The Learning Network.
And at a time when breaking out of one’s “filter bubble” is more important than ever, we hope this contest also encourages students to broaden their news diets by using multiple sources, ideally ones that offer a range of perspectives on their chosen issue.
This school year, as you can see from our 2017-18 Student Contest Calendar, the challenge will run from Feb. 28 to April 5, 2018.
And, as we mentioned above, we have published two lesson plans to help guide every step:
• For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials and
• I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments
9. Take advice from writers and editors at the Times’s Opinion section.
How can you write a powerful Op-Ed or editorial?
Well, over the years, many Times editors and writers have given the aspiring opiners advice. In the video above, for instance, Andrew Rosenthal, in his previous role as Editorial Page editor, detailed seven pointers for the students who participate in our annual Editorial Contest,
This summer, the Times Op-Ed columnist Bret Stephens wrote his own Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers.
And on our Oct. 10 webinar, Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof suggests his own ten ideas. (Scroll down to see what they are, as well as to find related Op-Ed columns.)
Finally, if you’d like to get a letter to the editor published, here is what Tom Feyer, the longtime head of that section, recommends. Right now, from Oct. 9-Oct. 16, 2017, that section is offering a special letter-writing challenge for high school students. Submit a letter to the editor in response to a news article, editorial, column or Op-Ed essay in The Times from the past week, and they will pick a selection of the best entries and publish them on Sunday, Oct. 22.
10. Use the published work of young people as mentor texts.
Last year, five students of Kabby Hong, the teacher who joined us for our Oct. 10 webinar, were either winners, runners-up or honorable mentions in our Student Editorial Contest.
How did he do it? First, he helps his students brainstorm by asking them the questions on this sheet. (The first page shows his own sample answers since he models them for his students.)
Then, he uses the work of previous student winners alongside famous pieces like “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to show his class what effective persuasive writing looks like. Here is a PDF of the handout Mr. Hong gave out last year, which he calls “Layering in Brushstrokes,” and which analyzes aspects of each of these winning essays:
•“In Three and a Half Hours, an Alarm Will Go Off”
•“Why I, a Heterosexual Teenage Boy, Want to See More Men in Speedos”
Another great source of published opinion writing by young people? The Times series “On Campus,” where you can read essays by college students on everything from “The Looming Uncertainty for Dreamers Like Me” to “Dropping Out of College Into Life.”
Update: Oct. 10: Links from Our Oct. 10 Webinar
On our Oct. 10 webinar (still available on-demand), Nicholas Kristof talked teachers through ten ways anyone can make their persuasive writing stronger. Here is a list of his tips, along with the columns that relate to each — though you’ll need to watch the full webinar to hear the stories and examples that illustrate them.
Nicholas Kristof’s Ten Tips for Writing Op-Eds
1. Start out with a very clear idea in your own mind about the point you want to make.
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2. Don’t choose a topic, choose an argument.
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3. Start with a bang.
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4. Personal stories are often very powerful to make a point.
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5. If the platform allows it, use photos or video or music or whatever.
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6. Don’t feel the need to be formal and stodgy.
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7. Acknowledge shortcomings in your arguments if the readers are likely to be aware of them, and address them openly.
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8. It’s often useful to cite an example of what you’re criticizing, or quote from an antagonist, because it clarifies what you’re against.
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9. If you’re really trying to persuade people who are on the fence, remember that their way of thinking may not be yours.
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10. When your work is published, spread the word through social media or emails or any other avenue you can think of.
Related: You can find Nicholas Kristof on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, his Times blog, and via his free newsletter.Continue reading the main story