Home > Strategies and Skill Development > Conceptual Strategy Families > Argument Building > Literature Note - Argument Building

Argumentation is in the first instance a skill that develops from the social experience that happens when one person makes a claim, and someone else contests it. An entire array of skills evolves in oral situations around the production of arguments designed to back up one's own position or weaken someone else's (Kuhn, 1991; Kuhn & Udell, 2003; Toulmin, 2003). The literature makes it clear that the abilities involved cover a fairly wide range of skills, some of them quite difficult, such as generating warrants or counterexamples. The developmental literature (e.g., Kuhn, Katz, & Dean, 2004) indicates that many of these skills develop before adulthood only at the upper end of verbal proficiency, with naïve reasoners often doing little more than generating a plausible explanation and possibly elaborating a few supporting reasons.

In particular, Kuhn (1991) reported a broad failure to achieve competence in informal argument (nearly half of the subjets in a large study), an observation generally confirmed by the literature (Felton & Kuhn, 2001; Golder & Coirier, 1996; Kuhn, Shaw, & Felton, 1997; Stein & Miller, 1993). On the other hand, the cognitive capacities that support argumentation, involving metacognitive and metalinguistic awareness, may mature relatively late (Kuhn et al., 2004). However, explicit, focused instruction in informal argumentation does appear to lead to significant gains (Kuhn & Udell 2003; van Gelder, Bissett, & Cumming 2004).

As Kuhn (1991) emphasized, the best way to develop argumentation skill is to create social situations that make it easy to internalize the social requirements for effective argumentation. In written text, this task is complicated by the fact that readers and writers may never meet; however, the essential requirements are similar, a point emphasized by the account that Coirier, Andriessen, and Chanquoy (1999) developed to model the kinds of tradeoffs writers must make to mobilize the resources to write a persuasive text. In this account, they postulate that an extended argumentative text (EAT) is appropriate only when the following elements characterize the social and discourse situation:
  1. There is a conflict between different views about the same subject,
  2. where the topic’s social, ideological, and contextual status make it debatable in the current discourse context
  3. and the author has motivation to solve the conflict
  4. in particular, by use of language
  5. and has a position or claim to make,
  6. which (s)he can support with reasons
  7. and be able to argue against the opposite position
  8. by providing counterevidence.

While their account focused on the management of cognitive resources for someone creating an argument, the centrality of these elements is widely recognized.

Various models have been proposed to account for the order of development of argumentation skills, which tends to follow the order 1 through 8 depicted above. For instance, within the Toulmin framework, Erduran, Simon, and Osborne (2004) postulated the following hierarchy (though see also Connor, 1996; Newman & Marshall, 1999; Toulmin, Rieke, & Janik, 1984):

Level 1. Level 1 arguments consist of a simple claim versus a counter claim or a claim versus a claim.

Level 2. Level 2 arguments consist of claims with data, warrants, or backings but do not contain any rebuttals. There are two subdivisions made here:

Level 2A. Arguments with only a single warrant, data, or backing.

Level 2B. Arguments with multiple warrants or backing.

Level 3. Level 3 arguments consist of a series of claims or counterclaims with data, warrants, or backings and with the occasional weak rebuttal.

Level 4. Level 4 arguments consist of a claim with a clearly identifiable rebuttal. Such an argument may have several claims and counterclaims as well, but they are not necessary.

Level 5. Level 5 arguments are extended arguments with more than one rebuttal.

Some developmental trend along these lines appears likely, with claims at the beginning, and rebuttals at the highest level of performance.

The general trend of development is like that for many literacy skills: it begins with embedded, informal skills, for example, interpersonal argumentation with a familiar addressee (Clark & Delia, 1976; Eisenberg & Garvey ,1981). Argumentation skills gradually increase with age and show themselves to best advantage in familiar situations with which the arguer can easily engage (Stein & Miller, 1993). Situations where common ground is lacking appear to present the greatest challenge (Stein & Bernas, 1999).

Clark, R., & Delia, J. (1976). The development of functional persuasive skills in childhood and early adolescence. Child Develoment, 47(4), 1008-1014.

Connor, U. (1996). Contrastive rhetoric: Cross-cultural aspects of second-language writing. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Coirier, P., Andriessen, J., & Chanquoy, L. (1999). From planning to translating: The specificity of argumentative writing. In E. G. Rijlaarsdam & E. Espéret (Eds.), Studies in writing. Vol. 5: Foundations of argumentative text processing (pp. 1-28). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press.

Eisenberg, A., & Garvey, C. (1981). Children’s use of verbal strategies in resolving conflicts. Discourse Processes, 4, 149–170.

Erduran, S., Simon, S., & Osborne, J. (2004). TAPping into argumentation: Developments in the application of Toulmin’s argument pattern for studying science discourse. Science Education, 88(6), 915-933.

Felton, M., & Kuhn, D. (2001). The development of argumentive discourse skills. Discourse Processes, 32, 135–153.

Golder, C., & Coirier, P. (1994). Argumentative text writing: Developmental trends. Discourse Processes, 18, 187-210.

Kuhn, D. (1991). The skills of argument. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Kuhn, D., Katz, J. B., & Dean, D., Jr. (2004). Developing reason. Thinking & Reasoning, 10(2), 197-219.

Kuhn, D., Shaw, V., & Felton, M. (1997). Effects of dyadic interaction on argumentative reasoning. Cognition and Instruction, 15(3), 287-315.

Kuhn, D., & Udell, D. (2003). The development of argument skill. Child Development, 74(5), 1245-1260.

Newman, S. E., & Marshall, C. C. (1991). Pushing Toulmin too far: Learning from an argument representation scheme. (XEROX PARC Technical Report). Palo Alto, CA: Palo Alto Research Center.

Stein, N. L., & Bernas, R. (1999). The early emergence of argumentative knowledge and skill. In G. Rijlaarsdam & E. Espéret (Series Eds.) & J. Andriessen & P. Coirier (Vol. Eds.), Studies in writing: Vol. 5. Foundations of argumentative text processing (pp. 97–116). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: University of Amsterdam Press.

Stein, N. L., & Miller, C. A. (1993). A theory of argumentative understanding: Relationships among position preference, judgments of goodness, memory, and reasoning. Argumentation, 7(2), 183-204.

Toulmin, S. E. (2003). The uses of argument. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Toulmin, S. E., Rieke, R. D., & Janik, A. (1984). An introduction to reasoning. New York, NY: MacMillan.

van Gelder, T., Bissett, M., & Cumming, G. (2004). Cultivating expertise in informal reasoning. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58(2),142-152.

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