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The Art of Persuasion, by Tony Stead

Persuasive writing can become something your students may actually enjoy – here are some ways to engage them

I've always been amazed how the art of persuasion surrounds the world of children. The advertising campaigns imploring them to buy the latest toy or watch the latest movie are prime examples. Persuasive writing is a powerful form that affects the lives of our children and is a component of many state standards. For those reasons alone, it makes sense to teach our learners this genre from the onset of their schooling. Listed below are what I consider my stepping stones to success in the world of persuasive writing.

Selecting a springboard.
Children need to see a purpose for writing a persuasive piece. This can be achieved through field trips, reading books and classroom discussion about a topic of interest. In one of my colleague's kindergarten classrooms the children had recently visited a farm. She asked, "What animal do you think was the best at the farm? Why?" In another teacher's second grade class, the children were discussing what presents they hoped to receive over the holiday. She then invited them to justify why they thought their selected toys were the best. One year in my own classroom, after finding only two of my students had completed a homework task, I posed the simple question, "Should children be given homework?"

Below are other topics that may act as springboards for immersing your students in persuasive writing pieces.

Should children be allowed to stay up late?
What is the best toy in the world?
Which is the best place to visit?
Who is the best pop group?
What is the best picture book?
Should kids eat whatever they want?
What is the best program on television?
Who should be class president?
What is the best baseball team?

Initial assessments.
Once a topic has been selected, I have my students compose their first piece. Whenever I assess children's initial pieces in persuasive writing, I look for the following skills and understanding:

Students writing

Once your students have grasped the concept of persuasive writing, be sure to encourage them to use their new knowledge to revise their writing.

  • Understands the purpose for writing a persuasive piece

  • Begins with a title or opening statement that tells the reader what is being argued

  • Provides a series of arguments or reasons to support the topic being discussed

  • Information is organized in logical order

  • Includes a concluding statement or summary

  • Uses opinions with supportive facts

  • Includes illustrations and labels to help persuade the reader

  • Uses persuasive words or phrases

I keep a folder for each child, which contains an assessment rubric of the above skills. I also keep copies of the child's writing both prior to, and at the conclusion of a unit. In one teacher's classroom, her initial assessments of the children's writing confirmed that most of her learners were able to select a favorite animal but few were able to justify why they thought it was the best. Another teacher found her students were able to give supportive evidence but most of it was in the form of opinion and not fact. Both teachers are now armed with valuable knowledge about what the focus of their demonstrations need to center on based on these initial assessments.

And now, a demonstration.
After assessing children's initial pieces, I lead them to greater understandings through a variety of demonstrations of how this type of text works. Specifically, I use shared reading, modeled writing and shared writing experiences.

In shared reading, I show my students an example of a persuasive piece and ask why it's so powerful. One year, when my students were writing about which country they thought was the best to visit, I brought in travel brochures and we discussed the way in which the writer had persuaded us by using enticing language.

Modeled writing is another powerful tool in helping kids see what a persuasive piece looks like. This was one strategy that a teacher friend utilized when she informed her class she was going to write her composition on her favorite animal. She thought out loud and listed on chart paper the three reasons why horses are the "best" animal. This teacher stretched her students' thoughts by modeling that when writers engage in persuasive texts, they come up with facts that support their stance.

Another effective strategy is shared writing where my children and I work as a team to construct a persuasive piece together. As teachers, we often demonstrate to children with the expectation that they'll instantly "get it" as learners. We may give little consideration to the extra support kids require to fully internalize the demonstrations provided. In one teacher's classroom, this was achieved by her and the children writing a piece together on why they thought LEGO™ blocks were the best toy to receive. She demonstrated the process of constructing a persuasive piece so that her students would be successful when making revisions to their own initial compositions.

Children need to make approximations at writing in the selected form with the teacher providing ongoing demonstrations and support. Encourage your learners to make revisions to their initial pieces based on their newfound understandings about persuasive writing. In some cases, some children may even choose to write an entirely different piece.

Publish and share.
Once students have completed their persuasive pieces, I give them the opportunity to publish and share. During the sharing procedure, I ask students to reflect and tell me what makes a good argument. One group of kids came up with the following responses:

"First, you have to pick a side."
"Say why you think something."
"Include facts if you can."
"Ask other people or look at books and pictures to help you with your facts."

Comparing a child's written piece with prior pieces is one of the greatest assessment tools I can utilize as a teacher. I encourage my students to examine their own writing pieces so they can observe, discuss and articulate their own growth as writers of persuasive pieces.

At the end of a unit, I take the time to reflect on what I've learned as a teacher. I consider what writing genre I will next explore with my class. However, I'm not surprised to find that my children usually want to continue writing persuasive pieces. In one student's words, "Let's argue more. This is fun writing and I have a lot to say!"

Tony Stead is an educator who lives in Australia where he writes and works with teachers and children.