Engaging Strategies for Teaching Persuasion, Argument, and Debate

Year after year, I love teaching persuasion. I love persuading my students that persuasion is a life skill worth learning. (Because isn’t all teaching just persuading kids to listen and learn?!) Luckily, with the right mix of ethos, pathos, and logos, this is usually an easy sell to my audience of adolescents.

After all, teens love to argue…with their peers, their parents, and *gasp* their teachers. They have plenty of practice with real-life persuasion, whether it’s convincing their parents to stay out past their curfew or proposing just one extra day to work on that project. And they’re always dying to debate: which sports team is superior, why they deserve more freedom, and what’s wrong with school, society, and this world! If you’ve ever taught teenagers, you know that they have no shortage of opinions. So suffice it to say: your students are already arguers.

The challenge, of course, is helping students channel their opinions and energy into structured, academic argumentation. To do this, you’ll need high-engagement activities that match your students’ energy…not the ancient 5-paragraph persuasive essay over a subject on that random list of 100 debatable topics you found online. If we want to move students to a more sophisticated level of debate, we need to offer them student-centered, authentic, and relevant tasks to practice their persuasion.

Ready to ditch the 5-paragraph persuasive essay and engage your students in meaningful persuasion? Here are dozen different strategies for your ELA classroom.

MOCK TRIALS

Want to teach students how important it is to support your argument with evidence (and what happens when you don’t)? Ready to watch your class eagerly annotate a text and cite said evidence *without* complaints?

Mock trials in the ELA Classroom

I wasn’t sure my students would ever see citing evidence as more than a chore until I dressed up as “Judge G,” borrowed a gavel, and facilitated my first mock trial!

A mock trial is the perfect way to practice persuasion and argumentation because it’s student-centered, inherently engaging, and 100% authentic. You’ll watch students become intrigued, take ownership, and get competitive real quick! Because students know they’ll be arguing in front of a jury of their peers, the standards become strategy. Citing textual evidence is no longer a chore, but a competition! The stakes are higher than a grade from the teacher because the real prize is bragging rights. 

To structure a mock trial in your ELA classroom, you’ll need a murder, crime, ethical dilemma, or essential question. In other words: literature! From there, you’ll want to divide students into teams of prosecution, defense, and jury. After that, students will get to work within their groups. In my classroom, this is what it looks like:

The prosecution and defense teams prepare evidence-based claims and rebuttals. Each student is responsible for a section, whether that’s the opening, a claim, a rebuttal, or the closing. Meanwhile, the jury works together to create a rubric and anticipate the arguments they may hear during the trial.

You can read more about mock trials HERE or find everything you need to facilitate a virtual or in-person trial HERE.

RHETORICAL BAR GRAPHS

Bar graphs in ELA? Oh yes you can! Getting a gold star from her math cohorts, Ashley Bible at Building Book Love has her students create rhetorical bar graphs to analyze persuasion.

Rhetorical Bar Graphs
Rhetorical Bar Graphs from @buildingbooklove

This digital or tactile strategy is simple yet highly effective!  All you do is assign each appeal a color before taking students on a color-coded text hunt.  (In her rhetoric lesson plan, Ashley uses: Pink Pathos, Light Blue Logos, and Emerald Green Ethos). 

Once students have each appeal coded, they arrange the rhetorical devices into a bar graph and analyze which appeal the speaker relies most heavily on and how they could make their argument stronger. This visualization technique always generates important insights about the topic at hand!

From analyzing speeches in Julius Caesar, to recognizing propaganda in Animal Farm, to tackling social justice in Dolly Parton’s America, this strategy is a gift that keeps on giving! Tag her @BuildingBookLove if you give it a try! 

ANALYZING COMMERCIALS & ADVERTISEMENTS

To help students identify persuasive appeals and techniques in action, Shana Ramin from Hello, Teacher Lady suggests deconstructing commercials and advertisements.

Commercials & advertisements
Commercials & Advertisements Jamboard from @helloteacherlady

When teaching in person, Shana enjoys facilitating this type of analysis with the tried-and-true “chalk talk” approach. After gathering a series of printed advertisements, Shana glues each one in the center of large chart paper and places them at various points around the room. Students rotate through each station with a small group, annotating each ad silently with an eye for purpose, audience, tone, etc. At the end of the activity, students return to their original stations and share out their final observations with the class. 

To mimic this activity in a hybrid or digital environment, Shana recommends using Jamboard, an easy-to-use, digital whiteboard app by Google. The setup process is pretty much the same, but replace the printed ads with image screenshots and the white chart paper with a digital Jamboard slide. Students can then use the sticky note and marker features on Jamboard to annotate the images in breakout rooms. 

Click here to learn more about the collaborative features of Google Jamboard.

ARGUMENT OLYMPICS

The Argument Olympics are Emily Aierstok’s favorite way to teach middle and high school students evidence based writing. Emily, from Read it. Write it. Learn it., uses an Olympic theme to deconstruct arguments, write outlines, and compete in the “strongest evidence” game complete with gold medals! Kids LOVE it and quickly understand the qualities of strong evidence in their writing. 

Argument Olympics
Argument Olympics from @readitwriteitlearnit

To really create an Olympic games feel, Emily creates a very simple (and free!) classroom transformation. She strings red, yellow, and blue streamers around the room, plays the Olympic theme song from YouTube, and prints gold medals to hand out for gold-medal-level deconstructed essays, strongest outlines, and strongest evidence. 

Next, Emily introduces the “Olympic events.” For example, the first Olympic Event she introduces to students is The Strongest Evidence Competition. Students are given two sides of an argument topic and asked to find three pieces of evidence to support each argument. After finding their evidence, students are tasked with identifying the evidence that’s the strongest. Students become so motivated to find the strongest evidence, and they’re practicing essential analysis skills. The quality of evidence students find is amazing. 

You can read more about implementing the Argument Olympics in your classroom here

SILENT DISCUSSIONS

Jenna, @DrJennaCopper, loves using silent discussions for students to debate the impact of articles and artifacts. The rules are simple: students are only allowed to write. This type of stipulation helps students really think about their responses since they can’t talk.

Silent discussions
Silent discussions from @drjennacopper

Here’s how it works:

  1. Choose an artifact or article.
  2. Get a big piece of poster board or a big paper and paste the article or artifact in the center.
  3. Tell students to read the article and then, discuss with the stipulation that they are only allowed to write. No talking! It helps if students color-code their writing.
  4. As students “discuss,” walk around the room and comment (in writing, of course!) to generate more debate.
  5. When the discussion is over, place the posters on the walls and give students a chance to walk around and view.
  6. Facilitate a talking classroom discussion to discuss insights and observations.

That’s it! Not only will your students be highly engaged, but you’ll also enjoy the few short minutes of precious silence!

As a bonus, this activity works great for a remote lesson as well. Just paste your article or artifact in a Google Doc and share it so they all have editing access. They can complete their silent discussions right in the document. 

STUDYING FAMOUS SPEECHES

Lauralee from the Language Arts Classroom frequently uses famous speeches and commercials to teach persuasion. By bringing in authentic examples to the classroom, this strategy offers history and media lessons, too.

Famous speeches
Studying famous speeches from @elaclassroom

When students realize that they see strategies every day in social media, on their phones, and within stores, they engage and are excited to apply those concepts to their public speaking endeavors.

For instance, students can study the techniques in a Susan B. Anthony speech and then apply those techniques to their own speeches. Teachers can even pair her speech with a narrative speech assignment. Students can then employ sentence structure, tone, and logos into their speeches. Although ELA teachers often use persuasive techniques during public speaking lessons, many of the same activities work well with argumentative writing.

NAILED IT! & SHARK TANK

Staci Lamb from The Engaging Station loves switching up her creative lessons on ethos, logos, and pathos every year. She has had students watch Shark Tank and sell their own products, but last year, she was inspired to try something new by making a connection to the Netflix show Nailed It.

Nailed It! Challenge
Nailed It! & Shark Tank Challenges from @theengagingstation

Right before winter break, she went to Walmart to buy graham crackers, icing, candies, and more. Dollar Tree also had a great selection of inexpensive candy. Students had to create a gingerbread masterpiece and then use ethos, logos, and pathos to justify why their house was the best. The kids had a lot of fun, and it was an engaging activity to end the calendar year.

You can see this idea and more with free resources on her blog post Creative Ways to Teach Persuasive Appeals.

REAL WORLD TOPICS + CHOICE

Today, students have access to more information than ever at their fingertips. Tanesha from Tanesha B. Forman leverages real world topics – that students want to debate in the classroom – with argumentative writing lessons. Choice is the bedrock of Tanesha’s approach to literacy and she offers students a choice on a topic (e.g. should college athletes be paid?), and tells them the format (e.g. speech, letter). 

Real World Topics + Choice
Real world topics + choice from @love.tanesha

Next, students research their topic. Tanesha always warns students to think about their position, but be open to changing based on what the research from credible sources reveals. Students spend a day or two gathering information for their writing assignment. For students who need support with this, Tanesha has 3-4 sources readily available. Once students have their evidence, they enter the writing process that Tanesha creates mini-lessons aligned to their needs and they present their work. Throughout the year, Tanesha encourages students to share topics they want to “argue” and she repeats the cycle.

THE ELEVATOR PITCH

No matter what you’re reading or learning about, adding a persuasive pitch to “sell” an idea, is a great way to include elements of persuasion beyond a persuasive unit.

Elevator Pitches
Elevator Pitches from @donutlovinteacher

For example, if students are creating something to aid a character, rather than just explain it, challenge your students to create a short elevator pitch! It can even be used with literary analysis by asking a question such as: Which character is the most (insert character trait here)?  Staci from Donut Lovin’ Teacher finds that when students have to pitch their ideas, they really begin to reflect on their work and what makes it great, and also where it can grow. 

Staci likes starting with a graphic organizer to get students thinking and then begins layering in mini-lessons that consider the audience, point of view, tone, and rhetorical appeals, depending on how much time you have. Students can then begin crafting their pitch on a guided template and practice saying it aloud. If you’re able to incorporate this multiple times throughout the year, your students will really grow confidence in their speaking skills, too!

MUSICAL DEBATES

Middle and high school students can at times feel intimidated by debate and persuasion. That’s why Melissa from Reading and Writing Haven recommends a mini debate activity that engages all students and makes debate relaxed and approachable.

Musical debates
Musical debates from @readingandwritinghaven

Musical debates amplify the energy, creativity, and social interaction in the physical classroom and online. By adding a simple twist of music, it lightens the mood and provides natural brain breaks so students have time to collect their thoughts. 

Here are Melissa’s simple steps for using this debate-style discussion strategy in your classroom:

  1. Give students a thought-provoking or humorous prompt.
  2. Play music as students think, research, jot notes, and (if possible) walk around the room. 
  3. Stop the music and have students get into groups of two or three.
  4. Students quickly choose roles. Two of the students need to take one of the sides (pro / con or for / against). The third person is a neutral judge who can build on what the speakers say, offer a different perspective, or make connections between ideas.
  5. After a set amount of time, follow up with a question that digs deeper into the topic or provides another angle. Play music, and allow students to brainstorm again, or take some notes.
  6. Students then pair up again with different peers. 
  7. After as many rounds as you would like to run, bring the whole class together and use a Jamboard, Mentimeter, or Padlet as a common visual location to share ideas as a whole group.

To make this strategy work online, you can use breakout rooms to group students together randomly. 

Of course, you can run the same type of mini debates without the music. And, that’s fun, too! But, for students, the music adds energy and connectedness. Plus, it reduces the anxiety for students who are more reluctant to engage in debates. 

Musical debates create a warm, relaxed environment conducive to critical thinking and dialogue. And, students have multiple short opportunities to hone their skills and hear a variety of perspectives.
Melissa wrote about engaging variations, prompts for musical discussions, and how to prepare students on her blog. Click here to read the post.

PSA PASSION PROJECTS

One way that Christina, The Daring English Teacher, likes to incorporate persuasion, argument, and debate into the classroom is by assigning a PSA Passion Project to students.

PSA Passion Projects
PSA Passion Projects from @thedaringenglishteacher

After learning about rhetorical appeals and argument writing, Christina assigns her students a PSA Passion Project. Her students select an important social issue and create a public service announcement campaign to raise awareness for their chosen issue.

The public service campaign usually includes a variety of items. To place students in charge of their learning, they choose several products to produce from a list of items: a speech, a persuasive letter, a graphic essay, a poster, an infographic, an informational video, a narrative video, a social media campaign, and more. It is important to make sure that students choose at least two items, and that their combination includes a writing component and a media literacy component.

To make the class project more fun, no two students can choose the same topic. To share their projects with the class, Christina likes to use Padlet.

ANALYZING MUSIC

Amanda from Mud and Ink Teaching likes to head the Disney direction when it comes to learning the ins and outs of argumentation. 

Analyzing Disney songs with @mudandinkteaching

So many great Disney songs offer an argumentative core, and their popularity and familiarity help build engagement with students.  Take “Under the Sea” for example:  Sebastian has quite the task in front of him.  Somehow, he must convince an uninterested Ariel to curb her curiosity about the human world and appreciate her home under ‘de water.  Reversely, Moana sings of the importance of heeding the call to the ocean in “How Far I’ll Go” as she debates within herself how far she is actually willing to go.  Each of these speakers has an important message to impart, and these are things that students are comfortable wrestling with.

Amanda’s favorite song to teach, however, is the well-loved classic “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast.  In this lesson that she outlines in her blog post and provides a free Google Slide lesson download, Amanda teaches students the importance of understanding the rhetorical situation (the rhetorical triangle) as well as the devices and techniques that the speaker uses to communicate his message.  Through practice and discussion with familiar texts and characters, students begin to embrace the fundamental ideas of argumentation.


I hope this post helps you make persuasion more engaging, authentic, and student-centered! What are your other favorite activities to teach persuasion? Let me know in the comments!

If you like any of these ideas, don’t forget to pin them! 🙂

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