It was disappointing to see that persuasive writing was not an area of strong performance in the recent NAPLAN results. Results for year seven and nine students are the lowest since NAPLAN testing began in 2008. As I've written previously, while pressuring students to achieve top marks in the tests is doing things the wrong way, NAPLAN itself is a valuable diagnostic tool when assessing entire cohorts.
Persuasive writing is a something that all students should be confident in and capable of using, not only in an academic setting, but as a regular tool in their toolbox of life skills. The art of persuasion relies on using facts, emotion, and logic to not only explain why your position is correct, but also to cajole and sometimes berate the receiver into challenging and ideally changing their own opinions on a topic. Moreover, the process of writing a persuasive essay requires the writer to do the same to their own.
Ask the right questions
As a father of two young boys, I know first-hand how empty, frustrating, and lazy one-word answers and reasoning are - from both sides. Despite what State parliament shows us on a regular basis, the answer to "Why?" can not simply be "Because". When presented with "Why do I have to eat my broccoli?", a simple "Because" does not provide a reasoned path as to why it is necessary.
A less easy response of "Because it's good for you" begs for further examining, with any child looking for more details - they might be happy to accept the concept of the broccoli being good, but they need evidence to back it up - "Why is it good for me?".
An excellent question.
"Why is it good?" digs right down into the search for hard facts to back up the position that eating broccoli is a good thing to be doing. The child's position is open to challenge and change, but they need something solid in order to change their world view on the very important position on broccoli consumption. "It contains essential nutrients that help you grow" is a stellar response - we've now established that the eating of broccoli is important if the child wants to grow big and strong, as it contains things the child's body needs to do so. While further questions might come surrounding what nutrients are and how they work, the main point has been made, and gives the child something to consider - do they want to grow big and strong? If so, eating broccoli is a required step.
The other important process going on here is that it challenges the parent to have an appropriate, logical answer for what they are asking their child to do. "Because I said so" only teaches the child that they need to adhere to the dictates of those bigger than them; "Because: reason" shows them that is good to consider their position when presented with the facts lying beneath someone else's view, and that they should seek out this reasoning where they can (and, eventually, challenge the reasoning to make sure it's solid). External validation of a position, as it is sometimes called - don't listen to me because I'm me, listen to these incontrovertible facts.
Prepare for objections
The more advanced step, as explored in the NAPLAN exam, is focused not so much as asking the questions, but presenting a position with evidence, facts, and thinking ahead of the challenges - the Whys? - that a reader will throw at them. Challenge your own facts and statements, and if they hold up, be on the front foot in explaining why they are there. Know what objections people might hold, and prepare a counter in advance. This is an essential life skill for persuading someone who might be against an idea to go along with it - also known as "How to get what you want".
"I think we should get a dog [position]. Dogs are shown to make people happier [appeal to science/emotion], and you always say I need to get more exercise [reminding listener of their stated position]. I'd walk it every day, outside [show agreement with the listener's position, and show how it could be achieved], and I'd take care of it [pre-counter the argument]."
The efficacy of this argument is up in the air, as a key part of persuasion is the context that people bring to the discussion. Evidence might show that the last time a similar plea was issued, the goldfish were left unfed and died. However, the critical thinking skills developed by exposure to, and use of, persuasive arguments could include a counter to this as well!
Understanding the process is key
The fact is, a strong focus on persuasive arguments and writing results in the development of critical thinking skills, rhetoric, and a facts-and-evidence based approach to thoughts. It's not just about how well you exhort change and belief, it's about understanding how the process works - and understanding when it is being used on you.
Students taught to seek the evidence and reasons behind statements are more likely to make highly informed decisions - decisions that will not only affect them, but the generations on either side of them as they move on to decision-making positions in life.
Persuasive writing is an essential skill for all students to master. Why? Because.
Now eat your broccoli.
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