Learning the Language of Lawyers: Writing Compelling Arguments
We are thrilled and honored to be guest blogging here this week. We are both huge fans of the blog, the Two Writing Teachers community and of Ruth and Stacey’s work. Having recently watched the Grammys, it feels a bit like we are hanging with Beyoncé and Jay-Z for a night!
Many of us are knee-deep in opinion and argument writing this time of year. Hopefully, we have time with our students to explore and enjoy the rich and lyrical genre of essays or reviews. Perhaps we are indeed teaching essay writing, but with our eyes trained nervously on our various state tests. Whether teaching students to write artful essays or those for high-stakes exams, we often hit a stumbling block when we teach students to put forth their ideas, opinions, and stances. As our kids begin to say what they think and why they think it, their language falters, fumbles, or drifts.
We know they have opinions – just hang out with a few of your kids at lunch and you’ll hear plenty. We know they know how to argue – do something “unfair” and you’ll hear plenty of argument. But they sometimes struggle to get the argument down on paper; they struggle when they are consciously trying to argue a point.
On our blog, indent, we strive to take big ideas and focus on the tiny details that can help make that big work feel more tangible for us and for our students. So, how do we make the language of essay and review writing feel more doable for us, and for the kids? In thinking about this question, we went to the only logical source: Matlock.
Matlock. Fantastic lawyer. Nice guy. Snappy dresser. We strongly suggest that you search the web for “Matlock Theme Song” in order to properly get into the mood of this post.
Okay, so it doesn’t have to be Matlock. Really, any lawyer show, even anything with a courtroom scene will do. (Although why you would not choose the nice man in the nice suit is beyond us.) The point is, when we study the moves of those who make or perform arguments for a living, we see that their language – the words and phrases and tone they use – has many of the same qualities we want our students to have when they write opinion or argument pieces.
Lawyers’ language has three traits that we can teach to our students:
Matlock (like all lawyers) states his opinions strongly. He uses phrases and terms that are recognizable to us because lawyers have always used them. And he does this without sounding like any other lawyer. He is not Perry Mason. He is not the Good Wife. He is Matlock, for Pete’s sake.
Here are some ways we can teach our students to write opinions and arguments using the traits of a lawyer’s language:
1. Use Strong Words and Phrases.
Oftentimes kids are shy about taking a stand, whether about which pizza joint is the best, or what to do about gun violence in America. But Matlock can’t afford to say, “Well, I kind of think my client is innocent, but she might not be.” He also does not say, “She is mean.” No. This is not the language of lawyers.
Teach your students to take a stand on an issue by beginning with prompts that might help them to do so. These prompts come in handy as students are beginning to hash out their opinion or claim, perhaps during the collecting or rehearsal stages of the writing process. Here are a few that have helped us:
Using these prompts, students can move from:
“Schools uniforms are both good and bad.”
“Schools should talk to kids about what they wear, instead of making them wear uniforms.”
You can also focus on the actual words kids use. Remember, Matlock doesn’t say that the lady is “mean.” Instead, he says she is “guilty” or a “menace.” Words matter and using specific, precise words matters even more. Have students examine every single word in their opinion or claim. Then, in their notebooks, they can jot down a few other words that they might use as alternatives, and select the one that fits what they are trying to say best. Like this:
Teaching students to use strong language will help them to find and articulate what they are really trying to say.
2. Lean on the Legacy of Language
Matlock is not some rogue lawyer. Matlock comes from a long line of attorneys who all say things like, “I object!” and “Your honor, I would like to approach the bench.”
When we write essays and reviews we can use the kinds of phrases that essayists and reviewers use to help make sure that our arguments make sense and are convincing. We can use phrases like:
Of course, the best way to find the phrases that will serve as the legacy in your room is to study authors and highlight the language you see them use. Language is shared, and in this case (pun definitely intended), passed down from lawyer to lawyer. Standing in the light of other authors’ language helps soak it in, and ultimately, make it our own.
This brings us to our third tip…
3. Speak With Your Own Voice (or with one on loan)
When we watch lawyer shows, we are captivated by the crime and the trial, but mostly, we are drawn to the character – the voice – of the lawyers. We are riveted by Perry Mason’s authoritative boom, to Elle Woods’ unconventional determination, and of course, to Matlock’s cantankerous Southern logic. We do not want to teach our students that essays all sound one way (and let’s be honest, we do not want to grade heaps of robotic essays either).
During drafting or revision, teach students to look at the voice of argument and persuasion. Give them a few different models, each with a distinct voice. Have your class study these texts, pulling out what they notice and what they love. Katie Wood Ray, in Wondrous Words, teaches us to do inquiry on author’s craft. She suggests noting what the author is doing, why they are doing that cool thing, and what we can call it.
Lastly, show them how you adopt the same moves in your own writing. Demonstrate how you take your own good writing and make it great using a mentor’s moves:
There is power in the before and after example. Think back to Oprah’s last season. Some of her most requested shows were makeover episodes. We love seeing the after effects of an expert’s influence. Create similar writing makeovers for your students after studying language of the greats.
These strategies can help your students adopt a lawyer’s language, which can help them write stronger, more persuasive pieces.
Cased closed. (We couldn’t help ourselves.)
Big Idea: Opinion and Argument Writing Tiny Detail: Learning the Language of Persuasion
Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts are former middle school teachers, who currently work as Staff Developers at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Kate and Maggie frequently present at conferences in the NYC area and nationally. Kate is currently working on a professional text, as well as a young adult novel. Maggie’s upcoming publication, Once Upon a Time: Writing and Adapting Fairy Tales, co-written with Lucy Calkins and Shana Frazin, will be released this year. You can follow them both on Twitter @teachkate and @MaggieBRoberts.