Teaching students how to write argumentative essays can be one of the most fun, rigorous, and important writing units of the year. However, teaching students how to trace and evaluate an argument written by someone else is a completely different ballgame!

In today’s world where media is flagged left and right by independent fact-checking agencies, I think we can all agree that our students need to be equipped with a robust toolbox for reading and analyzing argumentative texts. 

If you agree and are looking for solutions to help build those skills in your students – this post is for you.

trace and evaluate an argument

Analyzing Arguments: A Difficult {But Critical} Skill

First and foremost, asking students to identify an author’s claim can be either an easy task or a difficult task depending on the complexity of the text. Lower-level texts are written clearly with simple and easy-to-follow language and syntax. Higher-level texts are written with a well-developed craft, an extensive language, and complex syntax. As our students read more complex texts at the secondary level, many struggle with identifying the author’s claim because the subtle shifts in language and structure make them harder to find.

Additionally, many students don’t naturally pay attention to whether or not claims made by authors are backed by sufficient evidence and reasoning. Come to think of it, many adults don’t either.

Can we stop here and agree that teaching our students how to analyze an argument may be one of the most valuable real-world skills we can foster in our classroom?

Great, glad we’re on the same page.

analyze arguments

Trace & Evaluate An Argument: Building Success Step By Step

So how can we help our students to be better prepared to understand and evaluate argumentative texts? Here is my tried-and-true process that might just help you jumpstart your unit!

Understanding the Basic Components of an Argument

Just like other genres of study, I break arguments down into the few key elements at play. Students complete a one-pager doodle note of the elements of an argument. For 6th grade, we cover:

  • Claims, Evidence, and Reasoning

I also find it’s important to point out that arguments differ from persuasion in one fundamental way: 

  • Persuasion relies on emotion
  • Arguments rely on logic

Last but not least, we note that arguments acknowledge different perspectives and address them through:

  • Counterclaims
  • Rebuttals

I like to introduce arguments as a nonfiction subgenre the same way I introduce other genres of study: understanding the purpose of the genre and grasping the fundamental elements

Once we’ve completed our one-pager, we get up and out of our seats to practice identifying the author’s claim. Using these task cards, students get ample practice pulling out the main claim!

Next, we take it a step further.

trace and evaluate argument

Practice Evaluating Arguments with Podcasts

Remember when I said all texts aren’t created equal? Because of this, and the fact that having a classroom of students all on the same reading level is unheard of, I like to practice evaluating arguments with a podcast instead of a text first.

Podcasts are great for the classroom because:

  • Listening comprehension is a valuable skill,
  • They level the playing field for readers by reducing the additional cognitive load required by reading.

Enter Smash, Boom, Best.

Smash, Boom, Best is a podcast that puts two things up against each other. Each opponent develops and presents an argument using claims, evidence, and reasoning. Then they go head to head with counterclaims and rebuttals. 

The best part? The topics are relevant and engaging to middle schoolers, like pizza vs. tacos.

Showing students how to trace an argument starts with first identifying the main or overarching claim, so we start there. Once we’ve made the claims clear, we note (and trace, meaning follow) the evidence and reasoning used by the author to support or “hold up” the claim. 

In the end, we evaluate the argument’s effectiveness with a five-star rating and an explanation. Whether students give arguments 3-stars, 4-stars, or 5-stars does not matter to me as long as they are using sufficient evidence and reasoning to explain their rating (see what I did there?).

Using Smash, Boom, Best is a great way to help students build familiarity and confidence with arguments!

Take it to the Text

The next phase is, naturally, taking our skills to a relevant text. I use the following as a rule of thumb for selecting texts:

  • Use current resources,
  • Integrate a topic from another subject,
  • Offer choice when possible.

For example, if the science department is teaching students about biodiversity at the same time I am teaching students to analyze arguments, the discussions in both classes will be so much richer and in-depth if we read and analyze an argument about the biodiversity crisis.

Here’s how we approach the text:

  • First Read: Read for the gist
  • Second Read: Read and annotate through an “argument lens”
analyzing claims and reasons

Annotating with an Argument Lens: When seeing the text through an argument lens, we use three different colored highlighters.

  • Highlight the claim(s) in one color,
  • Highlight the evidence in a second color,
  • Highlight the reason(s) in a third color.

This makes evaluating arguments exponentially easier because of how visual the reasoning and evidence become! Students can quickly see which claims are supported and which claims are not, as well as determine whether or not there is sufficient support for a claim.

Once we’ve practiced how to trace and evaluate an argument in 1-3 texts together, I move towards allowing students to pick a text of their choice. I find great resources on:

I’ve also got a free “Snow Days Should Be a Thing of the Past” argumentative passage & question set you can snag by signing up for my email list. It’s a surefire way to get students fired up (aka engaged)!

Transferring Knowledge From Reading to Writing

Teaching the elements of argumentation in bite-sized chunks like this is a great way to help students strengthen their skills as readers and ultimately as writers. By spending several days evaluating mentor texts, you’ll find students have a solid base to start writing their arguments of their own!

Argument: The Soul of an Education

Teaching students to effectively trace and evaluate an argument is a valuable skill that will benefit students for the rest of their lives. In the Common Core Appendix, it says, “Theorist and critic Neil Postman calls argument the soul of an education because argument forces a writer to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of multiple perspectives.”

Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so drop a line in the comments below or find me on Facebook or IG!

trace and evaluate arguments


If you’re short on time but don’t want to sacrifice the integrity of your instruction, you can purchase any of my lesson plans mentioned above by either clicking on the resources below, or by finding them on TPT here.