Differences in Prompts for Informational and Opinion/Argument Writing
Deena H. wrote me a while ago with this question: I attended the "Literacy is Everywhere" conference given in July by the Corona-Norco USD in California. You mentioned opinion writing types in which the students didn't write about their own opinion. Instead, they wrote more of an information-based opinion. I had never heard of this style of opinion writing before you spoke about it. I tried to find the name of that opinion writing style in my notes, but I was unable to find it.
Currently, my district provides us with writing modules which we use for instruction. One of the modules is related to the topic of eating insects. All of the articles used for this writing project provide evidence related to the benefits of eating insects. When you were talking about the different types of opinion prompts, this module immediately came to my mind. The prompt seems more related to the text-based opinion rather that the personal opinion style, since few or none of the students would choose insect eating as their personal preference. I would appreciate any information you could send me regarding information about types of opinions and differences in prompts.
Dr. DoK: What I was referring to were the different types of arguments: fact-based, judgement-based, and policy-based arguments. This comes from the work of George Hillocks, Jr. Teaching Argument Writing: Grades 6-12 (2011). In the preface of his book, he explains, “Aristotle divides substantive arguments into three kinds: forensic, epideictic, and deliberative. I have found it useful to designate these as arguments of fact, judgment, and policy and approach them in that order, moving students from the simpler to the more complex. If we begin with arguments of fact, as I do in this book, students will be able to use the knowledge they already possess to derive warrants and to use the evidence they perceive to develop basic arguments about the facts of a case. In this way, they will learn the structure of arguments in general and how to draw conclusions that are defensible”
I’ve applied Hillocks’ framework to opinion and argument writing across the grades. A fact-based opinion is one where students look for facts to support an opinion, such as (a) who do you think learned a lesson in this story? Find evidence (facts) from the text to support your opinion; or (b) does the author support this statement or perspective: _____ ? Analyze evidence (facts) from the text to support your opinion.
A judgement-based opinion is one where students are asked questions, such as: what would make a good school mascot? or who is the hero in this story? Prompts like these require establishing some criteria first - what criteria do we agree on makes a good mascot? or what are the (universal) characteristics of a hero? This step is important because then students will know what kind of facts (evidence) to search for and use in their supporting evidence. When teaching students about judgment-based opinions/arguments, criteria should be part of a discussion with the whole class prior to starting the writing: what do we all agree is essential in choosing a new school mascot?
A policy-based opinion is one in which students are asked about a rule or law: should we have a dress code? Should students be allowed to have cell phones in school? These are not "judgments"- and should not simply be based on personal opinions. These types of opinions/arguments should start with WHAT is the problem the rule will address and HOW will this new rule make it better? WHO will benefit? WHO will not benefit? Is it good for most or all people? These questions guide students to use somewhat different evidence and rationales than they would use for fact-based or judgment-based opinions.
All of these prompts are different from informational writing prompts (e.g., tell me everything you know about the topic). In informational writing, the "facts" and details support key ideas or sub-topics, such as how does the habitat of this animal meet its basic needs (what it eats, shelter, etc.)? Research suggests that a natural progression of learning has students developing and using the informational prompts BEFORE writing an opinion/argument piece. This deepens student understanding of the topic – and possible differing perspectives - before establishing their "claim" to be supported with evidence. The information-gathering phase can be via discussion and would not have to be another writing assignment.
So for your topic of eating insects, I think you should have more than one perspective presented. It sounds like students are reading a text that states that eating insects is beneficial. The informational prompt might be “what is the author’s perspective on eating insects? Now students search for facts/evidence in the text to support their interpretation of the text, but they are only summarizing the author's view at this point. So, this would be informational writing. The next step in instruction might involve reading several texts with differing perspectives. (You’d need to locate differing perspectives on this topic of eating bugs.) Students locate and analyze how each author supports his/her opinion. This task allows students to understand how to construct an opinion and identify possible perspectives on a topic before they begin to write their opinion piece responding to a question, such as: Is eating bugs ever a good thing?
Below are sample prompts for the same topic – Lincoln. Each requires different supporting evidence.
Informational Prompt: Lincoln: Who was he? What did he do (e.g., major initiatives)? What were the historical, social, and political contexts when he became president? How does history remember him?
Fact-based Prompt: Is this movie (Lincoln) historically accurate? Do the inaccuracies affect the overall theme or viewer interpretation of history?
Judgment-based Prompt: Was Lincoln a great leader?
Policy-Based Prompt: What has been the historical impact of Lincoln’s policies?