Journal of English for Academic Purposes 11 (2012) 145–154
Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect
Journal of English for Academic Purposes
journal homepage: www.el sevier.com/locate/jeap
‘Argument! ’ helping students understand what essay writing is about
King’s College London, Department of Education and Professional Studies, Waterloo Rd, London SE1 9NH, UK
Keywords: Argumentation is a key requirement of the essay, which is the most common genre that
Essay students have to write. However, how argumentation is realised in disciplinary writing is
often poorly understood by academic tutors, and therefore not adequately taught to
Genre students. This paper presents research into undergraduate students’ concepts of argument
when they arrive at university, dif ﬁculties they experience with developing arguments in
their essays, and the type and quality of instruction they receive. A three-part ﬁnition
which describes argumentation by what students need to learn was used as the framework
for analysis. The ﬁndings show that students have only partial or incorrect concepts of
argument. Many problems they encounter are caused by their lack of knowledge of what
an argumentative essay requires, particularly of the need to develop their own position in
an academic debate. The advice they receive does not make the requirements explicit and
refers to argumentation inconsistently and vaguely. An ‘essay writing framework ’, based
on the three-part de ﬁnition, is proposed for improving the teaching of writing. This
approach puts argumentation at the centre of instruction and explains other aspects of
writing according to the function they have in the development of argument.
Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
The ‘argumentative essay ’ is the most common genre that undergraduate students have to write (Wu, 2006 : 330),
particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences ( Hewings, 2010 ). Although the nature of the essay varies considerably
across and even within disciplines, the development of an argument is regarded as a key feature of successful writing by
academics across disciplines ( Lea & Street, 1998 ). Nesi and Gardner (2006) found in their survey of assessed writing in 20
disciplines that a commonly recognised value of the essay is its ‘ability to display critical thinking and development of an
argument within the context of the curriculum ’ (p. 108). However, many students struggle with argumentation: they are
either unaware that they are expected to develop an argument in their essays, or have dif ﬁculty in doing so ( Bacha, 2010;
Davies, 2008 ), often because they have acquired starkly different concepts of argument at secondary school (Andrews,
1995). At university, they receive little help, as argumentation is not explicitly taught in most undergraduate programmes
in the UK ( Mitchell & Riddle, 2000 ). General advice on academic writing is usually provided in writing guidelines presented in
course handbooks, and through tutors ’ feedback on student essays; however, these methods have limitations. Lea and Street
(1998) found that students have dif ﬁculty in applying general writing guidelines to their particular writing contexts. Tutors ’
feedback comments are often of the categorical type, such as the imperative ‘Argument! ’ written in the margins of student
essays (Lea & Street, 1998; Mutch, 2003 ). Tutors tend to use this comment vaguely when they feel that the writer has
somehow breached the writing conventions expected in the discipline, to indicate ‘different de ﬁciencies from reasoning, to
referencing to structure and style ’ (Mitchell & Riddle, 2000 : p. 17). It has been claimed that the vague use of the term re ﬂects
* Tel.: þ44 20 78483536.
E-mail address: [email protected]
1475-1585/$ – see front matter Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.jeap.2011.11.001 146 U. Wingate / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 11 (2012) 145–154
tutors’ own uncertainty over the concept of argument ( Lea & Street, 1998; Mitchell & Riddle, 2000 ). It may also re ﬂect
a broader uncertainty over the requirements of the essay, of which tutors tend to have only ‘tacit’ knowledge ( Jacobs, 2005 :
Much has been written on the rhetorical and linguistic structure of arguments, and on academic writing in general, while
less attention has been paid to the teaching and learning of argumentation. This is surprising, given the important role of
argument in the academic essay. The research reported in this article investigated learning needs and teaching provision in
a case study of ﬁrst-year undergraduate students in an applied linguistics programme at a British university. In this pro-
gramme, like in most in that ﬁeld, the argumentative essay is the main writing and assessment format. The study had the
1. To identify the concepts of ‘argument ’ students have when arriving at university.
2. To explore the dif ﬁculties students experience with argumentation in academic writing.
3. To discuss the limitations of current instruction and make recommendations for improvements.
In the next sections, concepts and uses of the term argument, as well as issues with learning and teaching argumentation
will be explored.
2. Concepts of argument
The term ‘argument ’ is used in different ways in academic discourse, ranging from the philosophical construct of premises
and conclusions ( Toulmin, 1958 ) to diverse writing practices ( Mitchell et al., 2008 ). It can refer to individual claims or the
whole text. In reference to individual claims, argument means that a proposition is supported by grounds and warrants. As
Davies points out, this type of argument requires the ability to make inferences, and can be taught through syllogisms such as
‘if Socrates is a man and all men are mortal, then Socrates is mortal ’ (2008: p. 328). In reference to the whole text,‘argument’ is
deﬁned by Andrews (1995 :p.3)as ‘a process of argumentation, a connected series of statements intended to establish
a position and implying response to another (or more than one) position ’. Toulmin, Reike, and Janik (1984 : p. 14) de ﬁne
argument similarly as ‘the sequence of interlinked claims and reasons that, between them, establish content and force of the
position for which a particular speaker is arguing ’. According to these de ﬁnitions, the core component of argumentation is
clearly the development of a position, which can also be regarded as equivalent to the development of an argument. Another
component is the presentation of the position through the logical arrangement of the propositions that build this position,
which is mentioned in Andrew ’sde ﬁnition as the ‘connected series of statements ’, and in Toulmin et al ’s as the ‘sequence of
interlinked claims and reasons ’. However, there is a third component which students have to learn in order to write argu-
mentative essays, which is ‘to analyse and evaluate content knowledge ’ (Wu , 2006: 330). This component concerns the
selection of relevant information from sources, and its use in the development of the position.
As this study focuses on the teaching and learning of argumentation, these three components, (1) the analysis and
evaluation of content knowledge, (2) the writer ’s development of a position, and (3) the presentation of that position in
a coherent manner, will be used as the de ﬁnition of ‘developing an argument ’ in this paper. The de ﬁnition is useful from
a pedagogic perspective because it describes the abilities writers need to develop in order to be successful in writing
argumentative essays ( Wu, 2006). As will be shown later, the de ﬁnition is also helpful for identifying students ’ learning needs,
as well as shortcomings in the teaching of argumentative writing.
Research has shown that many academic teachers and students have fuzzy concepts of argumentation, which may be
linked to a fuzzy understanding of what the genre ‘essay’ entails. As Johns (2008) points out, essay is dif ﬁcult to de ﬁne as
a genre, because it is used as an umbrella term for various types of discipline-speciﬁ c writing, and the characteristics of
structure, register and argumentation vary greatly across disciplines. It is therefore obvious that the speci ﬁc requirements of
the essay in a given discipline should be explained to students by disciplinary experts. At the same time, the essay has low
prestige being a student genre, not one that disciplinary experts have to write. Their understanding of the exact nature of the
essay in their discipline may therefore be implicit and vague. Furthermore, what is accepted as a well-formed and valid
argument in an essay depends on the discipline ’s value system and epistemology, and there is great variation across disci-
plines (Andrews, 2010; Samraj, 2004 ).
To explore students’ and tutors ’ conceptualisations, Mitchell et al. (2008) interviewed ﬁrst-year students and tutors in
three disciplines. The students had partial understandings of argument, for instance ‘a for-and-against structure sandwiched
between introduction and conclusion ’ (p. 235). Tutors were equally uncertain about the concept. When asked how they
taught students to argue, they used critique, critical analysis and even opinion as interchangeable terms of explanation. In Lea
& Street’s (1998) study, academic tutors across a range of disciplines recognised argument as the key element of successful
writing, but had dif ﬁculty to explain the nature of a well-developed argument. In their feedback to students, they referred to
‘what feels like familiar descriptive categories such as “structure and argument ”, “clarity” and “analysis”’ (p.163). Mitchell and
Riddle (2000 : p.17) notice that academics also have weak understanding of related abilities such as ‘analysis’ and ‘evaluation ’.
Eq ually vague is tutors ’ interchangeable use of the term ‘argument ’ in the plural form (e.g. ‘you did not back up some of your
arguments ’), and in the singular form (e.g. ‘you failed to provide a coherent argument ’). This obscures the fact that it is the
development of a position, re ﬂected in ‘the large-scale structuration of the essay ’ (Andrews, 1995 : p. 139), rather than the U. Wingate / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 11 (2012) 145–154 147
evidence for individual claims, that determines the quality of an essay. This conceptual uncertainty leads to unhelpful advice
and inadequate teaching of argumentation. As Swales (1990 : p. 84) argues, students need appropriate content and formal
schemata in order to make ‘allowable contributions ’ to a genre. The formal schemata concern the rhetorical elements of the
genre, such as structure, style, and register, and are needed for the appropriate presentation of the writer ’s position
(Component 3 of the de ﬁnition). As these schemata were formed by previously encountered texts, Students new to university
will have schemata of previously encountered texts, i.e. essays they had to write at school, which may need to be adjusted for
the genres required at university.
3. Learning argumentation
School essays are often con ﬁned to relatively simple argumentative structures ( Andrews, 1995 ). A typical essay in
humanities subjects requires that the writer states a claim on a controversial issue and supports this claim by evidence in
order to convince the audience ( Wood, 2001 ). This genre often takes the format of the ‘ﬁve paragraph ’ essay which consists of
the introduction of the topic, the statement of a claim, three supporting paragraphs for the claim and a concluding paragraph
(Bacha, 2010 ). In contrast to school writing which tends to invite the statement of the author ’s personal opinion, academic
writing requires the presentation of a considered opinion, based on the careful analysis of various and con ﬂicting sources
(Andrews,1995 ). Furthermore, writing at university is seldom about making one claim, and therefore requires structures that
can support more complex ideas. Therefore, students new to university have to adjust previously learnt formal schemata such
as structure and register.
The three components of developing an argument, used as the de ﬁnition in this paper, pose considerable dif ﬁculties for
the novice writer. Analysing and evaluating content knowledge presupposes a certain level of subject knowledge which
would enable students to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information in the literature. Due to their lack of subject
knowledge, however, many students struggle to identify con ﬂicting points of view in the literature ( Andrews, 1995 ). The
second element, establishing a position, requires expressing a ‘voice’ and a ‘stance’ (Street, 2009 ) in an academic debate
conducted by experts, and achieving a ‘workable balance between self and sources ’ (Groom, 2000 : p. 65). ‘Voice’ and ‘stance’
are among the ‘hidden features ’ of academic writing described by Street (2009) , which have much impact on the success of
writing, but are rarely made explicit to students. The dif ﬁculties these requirements pose for the novice writer have been
widely discussed (e.g. Ivanic,1998; Lillis, 2001 ). Groom (2000) describes three patterns of dif ﬁculty. The ﬁrst, called ‘solipsistic
voice’, means that students express their own experiences and opinions without reference to the literature. The second, the
‘unaverred voice ’ refers to students who offer ‘a patchwork of summaries of other authors views ’ (p. 67) without making own
claims. The reason for this rather typical pattern is students ’ lack of con ﬁdence in taking a stance in relation to published
authors. Essays that present the unaverred voice are usually accused of lacking criticality. The third pattern is the ‘unat-
tributed voice ’; here students make propositions sound as if they were their own idea when in fact they were taken from
The third component of developing an argument, the presentation of the writer ’s position in a coherent manner, involves
the ‘arrangement and re-arrangement ’ of propositions at the macro level ( Andrews, 1995 ; p.29) so that the development of
the position is re ﬂected in a logical text structure. According to Andrews, this component is not addressed in most study
guides and textbooks. It requires an adjustment of the formal schema of structure which is dif ﬁcult for students who have so
far only learnt to support one claim in a simple formulaic structure.
4. Teaching argumentation
The importance of making argumentation ‘the focus of deliberate educational practices ’ has been repeatedly stressed (e.g.
Davies, 2008 :p.327; Mitchell & Riddle, 2000 ); however, this is not part of the teaching provision in undergraduate pro-
grammes at British universities, where argument is in some cases taught generically on Critical Thinking courses. Never-
theless, as Mitchell and Riddle (2000 : p. 27) assert, argument cannot be modelled and transferred from one context to
another, because the genre ‘argumentative essay ’ and therefore the nature of argumentation are highly discipline-speci ﬁc,
and should therefore be taught by ‘mainstream teaching staff ’ (Mitchell & Riddle, 2000 : p.18). By contrast, Davies (2008)
proposes the teaching of argument through syllogisms and claims that the skill of logical inference-making can be learnt
outside the discipline. This approach is based on the Toulmin model which describes argument by the units of claim, grounds,
warrant and backing ( Toulmin et al., 1984 ). Mitchell and Riddle (2000) used the Toulmin approach for teaching argument in
various disciplines, after having simpli ﬁed its terminology from ‘claim, grounds and warrant ’ to ‘then, since, because ’.
The Toulmin model is also followed in some study guides (e.g. Fairbairn & Winch,1996 ); however, it seems that it renders
itself more easily to the analysis and construction of single claims and is less helpful at the macro level. Although Mitchell and
Riddle (2000) claim that the model can be applied to longer texts, there is no evidence of how this would work. Therefore, it
seems that if the Toulmin model is used in the teaching of argumentation, it needs to be combined with methods that address
the large-scale structure or macro level of the essay. Indeed, most authors who advocate the Toulmin model also recommend
additional procedures to address the macro level. Mitchell & Riddle suggest a four-stage procedure concerned with the overall
text organisation; similarly, Bacha (2010) used the Toulmin model in combination with organisational plans adapted from
Reid (1988) . Davies (2008) also proposes a six-step procedure for planning and developing the whole essay, and only in step 5
is the syllogistic argument form used ‘to guide the connection between premises and conclusions ’ (Davies, 2008 : p. 336). 148 U. Wingate / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 11 (2012) 145–154
Textbooks, writing guidelines in programme handbooks and lecturers ’ feedback comments are traditional modes of
academic literacy support. However, most study guides and writing textbooks do not explicitly deal with argument (Andrews,
2010), which subsequently remains ‘a conceptually unde ﬁned adjunct to other issues ’ (Groom, 2000 : p. 71). The limited
advice available focuses predominantly on linguistic features and neglects the rhetorical function of argument in the process
of disciplinary knowledge construction ( Groom, 2000 ). Furthermore, it tells students that they must develop an argument
when ‘what struggling students are looking for is something that will show them what these things mean, how they work,
and what they look like in and as text ’ (Groom, 2000 : p. 70; italics in original text).
Feedback comments are a ‘key factor in learning to write’ (Hyland & Hyland, 2006 : 206), and could be a particularly
effective method of giving individual and speci ﬁc guidance for the improvement of argumentation. However, this opportunity
is often missed because feedback is expressed in a way that students do not understand (Walker, 2009 ), or in the form of
‘categorical modality ’ (Lea & Street, 1998 : p. 169), i.e. in imperatives and with exclamation marks. Mutch (2003 : p. 31) found
that 75% of feedback in his study was categorical. This form of feedback may be especially common in relation to argument
due to teachers’ uncertainty over the term.
The following sections present the case study of the learning and teaching of argumentation in an undergraduate applied
The study was carried out with ﬁrst-year undergraduate students. To identify students ’ understanding of the concept of
‘argument ’ when they arrive at university (objective 1), two cohorts (2009 and 2010) with a total of 117 students were given
an Academic Writing Questionnaire in Induction Week. In addition to close-response items to elicit information on students ’
background, there were various open-ended questions which sought in-depth information on their previous writing expe-
rience, the instruction they had received at school and their expectations of writing requirements at university. One open-
ended question asked directly ‘What is an argument in academic writing ’?
Students’ difﬁculties with argumentation (objective 2) were investigated through the analyses of (a) tutor comments on
student essays and (b) student diaries. Tutor comments were chosen over the direct analysis of student texts in order to
capture the assessment of several tutors. The analysis included 60 essays from three different ﬁrst-year modules with
comments from ﬁve tutors teaching on these modules. 40 essays in the sample were from students who had received low
grades, while the other 20 were from high achieving students. The analysis focused on the comment sheets, e.g. the summary
of strengths and weaknesses that tutors produce for each assignment. Occasionally, the comments written by tutors in the
margins and text passages from essays were considered for further information.
As part of a wider investigation into novice writers ’ difﬁculties with academic writing, students had been invited to keep
a diary while writing an essay. Eight students volunteered to participate. Their brief was to keep a record of the process of
writing the assignment; there was no speci ﬁc focus on argument. The diary entries covered the 4 week period when the eight
participants were writing their ﬁrst graded assignment. This period was chosen because the students had recently received
detailed written feedback on a formative assignment, and it could therefore be assumed that they had some awareness of the
importance of argument in academic writing. For this study, the diary entries were analysed for statements relating to
problems with argument.
To assess current forms of writing instruction and their potential limitations (objective 3,) the writing guidelines in the
Student Handbook and the tutor comments on the 60 essays were analysed for the ways in which they referred to the
development of argument.
6. Findings and discussion
6.1. Students’ concepts of ‘argument’
From the questionnaire that was administered to two cohorts of ﬁrst-year students, the answers to the open-ended
question ‘What is an argument in academic writing ’ in the Academic Writing Questionnaire were grouped into eight
101 of 117 respondents had answered the question, and many answers included more than one aspect of argument.
Therefore, the numbers provided for the eight categories derived from the coding do not add up to 101. The eight categories
are listed in Table 1 according to the frequency of mentions.
It is noticeable that the majority of students did not mention key aspects of argumentation as de ﬁned in this paper. There
seems to be little awareness of the need to evaluate and analyse sources: less than half of the respondents mentioned the
need for evidence, and only eight the need for analysis. A relatively large number of students disclosed schemata which are in
conﬂict with the target genre, for instance the 34 students who described argument as ‘stating your personal opinion ’ (Cat.3).
The following answer gives an example of this understanding:
‘I believe argument in academic writing is when you strongly believe in a view and state why you believe so ’. U. Wingate / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 11 (2012) 145–154 149
Students’ understanding of argument.
1. Argument requires providing evidence 48
2. Argument has two sides 39
3. Argument means stating your personal opinion 34
4. Argument means ‘persuasion ’ 17
5. Argument has more than two sides 15
6. Argument needs a proper conclusion 10
7. Argument requires analysis 8
8. Argument involves structure of whole essay 7
Several respondents in this category had explained in another open-ended question that stating and defending one ’s
opinion had been required in their secondary school essays. Some school genres obviously encourage students to form an
opinion ﬁrst, and then persuade the reader of their stance (see Cat. 4).
A narrow concept of argument is re ﬂected in the 39 statements in Category 2, ‘Argument has two sides’ . This concept
seems to stem from the typical ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis ’ essay that is, as some respondents reported, required at school.
The next statement shows how this concept leads to an inappropriate schema concerning structure:
‘You would structure it so you had a couple of paragraphs on reasons for, and a couple for against, and then summarise,
and ultimately come to your own opinion at the end’ .
Only a minority of the respondents understood argument as involving multiple views (Cat. 5), or as being re ﬂected in the
large-scale structure of the text. Only ten students recognised that ‘Argument needs a proper conclusion ’ (Cat. 6) and seven
stated that ‘Argument involves structure of whole essay ’ (Cat. 8).
The student answers revealed that many had concepts of argument that were either partial, or too narrow, or inappro-
priate for the genre ‘essay’ as required at university. This ﬁnding shows the need to teach the formal schemata of essay writing
early on in the university programme, and to eradicate some misconceptions from students ’ previous writing experience.
6.2. Students’ difﬁculties with argumentation
6.2.1. Tutor comments
In the comment sheets of the 40 low achieving essays, 78 comments concerned with argumentation were found; all of
them addressed some de ﬁciency. In the comment sheets of the 20 high achieving essays there were 34 comments concerned
with argumentation; apart from eight, these comments were positive. The terms ‘argument ’, ‘arguments ’ and ‘argumentation’
were explicitly mentioned in 62% of the 112 comments. The comments in which the terms were not explicitly mentioned
referred to closely related concepts such as critical analysis or evidence, for example:
‘Essay displays very little criticality. ’
‘You make high inference claims which you cannot back up with evidence. ’
The comments were grouped into the categories shown in Table 2.
6.2.2. Student diaries
The analysis of the diary entries produced ﬁve themes concerned with argumentation which are listed in Table 3, in order
of the frequency of mentions in the diaries.
The tutor comments and the themes emerging from the student diaries are discussed according to the three components
of argumentation as de ﬁned in this paper. The tutor comments are discussed ﬁrst, followed by the related theme from the
Tutor comments concerning argumentation.
Low achieving essays ( N ¼ 40) High achieving essays ( N ¼ 20)
1. Lack of structure (38) 95% 1. Good use of sources (14) 70%
2. Lack of criticality/analysis (14) 35% 2. Lack of structure (8) 40%
3. Lack of evi