Argumentative Writing in a 21st Century Classroom

Argumentative Writing in a 21stCentury Classroom

Maria Pesce Stasaitis, Ed.D.

University of Bridgeport

2017 Wirth-Santoro Scholarship Recipient

Advisor: Dr. Patricia Mulcahy-Ernt


This Action Research study examined the implementation of Integrated Writing as originally described by MacArthur, Graham & Schwartz (1993) in order to investigate the teacher’s ability to refine instructional planning strategies in a seventh grade urban, English classroom. Utilizing a Mixed Methods Action Research study, the teacher-researcher collected both qualitative and quantitative data during two four-week instructional units that involved status checking, mini-lessons, student writing, peer and teacher conferences, and group sharing of published student writing. Two iterations of data were analyzed for the inclusion of argumentative elements in the students’ writing, and data samples were coded for cognitive complexity through analysis of their levels of depth of knowledge (Webb, 2005).  This study showed the effectiveness of using the Integrated Writing intervention in promoting students’ ability to write effective cognitively complex arguments on a blogging site.



The urban district where the study took place had adopted many new initiatives to address the shifts in the Common Core State Standards (2010); however, a significant decline in writing scores had been recorded in the district.  Results noted on the school’s strategic school profile demonstrated improvements in reading; however, writing scores continued to decline, signaling the district to look for initiatives to improve student writing. For instance, beginning with the performance of seventh-graders, 60.4% of students scored proficient in reading, while a mere 39.9% of students in the district scored proficient in writing (CT Online Reports, 2012). Reports about the Smarter Balanced Assessment scores noted that “26% percent of city students reached targets in the ‘English/Language Arts’ portion of the test taken last school year” (Puffer, 2015, p. B1).  Local data reflected that the urban district for the site of this study was significantly behind the state average.  These scores signaled the importance of a change in instructional practices for teaching argumentative writing.


The purpose of this Action Research study was to investigate the teacher-researcher’s instructional skills and strategies when shifting towards the Common Core State Standards (2010) designed to impact student argumentative writing instruction. The purpose of the Action Research study was twofold: first, to determine if implementing technology-based curricula across content areas using instructional strategies improves students’ cognitive complexity in argumentative writing, and second, for the teacher-researcher to improve her own teaching and research praxis.

Theoretical Framework:

The theoretical underpinnings for this study were based on theories about argumentative writing and teacher self-efficacy that emphasized teacher planning and reflecting to refine instruction. Utilizing sociocultural learning theory (Vygotsky, 1978) and social cognitive theory (Bandura, 2001), the researcher formulated the research question and the study design. Bandura’s (1986, 1993) focus on self-efficacy shows that self-reflection is the capstone to improving self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986). According to Bandura (1986), people with a strong sense of self-efficacy see tasks they cannot do as challenges, not threats, with four factors influencing efficacy: mastery experience, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and somatic and emotional state.

The foundation of 21st century learning skills utilizes collaboration as a main component for preparing students to be career and college ready (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2006).  In the present research study, social cognitive theory (Bandura, 2001) and sociocultural learning theory (Vygotsky, 1978) complemented argumentation theories when using instructional strategies that improve argumentation. The intervention of integrated writing (MacArthur, Graham & Schwartz, 1993) was chosen for this study because it incorporated collaboration, writing and reflection.

Integrated writing follows a daily structure of classroom lessons for students with and without disabilities in writing. Wright (2006) describes the intervention as:

Student writing is regularly shared with classmates and the instructor, with these audiences creating a sustaining social context to motivate and support the writer. Students receive instruction and feedback in an interactive manner, presented both in lecture format and through writing conferences with classmates. Technology (particularly computer word processing) is harnessed to help the writing disabled student to be more productive and to make use of software writing tools to extend his or her own capabilities in written expression. (p. 2)

To guide teacher-student conferences, the teacher-researcher created a Cognitive Complexity Checklist with level four categories of complexity based on three epistemologies in instruction on argumentative writing, as found by Newell, VanDerHeide, & Olsen (2014). Newell et al.’s study focused on the ways that writing teachers approach argumentative writings. Newell et al. conducted thirty-five in classroom case studies and found that teachers instruct by using one of three epistemological approaches to argumentative writing; structural (standards based), ideational (students connect and synthesize) or social practice (students collaborate and debate). Newell et al. recommend that argumentative instruction is most successful when teachers connect the three epistemological approaches.

Research Question:

The primary question in this study was, “Does Integrated Writing positively impact student argumentative writing cognitive complexity, as measured by the cognitive complexity checklist?”

Research Methodology:

This was a Mixed Methods Action Research study, with two iterations of research. The location site was a general education urban middle school located in Connecticut, comprised of 85.4% students eligible for free and reduced lunch; the total enrollment is 1206 students. The middle school was divided into three houses; each house has sixth to eighth grade students. Each teaching team had a social studies, science and math teacher, and two reading and language arts teachers instruct the students in a ninety-minute block. The rationale for the study of student writing in the district was that the seventh-grade scores on standardized tests were low; only 23% of seventh-grade students attending the middle school had met goal on the state’s standardized writing assessments (State Department of Education 2010-11).

The participants were from a seventh-grade middle school classroom and chosen out of a convenience sample; the researcher was the teacher in the classroom. There were eighteen student participants selected for the study. The students were grouped heterogeneously, none identified as eligible for special education services.

The teacher-researcher instructed students during two, four-week argumentative units with the Integrated Writing intervention. The integrated writing intervention (MacArthur, Graham & Schwartz, 1993) that the teacher-researcher utilized in the classroom involved five steps to instructing writing: (a) status-checking, (b) mini-lessons, (c) student writing, (d) peer and teacher conferences, and (e) group sharing of publishing. Integrated writing follows a specific, daily structure of classroom lessons for students with and without disabilities in writing.

The teacher created two curriculum units on argumentative writing using non-fiction articles pertaining to essential questions that students wrote about in weekly, full process, argumentative blogs. The questions were chosen based on student interest during a pilot study in 2015 as seen in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Argumentative Questions, Stasaitis, 2016.

Should soda and candy be a part of the school lunch?
Should you think twice before eating fast food?
Do uniforms affect student learning?
Is homework beneficial?
Is technology helping or hindering?
Should cell phones be banned in school?
Should The Driving Age Be Raised To 18?
Do Videogames and TV lead to violence?


Students utilized a blogging site, KidBlog as a way to collaborate with each other in an online environment. The students in the sample responded weekly to their peers’ blogs by leaving a blog comment. The teacher-researcher recorded student inclusion of argumentative elements in weekly student blogs during two iterations of research.

Quantitative data was tracked on a researcher-created checklist with the categories from Webb’s (2005) Cognitive Complexity to measure student inclusion of cognitive complexity in their argumentative blogs. The theoretical themes (Glaser, 1978) that the teacher-researcher used to code the blogs and blog comments were design, connect, synthesize, apply concepts, critique, analyze, create and prove. Descriptive statistics (Hendricks, 2013) were employed.

The components of the intervention package were revised after the teacher’s deep reflection on Iteration 1. The conferences became the center of the intervention and tied the status-checks, mini-lessons, student writing and group sharing together during Iteration 2 of instruction. The teacher embedded the components of the intervention package in order to seamlessly connect them into one instructional vehicle and placed an importance on the student drafting and revision process as seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Iteration Revision, Stasaitis, 2016.

Research Results:

The results in Tables 1 and 2 indicate improvement in student cognitive complexity after a revision to the intervention instruction after Iteration 1. The descriptive statistics employed were supportive of the teacher refining instruction to place emphasis on the drafting process of writing through conferences. Qualitative data was supportive of the students expressing that collaboration was essential to their learning processes.

Table 1:

Cognitive Complexity Frequencies, Iteration 1, Stasaitis, 2016.

  Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Design/Create 67% 70% 67% 67%
Apply Concepts 83% 85% 90% 90%
Analyze 72% 61% 94% 72%
Prove 44% 83% 94% 72%
Connect 11% 0% 28% 17%
Synthesize 17% 0% 28% 17%
   Social Practice
Critique 61% 61% 78% 72%

Table 2:

Cognitive Complexity Frequencies, Iteration 2, Stasaitis, 2016

  Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Design/Create 94% 100% 100% 100%
Apply Concepts 85% 90% 90% 100%
Analyze 89% 94% 100% 100%
Prove 67% 61% 83% 89%
Connect 67% 56% 83% 89%
Synthesize 72% 56% 89% 89%
Social Practice
Critique 72% 72% 50% 75%

 Limitations of the Study:

The limitations in this study included the small convenience sample and the inability to generalize findings and results about the population of the research site.

Intended Implications/Impact:

The intended impact of this study was the improvement in instruction of argumentative writing and the growth of demonstrated student cognitive complexity, as evident in measures on the continuum checklist. A contemporary spin of this research is the utilization of classroom writing blogs for providing peer feedback about student writing additional and the use of online technologies for teaching writing in middle grade classrooms.


            The results indicate improvement in student inclusion of argumentative elements after a revision to the intervention instruction after Iteration 1, particularly for the ideational categories.  The results indicate that the Integrated Writing intervention was effective in improving students’ argumentative writing.  A key difference, however, between Iteration 1 and Iteration 2 was the emphasis of collaboration and conferencing to support students’ writing. The feedback that the students gained from the teacher and from their peers helped the students in writing more effective argumentative blogs.  In addition, the cognitive complexity of the students’ writing increased, as evidenced by data from week 4 of Iteration 2.  However, it should be noted that a limitation in interpreting the results of this study is the small convenience sample; it is difficult to generalize the findings based on the population of the students at the research site, and additional studies would need to be conducted with larger populations in other demographic sites to see if similar conclusions can be drawn.  However, for this population students expressed that collaboration was essential to their learning processes.

            In conclusion, the intended impact of this study was the improvement in instruction of argumentative writing and the growth of demonstrated student inclusion of argumentative elements, as evident in measures on the argumentative checklist; this was clearly demonstrated through the Integrated Writing intervention and the use of online technologies for teaching writing in middle grade classrooms.


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