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INTRODUCING ARGUMENTATIVE WRITING THROUGH DIALOGUE AND WEB 2.0
Mary Hillis, Kansai University, Japan

Students often struggle with argumentative writing assignments because concepts such as argument, counterargument, and rebuttal may be new to them. Dialogue writing can serve as an entry point for students beginning argumentative writing. This teaching technique takes advantage of various online tools for dialogue writing, such as a class discussion board and online digital storytelling tools. Through the incorporation of sound classroom instruction and the use of technology, students will not only gain a clearer understanding of how to structure an argument but also be able to share their dialogues and receive feedback from others. In this article, I first explore the pedagogical basis for dialogue writing and then explain the process for creating online dialogues.

Dialogue writing is a useful technique for introducing students to the basic concepts of argumentative writing, such as argument and counterargument. According to Neman (1995) in Teaching Students to Write, “Students need to put themselves in their readers’ shoes and anticipate their response. In trying to think as their readers might think, they should be able to anticipate their questions and supply answers, to foresee their objections and quiet them” (p. 204). Because it is important for the writer to consider multiple perspectives and to anticipate possible counterarguments and alternative ways of thinking, this step is essential. The benefits of dialogue writing are outlined in Bean’s Engaging Ideas (2001):

These assignments (dialogues or argumentative scripts) allow students to role-play opposing views without having to commit themselves to a final thesis. The freedom from traditional thesis-governed form, as well as the necessity to role-play each of the opposing views in the conversation, often stimulates more complex thinking than traditional argumentative papers, in which students often try to reach closure too quickly. By preventing closure, this format promotes in-depth exploration. (p. 129)

Writing online dialogues would fit neatly into an introductory unit on argumentative writing at the paragraph or essay level. I used this teaching technique in a first-year paragraph writing course at a Japanese university that meets twice a week for 90 minutes, including one session in the computer lab. The class carried out this project over the course of four class periods, but the amount of time required would vary depending on the students’ level and the amount of work done outside of class. After the teacher introduces the basics of argumentative writing and the dialogue writing assignment, students decide on a controversial issue to write about. For example, students may wish to write a dialogue between two people exploring various opinions about smoking in public places. In addition, students could take on an issue of concern at their school, such as the access to technology, quality of the food in the cafeteria, or course offerings. After students have chosen a topic, they are ready to begin brainstorming multiple perspectives. Students could brainstorm individually; also, they could post their topic on the class discussion board, and students help each other come up with reasons for and against their position. Throughout the brainstorming process, students can be encouraged to think of as many points of view as possible, including majority as well as minority viewpoints, or views from various stakeholders in the issue. By involving the class in the brainstorming process, students can access a wider variety of points of view and appreciate the value of discussion and collaborative brainstorming. In addition, students tend to participate actively when brainstorming activities are conducted via discussion board. Because of the asynchronous discussion, students have more time to consider and formulate ideas and, consequently, students may naturally offer arguments, counterarguments, and refutations—points that can be highlighted by the teacher.

After brainstorming ideas, students can compile the list of reasons they collected and add any other ideas they may have. From this list, students choose the viewpoints they would like to include in their dialogue; these will be the basis for the project they will create using an online digital storytelling tool (such as Dvolver, which allows users to choose from a variety of characters, scenes, and backgrounds. The interface is user friendly, so students familiarize themselves with it quite easily; however, it is important to note that the character’s utterances are limited to 100 characters per line, although each character can speak several times in a maximum of three scenes. The process for creating a movie in Dvolver is relatively straightforward and most students don’t have much difficulty using the Web site. First, the user should select a background, characters, and type of scene, then type in the dialogue and choose background music. The process can be repeated to add scenes to the movie.

Depending on the level of the students, the teacher may introduce the online tool and have them start creating their dialogues right away; however, storyboarding, or planning out the dialogue, will give them more of a chance to think more carefully. In addition, because Dvolver does not have an edit function, once a story is created, it cannot be changed; therefore, it behooves the students to already have an idea and draft. As recommended in “Cartoon Festival: An International Digital Storytelling Project,” when the educators used Dvolver with their students, they had students prepare scripts on a wiki that could be proofread, edited, and revised collaboratively (Hillis, et al., 2008). If the class is not using a wiki, these scripts could easily be posted on the class discussion board or typed in Microsoft Word or Google documents. After the storyboards or scripts are complete, the students are ready to prepare their dialogues with Dvolver.

Although the Dvolver characters can seem humorous, students have created thoughtful dialogues on important issues. For example, see this instructor-made sample dialogue on the issue of school uniforms. In addition, the following dialogues were made by students in a first-year paragraph-level writing class in Japan: "Living by Themselves" and “Debate about Smoking.”

After creating the movie, students can e-mail the movie to themselves and to the instructor. The movie will have its own URL and an html code that can be embedded elsewhere, such as on a class blog; alternatively, the links to movies can be posted on a discussion board. Comments can be left directly at the Dvolver site or in follow-up posts on the class discussion board. Encouraging students to comment on each other’s movies/dialogues is a productive way of exposing the class to a variety of issues and opinions in a fun and engaging manner; also, students like to receive feedback from others. In order to assess students’ work, the instructor can construct a rubric, such as the following.


After brainstorming all sides of the issue and creating the dialogues with a digital storytelling tool, students should feel more comfortable with the concepts of argument, counterargument, and refutation. Unlike performing dialogues in class, the artifacts and comments that students generate online can be reviewed as many times as students would like, and the dialogues can be saved for use in future courses. Of course, the assignment can be taken one step further, and students can draft formal argumentative essays on their topics. Throughout the writing process, students are actively engaged in the learning. In fact, as Hillocks (2010) stated in “Teaching Argument for Critical Thinking: An Introduction,” for students to be able to construct solid arguments, “they will have to become engaged in a highly interesting activity that is both simple and challenging, for which feedback is immediate and clear, that allows for success and inspires further effort” (p. 27). Combining rich classroom-learning experiences with online tools will help students gain an introduction to argumentative writing skills.

REFERENCES

Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hillis, M., da Silva, J. A., & Raguseo, C. (2008). Cartoon festival: An international digital storytelling project. TESL-EJ, 12(2). Retrieved from http://tesl-ej.org/ej46/int.html

Hillocks, G., Jr. (2010). Teaching argument for critical thinking and writing: An introduction. English Journal, 99(6), 24-42. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/EJ0996Focus.pdf

Neman, B. S. (1995). Teaching students to write (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


Mary Hillis, maryehillis@yahoo.com, is an assistant professor of TEFL at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan. She completed her MA TESL at Bowling Green State University and her professional interests include writing pedagogy and online professional development.

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