"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


On Using the Toulmin Model

February 7th, 2014 by

The Toulmin model of argumentation has been around for a long time. When I taught my first class in argument in the ‘80s, the manual I was using gave it as much emphasis as it gave to Aristotle and certainly more than it gave to Rogerian argument.

The British philosopher Stephen Toulmin authored it, and it is still around today. Instructions on how to use it effectively have proliferated online, and though I am more aware than ever of some criticisms of it, I have decided I might use it again, but not directly for writing instruction.

The reason I am thinking of using it again is because of a discussion I had in a class last week about the importance of feeling in writing. Most of my class “felt” that they like a certain approach to writing because it values feelings rather than reason.

I’ve tried to challenge this in classes before. This time, I’ve decided that what might help is to look at their reasoning about feeling.

Here’s how I might do this. The Toulmin model focuses on claim, data (or evidence), and warrant. The first two items are what they appear to be in other models of argument. But the warrant is the more implicit, not always evident part of an argument that somehow links the data and the evidence, even giving the evidence an authority.

The trouble I’ve found with teaching the Toulmin model of argument—and this follows some criticism of it–is that it can turn argument into an exercise in expressing what one already believes, not inventing new arguments.

That’s mainly why I don’t teach it. It becomes an exercise in proving what is already known. But I’ve decided that it might have some value as an exercise in looking at other arguments and really examining how and why we are persuaded by them. It also might help for my students to look at their own argument about feeling.

Here’s how it might work: The claim is that feelings are a better basis for writing. The evidence is that they feel this way. The warrant? Feelings are better than reason.

That last part, the warrant, might get a few of them thinking. It might get them thinking the way that writers think: Feelings are better than reason? Always? In every case?

If we can understand that feelings matter sometimes, but it is important to know when they are and aren’t appropriate, I’ll have moved them toward Aristotle’s views on things. I’ll have moved them toward being writers.

Toulmin’s model can work well with reading, I think, more than with writing.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you about your use of the Toulmin model. Have you found it to be effective? Are the critics wrong?

Posted in Uncategorized| 4 Comments


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Comment by John Brantingam on February 8, 2014 at 4:25 am

That’s the difficulty I have with teaching argument in general. Of course, part of it is that students naturally are just trying to justify what they already believe rather than hoping to develop their ideas. We all do that as people. It’s helped me to use research-based arguments, but still coming up with new ideas are just more difficult.

Comment by Tom on February 8, 2014 at 7:27 am

John, it occurs to me that when students do writing that they see as creative writing–poetry, fiction, or nonfiction–they will be more open to exploration and developing their ideas. But they have a default mechanism somewhere in the brain that says, “This is school writing, so play it safe and get it over with as soon as possible.” I share your frustration over this.

Comment by Tim Riter on March 8, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Toulmin’s basic Claim-Evidence-Warrant is good, but I prefer the full method of Claim-Grounds-Warrant-Backing-Modal Qualifiers(scope and character)-Rebuttals. This requires students to go beyond their own initial beliefs. I use it in high school AP Eng Lang, half the students are non-honors, with over a 90% pass rate.

Comment by google api console on October 2, 2014 at 10:09 am

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