Two posts ago, I introduced Graff/Birkenstein's two-paragraph They Say / I Say template I've been requiring my students to use in response to our argumentative Articles of the Week (and, by the way, articles of the week are the original idea of Kelly Gallagher). And as a disclaimer, I'm about to nerd out pretty heavily on some intricacies of instructing with the template, so, if you're not interested, feel free to go check out some Vladimir Putin gifs like this one.
Since requiring the use of the template a month or so ago (previously, I simply offered it as a support for my students), I've noticed a few fruits:
- My struggling students have grown increasingly confident in responding to arguments in Articles of the Week, as the template makes argumentative moves explicit instead of vague;
- All of my students seem to have jumped a bit in their ability to write academically — for instance, in a recent trimester exam assignment in which students argued for the most significant event of the Middle Ages, I was happily surprised to find more of my students meeting basic proficiency in laying out their arguments with some sort of cohesion;
- And finally, it's become easier for them and for me to see if they even understand the arguments they're arguing with. Within the first sentences of the template, it's pretty obvious if students get the argument they're responding to. This makes it much easier for me to check their understanding and remediate or reteach where necessary.
- I'm tempted to give this lattermost point highest importance because it's from a deep understanding of what “they say” that my students — and me, and all humans — are able to develop deep, rigorous “I say” arguments.
All good things. Once again, I can't thank Graff and Birkenstein enough for works like Clueless in Academe and They Say / I Say.
Yet at the same time, I've been getting a few questions from my students (and from you, dear life-dominating Teaching the Core community members!) that merit a bit more exploration of how to most effectively leverage this template for all its potential. And so below, you'll find a few ways I'm working to deepen They Say / I Say work with all of my students.
Modeling the template with exemplars
So while I love giving my students argumentative articles of the week in part because various columnists model for them, again and again, how arguments work, I've also been learning my kids greatly benefit from seeing the work they're being asked to do modeled a bit more explicitly.
And so this week, when I introduce our latest AoW, I'm going to use the exemplar below to model more of the how and why of They Say / I Say work (this example is in response to one of our more recent AoWs):
The general argument made by the New York Times’ Editorial Board in their work, “E-Smoking Among Teenagers,” is that the FDA needs to prohibit e-cig manufacturers from marketing and selling their wares to teens and children. More specifically, the Board argues that even child-enticing flavorings should be banned. They write, “The new rules ought to… outlaw flavorings clearly designed to entice children” (3). In this passage, the editors are suggesting that fruit- and candy-flavored e-cigs are a ploy to get minors vaping. In conclusion, the Board’s belief is that e-cigarettes should be banned from in any way enticing minors.
In my view, the Board is right, because, while e-cigarettes may be healthy compared to adults with pack-a-day tobacco habits, they are in no way positive for teenagers to smoke. More specifically, I believe that the facts speak for themselves: “nicotine–delivered in any manner–can impair adolescent brain development, is extremely addictive, and can be dangerous at very high doses to people of all ages” (Editorial Board, 3). In other words, e-cigarettes still spell danger–and a lifetime of addiction–for minors. Although e-cig manufacturers might object that restricting e-cig flavorings is unnecessarily harsh, I maintain that flavorings are a form of marketing, and when those flavorings appeal to the tastes of middle and high school students, they should be banned. I do recognize that there’s a slippery slope here–after all, look at all of the alcoholic beverages that are fruit-flavored, for instance–but just because one addictive substance has teen-enticing flavors doesn’t mean every addictive substance has to. Therefore, I conclude that e-cigarettes ought to be regulated in the manner set forth by the Editorial Board.
(Bonus: If you'd like to see an annotated version with my teacher comments, check this out.)
Now, if you're sharpety-sharp, you might have noticed that the model above — gasp! — ventures away from the template at several points. And that's because I think my students are ready to start toying with…
…Letting the argument dictate the moves
Since some of my students are consistently pwning the They Say / I Say template, I want to introduce them to a list of templates and transitions to use within the structure of a two-paragraph They Say / I Say response. (You can access that list of templates and transitions here, and you'll find a beautiful treatment of the templates and transitions it contains in the aforementioned They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.)
In the model response above, I (the writer) was struggling in the second paragraph with the original template's call for a “for example” sentence. It didn't seem to fit, largely because in the preceding sentence, I had just quoted the article to illustrate why I agreed with the authors. So rather than force the “for example” sentence starter, I did what Cathy and Jerry advise their students to do: I used a different template that fit (in this case, I wanted to elaborate on the quoted material).
Moving forward, I want my students to keep in focus why we use the two-paragraph They Say / I Say template:
- to structure our thinking in a manner consistent with public and academic discourse;
- to force ourselves to spend time on what they say — on what has already been said in the conversation we're entering;
- to internalize the way transitions and templates work with one another.
I'll still expect my 9th grade students to submit two-paragraph They Say / I Say responses with every complete article of the week; the only change I'm making is that I'll start encouraging them to play within that framework.
But Dave, why not give the kids complete freedom right now!? You're slaughtering their creativity, you butcher!
I know some believe we should always allow students to dictate form and structure — that this will ultimately make them real writers. After all, as an adult, we aren't often forced to write two-paragraph They Say / I Say arguments, right?
But it's like the Karate Kid analogy I used two posts ago: by giving my kids lots of “jacket on, jacket off” experiences with this simple template — and, now, the freedom to modify and adapt it without abandoning the basic They Say / I Say structure — I'm seeking to help them build a neural network of argumentative moves that, once unleashed in later courses that offer less scaffolding, will serve them well.
Basically, when they are presented with argumentative situations in the future, I believe practice with this template will allow them to 1) see the actual argument, 2) properly process it, and 3) respond productively.
And to get back to that whole “real writers don't use templates like this” argument: I totally do! Reading They Say / I Say has made me a better writer and arguer — I wish I had been assigned this in college!
So how's They Say / I Say going in your room? Are your kids getting better at it? What hang-ups are you still encountering?
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For VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report.
Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein are the writers of a best-selling book about college writing. The book is called They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. The book has had a major effect on the way writing is taught in the United States. It is a required book at more than 1,000 universities. The goal of this short book is to take the mystery out of academic writing. Gerald Graff says students sometimes make writing harder than it needs to be.
“Somebody needs to explain to students that, difficult as it might be, it’s not as hard as you’re making it.”
English learners often think that academic writing is all about spelling, grammar, and organization. Author Cathy Birkenstein says almost anyone can put a sentence together. The difficult part is learning to read and think critically.
“These concerns of English language learners aren’t always that different from advanced language learners…These are basic questions, really not just of how to write…but they’re really how to think academically, and how to structure an argument, and how to really be interesting.”
The two experts say that good academic writing follows a simple design called “They Say, I Say.” A paper should begin with what others have already said about the subject, or “they say.” Then, student writers present their own opinions, or “I say.” A college paper should show the writer entering a debate among experts.
“A lot of people think writing can’t be reduced to a formula. Well in fact it can…All effective academic writing at least comes down to the basic formula of “they say, I say”…Although most people argue [blank], I argue [blank].”
Mr. Graff agrees.
“Most published journalism and scholarship follows this basic form.”
Cathy Birkenstein says the form is common in other kinds of writing as well.
“I think whether you’re writing on Facebook and whether you’re sending an email, whether you’re writing a poem or a novel, and whether you’re speaking in Vietnamese or French or English, you really have to kind of play this underlying ‘they say, I say’ game of responding to what other people are saying and giving them a sense of what you think in response to what they’re saying. And if you don’t do that, and use some form of a template that Gerry and I suggest, or your own version of it, I don’t think people are going to really understand what you’re saying or care about what you’re saying.”
Good academic writing starts with reading. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein have some suggestions for getting started.
“Start with what others are saying and play off that. Resist the temptation to give your own opinion until you’ve sketchedout the conversation, the dialog that’s going on.”
Ms. Birkenstein says students should explain an expert’s idea first.
“I think if you’re not sure what to write about, summarize a good author, find out who that author is responding to, and figure out the debate or conflict there and figure out where you stand too.”
An expanded third edition of “They Say I Say” will be released on February first.
I’m Adam Brock.
To see some examples of academic writing forms from these experts, visit our blog, Confessions of an English Learner.
Adam Brock wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
formula – n. a plan or method for doing, making, or achieving something
journalism – n. the activity or job of collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio
scholarship – n. serious formal study or research of a subject
template – n. something that is used as an example of how to do, make, or achieve something
temptation – n. a strong urge or desire to have or do something
sketched out – v. to describe (something) briefly
dialog – n. a conversation between two or more people
edition – n. a particular version of a book
Now it’s your turn. What tips do you have for academic writing? Have you tried the "they say, I say" format?