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Teaching Argument and Explanation

to Prepare Junior Students for Writing

to Learn
Perry D. Klein
The University of Western Ontario, London

Mary A. Rose
The Thames Valley District School Board, London, Ontario


The purpose of this project was to develop theoretical constructs and instructional design elements related to improving
students ability to learn through writing. The authors used a design experiment approach to develop an instructional
model to improve students ability to use writing as a learning tool. This model, developed by Bereiter and Scardamalia,
posits that a dialectic between solving rhetorical problems and solving content problems can transform the writers
knowledge. The framework initially included frequent writing in the content areas, a conception of writing as learning,
education in analytic genres (i.e., arguments, explanations), development of intrinsic motivation to write, strategies for the
constructive use of sources, evaluation and revision for learning, assessment designed to support self-evaluation, and remediation of mechanics. The two phases of the study focused on argument writing and explanation writing in the content
areas, respectively. Each phase included several cycles of (a) implementing the design elements, (b) monitoring students
texts for evidence of the knowledge transforming process, and (c) revising our theory-in-action and modifying the design
elements of the framework. In a series of posttest activities, the experimental class showed a significantly greater ability
to learn during writing than a comparison class, as well as significantly greater argument genre knowledge, explanation
genre knowledge, and explanation text quality.

uring the past two decades, content literacy has

emerged as an increasingly important aspect of
language education (Alvermann, Swafford, &
Montero, 2004; Duke & Bennett-Armistead, 2003). One
aspect of content literacy is writing to learn. After several years of debate, the issue of whether writing causes
learning has given way to more nuanced questions,
such as how to create classroom contexts that best support learning during writing (Bangert-Drowns, Hurley,
& Wilkinson, 2004; Klein, 1999; Newell, 2006). This
article reports on the development of a theoretical model and corresponding instructional framework that attempted to strengthen students abilities to use writing
for learning.

Writing to Learn
Conceptions of writing to learn have evolved considerably in the past two decades (for a review, see Newell,

2006). Early authors assumed that the use of the technology of writing is sufficient for learning and that writing is unique in this respect (e.g., Odell, 1980). These
beliefs were challenged by subsequent research showing
that the effects of writing on learning are inconsistent
and that symbol systems other than print can also serve
as media for thinking and learning (Ackerman, 1993;
Rivard, 2004; Smagorinsky, 1995). Recently, the first
meta-analysis of writing-intensive curriculum units has
shown that the effects of writing on content area learning are significant, but on average small, and vary from
study to study (Bangert-Drowns et al., 2004).
This inconsistency raises the question of what
makes writing effective in some instances but not others. The functionalist approach proposed that the nature of a given writing activity shapes the way in which
students think and learn (Newell, 2006). Analytic writing, such as argumentation, in which students examine
relationships among ideas, is thought to lead students to
think more deeply about material than they do in more

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4) pp. 433461 2010 International Reading Association


restricted writing tasks, such as taking study notes

(Langer & Applebee, 1987; Newell, 2006). A related idea
is that the purpose of analytic writing is not simply to
retain more information but to understand it differently,
for example, to think critically about it (Newell, 2006).
The effects of analytic writing have been investigated
in several studies; the results are somewhat mixed,
but generally positive (e.g., Klein, Piacente-Cimini, &
Williams, 2007; Nussbaum & Sinatra, 2003; Wallace,
Hand, & Prain, 2004; Zohar & Nemet, 2002).
More recently, the attention of researchers has shifted to the context of writing activities. Newell (2006)
has argued that for writing to support learning, students must enter into curricular conversations with a
discipline. Activity contexts that scaffold students in
thinking critically about their experiences contribute
to learning (Wallace et al., 2004). For example, opportunities to repeatedly revise the ideas in a text for an
interested audience are effective (Hohenshell, Hand, &
Staker, 2004). However, although several ethnographic
reports have provided rich descriptions of content area
writing in classrooms, the effects of such writing on students learning are typically not assessed in these studies, so further research is needed (e.g., Rosaen, 1990;
Varelas, Becker, Luster, & Wenzel, 2002).
The effect of classroom context is mediated by the
way in which students take up writing activities. Those
who develop their texts more extensively, and make better use of available sources, learn more than those who
do not (Klein & Samuels, 2010). It appears that appropriate experiences can enhance students ability to use
writing to learn. Boscolo and Mason (2001) described
a study in which fifth-grade students participated in a
writing-intensive curriculum unit on the exploration of
America, and then later completed a writing-intensive
unit on the circulatory system. Compared with a class
that completed the second unit only, the class that had
participated in the first unit showed evidence of greater
understanding of disciplinary epistemology, their own
learning, and the circulatory system. In other recent
studies, students who have been taught argumentation
subsequently wrote texts that were lower in misconceptions, suggesting that instruction affected their ability to
use writing to interpret readings and experiences (de la
Paz, 2005; Zohar & Nemet, 2002).
Surprisingly however, most experimental research
has relied on students existing writing abilities (see
Klein, 1999, for a review). Consequently, in the present study we created a classroom context that would
develop students abilities (i.e., competence and capacity) to use writing as a tool for learning, in order to generate theoretical insights and an instructional model.
(We refers to the researcher and classroom teacher.) We
assume that this ability comprises knowledge, strategies, and attitudes. In some uses, the term ability has


the connotation of innateness or stability over time.

However, previous research shows that students writing abilities can increase substantially with appropriate
educational experiences (e.g., Graham & Perin, 2007).

A Theory of Cognitive Processes

in Writing to Learn
This project was initially conceived as an effort to implement Bereiter and Scardamalias (1987) knowledge
transforming model of writing (Bereiter & Scardamalia,
2005; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1991, 2006). The knowledge transforming model was originally developed to
explain the process of skilled writing; it continues to
influence contemporary research on writing and writing to learn (e.g., Galbraith, 2009; Kellogg, 2008; van
den Bergh & Rijlaarsdam, 2007). This model is based
on the metaphor of two mental spaces. One is the content space, in which writers think about the question,
What do I mean? The other is the rhetorical space, in
which they think about the question, What do I say?
Reflective thought during writing involves an interaction between these two spaces. The process begins
with the writer pursuing a goal in the rhetorical space.
If the writer has content knowledge to meet this goal,
then writing proceeds smoothly. If the writer does not
have content knowledge available, he or she may set the
subgoal of developing this content. The writer works on
this problem in the content space, retrieving knowledge
from long-term memory, and deriving new inferences
from it (or using other content problem solving operations, such as decision making). These inferences result in a transformation in the writers knowledge. The
writer may then translate this back into the rhetorical
space, composing new text. This cycle can occur repeatedly. For example, a student may be writing a persuasive essay, and want to offer evidence (rhetorical goal);
but no relevant supporting facts come to mind, so she
tries to think of some (content subgoal). She retrieves
some previously ignored facts and considers what they
imply (content problem solving); these lead her to draw
a different conclusion from her original one (inference).
Some research supports the hypothesis that the pursuit of rhetorical goals can lead students to transform
knowledge through writing (Klein, Boman, & Prince,
2007; Klein, Piacente-Cimini, & Williams, 2007).
The knowledge transforming model was the principal theory guiding the development of our framework.
Because the model was originally intended to explain
skilled writing, rather than to explain writing to learn
or to teach students to write to learn, this involved
considerable interpretation on our part. Because the
knowledge transforming process begins with a rhetorical goal, it implies that genre writing can invite students

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

to transform their knowledge. Argumentation has the

rhetorical purpose of deliberation or persuasion, so it
invites students to think critically about subject matter.
Explanation has the rhetorical purpose of telling how
or why phenomena occur, so it invites writers to understand processes and theories. We will now expand
on the theoretical role of these genres in knowledge
Argumentation has been of considerable interest
in content area education (e.g., Bell, 2000; de la Paz,
2005). Arguments comprise a variety of types; those
of primary interest here are persuasive arguments,
which attempt to convince another party of a claim;
inquiry arguments, which search for evidence to evaluate a hypothesis; and deliberation arguments, which
are concerned with selecting the best course of action
(Walton, 1999). Arguments include a variety of rhetorical moves, which we considered to comprise possible
rhetorical goals in the knowledge transformation process. Toulmin (2003; adapted by Crammond, 1998)
proposed that writers can make a claim, that is, express
a view on an issue. To validate this claim, they can offer evidence, that is, data that supports it. To show how
the evidence supports the claim, writers can include
warrants. Writers often leave warrants implicit in text
(Toulmin, 2003); however, students may comment on
evidence in other ways, for example, by describing it in
detail, so the related concept of elaboration of evidence
was used in this study. To approach an issue critically,
writers can present oppositional moves: An alternative
solution, which contradicts the writers own claim; rebuttal evidence, which supports the alternative solution
or opposes the writers claim; and countered rebuttals,
which respond to the alternative solution and rebuttal
evidence. Finally, writers may close with a conclusion
that ties their ideas together. Students often write arguments that include only a claim and evidence; however,
instruction and practice can increase students use of
oppositional moves and the quality of their texts (de
la Paz, 2005; Graham, 2006; McNeill, Lizotte, Krajcik,
& Marx, 2006; Piolat, Roussey, & Gombert, 1999;
Reznitskaya, Anderson, & Kuo, 2007).
The present project extends this line of research by
proposing that if students are taught argument writing,
they will be better able to use it to learn about content
area concepts. In terms of the knowledge transforming
model, we theorize that students writing an argument
adopt a rhetorical goal, such as providing evidence. This
requires that the student has some relevant topic knowledge; if the student does not, then he or she could set
the content subgoal of solving this problem. The writer
could draw on some previous knowledge and make
new inferences from it, as per the original knowledge
transforming model. Or, as we would suggest, the student may read some relevant nonfiction, researching

information that bears on the claim. The writer would

then make inferences about how this information bears
on the claim, forming new claim-evidence relationships. This results in a transformation in the students
knowledge. Alternatively, the student could modify the
claim, or investigate the opposing point of view. Any of
these would contribute to transformations in the writers knowledge. Thus learning is conceived of here as
the result of the students construction of relationships
among ideas, and knowledge comprises the relationships among these ideas. Previous research shows that
including a variety of argument moves in writing, and
incorporating information from source texts into these
moves, contributes substantially to learning during
writing (Klein & Samuels, 2010).
Explanation is also central to content area reading
and writing (Chambliss, Christenson, & Parker, 2003;
Martin, 1989; Rowan, 1988; Schleppegrell, 2004). In
terms of the knowledge transforming model, the student writing an explanation would set the rhetorical
goal of telling how or why a phenomenon occurs. To
pursue this, the student could set further rhetorical
goals, such as reporting each event in a process, and
telling why it happens. If the writer has sufficient relevant content knowledge, he or she could base the text
on this. However, it is more likely that the writer will
need to try to develop this content knowledge. In the
terms of the original knowledge transforming model,
the writers previous knowledge would be transformed
through content problem solving operations. We would
consider that the writer could also draw information
from external sources, such as hands-on experiments
or observations. The writer would then carry out content problem solving operations, such as drawing inferences about causal relationships among events. These
new inferences constitute a transformation in the writers knowledge. Thus learning is conceived as a result of
the students construction of inferences, and comprises
new relationships among ideas. The writer could then
try to translate these new inferences into well-formed

A Framework for Increasing

Students Ability to Write to Learn
The design experiment was an appropriate method
for this study, because it allows researchers to develop
theory within the simultaneous context of improving
practice as a project unfolds. It can be considered to
have a repeating cycle that comprises three essential
phases (Collins, Joseph, & Bielaczyc, 2004; diSessa &
Cobb, 2004). First, a design focus is identified. The design focus is the outcome that researchers are trying
to improve, in this case, the students ability to learn

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


through writing. Design experiments incorporate theoretically motivated design elements. Typically, several
such elements are implemented in a given study, because optimizing classroom practice requires refining
multiple aspects of teaching and learning. At the beginning of this project, the design elements comprised the
Frequent writing in the content areas
Conception of writing as learning
Education in analytic genres, that is, arguments
and explanations
Developing intrinsic motivation to write
Strategies for the constructive use of sources
Evaluation and revision for learning
Assessment designed to support self-evaluation
Remediation of mechanics, for example, spelling
It should be noted that a common criticism of design
experiments is that because they manipulate multiple
aspects of teaching, they do not decisively test the effects of any one variable. However, this is inevitable:
Elements such as program organization, curriculum
content, teaching methods, and assessment methods
are part of an integrated system, so that a change in one
requires and causes changes in the others (Barab, 2006;
Confrey, 2006; Guthrie & Cox, 2001).
A second element of this cycle is that the effects
of the intervention on theoretically relevant aspects
of learning and the classroom environment are regularly assessed formatively. Design research attempts to
profile the overall educational situation that affects the
outcome of interest, so reporting includes a description of the design in practice. This allows assessment
of the validity of the theory in action, that is, whether
the intervention is instantiating the process of theoretical interest. In this study, the formative data comprised
writing samples, with particular attention to traces of
the knowledge transforming process in the form of rhetorical moves, and content inferences that went beyond
the information provided in sources.
The third element of this cycle is that based on
these formative assessments, the design elements and
the practices through which they are implemented are
progressively modified. This is necessary because implementation involves many decisions that go beyond
the design itself, and because one of the purposes of
design research is to refine practice (Collins, Joseph, &
Bielaczyc, 2004; diSessa & Cobb, 2004). Consequently,
throughout the implementation of this framework, we
used formative data from writing samples to reinterpret
the knowledge transforming model and to assess the
effectiveness of the design elements and practices, and
made revisions on that basis.


In addition to formative assessment, design experiments also include summative assessment. In this study,
students in the experimental class and in a comparison
class completed a transfer activity to assess their ability
to use writing to learn about a new topic. This quasiexperimental aspect of the research design was intended
to allow us to judge the effect of the instructional framework on the students ability to use writing to learn,
by comparing the experimental groups learning during
writing to that of a group that did not participate in the
framework. This provides a sense of what might otherwise have happened (had students not received the instruction), controlling for the effects of variables such as
completion of the pretest assessments and maturation.
The hypothesis was that the experimental group would
learn more during writing than the comparison group.

Goals and Elements of the Design

In the remainder of the introduction, for each design
element, a rationale will be given and some illustrative
practices will be identified (see Table 1).

Frequent Writing in the Content Areas

Bangert-Drowns et al. (2004) found that writing-intensive
content area units were most effective if students wrote
for brief periods, three to four times each week, for one
semester or more. In this study, a given activity cycle of
two to four sessions took place about once each week,
typically comprising an experiment or observation of
some kind, a classwide minilesson on some aspect of
genre, and a writing activity that required two or more

Education in Analytic Text Genres

We have interpreted the knowledge transforming model to imply that argumentation and explanation provide rhetorical goals that invite thinking and learning
about content. This requires that students learn these
genres. Conceptions of genre differ widely (e.g., Coe,
1994; Johns, 2002; Schleppegrell, 2004). Here, texts
of a given genre are considered to share a family resemblance structure comprised of several features: purpose, social context, a sequence of rhetorical moves or
components, grammatical features, and lexis. To support teaching analytic genres, this project drew heavily on First Steps: Writing Resource (Raison et al., 1994;
cf. Stead, 2002). This document, informed by systemic
functional linguistics, describes six text genres, including exposition (argumentation) and explanation. The
approach to teaching these genres is based on problem
solving: Students read, compare, analyze, and evaluate
sample texts to generate guidelines for their own writing. After students initial discovery of the genre, the
resource recommends scaffolding and gradual release

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

Table 1. Overview of Design Elements and Practices

Initial design element

Final design element

Teaching practices

Frequent writing in the content


Content area literacy with writing


3 Writing three times per week

+Reading for genre and content learning
+Talk as a prewriting activity
+Academic controversy

Conception of writing as learning


3 Writing to interpret experiences

 voiding source materials in the same genre that students will
3 Experience to raise awareness of writing to learn (e.g., States of
Matter activity)

Education in analytic genres

(argument, explanation)


3 Reading to experience genre

3 Constructing genre knowledge by analyzing models
3 Genre strategy instruction (see below)
3 Writing arguments to think critically about content
3 Writing explanations to construct theories

Inquiry writing as preferred

lesson type

3 Prewriting experiences to generate data

3 Discussion to interpret data
3 Writing to interpret data
+Explainables, arguables
+Multiple source writing activities

Strategic approach to genre


Source use incorporated into

genre strategies (not a separate

3 Teaching a strategy for each genre

3 Incorporating students ideas into strategy
3 Modeling strategy use, self-monitoring, and self-reinforcement
3 Gradual transfer of responsibility to students: Modeling, shared
writing, guided writing, independent writing

Strategies for constructive use of



Evaluation and revision for


Assessment designed to support

revision for learning

Assessment designed to support



Building intrinsic motivation

Positive attitude toward writing

3 Interesting topics
3 Hands-on experiences
3 Peer collaboration
+ Narrative frame
+ Choice within topics mandated in curriculum
+ Publications and celebrations

Remediation of mechanics

Support for mechanics

3 Conferencing to support mechanics

Individualized spelling framework
+ Sentence combining to teach genre-appropriate grammatical
+ Electronic support for mechanics

3 Teach revision focusing on relationships among ideas (see

Genre as learning heuristics)
3 Teacher and peer conferencing to scaffold revision
+ Students using checklist to monitor genre elements in their own
+ Moving revision into planning

Note. +=added, increased, or articulated as the study proceeded; 3 = confirmed as the study proceeded; = reduced or eliminated as the study

of responsibility through modeled writing, shared writing, guided writing, and independent writing.

Cognitive Strategy Instruction

A cognitive strategy is a procedure that students use to
guide their thinking during some academic activity, in

this case argument and explanation writing. Cognitive

strategy instruction includes practices such as explicitly
presenting a strategy, modeling it while thinking aloud,
prompting students to use the strategy, and gradually
fading support (Englert, Mariage, & Dunsmore, 2006;
Graham, 2006). What cognitive strategy instruction

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


adds to conventional genre instruction is the explicit

representation of genre writing as a process comprised
of a series of acts, rather than simply a text structure
comprised of a set of components. Consequently, cognitive strategy instruction includes elements such as
teaching students to set goals and monitor their writing
process (Graham & Harris, 2005).

Conception of Learning as a Goal of Writing

It is common for writers to simply tell what they already know about a subject, an approach that has been
theorized in the knowledge-telling model (Bereiter &
Scardamalia, 1987; Klein, Boman, & Prince, 2007). In
contrast, the purpose of writing in this framework was
learning, conceived as knowledge transforming. This
design principle was implemented primarily by asking
students to use writing to interpret new experiences.
Additionally, in some activities, we address the conception that writing contributes to learning more directly;
for example, by asking students to record their ideas
before and after writing, and then to compare the two.

Strategies for Using Sources

According to the original knowledge transforming
model, the content that students transform is drawn
from long-term memory (Bereiter & Scardamalia,
1987). However, a key feature of discourse is intertextuality, the process in which each text is influenced by
previous texts with respect to content, structure, and
language (Bazerman, 2004; Spivey, 1997). Students
writing in the content areas, for example, usually make
use of sources of some kind. In doing so, they transform
these sources by selecting, connecting, and organizing
ideas to pursue their own rhetorical goals (Spivey, 1997;
cf., Segev-Miller, 2007). Students who make greater use
of sources learn more during writing than those who
make less use (Klein, Boman, & Prince, 2007; Klein
& Samuels, 2010). Consequently, one of the initial design elements was a strategy that included frequently
reviewing sources, attending to surprising information,
and evaluating conclusions against sources (later, this
was to change).

Evaluating and Revising for Content

To support the implementation of the knowledge transforming model, feedback to students focused primarily
on rhetorical moves appropriate to argumentation and
explanation, and the development of content in the text.
These moves were the focus of conferences with students and written comments on students texts. These
were intended to be a source of information for revision.
Revision can contribute to students forming a new un-


derstanding of subject matter (Hohenshell et al., 2004;

Klein, Boman, & Prince, 2007).

Assessment Designed to Support SelfEvaluation

Writing can probably be improved by teaching students to monitor their own texts and composing
processes (Andrade, Du, & Wang, 2008; Graham,
Harris, & Mason, 2005; Graves, Montague, & Wong,
1990). However, self-monitoring has not been isolated
as a variable, so its effects are not known for certain
(Graham & Harris, 2005; Olina & Sullivan, 2004).
In this project, we adopted practices for teaching selfmonitoring, including students generating criteria for
good genre writing, teacher modeling of self-evaluation,
and providing tangible supports for self-monitoring
such as checklists.

Building Intrinsic Motivation

Writing instruction requires some conception of student engagement or motivation. Intrinsic motivation is
thought to lead students to pursue an activity in the
absence of external incentives; it contributes to learning and other outcomes (see Deci & Ryan, 2000, for
a review). Intrinsic motivation overlaps conceptually with other constructs such as approach to writing
(Lavelle, 2007), personal interest (Hidi & Renninger,
2006), and attitude toward writing (Knudson, 1995).
Although these constructs are not identical (see Hidi
& Harackiewicz, 2000, for a comparison), they are
conceptually similar in that each includes positive affect and is thought to contribute to text quality (e.g.,
Graham, Berninger, & Fan, 2007; Knudson, 1995), so
our intention was not to choose among them. Instead,
we implemented practices thought to contribute to motivation, such as integrating writing instruction into
disciplinary subjects, writing for authentic purposes,
teaching writing strategies, writing for real audiences,
and hands-on activities (cf., Bruning & Horn, 2000;
Guthrie & Cox, 2001).

Remediation of Mechanics for Struggling

Many elementary students have weak skills in handwriting, spelling, and sentence production, which substantially affect the quality of their texts (Berninger &
Swanson, 1994). Instructional frameworks that address
both composition and mechanics are more effective
than frameworks that address only one or the other
(Berninger et al., 2002). Because several of the students
in this class lacked fluency and accuracy in spelling, we
initially intended to provide an individualized spelling
program (later, this plan was also to change).

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

Research Questions
The research questions addressed were as follows:
1. A s the design experiment evolved, what theoretical constructs and instructional practices
were generated or changed, and how were they
changed, to enhance students writing of argumentative and explanation genres?
2. As the design experiment evolved, what theoretical
constructs and instructional practices were generated or changed, and how were they changed, to
enhance students academic content learning?
3. At the end of the instructional project, did students writing in response to an argumentative
and explanation activity task display the rhetorical moves, inclusion of source information, and
inferences representative of the instructional
model employed during the project?

Overview of the Research Design

In September, the classroom teacher participated in
three full-day professional development meetings to
learn about writing to learn, analytic text genres, cognitive strategy instruction, and the other elements of this
framework. In October, students in two classes completed assessments of genre knowledge, approach to
writing, and argument text quality. One of these classes
was randomly assigned to be the experimental class and
the other, the comparison class.
The experimental class then completed two instructional phases: The first phase (OctoberDecember) focused primarily on argumentation; the second phase
( JanuaryMarch) focused primarily on explanation.
Writing activities took place in cycles of approximately
one week. To assess the effectiveness of each activity,
we primarily collected samples of students writing.
After each activity, we discussed the writing samples
and the design elements and practices, and we modified the next cycle of lessons accordingly. In the middle
and at the end of each phase, we also met to discuss the
framework as a whole.
In June, posttesting took place. The role of posttesting in this study differed from most previous experiments on writing to learn, so it requires some
explanation. Most studies have focused on whether a
particular writing activity contributes to learning; consequently, the typical design comprises (a) content pretest; (b) a writing activity; and (c) a content posttest. In
the present study, students conceptual learning during
the instructional phases was of secondary interest; the
primary question was whether instruction increased students ability to learn through writing, as demonstrated
on a transfer activity that required students to write to

learn about a new topic. Therefore, the science prewriting test occurred in May, after the instructional phase,
and focused on a new topic, human organ systems and
nutrition, about which the students had not written before. The experimental class and the comparison class
both carried out the same writing to learn activities (one
argument, one explanation); then they completed a science posttest. The hypothesis was that the experimental
class would show greater learning during writing than
the comparison class. Students also completed posttests
of genre knowledge and approach to writing.
The participants were drawn from two urban
schools serving lower middle class neighborhoods.
Informed consent was obtained by letter from students
and parents; 34 students consented. Intact classes, one
from each school, were randomly assigned to the experimental or comparison group. The comparison group
was originally to be one grade 5 class, but was changed
by school administration just before the beginning of
the project to include both grade 5 and grade 6 students. The comparison group was one class comprised
of 16 students evenly divided between the two grades,
while the experimental group was one class comprised
of 18 students. In total there were 19 girls and 15 boys.
Students at the beginning of the study ranged in age
from 9 yrs, 10 months to 11 years, 9 months of age (including grade 6 students).
Writing samples in this report will be presented primarily for seven representative students from the experimental class. They included a girl and boy who were
academically low-achieving (Cordelia, Michael), a girl
and boy who were medium-achieving (Chloe, Owen),
and two girls who were high-achieving (Samantha,
Maya). No high-achieving boys consented to participate. However, Jacob, a student who had been identified
as gifted/learning disabled consented; his disabilities
made writing and social interaction difficult for him,
but he was interested in science and social studies.
Five of the students were European-Canadian; two
were Asian-Canadian (Owen, Chloe); one of the AsianCanadian students (Chloe) spoke English as a second
language, but was conversationally fluent in English;
the other (Owen) spoke English as a first language. All
student names are pseudonyms.
The following sections are organized chronologically. First, we will describe the initial assessments.
Then, the argumentation phase of the instruction will
be briefly summarized, and the theoretical insights and
instructional practices that arose from it will be outlined. Then the explanation phase of instruction will
be described at greater length to illustrate the way in
which students writing samples were used to draw theoretical inferences and instructional decisions. Finally,
the posttest writing to learn activities will be described
and the results reported.

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


The purpose of the pretests was to inform our teaching
and provide a baseline for assessing student progress
(Table 2). Several of the assessments involved rating
students writing or responses to questions. The raters
were two graduate students interested in literacy education: one was an experienced writing tutor, and the
other was an elementary school teacher. The class in
which each student was enrolled (experimental, comparison) was masked, and the two raters scored each assessment independently of one another. All assessments
for students in both classes were scored by both raters.

Approach to Writing
This survey was designed to assess the depth of students approach to writing, which refers to an orientation toward making meaning through writing; a deep
approach is contrasted with a surface approach, which
refers to an orientation toward mere completion of
writing tasks (Lavelle, 2007). The survey used in this
study was adapted for elementary students from the
Inventory of Processes in College Composition (Lavelle,
2007). Students read 40 brief items and responded to
each by circling a number from 1 (strongly disagree) to
5 (strongly agree). Inter-item reliability was very high
(Cronbachs a=0.87); items concerning positive attitude toward writing and elaboration of ideas correlated
most strongly with the total score (Samuels & Klein,
2008). Prior to instruction, students in the comparison
class showed a significantly deeper approach to writing
than the experimental class (see Table 2).

Genre Knowledge
The purpose of this survey was to assess students initial declarative knowledge about analytic genres. To

orient students to the argumentation component, the

survey provided the following definition: A written argument is sometimes called persuasive writing, opinion
writing, or exposition. Its purpose is to persuade the
reader. One example of a written argument is, Why It
Is Important to Recycle Paper. A series of brief, openended questions concerning written arguments followed. The maximum possible score was 10 points;
inter-rater reliability was r=0.86; inter-item reliability
was Cronbachs a=0.70.
Previous research showed that students responses
to this survey correlated significantly with the quality
of their written arguments (Klein & Samuels, in press).
Students in the two classes did not differ in their initial
knowledge about argumentation (Table 2). Most students could identify at least one kind of thing to include
in an argument, for example, reasons (n=27), and at
least one difference between good and poor arguments
(n=21). About half of the students could propose a
possible title for an argument (n=18); tell where they
might find one (e.g., letter to the editor of a newspaper;
n=10); and suggest at least one word that is typical of
this genre (e.g., therefore, n=14).
For the explanation genre knowledge component,
the introduction read, An explanation tells why or how
something happens. One example of an explanation is,
How Airplanes Fly. In the items that followed, students showed more limited knowledge about explanation than they had shown about argumentation. About
half could create a possible title for an explanation
(n=16); identify at least one kind of thing to include
(n=17); and suggest a word that is typical of this genre
(e.g., because, n=17). Most could not suggest where
they might find an explanation (n=6), or identify a
difference between a good explanation and a poor one
(n=10). The inter-rater reliability was r=0.98; interitem reliability was Cronbachs a=0.68.

Table 2. Pretest Assessments

mean (SD)

mean (SD)

Partial h2

141.73 (14.48)

128.75 (21.01)



Argument genre knowledge

4.40 (1.82)

3.64 (2.15)



Explanation genre knowledge

2.70 (1.84)

2.47 (1.69)



Pretest argument text quality

5.44 (1.86)

4.87 (2.25)



11.20 (2.01)

9.50 (1.44)



Approach to writing

Prewriting science knowledge
Note. * p<.05. ** p<.01.


Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

Argument Quality
The purpose of this task was to provide an initial assessment of students analytic writing. Students wrote
on the question, Should children choose the subjects
that they study in school? Their texts were holistically
assessed on a scale of 1 to 10 by two independent raters,
r (33)=0.79, and analyzed with respect to rhetorical
moves. For an example of an argument text marked up
for rhetorical moves, see Appendix A. Initial argument
text quality did not differ between the experimental and
comparison classes (Table 2). Most students included a
claim (n=33), at least one piece of evidence (n=34),
elaboration of at least one piece of evidence (n=30), and
a conclusion (n=28). None of the students in either
class included oppositional moves. This is a typical text
from Michael (a low-achieving student):
No children shouldnt be able to choose what subject they
want because if you want gym or computers it might be taking another class. You shouldnt be able because you wont
learn anything, and when you get to high school you will
not know anything, and when you come home your mom
might ask you what you learned and you will say nothing
we just had gym and computers and did track and field but
we did not learn any thing. If you could pick what you wanted you will get sick of that subject. So that is why the teacher
picks what to do!!!

The Comparison Class Program

Most of the writing education for the comparison class
was provided by a teacher who visited the classroom
two to three times each week to release the regular
classroom teacher for planning time. Additionally, students did some writing with their regular classroom
teacher during language arts and content area subjects.
The teachers used a process writing approach, in which
students completed plans (outlines), drafts, and final
copies of texts. Planning frequently made use of graphic organizers or templates. Students were introduced to
rubrics for assessing texts on four dimensions: reasoning, communication, organization, and conventions,
with accompanying exemplars. They were encouraged
to assess and revise their writing based on these rubrics. Between drafts, the teacher, and sometimes fellow
students, provided oral or written feedback to writers.
Final drafts were typically word processed on a computer. Students learned various text genres consistent
with the provincial curriculum, including narrative,
persuasive (argumentation), and report writing. Some
content area writing took place, and included library
research reports, lab reports, and biographies; however,
this was not a regular (i.e., weekly) activity.
This implies that the principal differences between
the experimental class and the comparison class were
the following: Students in the experimental class more

often wrote in content area subjects; they were instructed in explanation writing; and they were taught that
writing is a means of learning. The programs of the two
classes were similar in that both received regular writing education that included explicit teaching, guided
writing, and independent writing; both classes participated in the writing process; and both were taught to
write arguments.

Phase 1: Learning Through

Argument Writing
The first phase of implementation focused on argument.
Whereas this genre has been the focus of considerable
instructional research during the past decade, explanation has not (Chambliss et al., 2003; Rowan, 1988;
Schleppegrell, 2004). Consequently, for conciseness
we will provide a synopsis here of the argument phase,
then present the explanation phase in greater detail.

Teaching and Learning Activities

For a summary of the teaching activities, see Table
3. Recall that in the initial assessment, all of the students appropriately wrote texts that were primarily arguments, and included evidence for their claims.
Conversely, none of the students in either class discussed both sides of the issue, so this was selected as
a focus for instruction. The argumentation phase was
implemented in the context of a demanding provincially mandated unit of study that explored federal, provincial, and municipal levels of government in just a few
weeks. Instruction took place on a weekly cycle that
included two to four sessions, typically comprising an
experiment or observation, a classwide lesson on some
aspect of argumentation, and a writing activity that required two or more sessions. We, the two researchers,
collaborated through partner teaching. Typically, one of
us led a lesson or discussion while the other observed.
During activities, we both supported students with conferences or informal talk.
Design experiments involve repeated, theoretically
informed assessment with respect to the design focus.
In this study, we examined students texts for traces of
elements of the knowledge transforming process. The
first phase of the knowledge transforming model as applied here is adopting the rhetorical goal of argumentation; this was evident if the text was organized at a
global level as an argument. The second phase, rhetorical goal setting, was considered to be present if students
elaborated their text with rhetorical moves at the local
level, such as evidence, rebuttals, and countered rebuttals. The third phase, content problem solving, was considered to be present if students integrated information

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


Table 3. Writing Activities in Argument Phase

Title of lesson/activity

Activity type


Purpose/ genre focus

Should We Have Pets?

Read-aloud, discussion

Familiar content

Thesis, evidence

Do Coaches Need to Be Popular?

Academic controversy, drafting

Familiar content

Thesis, evidence, exploring two


Should Students Be Allowed to

Wear Hats in School?

Guided writing

Familiar content

Thesis, evidence, exploring two


Horses in John Forrest National

Park (Raison et al., 1994)

Discovery by analyzing,

Familiar content

Open-ended: Components,
grammar, lexis

Should There Be Zoos?

Read-aloud, discussion, drafting


Thesis, evidence, conclusions

Car Colour and Road Safety (Raison

et al., 1994)

Discovery by analyzing,

Familiar content

Open-ended: argument
components, grammar lexis

My Favorite Right

Drafting, revising argument

Canadian Charter of
Rights and Freedoms

Review of all genre elements

previously listed

Why Are Liquids Harder to

Compress Than Gases?

Shared writing, reflection on


States of matter and


Writing as learning

Should Senators Be Appointed or


Discussion, argument analysis

Federal government

Warrants and elaboration of

evidence, review other argument

Class Government, Campaign


Outline, drafting

Federal government

Claim, evidence

Would My Ancient Civilization Be

a Good One in Which to Live?

Think-aloud modeling, shared


Warrants and elaboration of


Modeling, shared revising,

individual revising

Effective introduction, conclusion

Final draft, modeling, rehearsal,


Oral delivery

Academic controversy, shared

revising, individual revising

into their arguments that we judged them unlikely to

have known prior to writing; or if they included inferences that went beyond the information given in classroom lessons and source texts. The fourth phase was
transforming this content knowledge back into language. As outlined in the introduction, the rhetorical
problem solving and content problem solving phases
actually occurred dialectically rather than sequentially.
Both of us read all of the writing that the students
produced for this project. We talked briefly during or
after each session, and more extensively after each activity cycle (about once each week). If we found traces of
the knowledge transforming process in most students
text samples, then we took this as evidence that a given
practice was effective, and it could be continued. If a
particular practice consistently did not lead to traces of
knowledge construction, we took this as evidence that it
needed to be modified or stopped, and some alternative
needed to be implemented. We also considered whether
each practice was practical and desirable to implement


Ancient civilizations

Self-monitoring of argument

in the classroom. Additionally, we met halfway through

the argument phase of the study, and again at the end,
to systematically discuss each design element. On this
basis, we decided which design elements and practices
to continue, start (or modify), and stop.

Theoretical Insights and Pedagogical

A summary of changes in the design elements appears
in Table 1; we will now provide the rationale for decisions made during the argumentation phase.

The first phase of the study supported our decision
to use the knowledge transforming model to inform a
framework for writing to learn. The rhetorical goals of
persuasion and deliberation were highly appropriate
to the many controversial topics in the unit on government; all students adopted these in their talk and

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

writing, producing texts that were recognizable as arguments. Similarly, rhetorical goal setting was evident
in the variety of rhetorical moves that students made
in their texts. Students progressed from presenting evidence for one side of an issue at the beginning of this
phase, to about half of the students providing evidence
on both sides of an issue at the end of the phase (for detailed outcomes, see the Posttesting and Results Section).
Pedagogically, this supported the design element of
teaching students to write in analytic genres. A practice
that was particularly effective in engaging students in
discussing the rhetorical features of arguments was one
in which they read and compared three short argument
texts, ranked them in quality, and discussed what made
each more or less effective (Raison et al., 1994). Another
such activity was academic controversy ( Johnson &
Johnson, 1993), which systematically engaged students
in considering both sides of an issue; this helped prepare them to write two-sided arguments.
We chose to continue frequent writing in the content areas. However, in practice, writing was based on
prewriting activities in which students generated content by reading content area texts, discussing controversial topics with other students, or viewing materials
such as a website on the Canadian Senate. Reading
also provided a model for writing, as when students
analyzed written arguments to learn about rhetorical
elements of text. Additionally, some writing activities
contributed to further oral language activities, such as
speeches for classroom elections. Therefore, to foreground the regular use of talking, reading, and viewing
to support writing, we changed the name of this design
element to content area literacy with a writing focus.

The strategy for the constructive use of sources was
modified by being merged into the argument strategy.
This was consistent with the dialectical nature of rhetorical problem solving and content problem solving in
the knowledge transforming model, and with research
indicating that text genre influences writers selection of
source content (Spivey, 1997). Consequently, during an
activity in which students analyzed texts to learn about
argument, when students generated the idea of including facts to persuade the reader, this was a natural opportunity to move this step into the argument strategy.
Students found that it was challenging to learn
new concepts about government and new argument
moves at the same time (cf., Rosaen, 1990). In terms
of the knowledge transforming model, we interpreted
this to mean that students needed to assimilate some
basic content knowledge before they could mobilize it
to make new rhetorical moves, or draw new inferences
from it. We noted that with relatively familiar concepts, students could readily assimilate new facts into

arguments; for example, they were familiar with the

terms elected and appointed so they took this up to argue
about whether Senators should be appointed or elected.
However, in other instances, students initial conceptions clashed or did not connect with new information,
so they had were not initially ready to take up particular
information for other arguments. For example, in the
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, people have
rights upon arrest, such as the right to be told why
they are being arrested. This clashed with several students conceptions that people are arrested because they
are guilty so they should go to jail. One student drafted
an argument for the importance of rights upon arrest
as the somewhat opposite notion that it is right to arrest
people who break the law.
We decided that in the future, for difficult topics,
we would engage students in more extensive descriptive talk or writing activities first, and then use argument writing to invite critical thinking afterward.
Additionally, we were already introducing argument
moves using familiar topics first (e.g., zoo animals), and
then reading or writing the same argument moves with
respect to more challenging topics afterward (e.g., the
Canadian Senate). Regarding revising, a shared writing
activity in which students marked up their texts with
codes representing various kinds of argument moves
was helpful in allowing students to diagnose missing elements; however, they had difficulty inserting material
so that it meshed with previous and subsequent text;
they appeared to be text bound. Consequently, we decided to ask students to revise their ideas at the outline
stage, rather than the written draft stage.

Finally, as a practical consideration, we decided to stop
the remedial mechanics component, because our limited content area time was taken up in learning about
argument and social studies content. Instead, we scaffolded mechanics using conferences, and spelling and
grammar software.

Phase 2: Learning Through

Explanation Writing
The second phase of the study took place from January
through March of the school year.

Initial Assessment
At the beginning of the unit, we conducted an assessment activity on students ability to use explanation
writing to construct knowledge. In this activity, students
would construct and explain a model fire extinguisher.
In a previous unit of study on substances, students had

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


combined vinegar and baking soda to make carbon dioxide, and they had learned that carbon dioxide does
not support burning, so they had some relevant prior
knowledge. At the same time, the fire extinguisher was
a novel project, so it afforded an opportunity for students to draw inferences from their prior knowledge to
explain a new piece of technology.
First, the students poured vinegar into a plastic bottle, dropped in baking soda, and attached a lid with a
soda straw projecting through it. The resulting carbon
dioxide foam sprayed out through the soda straw to extinguish a candle flame. We asked the students to write
an explanation of the fire extinguisher, stressing that
the task was to tell how it worked.
We will interpret the results in terms of the knowledge transforming model. With respect to the students
overall rhetorical goal, most of the students wrote texts
that were not explanations; rather, they recounted a sequential description of events, or they wrote instructions (procedures) for constructing and operating a fire
extinguisher. This is Owens text, which we considered
to be primarily procedural:
You put vinegar and baking soda in a plastic bottle and stick
a straw through the lid then put the lid on and shake it then
squeeze the handle and foam will come out. The fire extinguisher is not a toy either. You only use the fire extinguisher
unless there is a fire. So you aim the part where the foam
comes out at the fire. Then the fire will go out. But white
foam will be all over the place.

This was consistent with the genre knowledge pretest,

which indicated that students understanding of explanation as a genre was limited. Theoretically, this did not
lead us to the inference that students have no ability to
explainthere is a longstanding literature documenting
childrens theories about a variety of phenomena (e.g.,
Duckworth, 1973; Piaget, 1928). However, these results
did suggest that students who have little knowledge and
experience of explanatory text may not use this genre
to organize their writing (for similar observations concerning reading comprehension, see Ciardiello, 2002).
For an example of a student explanation text marked up
for rhetorical moves, see Appendix B.
With respect to the content problem solving phase
of knowledge transforming, the students drew on this
new experience for content, transforming it from the
medium of action and perception into the medium of
text. However, students did not appear to do much inferring; those who wrote recounts, for example, created
a text that mirrored the experience directlya series of
events, which occurred in chronological order. Students
who wrote procedures recontextualized their experiences somewhat, transforming them from a series of
actions that they had carried out themselves into a set
of instructions for the reader, but the content closely


mirrored the experience itself. These results were consistent with what we take to be the basic assumption
of the knowledge transforming model: The rhetorical
purposes that students adopt affect the ways in which
they do, or do not, transform old knowledge into new
Conversely, two students appeared to adopt the rhetorical goal of writing texts that were primarily explanations; this was one of them, from Samantha:
The fire extinguisher works by when the baking soda went
in it started foaming. When it foamed the foam went into
the straw. It went into the straw because the straw was in
the vinegar and was rising so a bit of the foam had to go
into the straw. Liquid puts fires out unless it is gasoline or
explosive. Even though foam is not really a liquid, it would
still put the fire out because it is wet.

These writers appeared to be trying to tell the reader

about each of the most striking events, and why they
happened. (An additional seven students wrote texts
that included brief explanations sections, combined
with longer recount or procedural sections).
With respect to content problem solving, Samantha
reconstrued the events into a series of cause-and-effect
relationships. Because causal relationships are not immediately given in experience, and must be inferred,
this indicated some transformation of her knowledge.
However, as we noted above, students had previously
learned that baking soda and vinegar make carbon dioxide, and that carbon dioxide does not support burning.
None of the students (including Samantha) integrated
this knowledge into their explanations. Theoretically,
this suggested to us that students may not spontaneously see the relevance of their background knowledge
to a new phenomenon, or to a new text genre, a point
to which we will return later. The final phase of the
knowledge transforming model involves translating
new content inferences back into language. The phrasing used by Samantha and other students (e.g., The fire
extinguisher works by when the baking soda went in...)
suggested that they were not familiar with felicitous
grammatical forms for expressing causal relationships.
Pedagogically, these results confirmed our intentions for instruction: Students needed to access relevant
prior knowledge, or access external sources of information. With respect to rhetoric, the majority of students
needed to become more familiar with the goal of explanation writing, and with subgoals for elaborating explanations, such as discussing each event that occurs
and telling why it occurs. These ideas were embedded
in a short strategy for developing the operational part of
Get informed.
Include each step.

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

Tell why each step happens.

Additionally, students needed to learn appropriate language and vocabulary for expressing explanation.

Teaching Explanation
Understanding Explanation
To select appropriate content area topics, we surveyed
mandatory science and social studies units for this grade
level (see Table 4). The class had previously completed a

unit of study on the Middle Ages, so early in this phase,

they carried out a text reconstruction activity to learn
about the rhetorical moves found in explanations that
built on content from that unit. First, students helped
to demonstrate a model trebuchet. Then, they received a
textual explanation of the trebuchet, in which the various components (introduction/definition, components,
operations, applications, interesting comments; Raison
et al., 1994; cf., Stead, 2002) were cut apart and given
to the students in random order. The students task
was to work with a partner to place each component in

Table 4. Writing Activities in Explanation Phase

Title of lesson/activity/kit



Purpose/genre focus

How Does a Fire

Extinguisher Work?

Independent drafting

Changes in matter

Baseline assessment of explanation


How Is Gum Manufactured?

Read-aloud, discussion

Changes in matter

Immersion in genre

How a Trebuchet Works

Discovery through text



Purpose, overview of components:

definition, components, operations,
application, and evaluation

How a Light Bulb Works

Think-aloud and modeled



Purpose, cause-and-effect relationships;

linking words

The Dancing Raisins

Experiment, drafting


Three-part strategy for operations section

Sentence-combining, individual


Three part strategy, genre-appropriate


Review diagram, prewriting,

partner writing

Water cycle

Explanation components, strategy

Shared revision

Water cycle


The Fountain Bottle

Experiment, guided writing

Temperature and volume

of gas

Diagrams, explanation components and


Explanation Game

In groups, students analyze,


Temperature and volume

of gas

Review components, grammar, lexis

The Mystery of the Missing


Partner writing from multiple


Episodic acidification

Consolidating above


Students construct and explain


Flight: Control surfaces

Full explanation, diagram

Cartesian Divers

Students construct and explain



Full explanation, diagram


Students construct and explain


Potential and kinetic


Full explanation, diagram


Students construct and explain


Reflection of light and


Full explanation, diagram

Balloon Cars

Students construct and explain



Full explanation, diagram

Returning Can

Students construct and explain


Potential and kinetic


Full explanation, diagram

Explanation of Water Cycle

Technology Kits

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


sequence, discuss why they placed each section where

they did, invent a name for each section, and tell what
it did in the explanation. All of the students actively
discussed the text and ordered it in the conventional
way. They suggested a variety of apt names for the components. For example, the operational section, which
contained most of the cause-and-effect propositions,
was dubbed variously, How it Works, The Events,
The Real Explanation, and The Why Part. Initially,
some groups coined overly general names that did not
reflect the function of the components, for example,
Beginning, Middle, End. In these cases, we prompted
them further with questions such as, What is the author trying to do in this part of the text? How is this
different from other parts of the text?
Theoretically, students understanding of explanation presented a paradox. On one hand, the pretest
showed that most students had very little declarative
knowledge about explanations, and in the fire extinguisher activity, most students did not appear to attempt
one. On the other hand, preschool and elementary students often provide rich explanations of phenomena,
and the text reconstruction activity suggested that most
students are sensitive enough to explanatory rhetoric to
detect a variety of rhetorical moves in text and identify
them in their own terms. Taken together, these opposing considerations suggested that students have some
implicit or situated understanding of explanatory discourse. Consequently, we saw our pedagogical task as
making this implicit understanding conscious, so that
students could apply it to a greater range of situations
and use it to prompt their own rhetorical moves. To this
end, we recorded students ideas from the text reconstruction activity on a poster, to which they could later
refer when they drafted their own explanations.

Introducing the Explanation Strategy

The Dancing Raisins demonstration was selected to
introduce the explanation strategy because it includes
a sequence of several events linked by causal relationships, which students can infer without specialized
prior knowledge. First, students, working in groups of
three, filled cups with diet soda and dropped in raisins. The raisins sank, floated to the surface, and then
sank again, repeating this cycle for about 10 minutes.
The students began excitedly discussing why the raisins
were dancing. We asked them to write an explanation
of why this happened. We will analyze the two phases
of this activity: writing the initial draft, and revising
the draft.
Initially, nine of the students wrote texts that were
primarily explanations, indicating that they had adopted the rhetorical goal of explainingan improvement
over the fire extinguisher activity. However, we wish to
focus here on a student who initially did not write an


explanation, and then, with support, did so. Here is the

first draft from Michael (a low-achieving student):
First, the raisins sank. The bubbles surrounded the raisins.
The raisins moved up to the top and then sunk to the bottom. After they sunk to the bottom, they started shaking.
They fliped over and the chain continued!!!

In total, seven students appeared not to adopt the rhetorical goal of explaining; instead, they simply reported
the events in sequence, so the content of their texts did
not elaborate beyond the events themselves.
We then began to teach and scaffold students in the
three-step strategy for writing the operational component of explanations, noted above: get informed; include each step; tell why each step happens. In the first
draft, most students had included only the most salient
events (e.g., First the raisins sank). Now we asked the
students to get informed by observing the experiment a
second time and looking for additional events that they
The second step in the strategy asked students to
include each step or event that they had observed. To
support this, we held a large-group discussion in which
students shared their observations and each event was
recorded on a sentence strip and placed in a large pocket chart. At this point, the list included less obvious
events, such as the fact that after the raisins reached the
surface, they flipped over. Students then discussed
the sequence, and volunteers reordered the sentence
strips until they were satisfied that all of the events appeared in sequence.
The last step of the strategy was, tell why each step
happens. This was a rhetorical goal, which invited
students to make causal inferences. For example, students explained the fact that raisins flipped over by
using their observation that the bubbles on the top of
the raisins burst, and inferred that the bubbles on the
bottom pushed the raisin over. We supported students
with a shared writing minilesson on expressing causeand-effect relationships. Student volunteers held up
the large jotted notes from the previous session. Using
a sentence-combining procedure (Saddler, 2007), the
class collectively arranged them and added connectives
such as so and because to form compound or complex
sentences that expressed the causal relationships. This
modeled for students how to translate their newly constructed causal inferences into appropriate language.
Following these group activities, the students revised their individual texts. This is Michaels revised
explanation; the new material that he inserted is indicated in uppercase letters:
First, the raisins sank because they are dense. The bubbles
then surrounded the raisins. The raisins moved up to the
top because the bubbles pushed them up and then sunk to the

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

bottom. After they sunk to the bottom, they started shaking

because the bubbles were pushing back and forth before they

They fliped over because the bubbles on

and the chain continued!!!

the bottom

pushed them over

After revision, most students texts indicated a knowledge transforming process. Concerning rhetorical goals,
15 of the 16 texts were primarily structured as explanations; 1 student wrote a text that was primarily descriptive; 2 students were absent. Of the 15 explanation
texts, 14 texts addressed the rhetorical subgoal of discussing most events; 1 text was very brief. Twelve of the
explanation texts addressed the further rhetorical subgoal of telling why most events happened; 3 other texts
told why some events happened, but simply recounted
others. In terms of content problem solving, of the 15
explanations, 14 included scientifically valid content; 1
included several non sequiturs, such as Then the raisins on the bottom began to expand. So the raisins at the
top moved down to the bottom. Finally, as Michaels
text illustrates, even lower achieving students translated
their inferences into felicitous grammar and lexis.
These improvements in the writing samples are
perhaps not surprising, given that students were scaffolded at each step. However, the pedagogically important point was that the facilitation of this strategy
successfully supported students rhetorical and content
problem solving. This suggests that targeted instruction in this strategy could improve students abilities to
use writing for knowledge transformation. Conversely,
if this facilitation had not brought about rhetorically
elaborated explanations or new inferences, this would
suggest that the strategy was not worth pursuing. As a
limitation, we noted that the Dancing Raisins activity
was conceptually shallow, in that it only required linking observable events to other observable events. The
students were not required to use more abstract science
concepts to explain the phenomenon. Consequently, we
decided to provide further guided experience in using
this strategy to write an explanation of a more challenging phenomenon.

Guided Practice in the Explanation

Strategy: The Fountain Bottle
In a subsequent activity, students wrote an explanation
of the fountain bottle. A large plastic bottle was partially
filled with colored water. A straw projected up from the
liquid, through a stopper, and out of the bottle. When
hot water was poured over the outside of the bottle, the
colored water inside spouted from the straw. For the
first step of the strategy, get informed, the students carried out and observed the demonstration. Then, to support the second step of the strategy, include all steps, the
class generated some jotted notes collaboratively.

Then in group discussion, they tried to tell why each

event happened. In the terms of the knowledge transforming model, the students readily took up this rhetorical subgoalparticipation was high, and numerous
ideas were brought forward. However, this required
them to solve a challenging content problemit was
not obvious why warm water on the outside of the bottle would make the colored water spray up from the inside. We initially anticipated that because students had
previously studied a curriculum unit on air and water
and learned that heat causes air to expand, they would
try to use this scheme to construct an explanation of the
fountain bottle. However, students proposed a variety
of short explanations concerning heat and its effects on
air. The most popular idea was that when warm air and
cold air meet they push against each other; students
mentioned that this was like a tornado or a hurricane. This may have been inspired by a previous unit
of study on weather. One student proposed that hot
air rises, and that the rising air pushes the water up
the straw. Another student suggested that heat makes
the air move and that this pushes water up the straw.
A fourth idea was the one that we expected, i.e., when
the air in the bottle gets warm, it expands.
This brought several theoretical points to the fore.
First, as per the knowledge transforming model, the
rhetorical goal of explaining led students to engage in
content problem solving; they recalled relevant previous knowledge, and used it to draw inferences about
this novel demonstration. Second, the rhetorical subgoals were of some help in choosing among explanations. For example, when we asked the students to try
to tell why each step happens, they gradually realized
that warm air rises did not help to explain why the
water moved up the straw. Conversely, when the students started with the idea that heat makes air expand,
they were able to develop this into a workable explanation. However, third, as the knowledge transforming
model implies, although rhetorical goals invite content
reasoning, rhetoric is not directly or strongly helpful in
this process; it is the students content knowledge and
content reasoning that becomes critically important at
this point. The pedagogical decision we took from this
experience was that it would be necessary to plan more
extensively for supporting content knowledge and content reasoning in future activities.
Next the students drafted full explanations of the
fountain bottle individually, translating their content inferences back into text. In this scaffolded situation, of the 18 students, 15 organized their texts as
explanations; 1 student organized the text primarily as
procedure followed by a brief explanation; 2 students
were absent. Of the 15 explanation texts, 13 were scientifically valid, centering on the idea of the air in the
bottle expanding when heated. This suggested that the

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


students had engaged in some knowledge transforming,

adopting the heat causes expansion scheme and applying it to this novel experiment.
In the written texts, most students fluently expressed the cause and effect relationships. We took this
to mean that the sentence combining activity had been
helpful to students in learning the language of causal
relationships. For example, Jacob usually had great difficulty in writing cohesive, coherent texts. However, his
fountain text is largely understandable:

explanation phase, as with the argument phase, we included source use incorporated into genre (i.e., explanation) strategy. This was broadly consistent with the
knowledge transforming model, in the sense that it provides students with some content knowledge prior to
writing, which they can use to engage in content problem solving, (e.g., by drawing inferences) during writing

The found spouted water because the water in the kettle

heated the air wich makes this making them expand. when
something expands it takes more room and pushing the water out the straw. when it pushed it out the straw the fountain spouted water. when the air inside cooled it caused this
to stop spouting then stopping the fountain. This is because
the kettle ran out of hot water. It sprayed higher than it
would usualy because it had a small hole in it, not a big hole
the size of the straw.

Pedagogically, the greatest practical challenge was that

although all of the students in the class actively participated in the hands-on activities and discussions, some
were uninterested in transcribing their ideas, and most
were reluctant to revise their texts. Based on the notion
that a motive for writing is to communicate information to a real audience, and that relatedness and autonomy contribute to intrinsic motivation and learning
to write (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Purcell-Gates, Duke, &
Martineau, 2007), we decided to provide students with
audiences beyond their classmates, and to provide more
individual choice of topics within the limits of the prescribed curriculum.

Revisiting the Conception That Writing Is a

Way to Learn
During this phase, students participated in a placemat
activity (Bennett & Rolheiser, 2001) on the question,
What are the purposes of writing? This was meant
to assess their understanding of this issue, and invite
further discussion. The students sat in groups of four
around large sheets of paper, with a pie-shaped segment
for each individual. Each student jotted down ideas on
one slice of the pie. The most frequent were, to learn
to write better, to get good marks/because you have to
for school, and to express yourself or your ideas. Only
two students listed thinking or learning as purposes
of writing. Next, each group discussed the ideas from
their individual lists, and selected the most important
to include in the center of their placemat. Then the students toured the room to view the ideas of other groups,
and recorded any that they wished to add to their own
placemats; the learning idea then appeared on all of
the groups lists. From this, we inferred that learning
was part of the students conception of writing, but a
very peripheral one.

Reflections up to Midphase
We have discussed some insights based on the knowledge transforming model; we will now comment on
other considerations.

The experiences in the explanation phase continued to
support the conceptualization of the first design principle as content area literacy with a writing focus; for
example, the text reconstruction activity reflected the
value of connecting reading and writing. Also, in the



In some instances, we were surprised by students difficulties in mobilizing prior knowledge to construct
explanations; we have noted that this occurred in the
fire extinguisher activity, and resolved to help students
to activate their relevant background knowledge prior
to writing. However, this problem again appeared in
a later activity, when students wrote about the water
cycle. We noted that most students were able to explain individual concepts, for example, they understood that in evaporation, heat makes a liquid change
into a gas. However, students did not think of this as
part of a cycle, namely, that evaporation can feed into
condensation. Consequently, we resolved not to assume
that helping students to activate their prior concepts is
sufficient. Rather, we decided to support students in
learning these individual concepts in their explanatory

Continuing the Explanation Phase

Consolidating the Explanation Strategy
To implement our intention to scaffold the initial learning of concepts in an explanatory context, we created a
multiple source writing activity that extended students
understanding of the water cycle, titled The Mystery
of the Missing Fish. A brief pretest showed that all of
the students had heard of acid rain, but none were
familiar with episodic acidification. Episodic acidification
is a process that can begin when air pollution creates

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

acidic water vapor. The vapor condenses as snow, and

the snow accumulates during the winter. Then in the
spring, the snow melts, and the acidic melt water flows
into lakes and rivers, affecting aquatic life such as young
The students worked with partners. Each pair received a portfolio of six brief documents in a variety
of media, including a newspaper clipping reporting the
disappearance of young fish from Stony River; a map
of the town; a graph of acidity levels in a stream over
the year; a table relating acid levels to effects on aquatic
life, and so on. However, the source documents did not
provide the explanation; to construct a coherent explanation, students would need to interpret and connect
information from all six sources. They were videotaped
as they completed the activity.
All of the students were highly engaged. Here is the
explanation from Cordelia and her partner (low-achieving
To us, we think that there are not as many young fish
around because of the acidic. Most of the fish eggs may not
hatch because of the acidic. We also think that the young
fish swam away to a different pond or river because there
isnt much space for them to live. There is also an iron factory that is near the river, and we think that it is polluting
the river and killing the young fish and clams and snails. I
also think that acid rain is causing all the disappearances.
The snow can also be making the river cold. Most fish might
have swam to a different part of the river. And the fish got
lost and they had no food to eat. So thats why we think the
young fish are not there.

With respect to the knowledge transforming model, all of the texts were organized primarily as explanations; the students appeared to adopt the rhetorical
goals of discussing most of the events that occurred and
attempting to tell why each happened. With respect to
content problem solving, we identified six key inferences that students could make, based on the source
materials, to construct a valid explanation. The text of
Cordelia and her partner is representative of the fact
that all of the groups made at least three inferences,
and some made all six. Additionally, like Cordelia and
her partner, the students made additional inferences
that are not part of the scientific conception of episodic
acidification, but that reflected general beliefs about animals. For example, Cordelia and her partner hint that
the fish left the area because the snow made the water
This task provided some additional theoretical insights into the knowledge transforming processes of
our students. In the original knowledge transforming model, problem solving is based on the writers
prior knowledge. However, the sources in the Missing
Fish text were largely external representations (e.g.,

a diagram, a map, a graph, a table), which combined

graphics with text and numbers. Transforming graphical sources into talk and writing involves resemiotization (Iedema, 2003; or transmediation, Siegel, 2006),
a process in which ideas are translated from one sign
system into another. These representations allowed us
to display information in forms that could scaffold student inferences, while at the same time leaving space for
students to make these inferences for themselves and
create unique texts. This supported our decision to use
such sources to support future writing activities (e.g.,
the posttest). Resemiotization will be revisited at greater
length in the discussion.

Drafting Explanations Independently

We noted earlier that students often were motivated
to explain phenomena verbally, but not to write about
them or revise their texts. To provide a real audience for
students writing, the class planned an open house for
parents and friends, based on small technology projects related to the junior science curriculum. This was
also an opportunity for students to draft explanations
individually. First, students in partners selected a kit
for one of six possible projects: a periscope; a balloonpowered car; a robottle (wind-up vehicle made from a
plastic bottle); a glider with control surfaces; a Cartesian
diver; or a returning can. These would allow students
to apply science principles that they had studied previously to explain a new topic. For example, students
had studied light earlier in the year, so the periscope kit
allowed them to apply concepts about reflection to this
new technology.
The students enthusiastically constructed their projects and then experimented to understand how they
worked and to get the bugs out. Then each student
outlined an explanation with support from a template
(Raison et al., 1994) and illustrated it with a diagram.
Initially, the students operations sections were not
complete enough to effectively explain the projects. For
example, here is the outline of the operations section
for a periscope by Owen (a medium-achieving student):
works because you look at a mirror witch reflects off
the other and you can see through the hole.
Next, the students who worked on each type of project conferenced with the teacher or researcher in a small
group. Students took turns reading their outlines aloud.
We scaffolded rhetorical goal setting by leading discussion with the prompts from the explanation strategy
(include each step; tell why each step happened). This
often raised content problems, which students could try
to solve by experimenting further with their technology
project, and making new inferences. They then revised
their outlines by adding any points that they considered
important. For example, here is Owens revised outline
for the operational section of his explanation:

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


1. The light comes in at the top of the periscope.

2. The light reflects off the top mirror to the other
mirror/bottom mirror.
3. Then it reflects off the bottom mirror into your
4. Then you can see the objects around you.
Additionally, we noted that revising the outline, rather
than revising the completed draft, appeared to allow
students to make more substantive changes to their
texts. Earlier in the study (for example, in the activity Would My Ancient Civilization Be a Good One in
Which to Live?), students identified gaps in their first
drafts, but they were reluctant to insert ideas. The outline format appeared to help them to scan their ideas,
evaluate them, and insert new points.
Students wrote rough drafts based on their outlines,
and then conferred with a peer to edit them. The teacher also reviewed the drafts, and the students produced
a final version on the computer. On Open House night,
guests visited the classroom and the students orally presented their explanations and displayed their written
texts. The guests tried constructing the same projects
from kits, and read the students explanations to understand how they worked.

Reflections on the Explanation Unit

We have commented on the knowledge transforming
model as it played out in each activity. Here we will
focus on other considerations concerning the design
principles and practices.

We noticed that interest was particularly high in the
Missing Fish task. All of the students eagerly searched
the sources and created explanations based on them.
Our impression was that the mystery narrative framework made the need for an explanation particularly salient, and that the students were interested in the fate of
the main characters, the fish. We would consider a mystery narrative for presenting future writing activities.
Additionally, in the technology kits activity, introducing a new audience through the open house appeared
to raise students interest in transcribing and revising.
Also in the technology kits writing activity, interspersing text revision with hands-on investigation and
discussion helped students to generate new ideas and
translate them into language. Theoretically this concretely mirrors the dialectical relationship between
rhetorical problem solving and content problem solving posited by the knowledge transforming model.
This process also worked well in the Dancing Raisins


During the placemat activity, very few students spontaneously contributed the idea that writing is a way of
learning. In contrast, all of the students treated writing
activities, such as the Mystery of the Missing Fish and
the technology projects, as opportunities to generate
new explanations. We will return to this paradox in the
discussion section.

Recall that for the explanation unit, and particularly for
the technology kits writing activity, we selected topics
from a number of different science curriculum units.
This facilitated student choice, and allowed us to select
activities that invited explanation writing. However,
this may have prevented students from developing rich
enough concepts about any one topic to readily make
new inferences during writing. It may have been more
effective if students had carried out a sequence of experiments and writing activities focused on a series of
related topics. Typical elementary units of study, which
are rich in explanation topics, include simple and complex machines, human organ systems, and the earths

Posttesting and Results

The assessments of approach to writing, argument
genre knowledge, and explanation genre knowledge
were repeated at posttest in June. However, the primary
purpose of posttesting was to investigate whether instruction increased the students ability to use writing
to learn, by asking both the experimental class and the
comparison class to complete the same writing to learn
activity sequence concerning a novel transfer topic. The
sequence began with a prewriting test of science knowledge about human organ systems and nutrition; this
was followed by two writing activities (one argument,
one explanation); this was later followed by a science
posttest on the same topic. The question was whether the experimental class would show greater science
learning during writing, as measured by science posttest score, with science prewriting test score accounted
for statistically. If the experimental class showed greater
science learning during writing, this would suggest that
instruction had been effective in increasing their ability
to learn through writing. We will now describe these
assessments further.
The prewriting test of science knowledge was designed to measure students prior knowledge about human organ systems and nutrition. Eleven items required
students to classify foods into groups; evaluate whether
various foods are relatively healthy or unhealthy and
explain why; identify the components of the respiratory

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

and circulatory system; and explain how the circulatory system exchanges gases. Inter-item reliability was
Cronbachs a=0.67; inter-rater reliability was r=0.98.
On the prewriting test of science knowledge, the comparison class scored higher than the instructional class
(see Table 2).
For the first writing to learn task, students composed an argument designed to build on the nutrition
unit of study. Previous experience indicated that junior
students (grades 46) are familiar with basic information about food groups; this activity was designed
to consolidate and extend it, particularly concerning the role of fats in a healthy diet. Each student received a portfolio concerning a fictional student named
Michael, with a writing prompt that posed the question,
Should Michaels parents make him eat more nutritious snacks? The portfolio included information about
Michaels typical daily menu, a schedule of his weekly
physical activities, a Canada food guide chart, a height
weight table, Fast Facts on the role of fats in a healthy
diet, a chart of foods containing different types of fats,
and an information sheet on nutrition and disease. The
source materials did not present an argument on the
question; they were intentionally brief and various in
genre, content, and medium (textual and graphic); students could plausibly take a positive, negative, or mixed
position on the question, draw on these sources, and
invent unique arguments.
For the second writing to learn activity, students
composed an explanation on the question, How does
the circulatory system exchange gases in the body?
This was intended to build on the regular curriculum,
which presents the circulatory and respiratory systems,
but does so in isolation from one another. Students received a brief portfolio: fast facts on oxygen and carbon
dioxide, a CT scan of the lungs showing airways, a diagram of gas exchange in an alveolus, and a schematic
of the circulatory system. Again, the task required students to interpret and integrate information from the
source documents to construct an explanation.
One week later students completed the posttest on
nutrition and human organ systems. It included cloze
items that required recall of information, comprehension items that required students to relate two or more
concepts, inference questions that required predictions
about a novel scenario, and a critical thinking question.
It was designed to be more challenging than the prewriting test. The inter-item reliability was Cronbachs
a=0.74; inter-rater reliability was r (33)=0.95. The
students posttest score on this science test, with science
prewriting test score entered as a covariate, was considered to represent their learning from the Michaels
Snacks and Gas Exchange writing activities.
Additionally, students texts were evaluated for holistic quality by two independent raters from whom

the writers condition (instructional or comparison)

was masked; inter-rater reliability for the argument
texts was r (33)=0.79; for the explanation texts it
was r (33)=0.70. Recall that we hypothesized that
students learn by selecting content from sources and
transforming it to complete rhetorical moves in text.
Consequently, the argument texts were segmented into
sentences and categorized with respect to rhetorical
moves (claim, evidence, alternative claim, elaboration
of evidence, rebuttal evidence, counter to rebuttal evidence, conclusion) and use of content propositions derived from the various source documents. Similarly, in
the explanation texts, the cause and effect propositions
were identified and counted, and the propositions derived from various source documents were identified.
Additionally, students in both classes completed posttests of argument and explanation genre knowledge,
and the Approaches to Writing survey.

Effects of Instruction
A multivariate analysis of variances (MANOVA) was
conducted with treatment group as the independent
variable, and the posttest measures as the dependent
variables. (An omnibus MANOVA, rather than multivariate analysis of covariances, was used in the first
step of the analysis to avoid dividing the degrees of
freedom among the several potential covariates). An
examination of the data showed that assumptions for
MANOVA were met; Boxs test for equality of covariance matrices was marginally significant, M=39.93, F
(21, 3274.39)=1.49, p=0.068, so the robust Pillais
trace statistic was selected as the multivariate statistic. The test showed a large, statistically significant
difference between the experimental and comparison
classes on the combination of posttest variables, Pillais
trace=0.99, F (6, 26)=278.46, p<0.001, h2=0.99.
To determine which assessments were affected by instruction, analyses of covariance were carried out on
each posttest variable, using the corresponding pretest
variable as a covariate; for example, the effect of instruction on posttest science knowledge was examined using prewriting science knowledge as a covariate. The
raw means and standard deviations for each posttest
assessment are reported in the upper half of Table 5;
the estimated marginal means, adjusted for the pretest
covariates, are reported in the lower half of Table 5.
As expected, students in the experimental group
scored significantly higher than the comparison group
on declarative knowledge about argumentation (Table
5). At the end of the year, most students in both classes
could tell where they might find an argument, generate
a possible title, and suggest a difference between good
and poor arguments. Students in the experimental
class could name more kinds of things that could be
found in an argument (e.g., reasons, a conclusion), and

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


Table 5. Posttest Assessments for Comparison Group and Experimental Group


Unadjusted for pretest covariates

Adjusted for pretest covariates

group raw
mean (SD)

marginal mean

group raw
mean (SD)

mean (SE)

Pretest covariate

Partial h2






4.52 (0.46)

6.36 (0.45)

Pretest argument
genre knowledge








3.30 (0.57)

4.89 (0.54)

Pretest explanation
genre knowledge



Argument text





4.71 (0.51)

5.60 (0.50)

Pretest argument
genre knowledge,
prewriting science



text quality





3.97 (0.63)

5.88 (0.59)

Pretest explanation
genre knowledge,
prewriting science



137.80 (13.30) 123.22


132.02 (3.64)

129.37 (3.42)

Pretest Approach to




9.20 (0.97)

13.03 (0.88)

Prewriting science



Approach to




Note. * p<.05, ** p=.05, *** p<.01. Pretest and posttest forms differed.

more words that were clues that a text is an argument

(e.g., because, however). Students in the experimental
class also showed marginally more declarative knowledge than the comparison class about the explanation
genre. For example, more members of the experimental
class could propose differences between good and poor
Students in the experimental group produced significantly higher quality explanation texts than those in
the comparison group (See Appendix B for an example).
Of the students in the experimental group, 17 out of 18
wrote texts that were primarily explanations; similarly,
all of the students in the comparison group composed
texts that were explanations, albeit lower in quality.
The quality of the argument texts did not differ significantly between the experimental and comparison
classes. All students in both classes included a claim at
some point and at least one piece of evidence. Most also
included elaboration of at least one piece of evidence
(n=30) and a conclusion (n=28). Students within both
classes varied in their treatment of positions with which
they disagreed: about half included an alternative claim
(n=17); evidence for the alternative claim (n=21); and
a rebuttal (n=13). For an example of a high scoring
argument text, see Appendix A.


The two classes did not differ significantly in

Approach to Writing, and the scores were similar to
pretest scores; both classes showed moderately deep
approaches, averaging slightly above 3 on a Likert scale
of 1 to 5.
With prewriting science score entered as a covariate, students in the experimental class scored significantly higher on the science posttest than those in the
comparison class, indicating that they learned more
from the writing to learn activities (see Table 5). Before
completing the writing to learn activities, only one student out of both classes could offer a partial explanation of how the circulatory system contributes to gas
exchange. After the writing activities, some important
differences between classes were that more students in
the experimental class could identify diseases caused
by poor nutrition; they were better able to propose
changes to a menu and give reasons for these changes;
and they could more fully understand the interaction
between the circulatory and respiratory systems.

Mediators of Learning
One research question was whether traces of knowledge
transformation in students written texts would be associated with their learning during writing. We examined

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

the partial correlations between each key text feature

and science posttest score, with science prewriting test
score accounted for statistically. Consistent with our interpretation of the knowledge transforming model, science learning was predicted by the number of causal
links in explanation texts, r (30)=0.48, p=0.003; and
by the number of sources used in explanation texts,
r (30)=0.38, p=0.017. Science learning was also predicted by the variety of rhetorical moves in argument
text, r (30)=0.49, p=0.002; but not by the number
of sources used in argument writing r (30) = 0.07,
We also asked if writing to learn would be associated with the student attributes implied by the knowledge transforming model, as we interpreted it. Results
indicated that with science prewriting test score partialled out, explanation genre knowledge significantly
predicted science posttest knowledge, r (30)=0.52,
p=0.001 argument genre knowledge also significantly
predicted science posttest knowledge, r (30)=0.68,
p<0.001. Approach to Writing score did not predict
science learning, r (30)=-0.10, p=0.261.

Effects of Instruction
The main purpose of this framework was to increase
students ability to use writing as a tool for learning; in
this respect, it was largely effective. On a transfer task,
students in the experimental group were better able to
use writing to learn about novel topics than students
in the comparison group. Most previous experimental
studies of learning through analytic writing have depended on students existing writing abilities (see Klein,
1999 for a review); or scaffolded students writing strategies for a particular writing activity (e.g., Wallace et al.,
2004; Nussbaum & Sinatra, 2003). The present results
suggest that with instruction, students can internalize
such strategies, and that this can aid them in subsequently learning through writing.
Instruction appeared to affect students explanations particularly: Most students in the instructional
class progressed from writing recounts that told what
phenomenon had occurred, to writing explanations
that told why the phenomenon occurred, with multiple
inferences about causal relationships. In the past, most
genre-specific studies of writing to learn have focused
on argumentation (Klein, 1999; Newell, 2006). This has
traditionally has been a privileged genre in writing education, perhaps because of its role in law and politics;
indeed, composition traditionally meant rhetoric, and
rhetoric meant persuasion. However, the importance of
explanation was apparent in the many curriculum topics that invited writing in this genre. We are not aware

of any systematic recent research on the frequency of

explanation writing in classrooms, but older research
indicates that it is infrequent (Martin, 1989). Our informal observation suggests that although students read
brief explanations in science and social studies, they
usually are asked to write such explanations primarily
on tests. This suggests that explanation as a genre has
been relegated to the hidden curriculum; we advocate
demystifying this genre through instruction and more
frequent writing opportunities.
The design of this study helps to rule out some
possible alternative interpretations of the results. One
alternative interpretation could be that the experimental group scored higher on posttest science knowledge
because they were generally higher in academic ability.
This is unlikely because the instructional class scored
similarly to the comparison class or lower on the various pretest measures, they were drawn from a school
with a similar record of achievement, and they were a
year younger and a grade level lower than half of the
students in the comparison class. Another alternative
interpretation of the results could be that the experimental class learned the posttest science content during
the instructional phase rather than during the posttest writing to learn activities. However, all students
completed the science prewriting test after the instructional phase, and the instructional class scored lower
than the comparison class at that point. It should be
acknowledged that this instructional framework was
not compared with any other instructional program; for
example, data was not presented on instruction in the
comparison class, so it is not clear whether this framework is equivalent to, superior to, or worse than what
another systematic model of writing instruction might
have yielded.
In one important respect, this framework was not
effective: It did not significantly increase the quality of
the students argument texts relative to the comparison
class. It appears that both classes improved in argument writing during the year: On the pretest, none of
the students in either class discussed both sides of the
issue, but on the posttest, about half of the students in
each class did so. Argumentation was taught in both
the instructional and comparison classes, so this may
account for the similarity of progress. This is consistent
with the expectations of the education ministry (department) in this province, which recommends persuasive
writing in curriculum guidelines, distributes rubrics
and exemplars for assessing persuasive writing, and in
some years includes a persuasive writing task in provincial literacy testing for grade 6 students. However,
a limitation of the study is that we did not collect data
on what students were taught about argumentation in
the comparison class, so this interpretation is somewhat

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


The Knowledge Transforming Model as a

Theory-in-Action of Writing to Learn
This research helps to validate the knowledge transforming model as a theory of writing to learn (cf.,
Galbraith, Ford, Walker, & Ford, 2005; Klein, Boman,
& Prince, 2007). In the posttest data, each phase of the
knowledge transforming model was supported by partial correlations between traces in the students texts
and their learning during writing. An important function for design experiments is providing guidance on
theories-in-action, that is, theories as they are applied
in the context of classroom practice. We should note
that while this study supported the value of the knowledge transforming model, it was not compared with any
other theory of writing to learn.
As we have noted, the knowledge transforming
model was originally offered primarily as an explanation of expert writing; however, we have used it as a
theory of writing to learn, and as a way of informing
our effort to teach students to use writing as a means
of learning. This involved several adaptations of the
original model. First, like Bereiter and Scardamalia
(1987), we applied the knowledge transforming model to classroom practice by scaffolding rhetorical goal
setting. This meant that whereas the original theory
concerned individual cognitive processes, the adapted
model was partially distributed between the student
and the teacher. Similarly, in most writing activities, the
content problem solving process was partially shared
by other students. Second, the knowledge transforming model originally assumed that the knowledge to be
transformed was in the writers long-term memory. We
followed authors such as Bazerman (2004) and Spivey
(1997), who treat textual sources as integral to writing.
This intertextuality occurred with respect to rhetoric
and language, in that students used existing texts as
models to learn about the discourse, grammar, and lexis
of argumentation and explanation. Intertextuality also
occurred at the level of content, in that for several activities, students derived information for their writing
from existing documents.
A third way in which we adapted the knowledge
transforming model was by elaborating the conceptual corridor (Confrey, 2006) through which students
develop in learning explanation writing. (The development of argument writing has been described elsewhere; e.g., Crammond, 1998; Piolat et al., 1999). In
writing explanations, students in this study appeared to
progress through three overlapping phases:
(1) Initially, most students wrote recounts of events,
or procedures for completing activities, rather
than explanations of why phenomena happened.
(2) L ater, students wrote texts that were primarily
explanations, focusing on how or why a process


occurred, but did not include all of the events

in the process, and did not tell why all of the
events occurred, so the text did not form a coherent causal chain; they also included some additional rhetorical moves, e.g., introductions and
(3) L ater still, more students elaborated explanations to create a coherent causal chain, in which
most events were included and most causal relationships were explicitly stated; they incorporated some nonobservable entities and processes
into their explanations; and they included additional rhetorical moves, such as introductions,
diagrams, and conclusions.
It should be noted, however, that this proposed conceptual corridor should be considered relative to instruction and support; if we had emphasized other aspects of
explanation, such as providing definitions of key terms
(Chambliss et al., 2003; Rowan, 1988), it is possible that
these might have become more prominent in students
A fourth adaptation to the knowledge transforming model was our elaboration of the content problem
solving process. It appears that this process is quite
heterogeneous. We conceptualized it in terms of the relationship between students prior knowledge about a
topic (scheme) as shown in their talk and writing, and
the standard scientific explanation. The relationship appeared to include at least the following variations:
Students had prior content knowledge and retrieved it to make inferences about a novel phenomenon; e.g., applying the hot air expands
scheme to the Fountain Bottle.
S tudents retrieved prior content knowledge,
which did not generate the standard explanation
for the particular phenomenon; e.g., applying the
hot and cold air meet scheme to try to explain
the Fountain Bottle.
Students had prior knowledge relevant to the phenomenon, but did not retrieve it unless they were
directly prompted, e.g., the Water Cycle.
Students lacked a directly relevant scheme, but
source materials strongly facilitated the construction of a new scheme, e.g., Mystery of the Missing
Fish; Gas Exchange.
Situations 2 and 3 are of particular interest, in that they
show that although, as per the knowledge transforming
model, rhetorical goals can invite students to engage in
content problem solving, the transformation of content
knowledge is itself complex and challenging (cf., diSessa, 2006).

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

Finally, the knowledge transforming model was

adapted through the use of multimodal documents as
sources for writing (cf., Wiley & Voss, 1999). The sources in the Missing Fish, Gas Exchange, and Michaels
Snacks activities were largely mixed representations
(diagrams, maps, graphs, tables), which included prominent graphical aspects, as well as print and numbers.
This complicates all phases of the knowledge transforming model. Like text, multimodal documents
comprise an external source of knowledge. However,
unlike textual sources, translating graphical sources
into writing involves resemiotization (Iedema, 2003; or
transmediation, Siegel, 2006), a process in which ideas
are translated from one sign system into another. At the
same time, multimodal representations display abstract
information and relationships visually, which facilitates
students making such inferences perceptually (e.g.,
Ainsworth, 2006; Sawyer & Greeno, 2009; Waldrip,
Prain, & Carolan, 2010; Wright, 2008; Zhang & Patel,
These five adaptations of the knowledge transforming model as a theory-in-action share a common theme.
Each comprises a shift from the original models relatively internal view of cognition, toward a more situated conception. We will return to this theme in what

The Design Principles: Role

in Learning, Theoretical
Interpretation, and Further
In the descriptions of the two instructional phases, we
have discussed the ways in which the design principles
and practices were modified during the study. This is
important for understanding how the theory was contextualized in the classroom (Barab, 2006). For conciseness, we will not reiterate these changes here (see Table
1), but we will comment on some findings that were
unexpected, suggest their theoretical meanings, and
identify questions for further research.
The conception of writing as learning was implemented
thoroughly throughout the study; most writing activities required students to begin with relatively raw information and use writing to construct an interpretation of
it. More generally, the culture of the classroom was one
in which the teacher consistently cultivated students
construction of knowledge through investigations in
science, simulations in social studies, and thoughtful
small- and large-group discussions about books and
other media. Students enacted writing as learning enthusiastically. However, very few mentioned the idea
that writing is a means of learning, and their scores on

the Approaches to Writing inventory did not change

during the study. This was consistent with research on
personal epistemologies, which shows that many students think of knowledge as something given to them by
authority, rather than derived from experience and reason (King & Kitchener, 2004; Schommer-Aikins, 2004).
The paradox between students enactment of writing as
learning, and their conception of writing as something
less, will be discussed further in what follows.
To the original design principles, we added inquiry
writing as a preferred lesson type. An inquiry lesson is one
in which students begin with concrete data, the teacher
guides them in learning to write and reason about the
data, and then students write a text that expresses this
reasoning. Lessons of this kind were used throughout
the study, but we did not initially articulate this as a
design principle until after the first phase. Inquiry
writing meshes well with the knowledge transforming
model, in that data provides a source of knowledge from
which students can make inferences, while genre writing provides rhetorical goals for such inferences. In a
meta-analysis, Hillocks (1986) found that inquiry was
the most effective type of writing lesson, but in the subsequent 20 years it was investigated in only two additional published studies (Graham & Perin, 2007). This
method deserves further investigation with respect to
its effects on writing and on writing to learn.
The positive effects of writing instruction on students explanations are consistent with the well-confirmed effectiveness of cognitive strategy instruction
(Graham, 2006). We adopted the constructivist practice of asking students to help create writing strategies
by analyzing text models. Surprisingly, although this
idea has been widely described and recommended (e.g.,
Raison et al., 1994; Stead, 2002), we have been unable
to find any previous studies that have directly compared constructivist and didactic approaches to teaching genre writing strategies, so this too is a topic for
further investigation.
We initially conceptualized students engagement
as a function of developing intrinsic motivation to write.
However, attitude toward writing, as assessed by items
on the Approaches to Writing survey, was not affected
by instruction, nor did it predict learning. Similarly,
other recent studies have shown low correlations between students general attitudes toward writing and
their actual writing achievement (Graham et al., 2007;
Samuels & Klein, 2008; Troia, Shankland, & Wolbers,
2008). Conversely, students appeared to be very interested and engaged with specific writing to learn activities. Interestingly, the one attitudinal measure that has
strongly predicted writing performance is self-efficacy
(Pajares, 2003). This is not a general attitudinal measure; rather, it asks students to predict their performance on a particular assignment that they are about

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


to commence, so it is highly situational. This suggests

that motivational constructs such as approach to writing need to be further investigated in relation to specific
Finally, assessment designed to support revision for
learning was used here. Initially it was conceived as
two design principles; however, in practice, these overlapped, so they were merged into one (see Table 1). In
this study, students were able to diagnose text problems
independently; however, they revised their texts substantially only after peer and teacher conferences. The
role of self-assessment has been investigated in previous
writing studies, but not isolated as a variable, and not
studied in connection with writing to learn. This would
be a worthwhile venue for further research.

This framework was theorized on the basis of our interpretation of the knowledge transforming model;
any problems with it are ours, and ought not to be ascribed to the original authors (Bereiter & Scardamalia,
1987). We should also acknowledge that the formative
data we used in order to show that students engaged in
knowledge transforming during the instructional phase
was indirect; it was based primarily on the analysis of
writing samples, so it cannot be taken to prove the
model. Further, this framework for teaching writing to
learn was implemented in only one classroom, with direct collaboration by the researcher and high commitment from the classroom teacher. This does not prove
that it would be equally effective in other settings. The
quasi-experimental aspect of the method also presents
several limitations. We did not control the experiences
of the comparison group, and because the study was
lengthy, it would have been impossible to do so. Nor
did we observe the teaching that took place in the comparison classroom. This means that the comparison
group allows us to rule out only the effects of pretesting and maturation as potential confounding variables.
Furthermore, the experimental treatment was, as we
have discussed, multifaceted, so we cannot ascribe
the effects of instruction to any of the specific design

Writing to Learn: A Situated

We have proposed several adaptations of the knowledge
transforming model to understand its implementation
in this context, as well as revisions to other design principles. Following Ackerman (1993) and Newell (2006),
we suggest that most instances of writing to learn could
best be conceptualized in terms of situated cognition.
This is the theory that complex human activities integrally include people and material resources. Learning


is comprised largely of coming to participate in situations involving these people and resources (Brown,
Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Sawyer & Greeno, 2009).
This contrasts with the original knowledge transforming model, which conceived the process of knowledge
transformation as occurring internally. Consequently,
we see the process of writing to learn as operating in
a way analogous to that theorized in the knowledge
transforming model, but with a greater dependence on
external resources in the form of cultural artifacts and
other people.
For example, we have shown in our descriptions of
the writing activities that prior content knowledge was
drawn, not only from students long-term memories,
but also from source texts, experimental results, jotted notes posted by classmates, and multimodal source
documents. Rhetorical goals depended on the intentions of individual writers, but also on suggestions by
the teacher, researcher, and fellow students, as well as
on available charts and graphic organizers. Similarly,
content problem solving occurred through inferences
by individuals, but also depended on discussions between students. We have also argued that other design
principles operated in a situated way, including the conception of writing as learning and motivation to write.
It is notable that the creators of the original knowledge
transforming model have subsequently gone on to research themes that somewhat parallel these, focusing
on students participating in knowledge building communities with the support of computer technology (e.g.,
Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2005; Scardamalia & Bereiter,
Consequently, it would be fair to ask whether the students in this study were really enacting the knowledge
transforming model. The most distinctive and central
process in this model is the movement from rhetorical problem solving to content problem solving. In one
sense this took place in the activities described here: All
of the tasks began with a rhetorical challenge to write
an argument or explanation and all required students to
generate content that was not provided in the sources.
However, in the original theory, the hallmark of knowledge transforming is the writers ability to begin with
a rhetorical goal, and set a content goal, individually
and intentionally (e.g., Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987).
In contrast, the instructional and assessment activities
in this study presented the student with a conflation of
rhetorical and content goals. For example, the Fountain
Bottle presents students with both the rhetorical goal of
composing an explanation for the reader, and the content goal of figuring out why the water spouted from the
bottle. Similarly, the Mystery of the Missing Fish invites
students both to adopt the rhetorical goal of telling the
reader why the fish disappeared, and the content goal
of figuring out what happened to the fish. Therefore,

Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

the defining movement of the knowledge transforming

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Submitted November 16, 2008
Final revision received May 4, 2010
Accepted May 20, 2010

Perry D. Klein is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of

Education at the University Western Ontario in London,
Ontario, Canada; e-mail
Mary A. Rose completed this project while a teacher in
London, Ontario with the Thames Valley District School
Board. She now teaches in Milton, Ontario, with the Halton
District School Board.

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


Appendix A

Posttest Argument Text, Coded

for Argument Moves [Maya]

Rhetorical Move

Yes. I think it would be good for Michaels parents to change the snacks he eats.


One of the reasons I think this is because his snacks are unhealthy.


They have lots of sugar, fat and salt in them.

Elaboration of evidence

Too much of these things can clog your circulatory system.

Elaboration of evidence

If just alone you have too much unhealthy fat in your diet you can have a stroke or heart

Elaboration of evidence

Too much sugar in your diet can lead to having diabetes.

Elaboration of evidence

Another reason why they should change his snacks is that he is a good athlete.


If he eats too much unhealthy foods it will make Michael fat.

Elaboration of evidence

To be a good athlete, you need to stay in shape.

Elaboration of evidence

If you dont it will make it hard for you to run and do the sport that youre playing.

Elaboration of evidence

Someone might tell me that I am wrong

Alternative claim

because people do need fat.

Rebuttal evidence

That is correct, but there are 2 different types of fat. Unhealthy and healthy.

Counter to rebuttal evidence

Michael is eating too much unhealthy fat.

Counter to rebuttal evidence

The only type of fat you need is healthy fat.

Counter to rebuttal evidence

This fat wont make you fat as long as you eat responsibly.

Counter to rebuttal evidence

In conclusion, I think that Michaels parents should change the snacks that hes eating so he
will stay fit and healthy.


Note. Propositions apparently derived from the source documents are underscored.


Reading Research Quarterly 45(4)

Appendix B

Posttest Explanation Text, Coded

for Rhetorical Moves [Samantha]

Rhetorical Move

The circulatory systems job is to circulate the blood/or pump it through the body.


The most important part of the system is the heart.


Without it the blood would not circulate and you would die.


If your heart stops working you would die instantly!


Your blood needs oxygen.


When we breathe in oxygen comes into your body.


The first place the blood goes is the lungs.


When it is there is it is oxygenated.


From there it goes to the upper part of your heart on the left side.


This is called the left atrium.


When the blood is in the left atrium, it is still oxygenated.


From there the blood goes to all of the organs throughout your body.


When the blood has gone to all of those places it needs oxygen,


so it goes back to the heart.


Now the blood is blue because it needs oxygen.


The reason that it goes back to your heart is that there is a big artery in your heart that shoots
all the blood from the right side of your heart to the lungs to get oxygen.


When you breathe in, the oxygen goes in to little sacs in your lungs called alveoli.


They hold the air (oxygen). When [you breathe in]


and the waste that is not needed (carbon dioxide) get blown out when you breathe out.


So that is how the circulatory system works and how it exchanges gases.


Note. Propositions apparently derived from the source documents underscored.

Teaching Argument and Explanation to Prepare Junior Students for Writing to Learn


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