Writing Practices- Love the Toulmin

“Toulmin insisted that no abstract theory could be understood without some grasp of the larger framework into which it fits” (From his obituary in the Guardian)

Toulmin was a philosopher who believed that structuring writing in the form of an argument can help students conquer the challenges of crafting any written assignment. (Well the latter half is what educators have gleamed from him and now use to help their students.)

His methodology has been adopted by many educators and some entire school systems. When Mara was originally trained in this model she was at first skeptical- teach argumentative writing and that is all? But when one thinks about it- if you can construct a good argument supported by evidence then you can respond to any prompt- fiction and non-fiction. If students are confident in this form of writing they can conquer any task without stress or frustration. Even creative writing tasks could be applied, though may be less interesting and have a weaker storyline than following a more dynamic, three act structure.

To sell this approach to students Mara would promise that they would win most arguments with their parents because they would have a well established, defined claim and back it up with warrants and evidence. For teachers, Mara would share that if students conquered this approach then they will be successful on any written exam they face ultimately improving their scores and reflect well on the teaching and learning happening at the school. In fact as part of her non-negotiables when she started her own charter school from scratch she included this form of writing to be adopted across the entire school. English teachers were a bit upset by this edict but she knew that if students were not taught the methodology and supported in it they would struggle with it. So she demanded that this be the ONLY form of writing for the first two years, with the exception of open ended journal prompts and reflections.

Below is a visual representation of this process. Here is the link to the explanation by the University of Purdue.

Taken from University of Purdue: A visual representation of the Toulmin Process

Below are several resources Mara created and used in her teaching practice. Feel free to ‘borrow’ them and share them with your students. If you have any questions do not hesitate to reach out to her directly. She is available for consult.

ResourceBasic Info
Presentation slide deckMara used this tool to share the Toulmin system with her teacher trainers in Oxford, UK.
Basic overviewA short 2 pager describing the different elements of the Toulmin that Mara shared with her learners- both teacher trainers and high school students in the US.
Basic overview with diagramA short 2 pager that includes a diagram capturing the different elements of the Toulmin model. Mara shared this also with her learners.
First 4 stepsThis handout captures the first four steps of the Toulmin method. It includes examples and highlights the ‘secret sauce or secret weapon’ of the process- CLARIFICATION.*
Sample essay prompt for Slaughter House 5

Final essay prompt questions
When Mara taught 11th grade English she used this assignment with her students requiring them to construct a Toulmin argument. Note that on this assignment is a criteria chart so that learners were able to self check that they had all the components.

Clarification- Secret Spice/ Weapon: when setting up the argument Toulmin would encourage one to define what are the parameters to the argument. Are ALL people born kind or people with parents who model kind behaviors will most likely grow up doing the same? Do ALL wolves intend to blow down houses or just those chasing after pigs that talk back? When setting up an argument one has to set these boundaries and then elevate the evidence and warrants to support it.

Please have a go with this magic and see how your students get on. Feel free to comment below or send forth your questions.