How to Argue: An Introduction to the “Toulmin Method”

 By Jonathan Wilson

(AP/IB History, English Literature and English Language tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Hi everyone. This is Jon again here at The Edge. When I sat down to write my latest blog, I asked myself: “What would be the one topic I could write about that would benefit the most number of students?” It can’t be limited to just one curriculum, like the IB or the AP, and it can’t just be a test strategy. Recently, my fellow English Language and Literature teacher Sonali wrote a great blog on Summary vs. Analysis that I recommend you check out. I want to build on that by introducing you to a great method to help us structure our analysis in the form of arguments. The method I’ll be discussing is referred to as the “Toulmin Method”.

The Toulmin Method (or “Model”) is a system for constructing well-supported arguments that are going to help us boost our scores on just about any kind of essay in which we have to make a claim or argument. This system was created by British philosopher and educator Stephen Toulmin as a way to produce practical evidence-focused claims based on pre-existing knowledge. This distinguishes it from the more theory-focused arguments of his peers, in which one attempts to make inferences to arrive at new ideas. Before I show you how this method works, we’ll have to define some important terms.

Data:

The data includes on or more facts that our entire argument will be based on. Sometimes referred to as the “grounds” or “evidence,” data should consist of incontrovertible truths; in textual analysis, data are observable.

Warrant:

The warrant shows how data are relevant to an argument (claim) that we’ll be able to arrive at later. In providing the logical bridge between what we know is factual and what argument we want to make, the warrant answers the question, “How does the data show that the argument is true?”

Backing:

This provides additional support in the form of logic, reasoning, or facts, which support the warrant.

Claim:

The claim is an argument or thesis statement that we are asking our audience to accept is true. In some cases, it may be an action we want our audience to take. These may or may not be modified by “qualifiers” (we’ll define this term later).

Rebuttal:

This is essentially an argument that runs counter to the argument that we are making. It is an imagined argument in opposition to our own that we are proposing so that we may show how it is wrong. Keep in mind that it is only after we arrive at a claim that we are ready to support that we can anticipate what someone might say in response to our claim to show that it is wrong.

Qualifier:

The qualifier is a statement, word, or phrase that proposes a condition or degree in which a claim is true. This might include phrases such as “sometimes,” “unless,” “however,” etc. We may add one of these qualifying words to our initial claim, or we can modify our claim with one of these words later when we are responding to the rebuttal.

A visual aid for this process is pictured below. You’ll notice that it is not a straight line from data to rebuttal because some of the elements of this method are optional depending on whom we are arguing with, and why we’re arguing.

Please note that sometimes we don’t begin constructing an argument by analyzing evidence, but instead by trying to support a claim. We might do this because we want to defend a particular belief we’ve already formed, or we may be assigned the task of defending a side in a debate, so we simply start by choosing one. In either case, we say to ourselves, “Okay, this is the position that I’m taking; now how do I defend it?” From there, we look for evidence and follow the process the same as if we were beginning with data, as in the chart above. Be aware, however, that a thorough examination of evidence may cause us to go back and change our initial claim!

In day-to-day conversation, we assess data and make claims, skipping all the rest. We say things such as, “It’s raining outside,” which a fact or data, “so we should go to the movies,” which is a claim. We don’t bother to say, things such as, “Rain prevents us from participating in outdoor activities,” (warrant) or, “Watching a movie at the cinema would allow us to stay out of the rain and still leave the house and do something enjoyable” (backing). We don’t normally talk like that because the conversations we usually have involved assumptions that both sides are comfortable making. Both the speaker and the audience are likely to understand that going to the movies is fun and keeps us out to the rain. It just doesn’t have to be explained to most grown people who know what “rain” and “going to the movies” are.

However, when we’re constructing arguments in our writing for school assignments or for standardized tests, we absolutely need to support our claims. We’re not talking to our friends, or parents, or anyone with whom we’d normally converse casually. We’re writing for an audience that is looking to find holes in the logic of our arguments, and it’s up to us to make sure there aren’t any. I tell my students that they must pretend they are writing for an audience that have a great vocabulary, but that need everything explained to them thoroughly.

In a lot of standardized tests, you’ll be given a prompt and be forced to make an evidence-based argument to support your position. Let’s take a moment to look at the kind of prompt that we might expect to see on an exam such as the TOEFL or IELTS so that we can later look at a response that follows the Toulmin Method.

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Children should be required to help with household tasks as soon as they are able to do so.

You’ll note that the proper order for the presentation of an argument following the Toulmin Method is as follows:

It is important for children to help parents with household chores (claim) that they are old enough to do safely (qualifier) because it teaches them how to be better citizens (claim continued). According to Marty Rossmann of the University of Mississippi, children who do chores “were more likely to be well-adjusted, have better relationships with friends and family and be more successful in their careers”[i] (data). Parents have the best interests of their children at heart (warrant), and it is their responsibility to help prepare their children for the world of adulthood (warrant), where the parents will not always be around to help. Children who grow up having developed skills for interpersonal relationships and for career success are sure to be better contributors to society than those not as “well-adjusted” (backing). While some may have concerns for the children’s safety if the children participate in chores such as cooking and ironing (rebuttal), this concern should be alleviated so long as the children are old enough to observe proper safety procedures in conducting these chores (qualifier).

You will notice that the above paragraph follows this structure:

Claim → Qualifier → Data → Warrant → Backing → Rebuttal → Qualifier

While this is not the only way to present a sound logical argument, there are three components each argument must have, and they must be in the following order:

Claim → Data → Warrant

When we are presenting a written argument for a school assignment or standardized test, it is imperative that we begin with a claim (our central argument), support that argument with concrete data, and show how that data proves that our claim is true (warrant).

Hope this helps you make rock-solid arguments in your schoolwork, tests, and life. See you next time!

[i] https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jul/12/study-finds-having-kids-do-chores-is-a-good-thing/

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