In some messages the main claim appears early in the argument. Often, however, the main claim appears elsewhere. Sometimes it is only implied. Scholars try to state their ideas as clearly and dispassionately as possible, but in popular communication claims may be stated in vague, emotionally charged, or confusing language. It's helpful to teach students to evaluate how a claim is expressed, how (if at all) key terms are defined, and whether these definitions are warranted.
Activities and Assignments
(L) Can be done in large section courses.
Identifying & Paraphrasing Main Claims
Have students read a short essay or listen to a brief speech that presents an argument in support of a clearly stated claim. Then ask them to write the main claim, first exactly as worded in the argument, then a second time in their own words. If wished, compare students' responses to a key provided by the instructor. After students practice identifying and paraphrasing main claims that are clearly stated, analyze examples in which they are unclear or implied. (L)
Select an internet site that advocates a point of view or sells a product or service relevant to the course. Ask students to visit the site and identify and paraphrase the main claim(s) it advocates. (L)
Have students read or listen to an argument that includes definitions of terms in the main claim. Ask students to locate the claim and definitions of key terms, then comment on whether the definitions are justified. If wished, compare student responses to a key provided by the instructor. After students practice straightforward examples, have them work on arguments in which definitions of some terms are questionable or missing. (L)
Have students read or listen to an argument in which the main claim is stated more broadly than is appropriate (e.g., 'Fords are better than Chevies'). Discuss why the claim as presented is hard to support, then ask students to write a more qualified version of the claim. Discuss how qualifying the claim makes it easier to support. (L)
Emotionally Loaded Claims
Have students read a brief article, visit a web site or listen to a speech in which the main claim is stated in emotionally loaded language that makes reasoned discussion of the issue more difficult. For instance:
An advocate of legalizing the medical use of marijuana says those who do not support legalization 'take delight in torturing the sick and dying.'
Explore how the language in which a claim is expressed might influence a discussion about the subject. Then help students rephrase the claim in more balanced language that retains the intent of the original. If wished, assign students to find, critique and rewrite examples of emotionally loaded claims. (L)
Stories as Arguments
People often tell stories in support of arguments. Usually stories provide evidence (e.g. examples) or illustrate a concept.However, stories can also function as arguments. To help students explore this possibility, tell them a brief story meant to convey a moral or lesson.(Parables and fables work well.) Ask students to write the point they think the story is making and share their answers with the class or in smaller groups. Discuss whether the story unequivocally makes a particular point or is open to multiple interpretations.How do particular narrative details related to characters, plot and scene shape interpretations of the story? (L)