Pvlegs Rubrics For Essays

[Originally published in a blog at Stenhouse Publishers: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ]

A fairly typical classroom current events discussion:

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

            Yes, they should! Football is fun!!

            Denver won the Super Bowl!

            Yes! That was a great game.

            But kids get hurt playing football.

            I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous.

            My cousin broke his knee playing soccer.

And so it goes. Fairly random statements. Kids spouting opinions. How can we improve upon this type of discussion? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

You are probably being asked to give more attention to argumentative and persuasive writing and speaking. Has your school or district provided resources and/or training to help you with this? When I ask that question at workshops I lead, by far the most common answer is “No.” It is grossly unfair to ask teachers to teach something without giving them resources and training to do so, but unfortunately, it is quite common. How can we help students with argumentative assignments? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

Let’s start with the most fundamental piece of good thinking, the argument. What is an argument?

That seems like a pretty easy question, but do an experiment. Ask the teachers at your school to write down an answer without using a dictionary or searching online. You won’t get the same answer twice. We all sort of know what an argument is and it seems like a common term, but we don’t have an exact, agreed upon definition. You will see claim, warrant, reason, plausible argument, stance, strong reasons, position, conclusion, facts, details, quotes, evidence, backing, premise, correct logic, logical progression of ideas, statement, thesis, and various other related terms. No agreement. Competing ways to say the same thing. Confusing to students and adults. Because all of our students have heard the word before, too, we think they understand when we say, “Analyze the argument…” or “Write an argument supporting…” but they really don’t. Ask students to define argument. You’ll see what I mean.

Don’t think that because words are recognizable, they are understood. Argument, persuasion, evidence, and reasoning are common words (rhetoric less so), but that doesn’t mean students (or teachers) can master them without direct instruction. I wrote Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning to give teachers an understandable, practical way to teach students these important skills. There are some core principles in the book.

  • A common language is important. Shifting vocabulary from class to class, grade to grade is not OK. “Position with reasons and quotes” in English and “Conclusion with warrants and backing” in social studies and “Opinion with evidence” in health is not optimal for students.
  • Take nothing for granted. Define and teach “argument.” Explicitly explain the steps needed to build an argument. Teach five types of evidence and give students practice finding them. Teach persuasive techniques and give students practice with them. Teach grade appropriate rhetorical techniques and give students practice.
  • Every discussion, every book, every news story, every math problem, every “Can we go outside?” is an opportunity to teach good thinking. You have activities that can be tweaked to make all of the needed teaching possible, workable, and even fun.
  • Teaching students about argument, persuasion, and reasoning will benefit them for their entire lives. Knowing how to evaluate and create these will be important every day in their professional and social lives.

Let’s start building that common language. In Good Thinking, I offer this definition of argument:

An argument is a series of statements leading to a conclusion.

This is an important definition that will ultimately make life much easier. If we get in the habit of using this definition, thinking improves. Some examples:

Example #1:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting argument. What is the reason you said that?

Error #1: That is not an argument, Teacher. That is a conclusion. It is the end product of some line of thinking, the last piece of some argument.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

Error #2:  Imprecise language can lead to misunderstanding.

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

  Student: Because you asked me to tell you what I thought about football.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements would lead us to that conclusion.

Example #2:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. Give me two reasons for that.

 Student: My cousin got a concussion. Football is a dumb game.

Error #3: Why two? What if it takes more statements to lead to the conclusion? Never put a number on this.

Error #4: The student gave two statements but how do they add up to “Don’t let kids play football”? Your cousin got a concussion. So? The student hasn’t built an argument yet, but has given random statements. Don’t be satisfied with this.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements led you to that conclusion?

Student: Football has a lot of violent contact. Sometimes that contact causes kids to get concussions. Concussions can cause big problems. So we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

With consistent, precise language, students know what is required, and quickly get the idea of how to build an argument.

There are some simple steps we can take to teach students to build a good argument. First, of course, give them the precise definition: statements leading to a conclusion. Then, offer the same sort of little lessons you use for all other subjects. Before we ask students to write a paragraph, we have been clear about the pieces needed, and we (or someone before us) taught specific lessons on each of those pieces. We taught sentence structure and gave students practice activities with fragments and run-ons. We taught topic sentences, supporting sentences, word choice, punctuation, capitalization, and so on. Let’s do the same with argument.

Let students practice with three-step arguments (syllogisms, if you want to use the language of logicians). These little exercises [See the Stenhouse blog to see the exercises: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ] get students thinking about how to make statements that lead us to some conclusion. The first one is a completed example. Students can fill in the others. Note: there is no one answer. One student could say, “Students can’t think well when they are fidgety. Recess gets rid of fidgety. So we need more recess.” Another might suggest, “Childhood obesity is a problem. Recess provides calorie burning activity. So we need more recess.” In some cases, a statement is offered and students need to come up with another statement and a conclusion. Again, there is no one answer. “The U.S. spends billions on defense. We have never been invaded. Therefore, we should keep spending.” Or, alternatively, “The U.S. spends billions on defense. Lots of that money is wasted. Therefore, we don’t need to spend that much.”

Some arguments need more than two statements to get us where we want to be. I use this example in the book:

            Schools should model healthy lifestyles for children.

            The French fries the cafeteria serves are full of fat and calories.

            Fat and calories contribute to overweight kids.

            Childhood obesity is a problem.

            Therefore, we should stop selling fries in our cafeteria.

We can use a graphic organizer such as the one below. [See the Stenhouse blog for the organizer: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ] Statements leading to a conclusion are represented by steps for us to get across the bridge. Put up some conclusions and let students practice building the bridge:

           The United States should ban handguns.

            Homework should be abolished.

            Plants are good for people.

            All squares are rectangles.

How many boards do you need?

The trick is to be sure that each board is needed. An example:

           The United States leads the world in handgun deaths.

            There are many kinds of hand guns.

            The high number of deaths is the result of how easy it is to get a handgun.

            If people couldn’t get handguns, they couldn’t kill someone with a handgun.

            The United States should ban handguns.

Which one of those statements does not help us get to the conclusion? Make sure you have students critique each other’s arguments checking to see if statements are missing and if all the statements are needed.

Arguments should be supported so we are tasked with teaching how to evaluate and use evidence. I ask teachers how they teach evidence and this is a typical response: “I tell students to add facts, evidence, etc.” Actually, facts are onetype of evidence and I’m pretty sure “etc.” means “I don’t know anything else.” Do all of your students understand that there are types of evidence? How do you teach those? Let me guess: you have been given no materials and had no training about this, either.

Let’s go back to the football argument. We left off here:

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

Here’s how that discussion should continue:

Teacher: Now we have an argument. But it seems some of your statements need support. “…causes kids to get concussions?” Do you have any evidence for that? “Concussions can cause big problems?” Do you have evidence for that?

I fear that most often when teachers ask for “evidence,” they mean “find me the place in the reading where it said that.” That is asking for the source, not for “evidence.” Another fear is that teachers give the impression that “quote” equals “evidence.” Too often, we say, “You need some evidence for that. Can you find the quote in the book where that was said?” I get really picky about imprecise language. Muddied vocabulary leads to muddied thinking. Students can get confused or, worse, misled.

I talk much more about evidence in the book, but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the question the teacher asks:

Teacher: Can you give us a numberof how many concussions occur? Do you have any factsabout how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the exampleof your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quotefrom some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogyperhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?

That wasn’t so hard, was it? We change our language to be consistent and specific, and we teach a couple of mini-lessons just as we do with every other subject. We are well on the way to having arguments supported with evidence. A little upfront investment in teaching these skills will make so many things better in your class and beyond. Look back at the discussion that opened this article. With lessons about argument and evidence, discussions such as that are transformed.

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

Why would you say that? [Student version of “what statements lead to that conclusion?”]

 Kids get hurt playing football. [Nice! Student gives a statement of the argument!]

I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous. [Direct challenge of the statement.]

You are one example only. Lots of articles talk about the number of concussions kids get.

Denver won the Super Bowl!

Where did that come from? What does that statement have to do with this argument?

Notice the improvement? The lessons we teach will spill over into every part of your class. I hope the lessons spill over into every part of our lives. I don’t know about you, but the election season drives me crazy.  Seems lots of candidates count on us not being able to recognize good thinking. Make sure your students don’t end up in that group!

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Before I start lathering at the mouth about PVLEGS, let me just state plainly that this acronym for effective speaking was developed by Erik Palmer, a professional speaker/edu-consultant/former-teacher and the author of Well Spoken, Digitally Speaking, and Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking. To my knowledge, Erik is doing the. best. work. around teaching kids to perform all manner of speaking tasks.

I'd also like to take a minute to thank my friend and first editor, Tom Schiele, who first told me about Erik Palmer. Tom may have thought little of the introduction, but PVLEGS has been one of my most personally exciting discoveries of the 2013-2014 school year, mostly because of how it has helped improve the speaking of my high school students, my college students, and myself.

Speaking and listening are a big freaking deal, and they are often neglected in K-12 schooling

As Erik Palmer quickly points out in Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students, oral communication skills are top on the list of what employers want (in recent NACE Job Outlook surveys, “the ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization” has consistently ranked in the top 4 skills employers most desire in job candidates). This is one reason I appreciate the Common Core: though there are still plenty of problems with the implementation process around the nation, they at the very least make clearer that speaking and listening are crucial skills.

Palmer begins his book with a simple question: examine a given week in your adult life, and tell me what percentage of your communication is written, and what percentage is spoken? He argues that, while writing is obviously a crucial life skill, writing does not suffer the utter lack of clear, helpful instruction in K-12 schooling that speaking does.

I find it hard to argue with that. My own experience speaks to it, as both a student and an ELA and social studies teacher.

And so, armed with two beliefs — first, that I must constantly give my students opportunities to speak about interesting, complex things (this is why I have them read lots of complex texts, some of which they choose and most of which I choose); and second, I must constantly teach them how to organize and express their ideas (They Say/I Say is our go-to resource here) — I present to you how Palmer's PVLEGS has helped me teach my students the characteristics of effectively performed speaking.

Speaking is a performance-based communicative task

From Erik Palmer's Well Spoken:

How a speech is performed may be more important than how it is built. If the speaker cannot deliver the speech well, no one will ever notice how well it was written. As Chris Witt points out, ‘Knowledge isn't power; communicating knowledge is” (2009, 5). The most brilliant ideas are worthless if the speaker can't deliver them.

How many of you cringed when you read that? And yet how many of you have to admit that what Palmer is saying is true? This is one reason I respect Palmer; he doesn't hold punches.

It is simply true that if our kids are lifelong readers who can't communicate effectively, if they love history or science but can't talk about it in a compelling manner, if they have grit but don't know that speaking is something to apply grit to, then rather than flourish, they are likely to flounder.

(Feel free to add your voice to this argument, by the way — add your comment down below.)

Now let me share what I've been so excited about: PVLEGS. Palmer has a whole website about PVLEGS, but here's the gist: PVLEGS is Palmer's way of simplifying how we teach and assess student speaking performance. PVLEGS does not include content (in Well Spoken, Palmer devotes an entire part of the book to building a speech), and I won't get into Erik's rubrics (they are beautifully simple, however — check them out on his site).

So what is it, exactly, that makes an effectively performed speech?

Here is the PVLEGS anchor chart I use in my classroom, which I derived directly from Well Spoken.

Poise: Calm confidence

From Erik Palmer's Well Spoken:

The truth is that all speakers have a degree of nervousness. Even a professional speaker with massive experience will have a heightened level of excitement before a presentation. It is also true that if that nervousness is obvious, listeners can be distracted and miss the point of the speech. This is why the first skill needed in performing a speech is poise. Webster defines poise as an “easy, self-possessed assurance of manner… pleasantly tranquil” (Merriam-Webster 1998, 899). The key to performing a speech is to appear calm and assured even when we may not feel precisely that way (or even remotely close to it).

The key breakthrough for my students here, initially, was that poise is a skill — it's a thing you can learn, practice, and improve. In the beginning of the year after some of our early debates, I always love asking my students to raise their hands if they were nervous. It is awesome for them to see that most of their peers are just as jittery as they are; misery loves company, I suppose 🙂

Students love explicit instruction, so I borrow from Palmer's chapter on poise and teach my kids that, specifically, this skill is about:

  • Appearing calm and confident
  • Realizing what our annoying tics are and training ourselves to stop them (one of my tics is fidgeting with a coffee cup)
  • Being intentional about stance, movement, and posture

How can students gain poise? Palmer has a whole section of tips in Well Spoken— one that I began using after reading the book is right before taking the stage, counting slowly to five several times, taking deep breaths with each number. (So much of poise is about gaining control right at the start; usually the longer we speak, the more comfortable we get.)

Perhaps the most basic (and important) way to help students gain poise is giving them many chances to speak during your course. And just to be clear, by chances I mean requiring them to talk. I have kids with intense fear of public speaking at the start of each year, and all of them are confident by the end. This isn't magical Mr. Stuart; it's giving them the gift of experience.

Voice: Every word heard

From Erik Palmer's Well Spoken:

A good speech is a good conversation magnified. The speaker retains his basic conversational style but uses animation and volume suitable for a larger audience… You don't want students to imitate any style or person. You should, however, point out to students that there are different types of voices and you should begin the process of having them think about their voices. Some people have very strident voices, for example, making it tiring to listen to them. Help students become aware of how they sound to avoid such problems.

There are three elements of voice students work on: volume, enunciation, and avoiding odd vocal patterns like ending each sentence with a questioning tone or fading away at the end of each sentence (this latter vocal pattern is common in my students before we talk about it).

When students can't hear another student, I teach them to simply call out “Voice” in a respectful manner (I borrowed that strategy from Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion).

Life: Insert passion

From Erik Palmer's Well Spoken:

Listening to students' speeches over the years, I was often reminded of a time when I took my four-year-old son, Ross, to a school event for his older brother. The principal was droning on and on about something, and, before I could stop him, Ross had put both hands to his mouth, made a loud raspberry sound, and said, “Bor-ring!” As a parent, you are sometimes put into a position of having to tell your child he is wrong, even when he is right.

Awesome anecdote 🙂

Life is about adding emotion to our voices — showing that we actually care about what we're talking about. Very practically, then, life is about inflecting our voices in a manner that expresses an intended feeling, like excitement, joy, sadness, fear, disappointment, humor, amazement, or anger.

One mini-lesson Palmer shares involves giving students a simple phrase, like “I don't think you're wrong,” and then having them play around with the phrase to make it feel sad or happy or angry or condescending.

Eye contact: Engaging each listener

From Erik Palmer's Well Spoken:

Students… need to direct their vision toward the individuals in the audience. They aren't speaking to a group; they are speaking to many different people. It may seem intimidating to look at each person in the audience, but it is necessary.

There are two key points in eye contact: first, students need to work on meeting the gaze of as many people in the audience as they can; second, students should familiarize themselves with their speech rather than memorize it.

When we have in-class debates, I often require my students to have notes. It is up to them how they use them in the speech, but if I find them getting stuck in “reading straight from the pre-written paragraph” mode, we'll talk about how to transition from that into occasionally glancing at notes (as Drake does in the speech depicted in this photo).

Gestures: Matching motions to words

From Erik Palmer's Well Spoken:

Watch people in some public places as they converse. Look around a restaurant or coffee shop. Sit on a bench in the mall and watch people walking by. Sneak a peek at friends a few seats over on the bus. Odds are that as they speak, they are gesturing. Hands move, faces move, and body positions change. This is typical and natural. Sure, some people use gestures more than others, but it seems that when humans talk, the body moves.

There are three kinds of gestures to help students become aware of: those with the hands, those with the face, and those with the body (e.g., shoulders, posture). Again, Palmer shares lots of mini-lesson ideas for this skill in his book.

Speed: Pacing, baby, pacing

From Erik Palmer's Well Spoken:

Excitement, nerves, and the adrenaline rush of showtime lead to increased  speed. Your students are not lying when they say, ‘I know it was five minutes long when I practiced last night!' after you tell them that the speech lasted three minutes and forty-seven seconds. Giving a speech in front of Mom in the living room is not the same as presenting it to thirty peers in the classroom. …[T]o begin with, we should try to discuss with students the need to pay attention to the speed of the delivery. Then, we can teach them the more complex issues of pacing and using pauses.

There are three basic skills here:

  • Be conscious of your speed while giving a speech
  • Use the speed of the speech to enhance the message (i.e., pacing)
  • Pause for effect

Picking on someone my own size: me!

Prior to picking up Palmer's Well Spoken, I had two pretty formal speaking situations: I gave the commencement address to our high school's graduating class of 2013 (click here to watch that — it was filmed in a gymnasium on an iPad, so the audio isn't the best) and I gave a keynote address at a regional conference for student teachers known as Fire Up (video embedded below; if that's not working, click here).

Now, let's have some fun and analyze my keynote with PVLEGS (this is exactly the kind of gritty, honest self-examination we want our students to do with their own writing, speaking, and living).


My most annoying tic in this speech is looking down at my speech on the podium. (We'll discuss this a bit more in Eye Contact). I do appear fairly calm and tranquil, but almost to a fault — my voice is often flat, which we'll discuss more in terms of Life.

Also, I undermine myself quite a bit in the beginning of the speech, saying that my audience was “first hour.” I've sometimes received the advice that admitting our nervousness is an all right way to both deal with the nerves and gain some rapport with the audience, but now that I've read Palmer's book, I don't think this is the most effective tactic.


My volume isn't much of a problem because of the effective sound system, but I don't enunciate super clearly (for example, see the word “died” right after 15:13 in the video). This is something I need to work on.


This is a problem with my naturally laid back style — it can come off as pretty lifeless. This speech was fairly early in the morning, and that's even more reason why I needed to not sound like I had woken up only hours before! The larger the audience, the more I think Life really matters. I get a little Lifey starting at 16:46ish, but still, where was the life at the surprise twist (again, around 15:13)? Where is it at the beginning?

Eye contact

Though I do work the sections of the room when looking up from my speech, the problem is that I wasn't confident enough in my familiarity with the speech to look up for a majority of the time. I kept looking down, which, when I watch this over again, I find annoying and distracting — I'm sure some of my audience didn't mind, but others were likely driven nuts by it.

One of my fears as a public speaker who was a writer long before he starting speaking to people is that I'll say something I don't really mean, or I'll speak in a manner that's awkward or clunky or distracting. I've got to get over this through more practice and more bravery!


This is mostly a strength for me — I use a lot of descriptive gestures (e.g., after 4:28 when I say “10, 20, 30 years”; at 15:55 when I say “flowed from her heart”), my face is often expressive, and my posture doesn't seem distracting.

However, I do at times make gestures that are confusing — like around 16:13 when I keep holding my hand in a loose fist and bouncing it with every word. I'm attempting to be emphatic, I guess, but it's not very emphatic when you emphasize every single word in a paragraph!

So if anything, I need to work on using gestures more intentionally and not doing them simply to do something. (Maybe cutting down on the coffee prior to speaking will help with this, too 🙂 )


My pacing is sometimes intentional — I think I do a decent job pausing for effect (and to insert facial expression), especially starting at 15:50. I wish I could go back and be a bit more strategic with pacing during the “I also hope for you no less than this” section (around 17:10) because I feel like I attempted to build up to a pacing crescendo, but it didn't come off as effectively as I would have liked.

Analyzing our own speaking is painful, and pain is good

Exercises like the one I just engaged in — looking back at a filmed speaking performance and analyzing it closely for strengths and weaknesses — hurt. Few things are as painful as watching how you speak; I've never found that I sounded as good as I felt I did while speaking. Know what I mean?

And yet, the only way we can become great at anything — at speaking, at teaching, at writing, at living — is by being ruthlessly honest about what we see in our performance. We as teachers tend to be bad at this; we tend to want to hear that we're great at everything. But we're not — the sooner we deeply accept that, the sooner we can become good at stuff. I say this because, in order for your students (and you) to benefit from PVLEGS, mistakes, failures, and growth must be normalized — you must model this.

What's at stake, ultimately, is our common goal here at DaveStuartJr.com — long-term flourishing. I'm excited about PVLEGS because it is one more tool I can use with students and myself to work smarter, not merely harder, at developing crucial life skills.

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