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Book Chapters
English Department
A Critique of the Ubiquity of the Toulmin Model
in Argumentative Writing Instruction in the U.S.A.
Lindsay M. Ellis
Grand Valley State University, ellisl@gvsu.edu
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Ellis, Lindsay M., “A Critique of the Ubiquity of the Toulmin Model in Argumentative Writing Instruction in the U.S.A.” (2015). Book
Chapters. 1.
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A Critique of the Ubiquity of the Toulmin Model in Argumentative
Writing Instruction in the U.S.A.
English Department
Grand Valley State University
ABSTRACT: Secondary and university instructors in the United States rely heavily on the Toulmin model
to teach written argumentation. To date, pragma-dialectics (van Eemeren and Grootendorst 2004; van
Eemeren 2010) is not a visible presence in American composition textbooks. To ameliorate the limits of a
single framework, writing instructors and consultants should ask critical questions not only associated with
Toulmin’s model, but also those of the pragma-dialectic model of critical discussion.
KEYWORDS: composition, critical thinking, critical questions, pragma-dialectics, teaching, Toulmin
model, United States of America, writing
When teaching written argumentation, both secondary and university instructors in the
United States of America rely heavily on the Toulmin model (Hillocks 2011; Ramage,
Bean and Johnson 2001; Smith, Wilhelm, and Fredricksen 2012). No other theoretical
models of argumentation are as prominent in English composition textbooks and
curricula, and the reach of the Toulmin model extends into science and math education as
well (Chin & Osborn 2010; Enduran, Osborne, & Simon 2004; Krummheuer 1995)
In the newly adopted Common Core State Standards for elementary and
secondary education in the U.S., argumentative writing is heavily emphasized. As a
result, a flurry of new books and curricula on teaching argumentative writing have been
published in the last five years. One can see how predominant the Toulmin model is by
simply flipping the pages of Teaching Argument Writing by George Hillocks (2011, xix)
and Oh Yeah? Putting Argument to Work Both in School and Out by Michael W. Smith,
Jeffrey Wilhelm, and James Fredricksen (2012, 12). Why is this the case?
Writing instructors have tragically little time to read the large body of research
and scholarship pertaining to the many facets of their work. The Toulmin model is
probably the backbone of most argumentative writing curricula in the United States
because it is visually accessible and explicable. Teachers are able to quickly digest and
apply the visual representation of its central concepts.
Second, the Toulmin model seems helpful because it defines one vocabulary that
enables discussion of the elements of an argument: claims, data, qualifiers, rebutting
conditions, and warrants. When facing common problems in writing instruction, the
Toulmin model provides educators a schema for diagnosis and treatment. It allows
teachers to focus attention and facilitate discussion about these elements. Helping
students to invent and include these elements in their papers is much of the substance of
current written argumentation curricula.
This article steps back and examines the American reliance on the Toulmin model
from a distance–metaphorically from the University of Amsterdam, where the pragmadialectical model of argumentation holds the privileged place that Toulmin’s does in the
U.S.A. (Van Eemeren and Grootendorst 2004; Van Eemeren 2010). Some of the
problems that U.S. teachers face when teaching argumentative writing might be problems
not that the Toulmin model can help them to effortlessly solve, but ones that a reliance on
Toulmin might be intensifying.
After working with writing instructors at all levels for the last ten years, I have observed a
pattern of common problems and complaints from writing teachers and tutors.
Common complaint
o A student says, “I don’t know what to
Common instructional comment
“What’s your topic?”
write about,” when asked to write about
a text that she has read.
o A student drafts a text, but the main
“Who would disagree with that?”
claim is a commonplace. It is not
o A student states a controversial
“You haven’t told me why you believe this.”
opinion, but offers no evidence to
support it; he merely restates the
opinion multiple ways.
o A student relies formulaically on a five- “I see you have five paragraphs.”
paragraph theme structure: stating a
claim in the first paragraph, giving
three reasons in three subsequent
paragraphs, and restating the claim in
the concluding paragraph.
o A student states a claim and cites others “Can you imagine any objections to this idea?”
who agree, but doesn’t acknowledge or
address the complexity of the issue.
o A student states a claim and cites data,
but doesn’t explain how the data
supports the claim. For example, she
includes quotes from a novel in a
literary analysis paper, but does not
offer interpretation.
“What does this quote mean to you?”
When coaching student writers who need help addressing these problems, the Toulmin
model is a useful tool for certain things. It helps us to visually remind writers that claims
need support, that support needs to be warranted, and that qualified claims aren’t weak,
they are responsible. The Toulmin model is not, however, a heuristic for deliberation. It
does not describe or assist the process of developing claims by thinking critically through
the implications of possible stances on tough intellectual issues. Stephen Toulmin states
this explicitly. The task he tackled in The Uses of Argument (1958) was to describe how
already-held opinions might be justified logically:
We are not in general concerned in these essays with the ways in which we in fact
get to our conclusion, or with methods of improving our efficiency as conclusiongetters. It may well be, where a problem is a matter for calculation, that the stages
in the argument we present in justification of our conclusion are the same as those
we went through in getting at the answer, but this will not in general be so. In this
essay, at any rate, our concern is not with the getting of conclusions but with their
subsequent establishment by the production of a supporting argument. (16-17)
Because I believe that it is vitally important that we do teach the process of coming to
good decisions, of reasoning one’s way to conclusions carefully, I think American
teachers and tutors of writing need to supplement Toulmin’s model in our teaching
argument writing toolbox.
In fact, beyond the Toulmin model diagram, a whole field of argumentation studies is
thriving. In the Netherlands, secondary and university level instruction in argumentation
is informed by what is called pragma-dialectics. In the version of pragma-dialectics
developed by Frans van Eemeren & Peter Houtlosser (2002) and extended by van
Eemeren (2010), argumentation is defined as the pragmatic marriage of dialectic (the
rational search for the best solution to a problem through dialogue) and rhetoric (the
search for the best available discursive means to one’s desired ends). Van Eemeren
(2010) developed the concept of strategic maneuvering in pragma-dialectics to describe
the ways that writers combine dialectical and rhetorical strategies in order to compose
texts that are both reasonable (dialectic) and effective (rhetoric).
I am drawn to pragma-dialectics because it shifts the definition of argumentation
away from claims supported by data, and toward discourse aimed to resolve a difference
of opinion. This changes (it reframes) the tasks of a writer. This reframing was an
epiphany for me. I had been frustrated with the lack of attention to the intellectual work
of developing good claims through the process of drafting argumentative prose. Like
others, I had been particularly irked by the power of the ACT writing test to shape
classroom instruction. The ACT writing test asks students to identify their topic and
invent a main claim very quickly, too quickly, in fact, almost arbitrarily.
Teachers feel intense pressure to teach to this test. Furthermore, the ubiquity of a
Toulmin model-based understanding of argumentation has sanctioned the habit of
beginning with a claim (I know what I believe; don’t try to change my mind.) and moving
quickly to brainstorming and organizing support for that claim. Then students keep
moving forward, considering and including any necessary warrants to explain the move
from data to claim, qualifying the force of the claim, and acknowledging possible
rebutting conditions.
By contrast, the pragma-dialectical model for critical discussion, if used as an
argument-writing heuristic, encourages writers to move through four phases, not
necessarily linearly:
• the confrontation stage: identifying a difference of opinion
• the opening stage: establishing the terms and common starting points, i.e. the
common ground between those who have the difference of opinion, perhaps the
writer and the reader
• the argumentation stage: developing evidence and reasons to support standpoints
and respond to critical questions
• and the concluding stage: evaluating the results of this argumentation on the
merits, sometimes moving into a new confrontation stage when a new difference
of opinion within the issue is identified.
This model of critical discussion was developed through a descriptive study of actual
language use understood through the lens of the long philosophical tradition of dialectic.
The purpose of dialectic is to come to the best possible solution to a problem through
By contrast, Stephen Toulmin’s purpose in creating an argument model was to
offer a critique of mathematical logic as a tool for assessing the strength of practical
arguments. To this end, he looked to the practice of law. “In the studies which follow,”
he says by way of introduction to The Uses of Argument, “the nature of the rational
process will be discussed with the ‘jurisprudential analogy’ in mind” (7). Why does this
matter? Well, in law, it is not the lawyer’s job to choose whether to support the plaintiff
or the defendant. In law, the client chooses the lawyer to represent him, and the lawyer’s
job is to find the best available means of defending that client, of strengthening the case.
A student writer, however, unless taking part in some school domain language game in
which the roles are assigned, must develop his or her own standpoint as part of the
composing process. Learning how to come up with a topic and deliberate among
viewpoints when writing academic arguments is central to the endeavour. To this end,
Stephen Toulmin’s work is less helpful than others’.
In 1958, Stephen Toulmin wrote The Uses of Argument within the field of
philosophy as a critique of the geometric approach to logical validity. In order to show
that syllogistic reasoning is not the only way to argue logically, Toulmin developed a
visual representation of argument structure. In his introduction, he explained the small
scale of the unit for which he was designing a model: “An argument is like an organism.
It has both a gross, anatomical structure and a finer, as-it-were physiological one…. The
time has come to change the focus of our inquiry and to concentrate on this finer level.”
(87) While the book was not influential among philosophers in Britain, its innovative
message was recognized by speech communication scholars in the United States.
Application to written composition followed in subsequent decades. Even though
Stephen Toulmin carefully defined the scope of his work as a description of the smallest
units in arguments that justify pre-chosen claims, his model is currently used to teach the
whole, macrocosmic structure and invention process of written argumentative texts.
This constitutes a four-step retooling of his work: from philosophy to communication,
from oral discourse to written prose, from microcosmic to macrocosmic structure, and
from description to invention. I think that this has led to confusion.
The Toulmin model for understanding the structure of single argumentation–one claim,
supported by one piece of data, whose relevance is explained by one warrant, with one
modal qualifier signalling its degree of force or probability, with one nod to its exceptions
or possible rebutting conditions–this microcosmic structure is used as a curriculum for
teaching the macrocosmic composition of whole essays. This is problematic because the
common expectation for longer argumentative papers is that they include multiple
argumentation supported by subordinate or coordinative argument structures. While it is
true that each claim within more complex argument structures can individually be
examined for explicit or implied warrant, backing, qualifier and conditions of rebuttal,
simply knowing these six elements does not help students to compose well-organized
The definition of several terms are also confusing as a result of this application of
Toulmin’s critique of analytic philosophy to the macrocosmic invention stage of written
composition. Confusion exists about the difference between qualifier and rebutting
conditions, as Toulmin defined them, and the bigger units of an argument: qualifications
and rebuttals of rebuttals, and the difference among the terms qualifier, qualification,
rebuttal, condition, exception, and counterargument. We struggle to teach argumentation
well in schools when teachers don’t have uniform understandings–or even confidently
unique–understandings of these terms.
Toulmin explains his terms by explicating the following argument:
Following the pattern of the model:
D—->So, Q, C
Since Unless
He defines his terms thus:
Just as a warrant (W) is itself neither a datum (D) nor a claim (C), since it implies
in itself something about both D and C–namely, that the step from the one to the
other is legitimate; so, in turn, Q and R are themselves distinct from W, since they
comment implicitly on the bearing of W on this step–qualifiers (Q) indicating the
strength conferred by the warrant on this step, conditions of rebuttal (R) indicating
circumstances in which the general authority of the warrant would have to be set
aside. To mark these further distinctions, we may write the qualifier (Q)
immediately beside the conclusion which it qualifies (C), and the exceptional
conditions which might be capable of defeating or rebutting the warranted
conclusion (R) immediately below the qualifier. (93)
This diagram and its explanation are adapted in multiple and varying ways in writing
There is confusion over the difference between a modal qualifier and a
qualification. The former is a single word such as “presumably” in Toulmin’s example,
or probably, maybe, or to indicate strength, definitely. Outside of school, when we ask
for qualifications or ask someone to qualify a statement, we are often asking for fully
articulated conditions of exception. This is closer to what Toulmin called the rebuttal.
In Toulmin’s example, the rebuttal is a mention of the hypothetical conditions
under which the claim might not be true: if Harry had, despite having been born in
Bermuda, sometime later become a naturalized American, then he would not be a British
citizen. Confusingly, the word “rebuttal” in common legal discursive practice and
secondary school debate is used to mean a fully articulated counter-argument, or countercounter argument.
In the teaching of writing in secondary schools, students are often asked to
include a counter-argument and a rebuttal of that counter-argument in their papers. When
the Toulmin model diagram is referenced as an aid to organization, and if teachers are
trying to teach students to add fully articulated counter-arguments, then they may use the
word rebuttal or leave it out and replace it with the word response to describe the act of
undermining the strength of this counterargument in order to maintain the persuasiveness
of their initial standpoint.
Illustrating the potential confusion caused by conflicting definitions of these little
words, in Hillocks’ (2011) book on argumentative writing, the word “Rebuttal” appears in
his Toulmin model diagram. However, Hillocks subsequently dispenses with this word
in the body of his text, mentioning it nowhere. Instead of including the concept of
“conditions of rebuttal” that Toulmin includes in his structure, Hillocks teaches teachers
that because argumentation concerns matters of probability, “two other elements are
necessary: qualifications and counterarguments.” He encourages the use of qualifying
terms: “probably, very likely, almost certainly, and so forth,” staying close to Toulmin’s
text. But the use to which he puts counterarguments differs from Toulmin’s rebutting
conditions. Hillocks states, “The very idea that we are dealing with arguments of
probability suggests that differing claims are likely to exist,” and therefore, if hoping to
make a persuasive argument, writers “would have to make a counterargument.” Readers
are left here without a clear explanation. Is the counterargument the summary of the
standpoint and reasons of the imagined audience with whom the writer has a difference of
opinion; or is it an argument whose standpoint is that the reasons or warrants of his
antagonists are weak? Hillocks doesn’t say, and this is not clarified for students. What is
clear is a need for more thoroughgoing dialectic, as evidenced by the adaptation to the
Toulmin model not only in the work of Hillocks (2011) but also Williams and Colomb
(2001) and Smith, Wilhelm, and Frederickson (2012). All of these authors supplement
the “rebutting conditions” in Toulmin’s actual work with “counterargument” or
“acknowledgment” and “response.”
There is also significant confusion about how to help students learn to identify and to
invent warrants, if the number of articles published in English Journal on the topic is any
indication (Anderson and Hamel 1991; Warren 2010; Hillocks 2010). In Toulmin’s
model, the warrant links one’s data to one’s claim: “These may normally be written very
briefly (in the form of ‘If D, then C’); [or they can be expanded] ‘Data such as D entitle
one to draw conclusion, or make claims, such as C’, or alternatively ‘Given data D, one
may take it that C.'” (Toulmin 91). Yet it is rare to find examples of warrants in this “ifthen” form. In their article, “Teaching Argument as a Criteria-Driven Process,” Anderson
and Hamel exemplify this difficulty. Their own definitions of warrants and backing seem
at odds with the example they give. Here are their definitions:
Warrant: So what? (What’s the principle or rule being cited to connect the
grounds to the claim?)
Backing: What’s the ultimate principle, theory, or tradition underlying the
warrant? (or, What makes you think so?)
And here are their examples; notice that the “if-then” statement is listed as backing rather
than warrant:
So what? That isn’t fair. I deserve a chance.
What makes you think so? Fairness is an important principle for students to learn
in sports. If students appear to be able to participate effectively, they should be
given a chance to show their competence in a game. (44)
In my experience, possessing a declarative knowledge of the definitions of warrants and
backing does not easily translate into a procedural ability to identify them in everyday
usage. Nor does it help writers to decide when warrants and backing need to be stated
explicitly and when they can be left to readers’ implicit understanding.
Fourth (and I think most importantly), I think we in the United States have a systemic
problem that an overreliance on the Toulmin model is not helping us to fix. Teachers feel
pressured to coach students to quickly defend and justify their opinions in order to
succeed on timed writing tests like the ACT. More time seems to be devoted to teaching
the process of justifying opinions (Toulmin’s focus) than learning to develop nuanced
positions through a process of critical deliberation. This troubles me because cognitive
scientists tell us that humans have a natural tendency toward confirmation bias–toward
noticing the data that supports beliefs. This is an adaptive strategy for our minds.
Because our five senses can collect more information than we can process, we can only
attend to the information that seems important. Unfortunately, this selection process
tends to blind us to disconfirming evidence. Unless we are taught to slow down, to
actively seek data that might support multiple viewpoints, humans tend not to. It is my
hope that we develop more curricula that treats written argumentation as a means of
critically assessing the strength of opposing viewpoints, that is, argumentative writing as
a tool for coming to conclusions about which answer is the strongest one with regard to
the questions that we ask.
How can pragma-dialectics help teachers to supplement the lack of attention to
deliberation in the Toulmin model? It can provide even more questions to ask of writers,
critical questions to add to the ones offered by Toulmin to help foster the reasonableness
and the strength of argumentation. Rather than simplistically equating argumentative
writing and persuasive writing, pragma-dialectics offers a more nuanced definition.
Argumentative texts are understood as turns of talk in a critical discussion (van Eemeren
and Grootendorst 1984, 1992, 2004). Pragma-dialectics understands the writer to be a
participant in a critical discussion during which he or she tries to support a standpoint
(claim) in the face of the reader’s doubts or criticisms. While the aim of resolving a
difference of opinion with one’s audience and the aim of persuading one’s audience are
similar (because one way to resolve a difference of opinion is to effectively persuade
one’s audience to agree with your standpoint), they are not identical. Pragma-dialectics
(as its name suggests) enriches argumentation by reference to the long tradition of
dialectic, reminding students from the outset that their purpose is to evoke a dialogue, to
try to live up to the ideal of a critical discussion–even if the text has a single author
whose audience is addressed in the imagination as he or she composes.
In Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument, he suggests that data is given to support a
claim when an audience asks, “What have you got to go on?” (Smith, Wilhelm &
Fredricksen translate this as “What makes you say so?”) Arguers are prompted to
articulate their warrant when asked, “How is that relevant?” (“So what?” ask Smith,
Wilhelm & Fredricksen.) In addition to these questions, there are others that teachers can
use to confer effectively.
At the most fundamental level, “How’s it going?” is the most helpful step to begin
a conversation with students about their work (Anderson 2000). Listening carefully to a
student’s answer, writing coaches can determine whether the student has a topic or not.
By thinking through the stages of a critical discussion, writing coaches can help students
to understand their role as interlocutors tasked with identifying and then working to
resolve a difference of opinion. I suggest the following questions for use in writing
If a student seems to be working on the confrontation stage:
• What’s the issue that you are writing about?
• Who is your audience for this paper? Is there an audience other than your
• Is there a difference of opinion about this issue?
• What are the different points of view with regard to this issue?
• Which point(s) of view seem(s) best to you?
• Who might doubt that opinion or disagree with that point of view?
If the student seems to be working on the opening stage:
• When it comes to this issue, what do the possible points of view have in common?
• What do you and your readers probably agree about when it comes to this issue?
• What are the constraints of your assignment? Does the assignment give clear
instructions about length, genre, and definition of effective writing?1
Graded written work within the education domain almost always has both a primary and a
secondary rhetorical context, even if the teacher is the only audience. The teacher or some other
audience may be the interlocutor in a critical dialogue about the issue, but always in the background
is the primary context of schooling—the issue of a student’s satisfactory progress toward learning
goals. In effect, every graded assignment asks a student: Are you capable of effectively accomplishing
this composing task? Every assignment handed in asserts the claim: Yes, I am capable of effectively
accomplishing this composing task. The extent to which the composition is effective argumentation
If the student seems to be working on the argumentation stage:
• How is your text going to resolve a difference of opinion?
• What reasons can you imagine to support that point of view?
• Are you making a cause and effect argument, a symptomatic argument, or an
argument by analogy?
• It sounds like you are making a cause & effect argument;
o will that effect indeed follow? Or could it be achieved more easily by way
of another measure?
o is the effect of the cause really as good or as bad as you assert?
o are there any other good or bad side-effects that will follow?
• It sounds like you are making a symptomatic argument;
o is that quality also a symptom of anything else?
o do things like that have other typical characteristics as well?
• It sounds like you are making an argument by analogy;
o have you accurately described both of the situations or things you are
o have you clarified the resemblance between them?
o are there crucial differences between them? Are there perhaps other
situations or things that better resemble the present case? (Adapted from
van Eemeren & Grootendorst 1992: 101, 102)
If the student seems to be working on the conclusion stage:
• Which stance on this issue seems the strongest?
• Are the arguments for that standpoint completely persuasive to you?
• Do you have any doubts about them?
• Have you changed your mind about this issue through the process of writing this
• Did you discover any differences of opinion about sub-issues while you worked
on this paper?
• What do you think that readers should consider next in order to understand either
the causes or the consequences of this difference of opinion?
If teachers of writing were to strategically ask these questions while conferring with
students, the latter would improve not only their persuasiveness (rhetoric), but also their
reasonableness (dialectic). Teachers and tutors can help students not only to support
points of view, but also to determine those points of view though critical thinking.
Eventually, the questions that teachers ask may become the questions that students ask
themselves. Conferring with pragma-dialectic critical questions in mind can help
students to learn which questions to ask themselves during the invention stage of the
to the secondary rhetorical situation is implicit argumentation in support of the claim to the student’s
intellectual capabilities.
writing process to evaluate which claim should be their main claim, which solution,
among all of the possible solutions, should be the one that they advocate.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I am indebted to all of the members of the Argumentation
and Rhetoric research program at the University of Amsterdam. Thank you for
welcoming me so warmly for a year-long research sabbatical, during which I studied
pragma-dialectics. Special thanks go to Bart Garssen and José Plug for agreeing to let me
be a visiting scholar, to Annemiek Hoffer for managing the details, to all who presented
during Friday research colloquia, to Frans van Eemeren for long lunch conversations, and
to Ingeborg van der Geest for sharing her desk and her friendship.
Anderson, E. M., & Hamel, F. L. (1991). Teaching argument as a criteria-driven process.
English Journal, 80(7), 43-49.
Anderson, C. (2000). How’s It Going? A practical guide to conferring with student
writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Chin, C. & Osborne, J. (2010). Supporting argumentation through students’ questions:
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Eemeren, F. H. van (2010). Strategic maneuvering in argumentative discourse:
Extending the pragma-dialectical theory of argumentation. Amsterdam;
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fallacies: A pragma-dialectical perspective. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
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Eemeren, F.H. van & P. Houtlosser (2002). Strategic manoeuvring. Maintaining a
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Hillocks, G. Jr. (2010). Teaching argument for critical thinking and writing: An
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Hillocks, G. Jr. (2011). Teaching argument writing grades 6-12: Supporting claims with
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Journal, 99(6), 41-46.
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