For Argument's Sake: Playing "Devil's Advocate" with Nonfiction Texts
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In this lesson, students adopt the role of "devil's advocate" to debate a series of proposals to reform professional sports. By recognizing potential weaknesses in the proposals and considering the reforms from multiple perspectives, students exercise divergent thinking to inspire debate and achieve a comprehensive understanding of the issues. Using high-interest articles from The Atlantic magazine, students annotate the texts and respond to contentions by generating counterarguments. Students then debate the proposal to eliminate high school sports by representing the interests of stakeholders at a town hall meeting.
How to Play Devil’s Advocate: This handout offers a number of ways for students to take an opposing viewpoint or raise an objection to a claim merely for the sake of argument
Town Hall Meeting Guide: This handout explains the purpose and roles for debate structured around a town hall meeting format
From Theory to Practice
In “Gateways to Writing Logical Arguments,” Thomas McMann argues that simply teaching students to write an argument is less effective than when students participate in “daily oral interchanges” in which students “[grapple] with problems and [respond] to the persistent questions of Why? So What? and Who says?” (34). McCann goes on to elaborate that when students “discuss an area of doubt, they require support for claims and they invite the consideration of competing arguments and multiple points of view” (34).
Role-playing “devil’s advocate” in a mock town hall meeting requires students to challenge the quality of a claim and assess whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of a proposal. By using the topic of sports, which appeals to a significant high school population, students are likely to find the issue relevant and the debate authentic.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- Computer with Smart Board
In this audio clip, Weekend Edition wonders, "what's the story behind the phrase 'devil's advocate'"?
The Atlantic provides readers with this article, in which the author discusses how sports can be improved.
In this article from The Atlantic the author presents an argument for eliminating or reducing the focus on competitive sports in high schools.
This Purdue OWL resource can help students develop and refine the arguments in their writing.
- Teachers should read and print copies of The Accidental Spectator’s Guide to Improving Sports and The Case Against High School Sports.
- Teachers should also print copies of How to Play Devil’s Advocate, Practicing Devil’s Advocate, Toulmin Argumentative Model, Character Card, Town Hall Meeting Guide, and Town Hall Meeting Rubric handouts.
- To prepare for the mock town hall meeting, teachers should pre-assign roles to students or allow students to draw out of a hat.
- Students should have some prior knowledge of the parts of an argument.
- learn the etymology of the idiom “devil’s advocate.”
- evaluate proposals and generate counterarguments.
- learn the five parts of Toulmin’s Argumentative Model.
- annotate a text using Toulmin’s Argumentative Model.
- respond to arguments in formal discourse by refuting, critiquing, or questioning assertions and assumptions.
- Ask if students have ever encountered the idiom “devil’s advocate.” Allow for responses and inform students that they will listen to an interview from NPR to better understand the etymology and current usage of the term.
- Play the NPR Morning Edition Who is the "Devil's Advocate"? interview.
- Teach students the various strategies to question or refute claims by using the How to Play Devil’s Advocate handout.
- Inform students that they will practice playing “devil’s advocate” by reading and arguing against a series of proposals about sports reform using the article, “The Accidental Spectator’s Guide to Improving Sports.”
- Pass out the article.
- After students have read the article, place students into groups of four to complete the Practicing Devil’s Advocate handout. Instruct students to use the strategies that they learned in the How to Play Devil’s Advocate handout to raise questions and objections to the specific proposals mentioned in the article.
- Encourage students to share their questions and objections to the proposals. Instruct students also to state which strategy they were using from the How to Play Devil’s Advocate handout.
- Introduce or review Toulmin’s Argumentative Model.
- Explain that arguments are strengthened when students are able to play “devil’s advocate” against their own claims. Help students make the connection that playing “devil’s advocate” is comparable to generating counterclaims in Toulmin’s Argumentative Model.
- Inform students that they will practice identifying the parts of a Toulmin argument by reading the article, “The Case Against High School Sports.”
- Pass out the article.
- Either read the article to students and pause to discuss what the writer is doing and saying or have students read the article by themselves.
- Instruct students to identify each element of Toulmin’s model found in the article and have them summarize and list the information using the ReadWriteThink Notetaker student interactive. As an alternative, students can use the graphic organizer in the Toulmin Argumentative Model handout.
- Discuss how the author played “devil’s advocate” with her own argument by highlighting counterclaims.
- Inform students that they will participate in a town hall meeting for a hypothetical school district and debate the proposal to eliminate high school sports.
- Use the Town Hall Meeting Guide handout to present an overview of the purpose, roles, agenda, and expectations associated with the town hall meeting.
- Share with students the Town Hall Meeting Rubric so they will know the criteria for assessment.
- Pass out the Character Card to help students organize their thoughts and have them complete the questions.
- Instruct students to prepare for the town hall meeting by writing the speech they will present before the mock school board as outlined in the Town Hall Meeting Guide. Highlight the importance of anticipating arguments from other members in the meeting and responding with rebuttals, thereby preparing them to assume the role of "devil’s advocate."
- Check to see that students have completed the Character Cards and have written their speech for or against the proposal.
- Monitor debate by acting as Chair for the town hall meeting.
- Encourage students to question, clarify, and refute arguments made during the meeting.
- Allow members of the mock school board to vote on the proposal.
- Instead of holding a mock town hall meeting, students could write a Toulmin-style argumentative essay about the case for keeping high schools sports in the education system. This would still allow students to play “devil’s advocate” with the article, “The Case Against High School Sports.”
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Assess informally students' completion of the Practicing Devil’s Advocate handout and identification of elements of Toulmin’s argumentative model using the ReadWriteThink Notetaker Interactive while reading “The Case Against High School Sports.”
- Assess formally students' preparation and participation in the town hall meeting according to expectations outlined in the Town Hall Meeting Rubric.