Standard Lesson

Developing Persuasive Arguments through Ethical Inquiry: Two Prewriting Strategies

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Three 50-minute sessions
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In this lesson, students use focused prewriting strategies to explore content and ethical issues related to a persuasive assignment. These strategies work best after students have established their topic and audience and have begun exploring their rhetorical (writing) situation as it relates to a specific, local problem about which they have some knowledge. These strategies would pair well with Joelle Brummitt-Yale's “Persuading the Principal:  Writing Persuasive Letters about School Issues”.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

This lesson takes the position that “ethical inquiry is an important form of critical thinking and as such it is an important component of students’ cognitive development.” Including prewriting heuristics that encourage ethical inquiry when students are preparing to write practically focused persuasive pieces can help students create “sufficient, audience-based content for their work” and “understand that writing is a form of action and as such can have consequences for themselves and others in the world.”


Further Reading

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.

State Standards

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

  • 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.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 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

  • Flip chart paper and markers
  • Computers with Internet access



This bibliography of print resources from CCCC provides links to codes of ethics from various professional organizations that can be used to support the ‘extensions’ described for this lesson. These codes can also be mined for values to promote discussion as the class works to complete the ethical inventory questions.

This web page provides links to writing, discussion, and other classroom activities that focus on ethics and character in the K-12 classroom. The resources are free, and the discussion resources provide tips for how to lead class conversations on ethics.

This online center provides a wealth of free resources on ethics across a range of disciplines. The resources are too numerous to list here, but the links to character and campus ethics might be of use to teachers who would like to link ethics to other projects in their classroom.


  1. Read “Ethics as a Form of Critical and Rhetorical Inquiry in the Writing Classroom” from English Journal 100.6 (2011) to get a sense of how this lesson works and the types of responses it can generate.
  2. A persuasive unit should be in progress in the classroom; students should have a topic and audience. If a persuasive unit is not already in progress, it is recommended that teachers use  Joelle Brummitt-Yale’s “Persuading the Principal:  Writing Persuasive Letters about School Issues” to prepare for this lesson.
  3. Write out your own answers to the questions on the Lesson Overview Discussion Questions handout.  Use the Lesson Overview Discussion Questions handout to guide whole class discussion and overview the lesson (see also directions on the handout).
  4. Gather flip chart paper and markers.
  5. Make copies of the following materials for students:
  6. Test the Persuasion Map and Letter Generator student interactives and make sure that you have the appropriate software installed for them to run effectively.  You will need computers with internet access for each student to use these interactives.  If you need additional help with these interactives, please visit our Technical Help page.
  7. Plan for computer use on Session 3 of this lesson so that students can access the Persuasion Map interactive and for when students are ready to format their final drafts as letters and reflect on their use of ethical values so that students can use the Letter Generator interactive.
  8. Add an ethical component to the Peer Review Guidelines for Persuasive Letters (see Student Assessment/Reflection section of this lesson for more details).
  9. Add an ethical component to the assessment of student work by modifying the ReadWriteThink Rubric for Persuasive Letters (see Student Assessment/Reflection section of this lesson for more details).

Student Objectives

Students will:

  • work cooperatively to understand what ethical values they already possess and how their culture has shaped those values.
  • learn about and use a new prewriting heuristics to consider ethical values when developing persuasive messages.
  • make use of ethical values when drafting persuasive messages.

Session One

    1. Review the questions/answers to the Lesson Overview Discussion Questions handout and use the lesson overview questions to guide a brief, 5 to 10 minute general discussion about ethics and persuasive writing.
    2. After the class has a chance to answer the questions, be sure to also share your answers to the questions.
    3. Make sure all students have copies of the Ethical Inventory Questions.
    4. Copy the first question from the Ethical Inventory Questions hadnout onto a piece of flip chart paper (or you may choose to use an overhead, a whiteboard, a computer with LCD projector, etc.; the important part is that these questions/responses can be saved for later sessions).
    5. Engage the whole class in completing the first ethical inventory question together while recording the class’s answers to the Ethical Inventory Questions on the flip chart paper. Here are some sample answers and suggestions for each question:
      • Discovering values related to personal ethics: What makes for a good person? Neighbor? Friend? Parent? Sibling?
        • Some common answers to this question include: a good person is fair, honest and shares. A good neighbor helps other neighbors in need, respects others rights by not playing music too loud and by keeping up his/her property. A good friend is someone who won’t tell my secrets. A good parent is someone who cares, helps and loves me even when I do wrong. A good sibling is much like a good parent or friend. He/she is someone I can trust. If students get stuck on this set of questions, ask them to think of their favorite person, neighbor, parent, teacher, friend, etc. and describe that person to the class. The good traits that are ethical the teacher should record. For instance, a friend who keeps secrets is one who exhibits the ethical value of trustworthiness.
      • Discovering values related to social ethics of care: How do the people in the first question show that they care for one another? Common answers to this question include actions such as sharing, giving, helping, and forgiving. If students get stuck, as them to think of a time when someone helped them. Ask them to report out what kind of help they received and align it to ethical values. For instance, if a parent spent a lot of time helping a child with homework, a value the parent may have exhibited is patience.
      • Discovering values related to social utilitarian ethics: What are some actions people take to make the world a better place? What makes these actions good? Here, it might be helpful for students who get stuck to brainstorm about real people who made some aspect of the student’s home, school, church, neighborhood, town, county, country or world better. Starting with examples from the news of people helping others is also a good idea. Some common actions people take to make the world a better place include: responding to fix negative consequences that they did not create such as cleaning up animals after an oil spill, sacrificing something important to save or care for another life such as ruining a favorite, expensive pair of shoes or outfit to pull someone else out of harm’s way.
      • Discovering values related to social policies/rules: What makes for a good organization? A school? A church? A corporation? A government?
        • Here again, looking for actions from the news that relate to organizations might be a good idea. For instance, Purina recently donated food to animal shelters in need. An area school gathered items for a food pantry. Our government gave money to people in Japan after the earthquake and so on. Asking students what makes these actions good ones will get to ethical values such as caring, sharing, responsibility, respect, and many others.
      • Discovering values related to social rights/laws and rules: What rights, rules, and laws are important to you as a citizen of the United States? As a member of this school? As a member of your church? As a member of your town? Here teachers may want to be prepared to bring in the bill of rights to the discussion as well as the preamble to the constitution. Both documents point to ethical values we have as Americans. Some of these values include, the belief that all people are created equal, have the right to pursue happiness and have the right to free speech. The teacher might provide these answers to get the discussion started and then ask for other examples.
      • Discovering values related to conservation: What do people do to care for the earth, its air and water, and its plants and animals? What makes these actions good? Here again examples from the news about protecting the health of the environment can get students discussing. For instance, Americans are being encouraged to go green by using public transportation, car pooling, and other means of transportation such as walking and biking. The teacher might ask the class the positive effects that these alternatives yield to get at ethical values.
    6. Repeat steps 5-6 until all answers are complete.
    7. Flip chart answers should be hung on the walls and used in session two.
    8. This session can be altered to accommodate small group work by using the  Jigsaw Strategy. In the Jigsaw Strategy, students work in teams to create content for themselves and their peers. The teacher must first model out loud how to create this content. In the case of the ethical inventory questions, the teacher should model how she or he would answer one set of questions. After modeling, the teacher should point out key features the teams should seek to mimic when creating their answers. For more specifics about how to transition from this modeling to group work, refer to the Jigsaw Strategy Guide.

    Session Two

    1. Hang the flip chart paper up in the classroom for reference during this session.
    2. Invite the class to take no more than 10 minutes to get up and review the flip charts. As they review the charts, students should take notes about what commonalities and differences they see in the values displayed on the charts.
    3. In round-robin fashion, have students report out the commonalities and differences they noted in step 2.
    4. Make sure students have copies of both the Sample Writing Situation and a blank Ethical Question Star .
    5. Using the Sample Writing Situation and working as a whole class, guide the class in completing the Ethical Question Star for the rhetorical writing situation. When the class gets stuck, be sure to point out the flip chart answers hanging around the classroom and ask them if anything from the chart can be used to answer each question.
    6. After the discussion, share with students the Sample Completed Ethical Question Star for this writing situation. Ask the class how the student who completed the star could have used the star to help him or her write a persuasive letter. Record these answers on the board and use them to reinforce to students the need for each of them to complete their own question star on this topic.
    7. Once steps 1-6 are finished, students should work on completing a question star of their own for their own writing situation. Students should be allowed to work in pairs or larger teams so that they can consult each other for help. Students should also be encouraged to look at the flip chart answers for help.
    8. For homework, students should finish their ethical question stars and bring them to the next class period.

    Session Three

    1. Divide students into groups of three.
    2. Direct groups to share their stars in round-robin fashion with the rest of the group.
    3. The group members should respond to each star by offering one praise statement and one suggestion. For instance, the group might note that one value will work well in the student’s paper (a praise comment), and that the student should add something about fairness to his/her star (a suggestion comment).
    4. The group should finish its work in no more than 20 minutes.
    5. Once all the group discussion is complete, ask the class how they might use the details from their stars to write their papers.
    6. Using the Ethical Question Star the whole class completed for the Sample Writing Situation, ask the class how ideas from the question star can be used to complete the persuasive map interactive.
    7. Once the whole class work is finished, students should work to complete a Persuasion Map for their own papers using the interactive. Students should be allowed to work in pairs or larger teams so that they can consult each other for help.
    8. Before students are sent to work on their own, be sure to share with them the assessment tool that you've created to help guide them through the assignment (quite possibly a persuasive rubric with the addition of the Sample Ethical Rubric).  Be sure to allow time for student questions to make sure they understand what is expected of them.
    9. Teachers should be prepared to follow these prewriting sessions with drafting, reviewing, and revising lessons that they would usually do for any writing unit.


    • Have students use their choice of the ethical inventory questions or the ethical question star to interview their intended audience. After interviews are complete, have students informally report to the class what they learned from their interview and how they might apply what they learned to their project.  The ReadWriteThink Tip Helping a Teen Prepare for an Interview provides a video and a list of process-based strategies students can follow for a successful interview.
    • Have students do internet research on ethical values by searching for ‘codes of ethics’ related to any of the following: their topic choices, an area of interest or hobby, or a career choice. After research is complete, have students informally share with the class how what they found is similar and different from the ethical values the class reported while completing the ethical inventory questions.  To prepare their findings for the class presentation, students can use the ReadWriteThink Venn Diagram Interactive.
    • Have groups of students create a presentation or multimedia project in which they take a position on what it means to be a good person in the 21st-century. In developing ideas for this project, students should use the ethical inventory questions to interview others on this topic, and they should research ‘codes of ethics’ on the internet related to their areas of interest. Students should also do research to discover ‘role models’ who personify their view of what it means to be a good person. The goal of the project should be to encourage students to synthesize other perspectives in creating a comprehensive portrait of what it means to be a good person in the 21st-century.  Creating a PowerPoint poster that students ‘deliver’ to the class is one way to put this idea into practice. Traci Gardner’s ReadWriteThink Lesson Designing Effective Poster Presentations provides strategies for creating such posters.

    Student Assessment / Reflections

    • Observe student discussions and in class work; prepare to assist and ask guiding questions to help students generate ethical values and relate them to their writing. Some guiding questions that can help students discover their values include: what about this issue upsets you? Why should people care about this issue? If nothing is done to resolve this problem, who will be hurt? Will any laws be broken if nothing is done?
    • Add an ethical component to the Peer Review Guidelines for Persuasive Letters. Including an ethical component can be as simple as inserting this prompt into the peer review handout: Identify the ethical values the writer has used in the letter. How well do these values relate to the writer’s argument? What values, if any, should be added to or removed from the letter?
    • Ask students to reflect on their use of ethical values and thinking when they have completed their final project by attaching a short, reflective letter to their finished work.  See the print out What Ethical Values Did I Use? for more details.
    • Add an ethical component (see the sample ethical rubric) to the Rubric for Persuasive Letters (be sure to share this rubric with students before their assignment is given).