More Practice with Finding the Point, Courtesy of Barack Obama

This post is a follow-up to The Well Built Essay:  It’s All About Structure.

Let your students practice finding the point in longer pieces of writing.   For example, have your students read the famous Obama speech on race:   Then have them answer: 

  • What’s the point?
  • How does he back it up?
  •  So What?

Collect the answers and review them to assess how well your students are able to identify the main point and supporting evidence in a longer work of writing.  Here, generally, is what you might look for:

What’s the point?

This nation has been  in a racial stalemate for decades.

 How does he back it up?

  • I’m here today because of the Reverand White scandal – African Americans are angry and have legitimate concerns about discrimination
  • White americans are angry – they have worked hard and resent affirmative action, e.g,  “your dream coming at my expense.”
  • African  and White Americans often focus their anger on each other –and often behind closed doors – and that is not helpful.

 So What?

  • Now is the time to break through the racial stalemate and focus on our common needs: Our union may never be perfect, but it can always be perfected, thanks to princibles on which it was found.

Step 2: The Well-Built Essay: All About Structure

Having challenged your own thinking, it is now time to challenge your students’ thinking.  The objective is to enable them to figure out whether an argument, whether oral or written, is well structured.

On this site,  when we us the term “structure,” we will be talking about the basic argument of the essay or written piece.  A piece of writing is well structured if it can answer three basic questions:

  • What’s your point?
  • How do you back it up? (We are looking for evidence, not emotional claims or opinions.)
  • So what?  (Why do we need to know it?  What are the implications of the argument overall?)

Great written works have great structure.  Consider, for example, the following:

 Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg AddressJune 1, 1865

 Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.   Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

 Now let’s see if this passes the structure test: 

 What’s the point?

These soldiers did not die in vain.

 How do you back it up?

  • Our country was founded on noble principles: equality and freedom.
  • These are the principles these soldiers fought for.

 So what?

If we don’t commit to the cause of these soldiers, our country as we know it, will cease to exist.

 Wow…It passes with flying colors.  (And as we’ll see in the next unit, Abe also does a great job of adding some bling to make his speech sing.)

 Practical Tips:  How can you help your students become better writers?

 Because structure is so important, it is useful to get your students to think about it all the time:

Take 10 or 15 minutes (ideally several times a week) to have them formulate a short argument in response to an open-ended question. Such questions can be general (e.g., What is success?) or specific to a work you are studying in class (e.g., Would Atticus Finch have been a more effective defender of Tom Robinson (and Civil Rights) if he had been more publicly outraged over the discrimination he saw around him?)  SAT prompts are great questions to assign for this exercise, and a list of such prompts is listed below.

The goal is to have students think about such questions for a few minutes, and formulate an argument outline – as though they were getting ready to write an essay — by answering:

    • What’s my point?
    • How do I back it up?
    • So What? (Why do we need to know this?)

 Then they can take turns getting a little improvisational speaking practice by sharing their outlines aloud with the class. 

 This activity is a wonderful way to maximize use of your class time:  Post the question on the board as a “do now” activity for students to work on as soon as they enter the classroom.

Sample Questions for Developing Arguments[1]

 Questions about ethics:

  • Is conscience a more powerful motivator than money, fame power? 
  • Should modern society be criticized for being materialistic?
  • Can knowledge be a burden rather than a benefit?
  • Should people take more responsibility for solving problems that affect their communities or the nation in general?
  • Do circumstances determine whether or not we should tell the truth?
  • Is it important to try to understand people’s motivations before judging their actions?
  • Can deception (pretending that something is true when it is not) sometimes have good results?

Questions about success:

  • Can success be disastrous?
  • Is the effort involved in pursuing any goal valuable, even if the goal is not reached?
  • Do people achieve greatness only by finding out what they are especially good at and developing that attribute above all else?
  • Are people more likely to be happy if they focus on goals other than their own happiness?
  • Is it best to have low expectations and to set goals we are sure of achieving?
  • Are all important discoveries the result of focusing on one subject?
  • Do people achieve more success by cooperation than by competition?
  • Is it more important to do work that one finds fulfilling or work that pays well?

 Questions about technology and a changing world:

  •  Is the world changing for the better?
  • Is the most important purpose of technology today different from what it was in the past?
  • Have modern advancements truly improved the quality of people’s lives?
  • Does a strong commitment to technological progress cause a society to neglect other values, such as education and the protection of the environment?
  • Should people always prefer new things, ideas, or values to those of the past?

 Questions about self discovery:

  •  Do you think that ease does not challenge us as much as diversity to discover who we are?
  • Do we need other people to understand ourselves?
  • Is identity something people are born with or given, or is it something people create for themselves?
  • Do people truly benefit from hardship and misfortune?
  • Do we really benefit from every event or experience in some way?
  • Is education primarily the result of influences other than school?
  • Is it better to change one’s attitude than to change one’s circumstances?
  • Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?
  • Does true learning only occur when we experience difficulties?
  • Is it better for people to be realistic or optimistic?
  • Is happiness something over which people have no control, or can people choose to be happy?

 Questions about heroism:

  • Should heroes be defined as those who say what they think when others lack the courage to say it?
  • Should we admire heroes but not celebrities?
  • Is there a value in celebrating certain individuals as heroes?

 Questions about independent thinking versus “groupthink”

  • Is it always better to be original than to imitate or use the ideas of others?
  • Is there any value for people to belong only to a group or groups with which they have something in common?
  • Do people need to “unlearn,” or reject, many of their assumptions and ideas?
  • Is it always best to determine one’s own views of right and wrong, or can we benefit from following the crowd?
  • Is it more valuable for people to fit in than to be unique and different?
  • Can people ever be truly original?
  • Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today?
  • Are people more likely to be productive and successful when they ignore the opinions of others?
  • Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in positions of authority?
  • Are established rules too limited to guide people in real-life situations?
  • Is it sometimes better to take risks than to follow a more reasonable course of action?
  • Do we tend to accept the opinions of others instead of developing our own independent ideas?


[1] Source:  The College Board and