Saturday, January 25, 2014

What is the Difference Between Reasons and Evidence?

I was coaching in a fourth-grade classroom this week and I was so glad that I had just attended Shanna Schwartz’s workshop on Writing About Reading with Primary Students. I have already written two other posts about my day at Teachers College, one about the guiding principles of workshop instruction that Shanna reviewed and another about ways to incorporate and integrate debate into classrooms. Another major element of her workshop involved helping teachers to know how to teach the difference between reasons and evidence. This part of the workshop was incredibly relevant as I worked with this fourth-grade teacher and her students.

We are in the middle of our Personal Essay unit in most fourth-grade classrooms, so students are beginning to think about their boxes and bullets, establishing their reasons and their evidence. After the mini-lesson, where I taught about the difference between these two, one boy worked on his baseball essay.

His thesis: “Baseball is a great sport.” Okay, a little overdone and simple, but I went along with it.

His reasons: I can hit home runs, I can catch deep hits, and I can run to first base. 

"You have done such a great job of picturing yourself playing baseball and really thinking about the parts that are important to you," I told him. Conferences should always include an authentic compliment and I find that this practice is especially important as a visiting teacher. 

He hadn't done a whole lot of writing, so it was easy for me to figure out that I wanted to get him to understand that what he had written were examples and not reasons, a concept that is challenging to many students as they study opinion writing. Sometimes figuring out my highest leverage teaching move for an individual student is tricky when I'm on the fly, especially if they have a lot of writing that they are presenting to me.

Fortunately, my lesson had involved using post-its, so his "reasons" were each on a post-it. I grouped the three together so that it looked like this: (My writing in this picture, not his--I did not think about pulling out my phone and snapping a picture, and I should have...)

I was hoping that he would see that his reasons were actually evidence. As soon as I asked him what all three had in common, he smiled. “You feel good about yourself,” he said. Exactly! I helped him rework his thinking: “Baseball is a great sport, not because you hit home runs, but rather, because you feel good about yourself. For example, one time, I hit a home run...” Together, we made a big green post it that went on top of the other three, uniting them with the reason. 

Explaining the difference between reasons and evidence is tricky, but incredibly important. Here are some of the suggestions from Shanna’s workshop:
  • A reason should answer the question WHY. Last year, I heard someone say that “because is the most incorrectly used word in our language.” In my student’s case, hitting a home run does not make baseball a great sport. Baseball is a great sport because it offers opportunities to feel good about yourself.
  • Evidence should answer the questions what or when. For example or one time or I remember when are all terrific lead-ins for evidence.
  • A reason is a pattern that happens over and over again. It’s not just about the time that you caught the deep ball. The pattern is the feeling that you get whenever you make a good play.
In the fifth-grade Research-Based Essay unit in the new Writing Units of Study,  an argument is compared to a house of cards and I love this analogy. You have to start with a claim, support it with reasons, and substantiate those reasons with evidence, examples, and proof. At any point within that process, the structure has the potential to collapse so keep your claim clear, your reasons important, and your evidence relevant!

Happy arguing,


  1. Great post. We've been doing the same work in our fourth grade classrooms. Very hard for Ss at first to see the connecting idea between all of their parts. I will definitely share this with my dept.

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  2. I agree that the House of Cards analogy is so appropriate. Your explanation of "why" as reason and "what" and "when" as evidence will help teachers and students look for these patterns in both their reading and writing.

    Thanks for sharing your learning!

  3. We just finished this unit in my fourth grade classroom. It was lots of hard work, but well worth it. The kids made amazing progress from the beginning to the end.

  4. This is perfect for our debate series and our upcoming student-led conferences. They are struggling with the difference between reasons and evidence but I know they will get there. Thank you!

  5. Just what I needed to make it easier to explain reasons and evidence to second graders!!

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