Understanding Key Arguments of Sources

Instructor: Millie van der Westhuizen

Millie is currently working in tertiary education, whilst completing her master's degree in English Studies.

In this lesson, you will be learning some strategies that might help you in identifying the key arguments contained in various text types, including articles, historical documents, charts and letters.

Communicating a Point

Have you ever had a conversation with someone where they were trying to argue some point, but you simply couldn't figure out what exactly they were trying to say? Very often during informal discussions you might have a strong sense of reasoning in your mind, but not be communicating these ideas clearly to the person you are talking to.

Similarly, when you are reading different kinds of sources, it might not always be obvious what the key arguments are that the author is trying to make. In this lesson, we'll look at ways to identify the key ideas contained in texts like articles, essays, historical documents, letters, or charts.

You might also get a stronger sense of the strategies you could use yourself when you are trying to communicate your ideas in writing.

The Influence of Structure

When you are dealing with formal texts like academic articles or essays, one way of identifying the key ideas is to consider the text's structure, particularly the introduction. Normally the authors will try to make their main arguments explicit within the first few paragraphs, as establishing the purpose of the text is vital to ensuring that the support for their arguments doesn't appear to be random.

As such, it is valuable to consider the purpose of each section in these texts. The argument is supposed to be in the introduction, whilst the body of the essay or article should work towards clarifying the links between their argument and their evidence. Concluding paragraphs tend to reintroduce the evidence that supported key arguments and is therefore more focused on support than the introduction.

Indicative Words and Sentence Types

In addition to using the text's structure, there are also certain words or phrases that might indicate when the author is making a statement. Statements tend to relate strongly to a text's key ideas or argument, whilst explanations or evidence generally support these ideas.

When a sentence contains words indicating that the information that follows is largely support, or an explanation (e.g. 'for example...', or 'you see this in...'), identifying the statement that appears just beforehand will give you a stronger sense of the text's main ideas.

Although authors often place the main idea contained in a paragraph towards the beginning or end of a paragraph, this is not always the case. Consequently, it might be useful to ask yourself whether a sentence represents a statement, supporting evidence, or an explanation.

Other Text Types

Less academic or formal texts might not be as structured. In these cases, the ability to determine the nature and purpose of individual sentences or phrases might still be a great starting point.

However, you might also want to take into account the purpose of the document you are working with. Once you have a sense of why a letter or historical document was written, you should have a better idea of what to look out for as you scan through it. For example, if you are reading a letter from a soldier to his wife during a war, you can probably guess that it will contain some news of the battles, or his opinion of the war and his place in it at that time.

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