The Importance of Writing in the History-Social Science Class

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.” Benjamin Franklin.

Both California’s Common Core State Standards (CCCSS) and the History/Social Science (HSS) Framework and Standards recommend writing as an essential tool for teaching the discipline of history/ social science because writing develops analytic and critical thinking skills.  History classes should include both informal and formal writing.

 Informal Writing

A history class should practice  informal writing “routinely over extended time frames for a range of tasks, purposes and audiences (CCCSS Range of Writing 10, Grade 3)”.

  • Students must learn how to take notes.  They should always record their source of information whether from a lecture, an online source, book, or article.
  • A double-sided journal works well for this activity.  On one side of the paper the students record important facts from reading the text or primary source materials, lectures, student reports, and videos.  On the other side they record their own thinking, beliefs, questions, and ideas to analyze as they learn.
  • learning logs
  • outlines
  • doodles
  • lists,
  • graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams and concept maps.
  • Digital notes:  Evernote is a free online product that allows students to record and insert pictures into their notes.

After they take notes, they should analyze their notes to decide the main idea, the author’s or speaker’s opinions or point of view, and find the credibility of the information source.  Informal writing is most effective when it is shared with one or two peers.  Typically these written works are not edited by the students or teacher for errors, but they may be expanded and modified after being shared with a classmate.  Writing informally to learn is one of the first steps students use when preparing to write a formal history/ social science essay.

 Formal Writing

Formal writing in history/social science answers a question and includes:  arguments, informational texts and narration of historical events in both short and sustained research projects.  All three of these writing types consist of answering question and presenting facts and examples to persuade a reader to accept the student’s interpretation of history.  The teacher’s responsibility is to begin a writing project with a question prompt about a significant issue within a larger historical context that will stimulate student thinking.

Writing programs differ only slightly in describing five steps in writing a formal historical essay from pre-writing to a published document.  The steps are:  pre-writing, draft, revising, editing, and publishing.  Students do best when teachers clearly communicate what they expect by showing examples of similar papers at each stage of the process about other topics in which students have written successfully to a prompt.  It is also helpful to demonstrate to students what is not successful, but teachers must always end by showing the successful model.

  • Pre-writing
    • Students must understand and analyze the prompt, place it in the proper context, and develop a thesis statement in which they state their opinion about the topic.
    • Students need to know the purpose and audience for which and to whom they are writing,
    •  Pre-writing also includes collecting and sorting information.  Students may need direct instruction on how to use the Internet to research, how to tell secondary from primary resources and understand why both are important.  In addition to gathering information, students will discard unimportant details, and keep only those that support the claim they make in their thesis statements.
    • Finally in the pre-writing stage students need experience with academic vocabulary.  Teachers need to be clear in their instructions as to which words students are required to use in their final product.
  • Draft
    • Starting with a hook like a quotation or interesting fact students will turn their outlines or graphic organizers into an essay with an introduction, body and conclusion.  The thesis, stated somewhere in the introductory paragraph, controls the argument and answers the historical question in one sentence.  It states the author’s opinion authoritatively using the verbs “to have” or “to be” rather than using specific opinion words.  The thesis statement should be followed by persuasive words such as “This is historically important because…” or “This shows that…”
    • Each paragraph also has a main idea, general and specific details, and a transition or conclusion.
    • In the body of the essay, students should start with the weakest argument (Scarcella, 2003; Schleppegrell, 2004.).  Students should aim to include 3-4 factual details to prove each argument or concept.
    • Rather than offering a simple summary, the formal historical essay concludes by restating the thesis and applying the analysis to a broader context to show its significance in history.
  • Revising
    • Word sorting activities, using word banks or thesauruses they make edits to revise and improve their reports.
    • They read each other’s work and “question the author” to make sure that the message they have is clear.
    • They allow time to distance themselves from their work so they can be objective as they make deep cuts and edits to their original draft.
  • Editing
    • Proofreading and editing still needs to take place to perfect the product.  They need to check for punctuation, complete sentences, capitals, grammar.
    • Finally they should include text features such as: font sizes, bold and italicized print, charts, maps and pictures.
  • Publishing
    • Finally the works is ready to be published.  This may be in the form of a paper, book, brochure, or a digital production such as a blog or photo story.  There are many other forms of publications each with their own requirements.

Writing about history is often controversial, and cannot be understood unless writers imagine themselves in a different period of history, in a different place and culture.  They must garner facts and evidence to take up a new identity and make sense of the events of history.  Tom Clancy states, “The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”  Often history doesn’t make sense, and student historians have the opportunity to investigate and produce their slant on what really happened in history”.  Writing helps students learn from and make sense of history, and develops their critical and analytic thinking.  Write on, historians.

Author: Marsha

Hi, I'm Marsha Ingrao, author, blogger and retired teacher/consultant. Read more about me here. http://wp.me/P7tP3I-2

11 thoughts on “The Importance of Writing in the History-Social Science Class”

  1. I would like to thank you so very much for taking the time and effort to extend your knowledge and understanding of these various aspects of the new Common Core standards! You are an invaluable resource…THANKS!!!

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    1. Wow! What a nice thing to say, Mike. Thanks! I’m learning so much! There are just a few differences between good writing in ELA and good writing for HSS. One of the main differences is checking the credibility of the source and another is projecting into the future instead of summarizing at the end.

      Thanks again for taking the time to write. Have a great 4th, and I’ll see you and Justin on Thurs.

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    2. Thanks Mike. I love the blog format for getting my ideas into writing. Thanks for your continuous support. I’m excited about building up our resources for teachers on our Valleysocialstudies.com site. That is going to be a labor of love!

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    1. Yeah, I guess I need to add the rss. I am still experimenting with this. I alternate between technical issues, writing posts, reading and responding to folks, and looking at new sites. Speaking of writing, I have a social studies teacher friend who writes a blog, and has his students respond to it. Then they can also respond to each other. He is an amazing teacher.

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  2. Studying history is just like being a detective. All good detectives look for as much evidence they can find, take notes, and write up thier findings. You cannot be a history student and not write. History is not a fill-in-the-blank activity-no matter what grade you are in!

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    1. You got it. You have to assess not only did they put the right blank in , but did they even choose the most important information to include in the text. And who were they writing to anyway? What is their slant on things? Are they really an expert? And on and on we go.

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  3. Revisiting this article before the beginning of the year I think of all the things that I have to do to implement in order to get enough writing in my classes. I’m both excited and scared. I can think of places where students can write both formal and informal. I just hope that I’m have enough to develop the critical and analytical skills in my students to make them successful in the future. I do feel more and more confident with every training I go to.

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    1. I read a great blog the other day about writing – The writing lady, she suggested having students copy writing of famous writers – ie Thomas Jefferson, and having them substitute their own situations into that type of writing. “We the students of Richgrove, in order to form…You get the idea. Use lots of primary source documents. Lots of pictures they can respond to. You’re going to have a great year!

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  4. Wonderful tips. I love the simplicity of using one side of the ‘double sided journal’ to take notes/log sources and the other to track/develope one’s own thoughts. So easy, and I appreciate your making it clear! Thank you for so many wonderful insights!!

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