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Writing in Social Studies

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Strategies for Writing to Learn in Social Studies
Writing to Demonstrate Knowledge in Social Studies


How do Social Studies teachers view writing in their curriculums?

Social Studies teachers see writing as a process. They believe that the writing process needs to be vertically and horizontally aligned so that there is a gradual progression of writing skills from grades 6 through 12. These skills should be sharpened each year and not continually re-taught as if no instruction had ever been provided. The grade where each writing skill is introduced and an explanation of how the skill is going to be developed should be provided to all middle school and high school teachers.

Social Studies teachers believe that the pre-writing process must be an important component of the writing process.  Just as AP and SAT exams provide for a pre-writing period of 4-5 minutes for essays and 15-20 minutes for a DBQ, students must be taught to make pre-writing part of their writing experience.

How do Social Studies teachers use writing?

Social Studies teachers use writing both to help students learn and to assess those students. Writing is physical evidence of thinking therefore writing must be an important component of all social studies classes.  Critical thinking and critical writing go together to both help students learn and provide evidence that learning has taken place. As Social Studies teachers integrate the historical thinking skills identified for high school history AP courses into middle school and Pre-AP classes, these skills will enhance the teaching of writing skills.


What kind of writing instruction must Social Studies teachers provide? 

Social Studies teachers believe that students must be taught how to write 5 paragraph narrative, persuasive, and analytical/argumentative essays. They also want to teach students how to read and scrutinize an essay question, address all parts of the question, write a clear thesis in response to the question, and link historical or social science information to what the question is asking them to do (analysis). Social Studies teachers place a great deal of emphasis on the writing of a thesis, because the essay should flow from that thesis. But before they can write the thesis, teachers know they must spend time helping students analyze the question being asked {e.g. identifying key task verbs like compare/contrast, analyze, evaluate, justify, assess the validity etc.}so that student writing matches what the prompt is asking them to do. 


Strategies for Writing to Learn in
Social Studies

See the Table of Contents of this teachers' guide to Writing Across the Curriculum in Social Studies for descriptions, implementation ideas, and examples of some of these writing-to-learn strategies:

  • GIST: GIST (Cunningham 1982) is a strategy designed to help students learn to write organized and concise summaries. Summaries restate only the author’s main ideas, omitting all examples and evidence used in supporting and illustrating points. For students who are at a loss as how to put a reading into their own words, GIST can be used as a step-by-step method.
  • Learning Log:  Learning logs are different from traditional journals.  Learning logs document the learning that occurs during a class, a project, or a unit of study.  Learning logs are excellent tools for individual accountability during collaborative work.
  • Cornell Note-taking A format for taking notes that uses boxes. It requires students to process material as they are learning it by formulating questions, summarizing, and analyzing. Students can draw lines or simply fold notebook paper to form the blocks.
  • Question-Answer Relationship (QAR):  QAR is a way of describing for students that there are four types of questions and possible places for finding answers to those questions. Pearson and Johnson (1978) described the four types of questions as textually explicit (literally stated in the text); textually implicit (suggested or implied by the text); and script implicit (in the reader’s background knowledge or “script” inside the reader’s head). These are known as Right There, Think and Search, and On Your Own type questions.
  • Quick Writes:  Quick Writing is a motivating, pre-reading activity that prepares students for reading new material or reviewing material in preparation for understanding new information to be read.
  • RAFT:  Role, Audience, Format, Topic: RAFT is an acronym for a structured technique used to guide student writing. RAFT assignments are used to demonstrate a student’s knowledge using a defined point of view. This strategy requires students to write using an assigned format to an audience other than the teacher.
  • Reading Response Journal:  Journals have successfully been used as a means for students to express their thoughts, feelings, and reactions about reading.
  • Thinking Maps:  A structured thinking map and an outline accomplish the same goal but use two different formats - one formal and one less formal. Thinking maps, the less formal of the two, uses circles and lines to show relationships, while outlines show them through the systematic use of letters and numbers.
  • Word Bank Writing:  Writing from a word bank is a strategy used from the earliest grades. Students write a paragraph utilizing words that the teacher has pre-selected.

Writing to Demonstrate Knowledge in Social Studies

See the Table of Contents of this teachers' guide to Writing Across the Curriculum in Social Studies for descriptions, implementation ideas, and examples of these writing-to-demonstrate-knowledge forms/formats:

Types of Writing

  • Persuasive Civic Writing:  This type of persuasive writing is very specific. It is writing focused on an issue of public policy and is intended to persuade public policy makers and other citizens to adopt a particular position. Persuasive civic writing is modeled in the editorial sections of newspapers and magazines across the United States. It is considered to be an important skill for all citizens.
  • Using Narrative to Demonstrate Knowledge:  The narrative writing basic format is beginning, middle, and end using character, settings and plot. The goal of this type of writing is to demonstrate knowledge learned about individuals, events, causes, and consequences.
  • Analytical/ArgumentativeAn analytical essay examines ideas using relevant evidence the writer has learned from a text or a variety of texts. The essay must show a clear connection both to supporting evidence and the question that was asked. The essay should not only make connections, but also be logically organized and demonstrate inferential/critical thinking.  An analytical essay may ask students to compare/contrast, synthesize, argue a position, and or show a cause and effect relationship.  In order to answer the question, students must use their critical thinking/problem solving skills. One type of analytical essay is the argumentative essay.   

Writing Products

  • Report Writing:  Usually shorter in length and scope than a research paper, a report describes and summarizes the findings of an individual or group following a systematic inquiry or an examination of a series of incidents, conversations, studies, interpretation or observations. The purpose of the work is to persuade or inform an audience using factual material.
  • Research Report:  The research report is an informational text produced as part of a research project. It summarizes the intent, process, sequence, and content of research, provable findings, and conclusions. Research preceding the report is completed through a systematic inquiry into a subject or problem in order to discover, verify, or revise relevant facts or principles relating to that subject or problem. Credible reporting requires credible research questions and procedures.



How should teachers assess the writing process?