An Introduction to Teaching Writing in History Courses

A. Ferguson, BHP Score Team
Arizona State University, USA

Teaching students how to write about history can be a challenging but rewarding task. When students write, they actively engage in a process that involves critical thinking, analysis, collaboration, creativity, and self-reflection that helps them understand and apply content they’re learning in their classes. Teaching writing in history courses can prepare students to be skilled writers and apply their skills in any course in any discipline. History teachers can provide a platform for students to learn how to write claims, cite sources, analyze information, and organize ideas to support an argument about a historical topic. By writing about historical topics, students will also develop critical thinking skills that can translate to other disciplines in school and help them achieve higher scores on assignments and tests.

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Teenager doing a written assignment. Public domain.

Getting students to write in the classroom can require teachers to implement specific strategies to help students develop productive habits of writing. The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, research written and reviewed by college and high school faculty nationwide, points out how developing habits can lead to students’ success in writing. However, many students may struggle at first to develop effective writing habits. Teachers can help students by implementing scaffolding strategies, at least until they feel comfortable enough to set their own goals. For example, a practice outlined in Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot has teachers allot a certain amount of time to write or a set a word count that students need to reach for the day. Other scaffolding strategies include:

  • Setting daily goals for their students
  • Incorporating peer reviews at any point in the writing process
  • Having a whole class list and agree upon specific due dates for writing assignments
  • Using sample essays that the whole class analyzes (with the teacher) to identify strengths and areas for improvement

These strategies can get students in the habit of writing and setting goals for themselves to write a final product. Once students develop a habit of writing, teachers can use writing to help achieve a variety of goals in the classroom.

Writing can serve teachers in different ways to help students understand and grasp material. For example, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, writing can help students understand concepts, apply information they learn, evaluate claims, and create a new or original work. Teachers can use writing in a variety of ways to have their students write something every day:

  • A short paragraph written in class or a longer piece assigned as homework can be used to assess students’ understanding and grasp of curricular material.
  • Teachers can use the beginning, middle, or end of class to ask their students to write a reflection about or to describe their approach for an upcoming writing assignment.
  • Teachers can collect students’ writing to get a better sense of how each student perceives the task at hand and provide direction that positively influences the student’s upcoming writing.

Although teaching students to write about history can seem challenging at first, the benefits of writing in history courses can have a positive impact on a student’s critical thinking and writing. By incorporating writing in history courses, teachers will find the process rewarding as their students develop productive writing habits and gain valuable skills that can be used in and outside the classroom. More important, teachers who implement writing in the classroom will provide their students more opportunities to be successful in all facets of their lives.

About the author: A. Ferguson sits on the BHP Score team at Arizona State University. You can learn more about the BHP Score team in this blog post.