Do your students have the write stuff?

May 2, 2019
Kristina Janeway

English isn’t the only class that can be and is writing-intensive: all of the content areas have the write stuff! Okay, it’s a bad pun that take some of us older people back to the boy bands of the ‘80s, but the intent is legitimate—all content areas need to write.

As in English, writing is not limited to just an essay for social studies. I’ll grant you the majority of the assignments are, in fact, essays, research papers, or document-based questions, but there are also journals, perspectives, editorials, biographies, non-fiction articles, and the list continues. The most important thing is just the act of writing—expressing thoughts for yourself and others, tracking individual learning, and reflecting on ideas. Writing measures comprehension, application, and growth of individual ideas. Yet, writing in history is a bit different than composing in an English course.

Tips for Essay Basics in History:

  1. Assume your audience knows nothing about the historical concept.
  2. Address the topic and the theme throughout the essay.
  3. Clearly state the topic as well as your position or thesis statement in the introduction.
  4. Chronology and sequencing are part of the organizational structure.
  5. Use at least three reasons that support the position or thesis of the introduction.
  6. The topic sentence of each paragraph should assert one reason or idea and reflect the thesis statement.
  7. Use specific examples, evidence, and statistics to support the reasons.
  8. Be mindful of transitional use between sentences, evidence, and support, as well as paragraphs.
  9. Redefine the topic and most compelling information in the conclusion.
  10. Provide citations of quoted and statistical information.

If you are thinking the above list is almost exactly like what you would see in English, you are correct, because good writing is good writing—just saying.

Some Instructional Dos and Don’ts:

  • Don’t get fancy with cutesy graphic organizers and such. Do align with your English department and use a similar organizational structure, like a traditional outline.
  • Don’t reinvent the academic language of writing. Do use the same terminology and definitions as your writing teaching counterparts.
  • Don’t bleed all over student work in the grading process. Do use a grading rubric similar to that in English that you tweak to reflect the specifics you need.
  • Don’t provide the students with unlimited time to write. Do put all writing in a timed context to keep students focused and in practice for the various assessments.

But, as previously stated, writing in social studies does not have to be a traditional five-paragraph essay. Below are some additional writing ideas to try with your students.

Sensory Journal:

Use a graphic of some kind that relates to the concept you are studying. Photographs and artwork work best for this activity.

  1. Have the students study the photograph or artwork for approximately 30 seconds.
  2. Have the students write for five minutes on at least three of the sensory prompters—I see… I hear… I taste… I touch… I smell…
  3. Have the students then write another five minutes on the synthesis portion of sensory journals—I think… I feel…

Quotation Journal or Reader Response Journal:

Use primary sources, class novels, period fiction, or any outside reading assignments for this activity.

  1. Provide students with a quote or have the students select a quote from one of the above forms of reading.
  2. Using either notebook paper, a composition book, or a form of technology, have the students copy the quotation down along with the citation information.
    • Give the students three minutes to compose a reaction to the quote.  
    • Give the students three minutes to compose an initial reaction to the quote. Discuss the reading selection as a class. Provide the students with three minutes to compose a concluding reaction to the quote.
    • Give the students three minutes to compose an initial reaction to the quote. Discuss the reading selection as a class. Provide the students with three minutes to compose a summary of the class discussion.
    • Give the students three minutes to compose an initial reaction to the quote. Give the students one minute to list what they know about the context of the quote. Give the students one minute to list what they need to know about the context of the quote. Give the students one minute to list what they learned about the social studies themes in the context of the quote. (Similar to a KWL journal.)

TRATT Journal:

Use images such as political cartoons and other graphic representations for this writing activity. The journal will use the following questions as guides for the students in composing a paragraph.

T=Topic—What is the topic of the graphic?

R=Role—What is the role or purpose of the graphic?

A=Audience—Who is being addressed in the graphic?

T=Theme—What social studies theme is being addressed in the graphic?

T=Think—What do you think about the graphic? In ELAR academic language, make an inference about the graphic.

The major takeaway? WRITE!

Kristina Janeway | Teacher & Author

Kristina Janeway is a Pre-AP, GT, and PSAT/Pre-AP English teacher in Lubbock, Texas. She has designed ELA to Social Studies curriculum for 15 years.

For more from Kristina Janeway visit her website here.

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