How to Promote Strong Writing Skills in Social Studies
Learning how to write well is essential for effective communication, and students benefit from getting a lot of practice in classes beyond English.
The content of our curricula can be seductive. There are so many fascinating ideas to convey, so many unanswered questions to ask, so many lifelong lessons to learn. Which is one reason why, paradoxically, it can be hard to find the time to teach critical skills like speaking, reading, and writing. Yet this is exactly what we all must do: teach skills through content.
This is true of all disciplines, and in particular social studies. If writing is in the very DNA of English and more foreign to subjects like math, social studies occupies something of a middle ground. The potential for writing is as great as its instruction is inconsistent. What follows are a few simple tips and ideas for teaching social studies students how to write.
But first, why do it? The answer is because those who can write are better able to think critically and communicate effectively. Better able to embrace ambiguity in a complex world, practice empathy, and marshal evidence in support of an argument. In short, because writing makes us smarter.
Perhaps the first, most important takeaway is that we should provide as many opportunities as possible for students to write—every week if not every day. The assignments can range from summary paragraphs to entire analytical essays. (Grading is certainly a consideration, but remember, not every assignment merits a copy edit or a score.)
Also consider your students’ yearlong skills progression. Much as you map out the content you’d like to cover, think about doing the same for skills. A partial writing list should include annotations, summaries, analytical paragraphs, source evaluations, analytical essays, and research papers.
When teaching any of the above, and for that matter any other skill, be it playing a C chord, making salsa verde, or shooting a jump hook, the same template applies—explain, model, practice, give feedback, practice. So, for example, describe the elements of an ideally annotated excerpt, show several models, and allow students to practice. Then give them feedback along the way via formative and summative assessments, as formally or informally as you like. Just remember, there’s no way to become a better writer other than to write. Although reading voraciously certainly helps, too.
Foundational and Academic Writing
Foundational writing includes summary, source evaluation, and analytical paragraphs. It’s difficult if not impossible to graduate to more advanced modes of writing without first gaining proficiency in the foundational three.
To summarize is to shorten and paraphrase another’s content, including the main idea and requisite essential details, and excluding one’s own opinion. Set a word limit or percentage of the original, or simply follow the Goldilocks rule, providing not too little information nor too much.
When evaluating a piece of art, document, or film, students should be able to determine both its veracity and whether it’s a primary or secondary source. They should be sensitive to bias and perspective and understand the goal of the work. Look no further than students’ social media swipes and scrolls for the primacy of source evaluation.
The analytical paragraph is much like an analytical essay but in synthesized—or summarized—form. Its essential elements are argument, evidence, and analysis. Exactly the same as its more mature cousin, the analytical essay, which is simply a piece of writing with a beginning, middle, and end, or an idea that is proven over a multiple number of paragraphs.
After ample practice writing analytical paragraphs, students should find the transition to analytical essays, and therefore traditional academic writing, less strenuous and perhaps even not something to hate. And just when they’ve conquered that, you can contemplate teaching them how to write document-based question essays (DBQs) and research papers. The architecture of both remains consistent in terms of supporting an argument with evidence and analysis. They differ simply with regard to the type of evidence presented, namely teacher-provided documents or independent research. The larger point is that once a student is familiar with analytical writing, even in the hypercompacted paragraph, other, more intricate forms of analysis will be much easier to master.
And finally, the fun stuff. Think about the writing we encounter in our lives outside of school. Nearly everything you can imagine is fertile ground. The examples are legion: op-eds, book reviews, historical novels, family histories, memoirs, magazine features, white papers, speeches, even visual essays and comics. Authentic real-world writing is almost by definition more engaging, allowing students to find their own voices and their sense of self.
Show students how people in the real world write every day, some for a paycheck and others just for fun. Tell them that their ideas matter and their words hold more power than they may ever know. Try to get students to glimpse the joys of writing. To understand how it sharpens the mind, softens the heart, and feeds the soul. To realize that in addition to being a pleasurable pursuit, writing just might help them change the world.
And if all this is true, my fellow teachers, you might consider writing, too.