Publication Date

May 1, 2012


When 17-year-old Joanna confronted this essay prompt, "Evaluate the following statement—'The explosion of the U.S.S. Maine caused the United States to invade Cuba in 1898′,” she responded with: “The Spanish American War was a good thing, we got Cuba as a territory, we showed everyone that we are not pushovers, and we showed that we are a dominating force in the world….”1 Do your students use writing opportunities to share their personal opinions, as Joanna did, or report information? If so, you are not alone. Studies of college history students affirm that when asked to write, they most often list information or share their ideas, rather than analyze evidence or create their own arguments.2 Writing summaries and unfounded diatribes are standard practice for novice history students.


Writing historically poses particular challenges to students who enter our classrooms with weak literacy skills. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), not even a third of 8th graders possess grade-level skills (that is, are "proficient") in reading and writing. And only a quarter of 12th graders are proficient in writing. Proficiency at the 12th-grade level is defined in part by analytical and evaluative thinking as well as by the elaboration of ideas. Using evidence to support ideas is one marker of advanced writing in 12th grade, a distinction reached by a scant 1 percent of 12th graders tested.3

Experts know that writing a historical essay involves sifting through sources and constructing an interpretation grounded in evidence. However, adolescents tend to see the goals of writing differently, not always understanding that history essays require them to construct an argument or situate a topic in historical context.4 Instead, they focus on generating information and fail to organize essays around ideas. Indeed, writing experts argue that novices transfer their knowledge to their written work without shaping it in any way. When novices do try composing an argument, they may engage in a unidirectional process of first establishing a thesis and then finding facts to support it.5

In addition to the basic skills of writing, and understanding the purposes and processes of writing, students' ingrained conceptions of history are a likely influence on their written work. Students often believe that history is comprised of predetermined facts that form a finished story—indeed, that there is a single story of the past. They may sift through contradictory evidence by simply deciding that one account is true and another false, rather than questioning accounts or offering contradictory evidence. Research has found that students are much more likely to walk into a classroom with the understanding that school history is reality, not interpretation.6 If students believe that history is a story they must learn, then their writing will likely reflect this conception by sharing the details of the story that they remember.

Writing an evidence-based historical argument is difficult for these students, not only because they don't think about history in terms of interpretation and evidence, but also because of the complexity of the writing process itself. In large part, students' incoming skills and conceptions are shaped by what they've been taught. Conventional secondary (grades 7–12) instruction consists primarily of lecture, textbook reading, and factual-recall quizzes. Statewide mandated exams typically include multiple-choice questions that value memorizing information over historical understanding. Students in middle and high school are unlikely to spend time reasoning, writing extended responses, or reading outside of the textbook.7 This approach leaves little room for making sense of historical texts, questioning evidence, developing one’s own interpretation, or learning to write grounded historical interpretations.

Now What?

Just because students enter college classrooms without the skills of historical writing doesn't mean they can't learn. There are secondary students who learn to write good historical essays. In my earlier research, I followed three 11th grade U.S. history teachers who tried to develop their students' writing. "Ms. Bobeck" and "Mr. Lyle" were successful; "Mr. Rossi" was not. The work of Lyle, in particular, holds promise for those interested in developing students' historical writing at the college level. The findings from this study are consistent with those of other educational researchers as well.8 Ultimately, a disciplinary approach to history in the classroom is the foundation for developing students’ historical thinking and related literacy skills. In advanced disciplinary work, reading and writingare thinking.

Most importantly, Lyle taught his students how to read historically. Whether guiding students to consider the role of religion in abolitionists' speeches or recognize the home states of delegates in James Madison's notes from the Constitutional Convention, Lyle presented history as an interpretive discipline rooted in the investigation of historical texts. Lyle structured students' reading by directing them to annotate every text they read. Lyle helped his students learn to annotate by giving specific directions, analyzing texts together in class, and giving feedback on their annotations. When Lyle asked students to annotate their readings, he pushed them to become active readers engaged with the text in many ways: asking and answering questions of themselves and the author, noticing the source and context of the document, and making connections with other texts. Teaching students to read historical texts paved the way for them to argue and write.

Lyle further integrated reading and writing as means of learning to think historically by asking students to analyze documents in regular informal writing prompts (or "mini-writes"), which gave students an opportunity to read documents carefully, comprehend their meanings, and situate them historically. Mini-writes facilitated the comprehension of the beliefs and intentions of an author. Such prompts were a routine part of class—comprising about two-thirds of the students' writing opportunities—and usually took place in the first 30 minutes of the period. These assignments asked students to begin a consideration of the past with an exploration of the evidence. Lyle's feedback focused on the students'interpretations of text—whether he agreed or disagreed—and prompted students to read texts more carefully.

Once students read the texts and completed their mini-writes, Lyle led whole-class discussions of a particular primary document or set of documents. Lyle began these discussions by soliciting students' interpretations, asking for the evidence that led students to their conclusions, and exploring the historical context that had bearing on a text's creation or a student's interpretation. Lyle posed historical questions to heighten students' involvement in making sense of the texts and the issues they raised. Throughout discussions, he held students accountable for backing up claims with specific textual evidence.

Reading, discussion, and informal writing led to more formal writing assignments in which Lyle asked students to synthesize and interpret ideas across documents. These tended to be take-home assignments, allowing students to pull together ideas regarding a topic they had considered for an extended period. To complete these tasks, students had to collect various documents related to one topic, read and see the documents together, and synthesize perspectives about which they had already written. A solid understanding of sources, and the practice they'd had completing informal essays about and annotating those sources, enabled students to synthesize across sources when writing the interpretive take-home essays.

Teaching students to read critically prepared them to argue and to write. When one student had trouble supporting his arguments with evidence, Lyle examined his annotations and found that he was not making notes in the margins of his reader. He subsequently worked with this student to help him annotate properly, and the student's essays improved. In this way, reading and writing were intertwined. Reading and writing (whether through annotations or mini-writes) were pathways to improved thinking and evidence-based essays.

Mr. Rossi—the one teacher in the study whose students did not improve—gave his students regular writing assignments as well. However, he shared nothing else in common with Lyle. Instead, his teaching was more conventional, relying primarily on lecture and textbook reading as well as factual-recall tests. His approach highlights a key lesson from this research: regular practice in writing history essays is not enough to improve students' evidence-based historical writing.

Why Bother?

Secondary teachers have a crucial role to play in working toward integrating literacy into their history classes and framing history as an interpretive discipline. Colleges of education must help them do so. I recognize that college history professors may not be interested in writing remediation. But here is a sobering thought: students who complete college history courses may one day become secondary-school teachers themselves.

I've just completed a study of novice history teachers and found that those who entered their teacher education program with a strong understanding of history (as well as the ability to think and write historically) were more often successful at learning to teach secondary students to think and write historically. Those who entered their teacher preparation program without an understanding of the interpretive nature of history worked to develop their conception of the discipline during their teacher education program. They all made progress in this regard, but at the expense of other knowledge, particularly learning to develop their students' historical understanding and writing. In their first year, these teachers were more likely to emphasize factual recall and summary writing even if they used primary documents with students.9 Although four of these teachers graduated with a BA in history from the same department, only two emerged from their undergraduate major with a strong understanding of the discipline. This begs the question: What undergraduate history program experiences promote college students’ historical understanding and thinking?

One way to ensure that the Joannas of the world enter college classrooms with a stronger foundation in historical writing is to concentrate on our preparation of teachers. This work involves teachers' undergraduate majors and their education programs. Together, we must help future teachers develop a deeper understanding of the discipline and its related literacies as well the pedagogical knowledge needed to cultivate these same powers intheir students. Preparing the next generation of history teachers is a joint enterprise that can have an impact on students along the K–16 continuum.10

is assistant professor of history and social studies education in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Maryland. A former high school teacher and National Board Certified teacher, she currently prepares novice teachers for the history classroom and works with veteran history teachers in local school districts. She has won research grants from the Institute of Education Sciences and the Spencer Foundation. Her research examines how history students learn to reason with evidence in their writing and how their teachers learn to teach such historical literacy. Her scholarship has appeared in theJournal of the Learning Sciences, Curriculum Inquiry, theAmerican Educational Research Journal,Theory and Research in Social Education, theJournal of Teacher Education, and theJournal of American History. With Sam Wineburg and Daisy Martin, she has just published Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms, a book of historical essays and curriculum materials for U.S. history teachers.


1. This essay prompt, related documents, and Joanna’s full essay come from the Historical Thinking Matters unit materials on the Spanish American War.

2. See L. Flower, V. Stein, J. Ackerman, P. Kantz, K. McCormick, and W. Peck,Reading to Write: Exploring a Cognitive and Social Process (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990) and Stuart Greene, “The Question of Authenticity: Teaching Writing in a First-Year College History of Science Class,”Research in the Teaching of English 35 (2001).

3. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports results from NAEP tests. See “The Nation's Report Card: Reading 2007,” accessed February 2010 and “The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2007,” accessed February 2010.

4. Stuart Greene, “The Problems of Learning to Think Like a Historian: Writing History in the Culture of the Classroom,” Educational Psychologist 29 (1994).

5.See Gerald Graff, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). Graff argues that schools and colleges obscure expert ways of thinking and working, thus preventing students from engaging in arguments about ideas.

6. For more on students’ tendencies with regard to history see the following: Linda Levstik, “Articulating the Silences: Teachers’ and Adolescents’ Conceptions of Historical Significance,” inKnowing, Teaching and Learning History, ed. Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 331–352; Peter Seixas, “Popular Film and Young People’s Understanding of the History of Native American-White Relations,” The History Teacher 26 (1993): 351–70; Peter Seixas, “Students’ Understanding of Historical Significance,” Theory and Research in Social Education 22 (1994): 281–304; Denis Shemilt, “The Devil’s Locomotive,” History and Theory 22 (1983): 1–18; Bruce VanSledright, “Confronting History’s Interpretive Paradox While Teaching Fifth Graders to Investigate the Past,”American Educational Research Journal 39 (2002): 1089–115; Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 2001).

7. Different studies provide evidence for the persistence of conventional teaching strategies in history classrooms. See S. Kiuhara, S. Graham, & L. Hawken, “Teaching Writing to High School Students: A National Survey,”Journal of Educational Psychology 101(2009): 136-160; R.N. Page,Lower Track Classrooms (New York: Teachers College Press, 1991); Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? (New York: Harper & Row, 1987). It is possible that the Common Core State Standards (adopted by all but five states at the time of this writing) will provide an impetus to integrate literacy more actively into history classes at the elementary and secondary levels. See

8. All names in reports of research are pseudonyms. For complete reports of this research see , “Beyond Reading Comprehension and Summary: Learning to Read and Write by Focusing on Evidence, Perspective, and Interpretation,”Curriculum Inquiry 41(2011): 212–49; , “Disciplinary Literacy in History: An Exploration of the Historical Nature of Adolescents’ Writing,” Journal of Learning Sciences 19 (2010): 539–68; , “Qualities of Effective Writing Instruction in History Classrooms: A Cross-Case Comparison of Two Teachers’ Practices,” American Educational Research Journal 45(2008): 1045–79. For related research that has implications for improving students’ writing in history class see the following: Susan De La Paz, “Effects of Historical Reasoning Instruction and Writing Strategy Mastery in Culturally and Academically Diverse Middle School Classrooms,” Journal of Educational Psychology 97 (2005): 139–156; Mark Felton & Suzanne Herko, “From Dialogue to Two-Sided Argument: Scaffolding Adolescents’ Persuasive Writing,”Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 47 (2004): 672–683; J. Voss & J. Wiley, “A Case Study of Developing Historical Understanding via Instruction: The Importance of Integrating Text Components and Constructing Arguments,” in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, ed. P. Stearns, P. Seixas, and S. Wineburg (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 375–89; K. M. Young & G. Leinhardt, “Writing from Primary Documents: A Way of Knowing in History,” Written Communication 15(1998): 25–68.

9. See , “Learning to Open up History for Students: Preservice Teachers’ Emerging Pedagogical Content Knowledge,”Journal of Teacher Education 62 (2011): 260–272; & Kristen Harris, “Recitation and Reasoning in Novice History Teachers’ Writing Instruction,” The Elementary School Journal (in press).

10. The “next generation” language is purposefully chosen and refers to Edward Ayers’ report of the national conference held at the University of Virginia in 2006 to consider the work of preparing history teachers (“The Next Generation of History Teachers: A Challenge to Departments of History in American Colleges and Universities” American Historical Association). Accessed August 2010.

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