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Teaching Historical Reasoning and Writing: A Classroom Intervention

Students discussing primary source documents. NHEC

In 2005, Susan de la Paz published one of the few experimental studies that investigated teaching for historical thinking in real classrooms. The study was part of a Teaching American History grant and involved 70 eight graders, including 11 with learning disabilities. De La Paz's materials focused on 19th-century westward expansion and six topics in the middle school curriculum: the Indian Removal Act, the Whitman massacre of white missionaries, the Mountain Meadows massacre, Texas independence, women's suffrage, and the Mexican-American War. Students received 12 days of instruction in historical reasoning and 10 days of instruction in writing arguments. Their final essays were significantly better those of 62 control students who did not have the curriculum.

At the end of the study, the students in the experimental group wrote essays that were longer, more persuasive, and more historically accurate than those of the control group.

De La Paz also interviewed 25 students in the experimental group before and after the intervention. She found that students deepened their understanding of why historians disagree and how they use evidence to support their claims.

Best Practices in History Instruction
De La Paz's curriculum included many elements of good instruction, and thoughtful, careful planning. We highlight the following five principles that characterize effective history instruction:

Use of Document Sets
Each topic was taught using document sets that consisted of the textbook account and at least two primary sources representing conflicting points of view. Having multiple accounts of historical events helped students understand that part of learning history involves reconciling conflicting accounts.

Historical Question to Focus Inquiry
Each historical topic was centered on a question (e.g., Who was responsible for the Whitman massacre of 1847? Who started the Mexican-American War?). These questions helped students formulate better arguments. The answers to such questions became thesis statements in students; argumentative essays.

Appropriate Scaffolds and Handouts to Support Student Learning
Students needed simple structures to develop their understanding of complex ideas. The teachers introduced a number of scaffolds to support student learning. For example, they opened the historical reasoning lessons with a mock trial that highlighted multiple perspectives and historical accounts. The teachers also used two mnemonic devices to help students organize their essays:

  • S.T.O.P.: Suspend judgment, Take a side, Organize (select and number) ideas, and Plan more as you write
  • D.A.R.E.: Develop a topic sentence, Add supporting ideas, Reject an argument for the other side, and End with a conclusion

Multiple Opportunities to Practice New Skills
The curriculum revisited the same reasoning and writing skills for all six historical topics on westward expansion. This approach offered students several opportunities to practice the new skills they were learning.

Gradual Release of Responsibility
The curriculum was structured so that it shifted the responsibility for thinking and analyzing from the teacher to the student. The intervention began with teachers modeling how to use the strategies. Next, teachers guided students as they began to apply the strategies in small groups. Finally, students learned to use the strategies independently.

Print, Scene in Vera Cruz during the bombardment, March 25, 1847, c.1847, LoC

In the Classroom 

  • Reading and writing are always connected.
    Writing allows all of us to clarify and organize our thoughts. A curriculum that focuses on historical thinking must include opportunities for reading multiple documents and writing about them.
  • Important to give multiple examples.
    Teaching for historical thinking is challenging and unfamiliar to students. They need multiple opportunities to practice and hone these new skills.
  • Gradual release of responsibility.
    Students need to see historical thinking in action. Teachers must explicitly model the thinking and strategy use they want to see students use. Over time, the bulk of responsibility for the cognitive work will shift from teacher to student, as teachers guide students in their early application of the strategies.

Sample Application 

This is a sample of the handouts that students received during their historical reasoning instruction. Handouts like these reminded students of the steps they should take as they read a historical document.


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(2), (2005): 139–56.

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