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Evidence-Based Historical Writing

A student completing an in-class writing assignment. NHEC

The act of writing alone is not enough to teach evidence-based essay writing in the history/social studies classroom. This study shows that several practices can help students develop the skills necessary to write effective historical interpretations.

Using the results of these assessments. . . Monte-Sano found that students who experienced instruction with five specific qualities were more effective at writing evidence-based argumentative essays.
The Study

Working with two high school teachers in urban, demographically representative Northern California high schools, University of Maryland Professor Chauncey Monte-Sano sought to determine what instructional practices help students develop historical thinking and writing skills. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, Monte-Sano observed two classrooms over the course of seven months. She observed what each teacher did in his or her classroom, including how they represented history and what they asked students to do. She also conducted pre- and post- assessments of students’ historical understanding with 42 students from those classes. For these assessments, students wrote essays where they responded to a prompt with an argumentative essay that used evidence from multiple documents.

Using the results of these assessments that tracked student growth in both written arguments and reasoning, Monte-Sano found that students who experienced instruction with five specific qualities were more effective at writing evidence-based argumentative essays. These qualities of instruction were:

  1. Approaching history as evidence-based interpretation.
  2. Reading historical texts and considering them as interpretations.
  3. Supporting reading comprehension and historical thinking.
  4. Putting students in the role of developing interpretations and supporting them with evidence.
  5. Using direct instruction, guided practice, independent practice, and feedback to teach evidence-based writing.
History as Evidence-Based Interpretation

One teacher, Ms. Bobeck, taught her students to approach history the way historians do, focusing on analysis and argumentation over memorization and summary. As Bobeck put it, “when kids think about opinions, they often think that every opinion is right . . . it’s just someone’s opinion. That’s not something that I particularly want to encourage. . . . You can support or refute the accuracy of what someone is saying in terms of the evidence that they’re using to support that opinion.”

Examining Texts

In Ms. Bobeck’s classroom, students were asked to closely examine texts. Because textbooks tend to hide interpretation and conflict, she incorporated primary and secondary sources that raised questions for students about the past. Students were reminded that each secondary source is the interpretation of an author and that primary sources are the raw materials for constructing interpretations. In approaching readings, students were routinely asked to identify arguments in the text and find the author’s support for those arguments.

Conventions of Analytical Writing

Ms. Bobeck not only asked students to search for interpretations and evidence in texts but also to create their own interpretations using primary source documents. To help them meet this challenge, she made visible the hidden processes inherent in writing analytical history essays. Such work included direct instruction and modeling in important skills like annotating documents, varied scaffolding activities, and providing continuous feedback.

In the Classroom 

  • Have students write frequently. Consider the demands of the writing tasks you use and have students write analytic pieces and historical arguments, not just descriptive or summary pieces.
  • Teach students to write historical arguments where they make claims and support them with evidence.
  • Segment and model this task. For example, teach students how to write thesis statements and share and evaluate models of effective theses.
  • Reading multiple texts is essential to teaching evidence-based historical argument. Have students write analyses of single sources and also look across sources to answer a question.
  • Select texts carefully so students encounter models of argument and also see how sources are the raw materials for making historical arguments.
  • Use tools to make these ways of thinking explicit and routine for students. (For example, the acronym SOAP reminds students to question a primary source along these dimensions: Source, Occasion, Audience, and Purpose.)

Sample Application 

In Ms. Bobeck’s class, students were frequently asked to examine texts, locating arguments and identifying evidence that supported those arguments. They were then asked to write analytical responses to specific prompts. In one assignment, for instance, Bobeck asked the class to complete the following three tasks:

  • First, write a brief summary of Zinn’s argument. . . . Your summary should be approximately one paragraph in length. Remember that a summary should address his main argument and supporting information.
  • Some historians have argued that Africans accepted their servitude. After all, historians reason, if they truly rebelled, wouldn’t they have been able to overthrow the slave system? Identify the evidence that Zinn offers to the contrary. (You should have at least four examples.)
  • Would Frederick Douglass agree with that assessment? Provide evidence from his book to support your interpretation.

Ms. Bobeck wanted her students to display their comprehension of the reading. After that, however, it was important that her students recognize that they were reading a particular historical interpretation (“Some historians have argued . . .”). Equally important was that her students seek evidence to substantiate or refute such interpretations (“Identify the evidence . . .”). Finally, she asked students to create their own interpretations using evidence from a particular source (“Provide evidence from his book . . .”).

For more information 

Monte-Sano, C. (2008). "Qualities of Effective Writing Instruction in History Classrooms: A Cross-Case Comparison of Two Teachers’ Practices." American Educational Research Journal, 45(4), 1045-1079.

See here for a guide on how to help your students annotate documents and read them closely.

Also see this guide on teaching high school students how to write effective thesis statements.

This research brief addresses the teaching of historical writing to middle school students.

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