Historical Writing Instruction

Young and Leinhardt (1998) contend that students’ writing often takes the form of a “memory dump” during which they simply tell what they know about the subject—a process described in general writing research as knowledge telling (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1987). This may result, in part, because many students fail to understand the nature of history and, subsequently do not comprehend an assigned historical writing task (Greene, 1993). Students’ immature epistemic stance, reinforced by conventional, content-focused history instruction, helps account for their familiarity with school writing (for which a memory dump is satisfactory) rather than historical writing. However, Young and Leinhardt observed one Advanced Placement US History class over the course of a school year, paying particular attention to the way students’ writing changed in response to historical writing instruction and opportunities to practice. They found that after four chances to write analytical essays using multiple pieces of historical evidence, and given feedback on each essay, students began to write more like historians.

In a series of studies spanning a decade, Susan De La Paz and her colleagues have investigated the results of explicit historical reading and writing instruction on students’ writing. She found that eighth-grade students of varying academic abilities wrote more historically accurate and persuasive essays after receiving instruction on historical reasoning and persuasive writing (De La Paz, 2005). In a later study, she and a colleague showed that explicit writing strategy instruction, during which teachers (a) explained the valued features of historical writing, (b) provided models of exemplary writing, (c) thought aloud during the planning and revising processes, (d) provided reminders of key steps in the writing process, (e) allowed students to work in groups before working alone, and (f) gave opportunities for practice, resulted in significant improvements of 11th-grade students’ writing (De La Paz & Felton, 2010). Following up on these studies, Braaxsma et al. (2015) found that instruction that focused on specific historical writing skills made a difference in 11th-grade students’ use of metaconcepts in historical reasoning. General writing instruction made no such difference. Their findings make it doubtful that Language Arts teachers, lacking disciplinary expertise, are qualified to nurture students’ historical writing. It is up to history teachers to do this.

Researchers have discovered common errors students make when attempting to write like a historian. For example, when attempting to support a claim with evidence, some students draw on sources indiscriminately by citing strong and weak accounts with equal confidence (Monte-Sano, 2008). These findings demonstrate the reading/writing connection, with students’ writing woes stemming from poor reading practices. Further, rather than allowing their interpretation to emerge from the evidence, many students establish their interpretation intuitively and subsequently seek support from the documents for their predetermined opinion (Monte-Sano, 2008). Students who have a difficult time understanding documents form their interpretation based on prior experience and everyday knowledge rather than the evidence they cannot comprehend (De La Paz et al., 2012). In spite of these common errors, eighth and 11th-grade students exhibited basic argumentative writing skills upon which teachers could build more sophisticated historical argumentation (De La Paz et al., 2012). There is substantial research showing the positive impact of historical writing instruction on students, both mainstream students and students with disabilities (Bouck, Englert, Heutsche, & Okolo, 2008).

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