How To Develop Student Writing Through Social Studies

Photo by  Debby Hudson

Photo by Debby Hudson


Writing is such an integral part of a social studies class. So much that once students get to advanced level classes, the bulk of focus is on writing reactions to what is read. My last post focused on teaching reading in the social studies classroom, and this post is the natural succession to teaching writing.

My own professional experience teaching high school and graduate classes told me that too many students don’t write well. But then I read in this New York Times article on the topic that, “More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874.” So here we are nearly a 150 years later with the same problem. Let’s see if this post can give a few good ideas to tackle this age-old issue.

Use Visual Writing Prompts

One of the first steps to doing anything is to just get started. That’s why I’ve found starting class with a writing prompt gets students in the mood to express their thoughts on paper. And there’s nothing like a visual prompt to give anybody’s imagination a jump start. To prove this point, I like to refer people to this Jeff Bullas article on the power of visual images for marketing content. The same principals apply to educational content. But the question is where to look?

For visual prompts for a social studies classroom, check out these prompts to get students thinking and writing. Visual Prompts is a site that is just getting started, but they have eye-catching images and prompts for any humanities class.

Nat Geo’s Instagram account is another place were students can get visual inspiration. Short commentary goes with each post to get viewers thinking, and the nature of the publication fits well for a social studies classroom.

Finally, I like the idea of getting students to supply their own photos. I first wrote about the idea in this post on incorporating photos in a language classroom. As the teacher, you can assign homework for students to take a photo of something they did or saw over the weekend. Then the photos can be uploaded to a Padlet board, and each student in the class can choose what image they want to about.

Planning Out What To Write

Once students get in the habit of writing shorter texts, the next step is to get them writing longer prompts. For this an organizational plan in crucial. I’m sure you can recall the lost-in-a-laberynth feeling of what it’s like to read an essay that is not well-organized. Though, for a primer on organization in writing, check out this post by Grammarly on Organization Tips for Writers. In order to get a student to plan out their writing better, graphic organizers are useful. See this selection of such tools by Teacher Vision. When you use any kind of organizational process, it’s a good idea to explicitly explain this process and make it part of the assignment. You can give the preparation as a warm up one day, then the writing assignment in a later class. You’ll want to make sure you keep students engaged in the process, and also create a level of rigor in your lessons.

Get Students To Help Each Other

Getting students to help each other in the form of a peer review helps students write better, collaborate better, and increase interpersonal skills. I also like to use this strategy, because it takes the burden off the teacher as the primary source of information, and ultimately leads to better writing submitted for grading.

The Teaching Center from Washington University in St. Louis gives an in-class peer review guide that can help a teacher know when to use peer review and what resources can help students.

Technology to help with peer review is Google docs and Google forms. I tell my students to submit their writing through a Google form where they write on the form their name and submit a link where anyone can comment on it. Once they submit their work, on the confirmation page for the form, I give all students view-only access to the spreadsheet with their classmates’ work. Each student needs to open and review the work of the person who submitted before them, and this is made possible through the commenting capabilities with Google docs.

To Grammar Or To Not Grammar?

Many teachers came to their profession, because they were good at their chosen subject when they themselves were in school. However they are challenged as professionals, because they often start off teaching students who do not come to them academically prepared. This why it is important to focus on what the goal of the writing assignment is. The question is often to grade for grammar or to not. If the objective is to get students communicating, full stop. Then do not grade for grammar. If the assignment is something that students have been refining over time, then you may want to grade for grammar.

However, it can be time consuming for the teacher, and overwhelming for a student to see their entire essay marked up for punctuation and parts of speech. A way to get around this minute marking up, is to use a rubric that gives students an idea of what they need to improve. Education leader Kathy Schrock gives these guides for rubrics. Choose what fits for you, and be sure to share it with your students before they start writing. When students hand in paper copies of written work, I use the general copyediting written symbols, and this saves me a lot of time in communicating what should or shouldn’t happen in an essay.

Remember To Breath

Teaching students how to write well is a long process, and like so much in education, the results are slow to come. But they do come. Remember that as a humanities educator, you are preparing your students for future success, and the goal is for them to be successful writers as mature students and working adults. Remember that what you do does help. And remember that you want them to be able to communicate in writing well so they can contribute to society.

cultureBryn Hafemeister2, b