Social Studies – Writing is a Process

Social Studies teachers avoid ELA writing workshops like the plague.  This is an exaggeration, of course, but the statement has some validity.  So let’s rephrase the statement: most Social Studies teachers don’t want to attend a workshop that doesn’t address their field perspective.  Could it be the lack of workshops focused specifically for writing in the general Social Studies classroom?  Or could it be the time-consuming task that accompanies student writing, i.e. endless hours of grading?

Teachers of Advanced Placement Social Studies courses know all too well that writing is going to be a key part of their instruction and a significant student expectation.  For training many teachers attend AP institutes or obtain coveted access to the world of AP grading to gain better insight.  No such writing assessments are attached to any of the STAAR Social Studies examinations.

The lack of writing prompts on state Social Studies assessments may lead to two misconceptions.  The first misconception is that students in Social Studies courses don’t have to write.  The second misconception is that Social Studies teachers don’t need professional development in the field of writing.   These misconceptions couldn’t be further from the truth.  If we examine the new TEKS, writing for Social Studies begins in Grade 2, carries through to middle school, and all successive Social Studies courses that follow.

This doesn’t mean that every teacher needs to assign the age-old five paragraph history essay starting tomorrow.  In fact it would benefit teachers to examine the student expectations.  For example, students in grade 2 are expected to “create written and visual material such as stories, poems, maps, and graphic organizers to express ideas.”  In grade 6, students are expected to “create written and visual material such as journal entries, reports, graphic organizers, outlines and bibliographies based on research.”  By the time students get to World History, they are expected to “interpret and create written, oral, and visual presentations of social studies information.”   This means that students in every Social Studies class should be writing in various ways to authentically demonstrate the historical information that they are learning.

In Checking for Understanding, authors Fisher and Frey break up writing into two different types: high stakes writing and writing for learning.  According to the authors, both have important value, but writing for learning appears to be less commonly used and valued.  They assert,

(…)despite all the known benefits of using writing to learn content,

we rarely think of writing as a way for us to learn about our students’

thinking.  Writing clarifies thinking.  For that matter, writing is thinking.

Analyzing student writing is a great way for teachers to determine

what their students know.


As a novice teacher, I assigned the classic history essay because that’s what was assigned to me in high school and in college.  I believed that my students should learn to write in the very same way.  There were significant problems with this thinking.  First, I assigned essay writing without any pre-assessment to gauge their writing skills.  Second, I didn’t have a strategic plan for a writing process with my students.  Third, it took me an exceptionally long time to grade 175 essays.  In fact, it took me weeks.  I found myself weary, to say the least, upon returning the essays to the students.  By that time, the students didn’t care about it anymore.  Last, nothing else was done on my part to address inaccuracies that should have impacted my instruction. In all honesty, I didn’t know how to.

The longer I taught, the more I learned and began to understand that writing needed to be approached differently.  I started assigning manageable short response writing.   “Snippet” writing became the operative word for short paragraph response writing that the students would complete.  I could get the writing responses back to the students in a relatively quick time frame, while assessing if they understood what they were learning.  What I was doing, without knowing it, was focusing my attention on formative assessment rather than summative assessment.  I was learning how to create a process for writing that worked for both my students and me. The essay wasn’t exactly phased out, but rather worked in over time.  Additionally, I staggered the complete essays at intervals for different classes so that I wouldn’t assign myself to weeks of grading purgatory (a useful tip suggested to me by my principal).  Overall, it was a lot of trial and error, but I didn’t give up; I just restructured.

In November, the co-creators of the DBQ Project (Document Based Questioning) will lead two workshops at Region XIII specifically geared for Social Studies, but open to teachers of English Language Arts.  The hope is that teams of teachers will work together to collaborate and learn strategies to help students become better analytical thinkers.  Teachers will be led through DBQ analysis of primary sources to the development process of the written DBQ.

What we recognize most of all is that writing is a process.  For the teacher, if it is paired adequately with the content, it will not take away from instruction, but serve to improve it.


Fisher D. & Frey N. (2007). Checking for understanding: Formative assessment techniques for you classroom. Alexandria: ASCD.

Social Studies student expectations referenced: Grade 2 (19)(B), Grade 6(22)(D), World History (30)(B).

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