When we read “in real life,” – as readers of novels, newspaper and magazine articles, Internet sites, poetry, and scholarly journals, we may often feel that good writing is like good art—we’re not sure exactly what goes into it, but we know it when we see it. It is a cliche, perhaps, but good writing persuades us, moves, us, inspires us, entertains us. Yet, as teachers, how often do we read good writing from our students? When we see a large stack of papers in front of us, do we sigh with pleasure, anticipating the delights of cleverly worded phrases and interesting insights—or do we groan under the weight of the effort (both our effort and our students)?
Writing has gained new prominence and importance for Social Sciences and History teachers in the Common Core. Social Sciences and History teachers are now writing instructors, as well as History teachers. Teaching good writing skills is something many teachers struggle with, as teachers seek to balance instruction amongst multiple priorities—from good grammar to keen insight. Obviously, for the History instructor, the time able to be devoted to developing writing is necessarily limited. How can teachers choose from the many writing strategies that have been researched and developed and incorporate just those ones that will have the greatest impact in their own History classroom? Selfishly, how can we increase our own pleasure in reading what our students write, but teaching them to become better writers? How can our students become invested in improving their writing? What strategies really work?
Fortunately, Graham and Perin have already done much of the heavy lifting for us, in their seminal review of the effect sizes of various writing strategies. In “A Meta-analysis of Writing Instruction for Adolescent Students,” (2007) (well-known already to English teachers and other ambitious teachers determined to improve student writing), Graham and Perin reviewed the existing literature, using rigorous methodology, to determine which strategies definitely belong in your classroom. Here are a few of the strategies that will have a big effect on student writing in your classroom:
(1) Students need teachers. Students need teachers to give them specific strategies for planning, writing and revising. Those strategies where students learn to self-regulate these techniques are particularly potent.
(2) Students need to know the material. Learning effective strategies for summarizing reading material. This improves comprehension of the material AND their ability to write about it.
(3) Students need each other. Writing strategies where students work collaboratively to plan, draft and revise are very effective.
(4) Set Goals. Students need a purpose for writing (such as to persuade the reader) and to understand what persuading the reader, for instance, includes. Students with a clear understanding of purpose write more effectively overall: teaching students to respond to a DBQ, for example, is great for this.
(5) Get them to Ask Questions. Writers are curious. Teaching methods of inquiry is valuable skill for teaching historical interpretation, and is also an important aspect of producing good writing (and writers).
These are not the only high-impact methods Graham and Perin found: providing students with good models of great writing, encouraging students to use a word processing program, engaging in pre-writing activities, and having a teacher who engaged in high-quality professional development in writing are all additional items highly correlated with improved student writing.
Good research exists about which writing strategies will be the most worthwhile to introduce into your classroom, as you seek to improve the quality of your student’s writing in History and the Social Sciences.
Graham, S. and Perin, D. (2007). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students, Journal of Educational Psychology 99(3), pps. 445-476.