Tag Archives: Chauncey Monte-Sano

Which Tasks Improve Historical Reasoning?

Scholars do not know the influence of specific task structures on students’ writing or historical reasoning. Historical reasoning is defined as analyzing evidence, understanding the meaning of evidence, and using evidence to construct and explain historically plausible accounts of the past (p. 291).

Do all argumentative writing tasks provide students with the same opportunity to develop their historical thinking or writing? Are some ways of framing questions to promote historical thinking and writing better than others? Can the structure of a writing prompt influence student outcomes? This study suggests YES. The type of task explained 31% of the variance in the quality of students’ overall historical reasoning.

Much of the research on history writing has focused on how students draw on multiple sources in constructing essays. Some attention has been given to comparing argumentative writing in comparison with other genres such as narratives, summaries, and explanations. Almost zero research has been done on what we ask students to write and how that affects their thinking and writing.

In developing arguments, writing is often complicated by patterns of thinking and working with evidence. The use of evidence indicates aspects of disciplinary reasoning, including recognizing biases in sources, comparing evidence, situating evidence in its context, and taking into account different perspectives and multiple causes. Historical interpretations rely on the public display of evidence to substantiate claims – a claim cannot stand without evidence.

In defining approaches to historical texts, Sam Wineburg identified discipline-specific ways of reading and thinking. For historians, primary documents are regarded as excerpts of social interactions. They have to be reconstructed with context added to make the documents meaningful.

Providing writing prompts that require close reading and consideration of the author’s perspective supports historical thinking and greater understanding. So, perhaps the structure and focus of the writing prompt affects the quality of students’ historical reasoning? These researchers sought to find out how.

The authors created four reading and writing tasks using the same documents and randomly assigned one task to each student. Each task presented the same background information adapted from the social studies textbook. They worded each prompt differently to frame the issue of Cold War causes from a variety of historical angles. The situated prompt encouraged students to imagine they heard these speeches and write as though they were living in 1947. The sourcing prompt encouraged students to focus on the motivations of each author in making their respective speeches. The document analysis prompt encouraged students to identify similarities and differences in the documents. The causal prompt asked students why Churchill and Truman spoke out against the Soviet Union and communism directly. At the end of each prompt, the researchers asked students to write “M.E.A.L.” (main idea, evidence, analysis, and link to thesis) paragraphs.

The sourcing, document analysis, and causal prompts were associated with higher student scores. The situated prompt had the lowest mean score of all the tasks. Results indicated that the writing prompts centered on sourcing, corroboration of documents, and causation were more likely to focus attention on historical perspectives than prompts that asked students to imagine themselves as historical figures. Because so much of history relies on evidence-based thinking, prompts that focus students directly on sources may be more likely to promote historical reasoning.

Unfortunately, when most history teachers assign writing, the focus is on summarization. Because interpreting history relies on reconciling multiple sources of evidence, this focus inhibits historical reasoning. So, the key takeaway from this study is – how can high school history teachers create prompts that emphasize corroboration, sourcing, and causal analysis into their classroom practices?


Monte-Sano, C., & De La Paz, S. (2012). Using writing tasks to elicit adolescents’ historical reasoning. Journal of Literacy Research, 44(3), 273-299.

This week our discussion board will focus on developing prompts like these and integrating them with your lessons that are already in progress. Please describe the grade, level and subject you are teaching, the focus of your lesson, and identify an idea for an essay that could that emphasize corroboration, sourcing, and causal analysis. The community will chime in and suggest ideas for documents, scaffolding, and fine-tuning. Follow the rule, give one to get one.

Nurture vs Nature Ed Debate

by Dr Strojny

Recently, Salon online magazine ran an article that speculated whether successful teaching is a nurtured talent or a natural skill that some people have, and some don’t. The article was entitled “The Myth of the Natural Born Teacher” by Elizabeth Green.


This type of myth-making—that some folks are just “born to teach,” and others will hopelessly bore (at best) or (at worst), harm the learning of our students, is surprisingly prevalent, Green asserts, on not only both sides of the political spectrum, but nationwide in schools of Education. Yet considerable evidence exists, that, in fact, using particular skills and strategies result in increased levels of learning for students. This is fantastic news. Just as no one would want a “natural born surgeon,” teaching well is a learned skill, one that takes hard work, and willingness to adopt new strategies.

For many teachers, the problem can be in sorting through the tremendous amounts of “noise” out there to find the best practices that will truly result in increased learning. In 2008, Monte-Sano compared two different types of teaching strategies for secondary Social Studies/History teachers. This research examined the writing skills of history students based on type of instruction. In this work, both teachers engaged in a mix of lecture, regular reading and writing assignments and some use of textbook reading. One teacher modeled active reading strategies, and encouraged students view history writing as an interpretive exercise, with the interpretation of historical documents as critical to creating meaningful and intelligent interpretations. The other teacher leaned toward teaching history as serious of static factual events.

Monte-Sano found that those students whose teacher who relied more heavily on memorization of facts and assigned frequent essays, but provided limited feedback, had writing skills that stayed the same or even declined slightly over the course of the school year. However, students whose teacher gave consistent targeted feedback had students whose scores improved over the year. The teacher also engaged in traditional “English teacher” type reading comprehension and writing strategies, such as modeling, creating scaffolded opportunities for students to write, one-on-one conferencing and targeted feedback.

In addition, students are pre-disposed to view history as a single story, and less likely to view history through the complex lens of interpretative art (Monte-Sano, 2012). Students come in to class “expecting” to hear a story with names, dates, and events they have to memorize, and may be more challenged to adapt to class that offers a truly college preparatory vision of historical writing. If we ask students to write interpretative essays, we are asking for a careful sifting of evidence and crafting of interpretation, which is some of the most complex writing required of students, and we are asking them to do it in History/Social Studies classes – not English classes! No wonder History and Social Studies teachers are feeling the heat.

So what types of strategies should History teachers focus on in teaching Historical writing to students? The research suggests they should focus on the same high-impact strategies English teachers use, but adjusted for History/Social Studies.

High Impact strategies for ALL students writing in History and Social Studies class include:

(1) Modeling reading strategies to help students navigate texts;

(2) Are taught to study history as evidence-based interpretation, as opposed to a single narrative;

(3) Are taught to read primary source documents, and to point to evidence from such sources to support their own ideas;

(4) Engage in frequent writing work, that includes not just formal essays, but informal writing opportunities;

(5) Receive targeted feedback that encourages them to look at History and Social Studies as a way of asking lots of questions, rather then memorizing a set series of answers.

These types of critical thinking skills are what will help our students to be successful readers and writers not only in high school, but in the  university setting and beyond. This is just as true for us as teachers, as it is for our students: It’s not just WHO you are, but WHAT you do that will make a difference in student learning. Do we really want to teach our students any other lesson?


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.

Monte-Sano, C. (2012). Toward disciplinary writing in history: Preparing the next generation. Perspectives on History, 50 (5). Available at: www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2012/1205/

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/09/secrets_of_amazing_teachers_what_both_sides_of_the_education_reform_debate_get_wrong_about_autonomy_and_accountability/ (Found August 11, 2014)


For next time, I will look at some of the highest-impact writing strategies for English teachers, and see how they can be adapted for use by Social Studies teachers. If you can’t wait to get started, have a sneak peak at this important study for English teachers: A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students.

Graham, Steve; Perin, Dolores Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 99(3), Aug 2007, 445-476