How I Teach Students to Write Historical Arguments

A world history teacher breaks it down step by step.

It never occurred to me that, as a high school history teacher, I would need to teach students how to write. But with students who struggle with writing in general and who have never really written in a history class, it became part of my job description. The writing we do in my world history class is based on a claim and supported with evidence. This is the process I use to teach students to write historical arguments.

Note: Most of what I do comes from the College, Career and Community Writers Program (C3WP), a part of the National Writing Project. I did some training with the Oregon Writers Project in this Program and without it I would have no idea how to teach argument writing. I am so grateful for this program.

Step 1: Gather information

Historical arguments come at the end of a unit. Students have spent time with the material that they will be writing about. For example, the first writing assignment they do is a paragraph about which map projection schools should use to teach geography. Before writing, we explore various map projections, go over the pros and cons, and read about the map projections. By the time they write, students have a lot of information to form a claim and to use for evidence. 

Step 2: Form an opinion

My students often struggle to form opinions about the topics we are studying. So, I have built opinion formation and discussion into my lesson structure. We have discussions about why things happened the way they did, how things could have happened differently, etc. We have these discussions throughout the year, so students practice forming opinions and using evidence to support those opinions.

For example, in early units we look at European exploration and imperialism. This unit does not end with a full-blown writing assignment, but conversations about how the world might be different without imperialism exist throughout the units. They become comfortable having these conversations and figuring out what they think about a topic. (I use guidance from Constructing Meaning and AVID to help them learn to talk to each other.)

Step 3: Make a claim

I teach writing claims, or thesis statements, first using tools from C3WP. Claims are “debatable and defensible,” meaning they are not a fact and they can be backed up with evidence. I spend a lot of time focusing on the “because” of the thesis: they must include why in their claim. So, they can’t just say, ”School should start later.” Instead, it must be something like “School short start later because students need more sleep to succeed in school.” We go through several “claim” statements to determine if they are actually claims or not. Then we rewrite them to make them better. Next, we build a claim together around a topic we are discussing in class.

At the beginning of the year, I give students a sentence frame like this one:

“Schools should use ___________________ map projection because ______________ and _____________.”

As the year goes on, claims get more nuanced. We start to acknowledge other perspectives and make claims more specific.

Step 4: Provide evidence

Since claims are laid out with specific reasons  to support the opinion, these reasons become the evidence. I label them as Reason 1, Reason 2 and Reason 3 and each reason is discussed specifically after the claim. In a paragraph writing assignment, they write from one reason to the next with phrases like “another reason,” “also,” and “finally” to link the reasons together.

When students write full essays, each reason gets its own paragraph. Reason one becomes the topic of the first body paragraph, reason two becomes the second body paragraph, etc. I use the following outline to help students write body paragraphs:

  • Sentence 1: First reason from claim
  • Sentence 2: Quote or summarize a piece of evidence that supports your reason
  • Sentence 3: Explain how this evidence supports your reason
  • Sentence 4: Quote or summarize a piece of evidence that supports your reason
  • Sentence 5: Explain how this evidence supports your reason
  • Sentence 6: Restate your reason from your claim

More sentences can be added for more evidence or explanation, but this basic layout helps kids feel like they know what to do.

Extensions and struggles

This is a very basic outline of how I teach students to write historical arguments. It is meant to be a starting point. Eventually, students start creating more nuanced claims, looking at opposing arguments, justifying evidence sources, etc.

Student evidence can be a problem. To begin, I have them only use sources from class. That way, I know the information is correct and they should know how the material we used in class can support their claims. I find that beginning writers often can’t connect something they find online to discussions we’ve had in class.

Students also may struggle with explaining evidence. They think that just quoting a source proves their point. They need to be shown how to connect evidence to a claim with an explanation.

I’ve had pretty good luck with this format of teaching writing, but I’d love to hear your ideas, too!

How do you teach students to write historical arguments? Come and share your ideas in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, slam-dunk argumentative writing prompts for high school.

How I Teach Students to Write Historical Arguments

Posted by Liz Oppelt

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