ERIC Identifier: ED285829 Publication Date: 1987-07-00
Author: Risinger, C. Frederick Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Improving Writing Skills through Social Studies. ERIC Digest No. 40.
One of the more important aspects of recent educational reform efforts
is increased attention to writing skills. Much of the current emphasis goes
beyond the language arts curriculum into other content areas such as math,
science, and the social studies. THE WRITING REPORT CARD: WRITING ACHIEVEMENT IN
AMERICAN SCHOOLS, a recent study by the National Assessment of Educational
Progress (NAEP), directly links writing effectiveness to development of skills
in critical thinking. Furthermore, the NAEP study reports that only about
one-fifth of students write adequately and most students have "difficulty
organizing their thoughts coherently in writing" and "cannot express themselves
well enough to ensure that their writing will accomplish the intended purpose"
(Applebee, Langer, and Mullis, 1986, p. 11).
This ERIC digest discusses (1) recent research on the linkage between writing
and learning, (2) successful approaches to teaching writing, and (3) suggestions
for including an effective writing component in the social studies curriculum.
HOW IS WRITING LINKED TO LEARNING?
Research indicates that writing enhances learning in several ways:
--Writing requires knowledge and focuses thought. In order to write, students
must have something to say. Therefore, students must acquire and present content
(facts, generalizations, and concepts) when they write a social studies
assignment or test response. However, students do not merely express knowledge
by writing, they also discover knowledge. Writing is inherently an integrative
process, combining the total intellectual capacities of the writer.
--Writing enhances critical thinking. Social studies educators recognize that
higher-order thinking skills should be at the heart of our curriculum design and
instructional strategies. A recently developed curriculum proficiency guide
states, "The primary goal of social studies education...should be to help
students develop the ability to make well-informed, well-reasoned decisions, and
to act responsibly. Responsible decision-making requires practicing the skills
of acquiring, evaluating, and using information for the purpose of identifying
courses of action and predicting their possible consequences" (Indiana
Department of Education, 1987, p.4). Lessons that emphasize writing can
contribute significantly to achievement of this goal.
--Writing shifts the responsibility for learning away from the teacher and
toward the student. Ability to write empowers students with a sense of efficacy
and achievement. A written essay belongs only to the writer, not another student
or the teacher. More importantly, writing encourages personal learning. Properly
designed assignments require students to not only collect knowledge, but to
determine which knowledge to retain, which to discard, and how to present it.
Such choices may reveal as much about what students do not know (about the
subject) as they do about what the students do know. However, this can serve as
an excellent diagnostic tool for the teacher. Writing leads to more questions
and to the discovery of connections between events, people, and ideas.
Clearly then, there is much to be gained from emphasizing more writing in the
social studies classroom. The NAEP report indicates that social studies teachers
use writing assignments more often than their science colleagues, but that the
assignments are frequently short, one-sentence or even one-word responses. In
many cases, these assignments are written in a teacher-prepared study guide or
workbook. The use of writing assignments declines dramatically at the high
school level, the years when acquisition and practice of higher-order thinking
skills should receive most attention.
WHAT APPROACHES TO THE TEACHING OF WRITING IN THE SOCIAL STUDIES OFFER THE
One of the most hotly debated current issues on the teaching of writing is
whether to (1) focus on the finished product (the written essay) or (2)
emphasize the process of writing with less attention to the final product.
According to recent surveys of English/language arts teachers, the most accepted
approach remains a focus on the product, the student essay. However, the process
approach is rapidly gaining adherents and is the philosophical base for many of
the writing workshops being held across the country for both language arts and
other content area teachers. Social studies teachers who use the process
approach generally applaud the results. However, since mastery of content is
frequently the primary goal for writing assignments, the finished product
approach still dominates in social studies and the other content areas.
For language arts teachers, emphasis on the more traditional approach means
mastery of mechanical knowledge and skills. The content is either irrelevant or
secondary to correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other aspects of
composition. Though content becomes paramount, many social studies teachers feel
obligated to evaluate the mechanics as well. As a minimal standard, students
must demonstrate that they have acquired the appropriate factual information and
can present it effectively. Teachers who emphasize creative and critical
thinking frequently use assignments requiring students to compare and contrast,
analyze, synthesize, and evaluate some aspect of the social studies content.
Still, even for these teachers, writing is considered a product of learning, not
a primary means of learning.
The process approach does not ignore the final written product because it is
still used as a measure of student achievement. But using the process approach,
particularly in the content areas such as social studies, indicates an awareness
of the linkage between writing, thinking, and learning. Barry Beyer, a leading
proponent of the process approach, describes the connections this way: "Writing
produces both visible thought and a record of how we arrived at that thought. It
yields a document that enables us to see what we know...The process of writing
actually ends in a product which helps us refine our thinking and create new
learning" (Beyer 1982, p.100).
The use of writing as a way of learning is based on research dating back to
the early 1970s that examined the common steps and procedures that successful
writers used. While these steps vary in number and are given different names by
different researchers, they generally break down into four or five steps:
--The prewriting stage: Considered the most crucial by many specialists, this
stage includes individual or group brainstorming to select a topic, identifying
any particular needs of the audience, gathering information, determining the
most appropriate purpose and style, and developing an outline or tentative plan.
--The drafting or actual writing stage: The student begins to write, knowing
that he or she is producing a tentative product, one that will require
assessment and revision.
--The revising stage: This stage and the previous one begin almost
ltaneously. Students are encouraged to evaluate as they write and begin to make
changes in both content and structure. The use of word processing equipment
encourages the process approach to writing.
--The editing stage: After a draft of the writing assignment is produced,
students review the document in light of decisions made during the prewriting
stage. Form and structure become more important than content. Some advocates of
the process approach recommend that students work together in groups at this
point. Others give the classroom teacher a larger role in assisting the student
in evaluating whether or not the content, style, and related goals have been
--The publishing or presentation stage: The student presents a final copy of
what has been written to the intended audience.
WHICH OF THESE APPROACHES WORKS BEST?
The NAEP study did not find significant differences between the essays
written by students in class where the teachers used the process approach and
those who simply made the assignment and waited for the student to turn it in.
However, the study did find that students who used elements of process writing
(planning, revising, and editing) are more likely to be better writers. The
report's final recommendations call for writing instruction throughout the
curriculum and the training of students in the use and understanding of the
For social studies teachers, the best approach appears to be a blend of the
two approaches. The process approach seems to increase the amount of student
writing and improvements in style and form. Additionally, students are more
likely to acquire higher-order thinking skills. However, a tangible goal of
student writing in the social studies is to demonstrate knowledge acquisition
and understanding of individuals, issues, themes, and concepts in history and
the social sciences. Social studies teachers who regularly use written
assignments provide thier students with broader opportunities for acquisition of
knowledge, intellectual growth, and personal satisfaction.
HOW CAN WRITING BE INCLUDED EFFECTIVELY IN THE SOCIAL STUDIES CURRICULUM?
The most effective method of using writing to both enhance learning and
encourage creative and critical thinking appears to be the development and use
of writing assignments that stimulate and challenge students. Four categories of
assignments can be identified:
--Reporting: Students are directed to compile information with a minimum of
critical or original thinking. Example--"Write a report on the outbreak and
major events of the Spanish-American War."
--Exposition: Students are asked to explain an idea, conduct a critical
investigation, synthesize issues, or bring a fresh point of view to a problem.
Example--"Write an essay to compare and contrast the views of U.S. citizens who
wanted to annex the Philippines in 1898 and those who opposed the annexation."
--Narration: Students are asked to tell a story, an anecdote, tall tale,
legend, short story, drama, or vignette. Example--"Pretend you are a soldier
with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Write an article for your hometown
newspaper about the charge up San Juan Hill that combines some fiction with
actual facts about the battle."
--Argumentation: Students are asked to evaluate, defend or attack an idea or
belief. Example--"After reading the speech by Senator Beveridge of Indiana
supporting the annexation of the Philippines, write a speech supporting or
attacking his position. Support your arguments."
The recent NAEP study shows that students who write more, write better.
Students who reported writing three or more reports and essays during a six-week
period had higher achievement levels than students who reported doing no writing
during that period. This finding, coupled with evidence that critical thinking
and higher-order intellectual skills are nurtured by appropriate writing
assignments, makes a powerful case for increasing the amount of student writing
in the social studies. Development of a systematic approach to enhancing
learning through writing in the social studies is likely to benefit all of
us--students, teachers, and the society.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Applebee, Arthur N., Judith A. Langer, and Ina V. S. Mullis. THE WRITING
REPORT CARD: WRITING ACHIEVEMENT IN AMERICAN SCHOOLS. Princeton, NJ: National
Assessment of Educational Progress, 1986. ED 273 994.
Applebee, Arthur N., Judith A. Langer, and Ina V. S. Mullis. WRITING IN THE
SECONDARY SCHOOLS: ENGLISH AND THE CONTENT AREAS. Urbana, IL: National Council
of Teachers of English, 1981. ED 197 347.
Banks, Beverly R. "Writing: A Tool for Learning in Social Science." THE
SOCIAL STUDIES REVIEW 23 (1984): 11-15.
Beyer, Barry K. "Using Writing to Learn Social Studies." THE SOCIAL STUDIES
73 (1982): 100-105.
Fadiman, Clifton, and James Howard. EMPTY PAGES: A SEARCH FOR WRITING
COMPETENCE IN SCHOOL AND SOCIETY. Belmont, CA: Fearon Pitman Publishers, Inc.,
Goggin, William F. "Writing to Learn: A Message for Social Studies Teachers."
THE SOCIAL STUDIES 76 (1985): 170-173.
Indiana Department of Education. INDIANA CURRICULUM PROFICIENCY GUIDE: SOCIAL
STUDIES. Indianapolis, IN (1987): 4
Neubert, Gloria A., and Sally J. McNelis. "Improving Writing in the
Disciplines." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 43 (1986): 54-58.
Pooler, Anne E., and Constance M. Perry. "Building Higher Level Thinking and
Writing Skills in Social Studies." THE SOCIAL STUDIES 76 (1985): 125-28.
Stotsky, Sandra. CIVIC WRITING IN THE CLASSROOM. Bloomington, IN: Social
Studies Development Center, ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science
Education, and ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, 1987.
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