By Chauncey Monte-Sano

There’s a way for students to achieve the thinking, reading, writing, and history expectations laid out in the Common Core.

ELA1211_Monte-Sano_62No Child Left Behind has profoundly limited the teaching of history over the past 10 years. Now, the Common Core State Standards offers an opportunity to reverse this decline by giving history a more prominent place in the school curriculum alongside literacy goals. For example, the Common Core standards state that students in grades 6-12 “have to become adept at gathering information, evaluating sources, and citing material accurately, reporting findings from their research and analysis of sources in a clear and cogent manner” (National Governors Association, 2010, p. 63). Yet, if we accept the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, we have some work to do to help students achieve the thinking, reading, writing, and history expectations laid out in the Common Core.

On the most recent NAEP U.S. history exam, 88% of 12th graders could not “communicate reasoned interpretations of past events, using historical evidence effectively to support their positions” (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). Eighty-three percent of 8th graders did not meet a similar expectation in history. And students struggled with other aspects of historical thinking, such as interpreting primary sources. For example, the NAEP exam asked 12th graders to read two primary sources and “explain how events of the Second World War inspired many African-Americans to argue for civil rights at home.” One source by A. Philip Randolph compared World War II and civil rights for African-Americans as related initiatives to further democracy at home and abroad. Another source detailed Lloyd Brown’s experiences watching German prisoners of war eating at a lunch counter in Kansas while he and his fellow African-American soldiers were denied service at the same counter. In response, only 22% of 12th graders made a connection between the war and civil rights for African-Americans at home while referencing the sources. Many of the NAEP expectations with which students currently struggle coincide with those found in the Common Core Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies.

The 2007 NAEP writing exam presents comparable, if equally disheartening, results. Only 24% of 12th graders and 33% of 8th graders are “competent” writers (Salahu-Din, Persky, & Miller, 2008). These students struggle with analytical, evaluative, or creative thinking; taking clear positions and consistently supporting them; and using details and elaboration to support the main idea of an essay. The results of both tests suggest that students’ historical thinking and evidence-based argumentative writing warrant attention. Given the Common Core’s emphasis on thinking and literacy in history, this is a good time to think strategically about what we can do to support students’ development as thinkers and writers.

These two challenges don’t have to be addressed piecemeal or added to the long list of demands facing schools. Instead, they can — and perhaps should — be addressed simultaneously in an integrated approach that honors the value of studying history and the necessity of learning to write. Supporting and strengthening the teaching of history can improve literacy.

In this article, I share key findings from my research about how to teach history with the goal of improving students’ historical thinking and argumentative writing. One thing is clear: Students don’t improve when they practice writing without feedback or explicit instruction, or if they only experience lecture and textbook exercises. Instead, when students are explicitly taught argumentative writing at the same time that they’re involved in doing history, they improve. But, what does this mean and what does it look like in classrooms? The teaching strategies I share come from two 11th-grade U.S. history classrooms where students made significant improvements in historical thinking and argumentative writing.

Doing history

Broadly speaking, doing history means letting students experience the interpretive nature of history by giving them opportunities to read historical sources, consider multiple perspectives, evaluate the reliability of sources, and construct their own interpretations or arguments about the past based on this evidence. Here’s how.

Present history as an inquiry-oriented subject by posing central questions that can be answered in multiple ways. Central questions can guide a single lesson or a series of lessons. One successful teacher, Ms. Bobeck, used central questions to guide individual lessons such as “Who is the savage?” This question guided a lesson on Indian Removal in 1829-1830 that included primary source analysis, discussion of conflicting perspectives from the time period, and a debate. A recent study by Avishag Reisman (2012a; 2012b) shows that a document-based history curriculum with a different inquiry question each day is extremely beneficial for students’ historical thinking and reading. Questions can be developed in consultation with local standards in order to highlight the content that must be covered. Questions can range from the concrete — “Did Pocahontas rescue John Smith? — to the more abstract — “Electricity and women’s work: Who really benefited, and when?”

Another successful teacher, Mr. Lyle, focused an entire semester on one question: Why did the Civil War happen? He set up this question by initially looking at the horrific death and destruction caused by the Civil War, including first-hand experiences during the war as reported by Virginia diarist Cornelia MacDonald, historian James McPherson, and filmmaker Ken Burns. After exploring the realities of the Civil War, Lyle used three units (the American Revolution, the opponents and defenders of slavery, and Westward expansion and sectionalism) to investigate why the Civil War happened. Each unit of study centered on additional related questions, as did each day. The rest of the course reviewed U.S. history from 1775 to 1865 and became an investigation where inquiry dominated — calling on students to ask questions and look to texts to figure out how such devastation came to be.

Asking questions is a start, but we must also give students a chance to investigate by structuring opportunities to read historical sources that present multiple perspectives. We cannot offer intriguing questions and then hand students the textbook — a source that tells them there is only one view of the past. A textbook-only approach shuts down inquiry. Instead, expose students to the messiness of conflicting opinions and to the range of views that come from another time and place. For Lyle’s unit on abolitionism, for example, students not only read speeches by William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, but also speeches by supporters of slavery such as William Fitzhugh and John C. Calhoun. Without the contrast, understanding abolitionism (or the Civil War for that matter) would be impossible

In addition to offering multiple perspectives, we must structure these investigations so students are challenged, but not overwhelmed to the point of nonengagement. As Wineburg and Martin have argued, this may require adapting sources to students’ reading levels by excerpting segments of texts, providing vocabulary supports, or even substituting some words (2009).

To support students’ reading, Lyle taught them to write. He pushed students to be active readers and to interact with text by requiring them to annotate every reading. This included making margin notes, underlining, circling, and adding question marks in and around each text. When students read the U.S. Constitution, for example, Lyle asked them to mark “S” for phrases that protected Southern interests and “N” for phrases that protected Northern interests. This helped students address the question of the day, “How did the making of the U.S. Constitution favor the North or South or leave the issue of slavery unresolved?” Annotations gave students practice writing and improved their reading and analysis of texts.

Bobeck used short-answer questions to guide students’ reading, simultaneously supporting their reading comprehension and historical thinking. In considering Andrew Jackson and Theodore Freylinghuysen’s arguments for and against Indian Removal in Georgia, Bobeck asked students to describe what each author thought it meant to be “civilized” or “savage” based on each text. Then, she asked students to explain the authors’ arguments and identify the evidence each author presented. In this way, Bobeck gave students a chance to comprehend the main idea of each text, recognize that each text is an argument representing one person’s perspective, and detect the connection between evidence and argument. In other readings, Bobeck used SOAP questions (i.e., questions that ask about the source, occasion, audience, and purpose) with many document sets to help students recognize authors’ intentions, and to consider who might have heard or read the text originally. One easily accessible resource, Historical Thinking Matters (, offers ways to structure students’ reading of historical sources so they can comprehend and analyze.

Given this set-up, a natural next step is to discuss inquiry questions and relevant historical sources in small groups or as a whole class. Discussion gives students a chance to think through the available evidence and develop their own interpretation. At the same time, teachers can see students’ thinking and push their reasoning with more questions. Discussion can focus on a single text and how to interpret it, or on a set of texts and a larger inquiry question.

Lyle typically led discussion of historical texts by asking students what they thought the authors meant or what the authors were trying to do. Once students shared their ideas, Lyle followed up by asking them to share the evidence that led them to their interpretations. Lyle wanted students to “go back into the text . . . to not have them just get away with any kind of weak, fuzzy generalizations.” In three observed classes on abolitionism, Lyle asked students to share and explain the passages that supported their thinking an average of 10 times per class. Little by little that semester, students started to refer to the evidence for their interpretations more consistently and without prompting.

In another lesson, Bobeck organized a class debate around a larger inquiry question — the U.S. role in the Philippines in 1898 — and assigned students to specific positions for a debate. Once students presented their positions and responded to counter-arguments from peers, they were assigned to write their own interpretation of the issue and support their position with evidence (Felton & Herko, 2004). In each instance, students had opportunities to develop their own interpretations and support them with evidence. Discussions helped students figure out where they stood and critically consider the evidence before them.

Teach argumentative writing

Giving students opportunities to do history can expand their view of history and prime them for learning how to communicate arguments in writing. When learning to write about history, students need to understand the genre of argument. This is tied to understanding history as an interpretive discipline that is grounded in the analysis of evidence. If students see history as a single story of the past, or if students regard history as a series of factual details that aren’t disputed, then there’s little room for argument. As students come to see history as interpretation, they can also learn to structure and convey written arguments of their own — if they are explicitly taught to do so. Again, I share some examples.

Explain to students what an argumentative essay should include. In other words, make your expectations explicit. This can be done with a visual display (e.g., an outline) that follows a specific format, or a representation of what makes an ideal essay. Doing so will allow students to gain a better understanding of the writing tasks they face — because what may seem obvious to us is not necessarily so to students. Therefore, helping students understand the expectations for an argumentative writing task can help them perform better on that task.

When Bobeck’s students wrote their first essay in her class, she spent one day going over an outline format that included the major components students were to include in their essay. She explained each component in detail — an introduction with a thesis; supporting paragraphs with evidence, topic sentences, analysis, and a conclusion. She also planned a supporting paragraph (including selecting quotations from texts) together with students while writing the details of the plan on the outline format that was projected for every student to see.

During this class, Bobeck referred to different ways to structure a supporting paragraph. She taught them the mnemonic “quote sandwich” (introduction to a quotation, quotation, analysis) to help them remember how to include specific evidence in their supporting paragraphs. She reminded them of another mnemonic they had learned in a colleague’s class the previous year to help them structure supporting paragraphs — “PIE” (point, information, and explanation). Finally, she required students to complete a plan for their essay using the outline format she had gone over, and she checked these plans before students wrote their essay.

These supports gave students a chance to see what writing an argument involved and allowed Bobeck to check students’ understanding of the writing task before they started to draft their essay.

Provide explicit instruction in particular aspects of writing and show them what good writing looks like. After Bobeck clarified the text structure for argumentative essays, she honed in on writing thesis statements with her thesis workshop lesson. Bobeck shared her criteria for a thesis that “Approaches standards,” “Meets standards,” and “Exceeds standards” using a checklist of qualities for thesis statements at each level of accomplishment. She shared an example of a thesis at each of the three levels for the particular assignment students were working on. Students then crafted their own theses, evaluated them according to the newly explained criteria, and revised them. The thesis workshop included explicit instruction from Bobeck, interaction and discussion of the ideas she presented, time for students to put these ideas into practice, and a chance for students to reflect on and improve their work.

Later in the semester, Bobeck focused on helping students write stronger introductions. During one class, she gave students sample introductions from past students that exemplified different ways to write a good introduction; students read and discussed these together, identifying aspects of good introductions. They then turned to reflect on and revise the introductions they had drafted earlier. In both examples, students were exposed to criteria for particular components of argumentative writing, shown examples, and given the opportunity to reflect on and revise their work in a supportive environment.


These strategies paid off in Lyle’s and Bobeck’s classes. For students who didn’t already have a clear idea about writing arguments, their argumentation skills improved significantly. That is, they learned to craft a claim and support it with specific and relevant evidence as well as to explain how that evidence supported their claim. And regardless of students’ incoming proficiency, the historical thinking of the majority of students improved (75% in Bobeck’s class and 87% in Lyle’s). Specifically, they learned to place evidence in its historical context, consider the reliability of their evidence, explain historical perspectives, identify cause-effect relationships, and account for conflicting evidence. This thinking was evident in their writing.

A study I have been working on recently with colleagues Susan De La Paz, Mark Felton, and Robert Croninger focuses on writing with culturally and academically diverse 8th-grade U.S. history students, more than a third of whom struggle with reading. Given structured opportunities to do history as well as learn writing skills, students’ general fluency with writing (as measured by essay length) and historical thinking (specifically, perspective recognition, contextualization, substantiation, and rebuttal) improved across reading levels. This study relied on principles similar to what I outline here. It offers evidence that thinking and writing historically should not be reserved for just Advanced Placement students.

Learning history and argumentative writing is key to developing analytical ways of thinking that prepare students for college, career, and democratic life. The good news is that schools can achieve both of these goals with the same effort. Learning history can lead to literacy gains if students learn by “doing” history.


Felton, M. & Herko, S. (2004). From dialogue to two-sided argument: Scaffolding adolescents’ persuasive writing. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47 (8), 672-683.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2011). The nation’s report card: U.S. history 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & the Council of Chief State School Officers.

(2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, DC: Author.

Reisman, A. (2012a). The “document-based lesson”: Bringing disciplinary inquiry into high school history classrooms with adolescent struggling readers. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44 (2), 233-264.

Reisman, A. (2012b). Reading like a historian: A document-based history curriculum intervention in urban high schools. Cognition and Instruction, 30 (1), 86-112.

Salahu-Din, D., Persky, H., & Miller, J. (2008). The nation’s report card: Writing 2007. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Wineburg, S. & Martin, D. (2009). Tampering with history: Adapting primary sources for struggling readers. Social Education, 73 (5), 212-216.

CHAUNCEY MONTE-SANO is an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, Ann Arbor, Mich.

R&D appears in each issue of Kappan with the assistance of the Deans’ Alliance, which is composed of the deans of the education schools/colleges at the following universities: Harvard University, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, Stanford University, Teachers College Columbia University, University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Wisconsin.

Originally published in the November 2012 Phi Delta Kappan, 94 (3), 62-65.

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