Writing in Social Studies Classrooms

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Writing in social studies is more common than in many other content areas. Because you are studying about people and events, there are endless opportunities for students to “think things through” while writing.

Quick Writes

As previewing activities, social studies teachers ask students to

List as many names of people important in the Civil War as you can in thirty seconds.
Write down one question you have about our federal budget.
List three major inventions of the twentieth century.

To synthesize what was learned at the end of a class, ask students to

Define in your own words what a democracy is.
List two things that changed after the Brown v. The Board of Education ruling.
Use the words interest rates, inflation, and stock market to write a true sentence.

To help students self-assess understanding, attitudes, and so forth, offer these prompts:

What did you not understand about today’s lesson?
List one or more terms you cannot clearly define.
I have the feeling many of you are not “with me” on this topic. Write what you are feeling about what we are doing and if there is anything I could change to help you feel more involved and successful.


Journals call for more extended entries than quick writes and are most successful if used on a daily basis. Both high-structure and low-structure journals can be used in a social studies class. Here are some examples of high-structure journal prompts social studies teachers use:

We have been studying the controversial topic of our welfare system and the law which limits welfare benefits. Are you for or against this law? On balance, is it going to make us a better or worse society? If you could have voted on this issue, how would you have voted? List three reasons to justify your vote.

Arrange the following words into a web that shows their relationships.
Explain to a younger person (brother, sister, cousin) why it is important for everyone to understand the concept of global interdependence.

In addition to content-oriented journal entries such as these, many social studies teachers use “historical figure diaries” to help students relate to events often far away in time and space. While studying about the Vietnam War, students may become major players such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Henry Kissinger, Ho Chi Mihn, Ngo Dinh Diem, or “common people” such as a marine sent to Vietnam, a college student with a draft deferment, a soldier in the Viet Cong, a civilian living in North Vietnam, and the child of an American soldier left in Vietnam. Teachers may let students choose their character or have them pick a character “from a hat” so that all points of view are represented. As the unit continues, characters write each day “diary style” what they are doing and thinking. If two people have the same character, they can write separately or can collaborate on a joint entry. To make this more effective, have the “common people” characters name themselves and decide on their personal characteristics (age, occupation, family status, etc.) before beginning. From time to time, let characters share their diary entries with the whole class or in small groups.

Getting students involved in events that occurred long before their birth is not easy. Having students assume the role of a person in an historical setting promotes their use of the imaging and evaluating thinking processes. Keeping a diary is a real-world writing task. Anne Frank kept one, as did Richard Nixon! Incorporating historical figure diaries into your social studies routine increases student motivation and engagement and gives students a real purpose for writing.

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