Social studies instruction requires students to understand complex concepts, read dense primary source documents, and critically consider various perspectives. As a social studies and English language arts teacher, I have found that integrating writing and discussion literacy strategies into social studies can transform the classroom environment and help students navigate complex concepts.
Stopping to write and discuss content allows students to begin processing what they know before continuing to receive more information. Students also develop a more complete understanding of the content and increase their critical thinking skills when they are given consistent opportunities to write and talk about content.
Taking time to write and discuss may feel like an extra step in an already busy schedule, but taking a few minutes to implement these strategies can propel the curriculum forward because students initially develop a deeper understanding of the content.
Stop and Write
When students encounter complex texts, having them stop for a moment to write allows them to take a break from receiving new information and process what they have learned. As students write about content, they naturally discover their own level of comfort with the concept. The writing strategies can be used on their own or as a step toward another activity. Improving writing skills isn't the primary goal of this strategy but is often a positive secondary outcome.
Considerations for Implementation
- Think of it as writing to learn instead of writing for a grade.
- It is often helpful for students to share their writing, which motivates students and allows them to hear the ideas of their classmates, ask and answer questions, and promote continued critical thinking.
- It can provide students an idea of their own strengths and weaknesses while giving the teacher data to drive instruction.
- There are appropriate times for students to represent their ideas with pictures, phrases, or symbols.
- It allows the teacher to hold every child accountable for their response to complex questions.
- As students are writing, the teacher can glance at students' work to monitor their progress.
Implementing Writing Strategies
Begin by providing students with an open-ended prompt about the content. Student writing could include questions, opinions, connections, and predictions. I present this to students as time to think about what they are learning, not an assessment of their knowledge. I give them 1-4 minutes to continuously write about the topic.
The benefit of asking students to write without stopping is that they won't have a chance to second guess themselves and will get more of their ideas on paper. There are times when it is more appropriate to encourage "think time" and give them a few minutes to write without making time part of the assignment. It all depends on the content and the students.
After the time for writing is complete, students can be given an opportunity to process their writing using the Post-Writing Activities below or move on to the next part of the lesson.
- Students use their writing to create a more concise statement by taking out unnecessary information and synthesizing their ideas.
- Students mark any new ideas they thought of while writing and jot down lingering questions.
- At the end of a unit students look back at all their writing and create a document with information to review.
- Students close their eyes and raise hands if they included certain things in their writing to provide the teacher with a quick formative assessment.
- Students pick the most important sentence, phrase, picture, or word from their writing and share with a friend.
- Students read their writing and jot down anything they still need to learn to completely answer the question given.
- Students pass their written response to a partner, read the partner's response and then respond to it in written form on their paper. This can be done once as a partner activity or the papers can be passed in a circle between groups of 4-5 students, each time students continue to add to the ideas written by the person before them.
- Follow up with a discussion strategy.
Stop and Discuss
Many students benefit from writing their ideas before sharing them, while other students find it easier to develop their ideas while talking about them. Conversations between students provide an opportunity for them to speak, listen, and focus on critical thinking skills while developing a better understanding of the content. Engaging students in these types of conversations allows them time to process ideas, holds them accountable for supporting their opinions with facts, introduces them to new ideas, creates an authentic opportunity to use academic language, and teaches collaboration and communication.
Considerations for Implementation
- Students should consistently refer to the text to support their ideas during the discussion.
- Providing students with time to talk about their ideas may seem like an invitation for students to socialize, but if time limits and expectations are set, it can actually reduce the amount of unrelated conversation students have during class.
- Some students will need conversation starters when they begin to engage in collaborative conversations.
- Most of the small group discussion strategies require very little advance preparation other than constructing questions and setting up protocols for discussion. At any point in a lesson a teacher can stop and have students discuss. The majority of the "work" will be at the beginning of the year as students learn different discussion strategies.
- Timed Partner Discussion: Start with a specific question or idea that students should discuss. Set a time for each student to talk, depending on age or topic, around 1-2 minutes. Instruct students to talk for the entire time, trying to share as many ideas that they can within that time. While they are talking, their partner should be actively listening and taking brief notes on what they hear. When the time is up, the other student is given a little less time to talk and then they are instructed to share only ideas that their partner did not share. The activity can stop there or continue by allowing students to collaborate and come up with a summary of their discussion.
- Discussion Line: Students sit or stand in two lines facing each other. The teacher poses a question that is open ended and requires critical thinking. Students spend a few minutes discussing the question with their partner using evidence from the text. After a few minutes, the students rotate so they are facing a new partner. They then discuss the same question with their new partner. At this point, depending on the complexity of the question, students can rotate to another partner and continue discussing the same question or be given another question to discuss. This strategy gives students consistent fresh perspective and gives them a chance to move around a little.
- Discussion Stations: Set up enough stations around the room to have groups of 3-4 students. Each station should include a critical thinking question. Students move with their groups to discuss each question jotting down notes individually or collectively. The teacher will set a time limit for each station based on the question, text, and age of students. This can be set up so students visit all stations or only certain stations based on interest or as a differentiation strategy. Students can also share ideas with all of the groups by writing down some of their big ideas as they visit each station for other groups to read.
The potential success of implementing writing and discussion literacy strategies in social studies is described below by two of my students.
"When you talk about something it helps you find out if you understand it … and lets you hear new ideas that you hadn't thought of before … when I write out something it helps me remember and understand it better." Sophia, 7th Grade
"When you speak something out loud that you have been reading it will stay in your memory … you hear perspectives that are different from you own when talking to others about something you read … Writing about things you learn in social studies lets you find new ways to think about what you read and decide if you know enough to answer the question." Annabelle, 7th Grade
Kasey Short teaches English and social studies at Charlotte Country Day School (NC), where she also serves as English Department Chair and Spotlight Challenge coordinator.
Published April 2018.