Writing Historical Arguments: An Overview

History | Grades 6-12

This is the first in a series of eight resources on historical argumentation written especially for the Lesson Study Group at Mills College by educator Stan Pesick. These resources are designed to be used individually to help define inquiry questions for use in Lesson Study cycles or in sequence for background research in the Study phase of a cycle. An ordered list of the sequence can be found below.

Why Focus On Argument?

Published in 2010, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) identify three important text types for students to master – narrative, informational or explanatory, and argument.  While all three types are important, the Standards put particular emphasis on students’ ability to write sound arguments on substantive topics and issues. This ability, the Standards argue, is critical to college and career readiness. This emphasis is echoed in the National Council for Social Studies “College, Career Framework for College, Career, and Civic Life,” which were developed, in part, to complement the goals of the Common Core Standards. This emphasis is far from arbitrary: a 2002 study on academic literacy in California college students found only 1/3 of entering college students were sufficiently prepared to analyze information or arguments and synthesize information from several sources as they write. Given that these are the two most common writing tasks college students will engage in, it is clear that there is progress to be made in teaching argumentation.

Goals of Academic and Civic Arguments

However, it is not just national standards, frameworks, and studies that stress the importance of learning the academic skills and dispositions necessary for thoughtful arguments based on sound reasoning and evidence. George Hillocks, a noted scholar of English education and writing argues that “Argument is at the heart of critical thinking and academic discourse; it is the kind of writing students need to know for success in college and life…” Mike Schmocker and Jerry Graff conclude that “In its various forms, [argument] includes the ability to analyze and assess facts and evidence, support our solutions, and defend our interpretations and recommendations with clarity and precision–in every subject area. Argument is the primary skill essential to our success as citizens, students, and workers.”

Students Struggle with Definitions

Even with the importance of skills in argumentation in school and in life, students still struggle with a basic understanding. In this context, argument is defined as making logical appeals and claims based on a thoughtful use of information and evidence. However, students may not always have this understanding of the word or concept. When asked what it means to develop an argument, two eighth grade students wrote that:

  • An argument is where 2 or more people state their position and opinion of what they know. An argument doesn’t always have to be where people are yelling at each other. This argument is respectful and formal. – Oscar
  • An argument is when you disagree with a person you talk with the person and tell them your point of view. They tell you why you are wrong by presenting evidence. Then they give their point of view. Next the other person gives evidence and reasoning of why he/she is right and the other person is incorrect.  In an argument you also state the counter argument, where you acknowledge the other side but then say why they are wrong. – Hilda

A first step in teaching argument is therefore to make sure students understand that, unlike what they might hear on the playground or in what counts for civic discourse in today’s public life, the main goal of academic and civic argument is not to out-shout somebody, or to prove somebody wrong. Hillocks reminds us that there is a difference between persuasive and argumentative writing: “In a persuasive essay, you can select the most favorable evidence, appeal to emotions, and use the style to persuade your readers. Your single purpose is to be convincing. The same might be said for propaganda and advertising.”   

The Importance of Practicing Argument

To help students move beyond definitional misconceptions and learn the fundamentals and importance of academic and civic argument, we have to develop lessons and instructional practices that allow students to feel that what they say and think matters.  We do this through academic assignments that engage students intellectually or through tasks that them move beyond the walls of the classroom into public and civic discourse. Joseph Williams and Lawrence McEnerey write that “Argument is a serious and focused conversation among people who are interested in getting to the bottom of things cooperatively.” This doesn’t demand that there be agreement by all on every issue; indeed, but working with controversial issues is one way to engage students in inquiry and classroom conversations.

How Historical Argument Fits into the Picture

As mentioned previously, the Common Core identifies three key writing types – narrative, informational/explanatory, and argument. This is a useful distinction, but it is important to note that both narrative and explanatory writing are also key in advancing an historical argument. Indeed, history is best understood as an argument about the past that is built upon a narrative that explains past events in the context of developing interpretations and arguments about historical significance. The skills supporting the development of historical interpretations and arguments include:

  • Utilizing chronological thinking
  • Working with historical evidence
  • Considering multiple perspectives and alternative positions
  • Employing historical empathy
  • Establishing historical significance

These skills are also essential to much civic writing, with includes the important addition of personal experience, often including an individual or group narrative, as a key source of evidence in developing an argument. Indeed, personal experience is very often the starting point for civic engagement. Practicing writing historical arguments can therefore develop a range of writing skills.

Roadmap of Resources

The resources in this collection are designed to help you think through the major questions in teaching historical argument and help students develop the needed skills. This introductory piece and the final resource on evaluating student writing frame and unify the sequence of instructional resources. Each resource can be used on its own as a frame for professional inquiry or a Lesson Study research lesson, but the resources are most powerful when taken together in sequence. Links to the resources are below:

  1. What Makes a Good Inquiry Question?
  2. Working With Historical Sources
  3. Close Reading and Annotating Historical Sources
  4. Grappling With Multiple Historical Sources
  5. Using Historical Writing for Inquiry
  6. Drafting an Historical Argument
  7. Responding to Student Writing

About the Author

Stan Pesick taught U.S. History and American Government/Economics in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Oakland, CA, for eighteen years (1976 – 1994). Between 2001 and 2011, he co-directed OUSD’s history/social studies department and directed three federally funded Teaching American History (TAH) projects. Between 2011 and 2014 he co-directed the Oakland Unified School District/Mills College History-English Language Arts (ELA) Collaborative on Writing the Argumentative Essay. Since 2014 he’s worked as a curriculum consultant to the National Japanese American Historical Society and National Park Service. He currently works with both the Bay Area and National Writing Projects.