Lee Donaghy: Writing Like a Historian -- Developing Students' Writing Skills

tags: pedagogy, Guardian (UK), historians, United Kingdom, Lee Donaghy



Lee Donaghy is an assistant principal at a secondary school in Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

"Why are we doing English in history, sir?" came the question as I asked my year 9 history class what kind of word disarmament was. Having anticipated this kind of reaction I had an answer prepared: "Do we only use language in English lessons?"

The question was anticipated because I have heard it from other classes, and indeed other teachers, since I began to include an explicit focus on language development in my history lessons 18 months ago. And the question goes to the heart of what I believe is a fundamental reason for the attainment gap between children eligible for free school meals and their non-free school meal counterparts in Britain; the misalignment of these pupils' language use with that which is needed for academic success and the need for teachers to explicitly address this misalignment in their teaching.

My year 9 class are typical of many classes I've taught over the nine years of my teaching career; enthusiastic, bright, of limitless academic potential. But when it came to marking their written work I would be left tearing my hair out at their inability to express their understanding clearly. I wanted my pupils to be able to read, speak and write like historians; to be able to express their knowledge and understanding of history in language. After all, we would cover the material in class, I would check their understanding through various exercises and careful questioning and then I would give them frameworks for writing answers, using sentence starters and model answers. Yet, this had always been something of an elephant in the room for me as a history teacher, an issue whose cause and therefore solution I could never quite unpick: why can't I teach my students to write properly?...



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