Developing my year 9s’ ability to write like historians (as well as retain key knowledge)

This is the first of four posts I hope to write this half term, each one describing my history lessons with my KS3 groups this half term. This post and the next one will be about year 9, with years 8 and 7 to follow. My purpose in doing so is simply to share what I have been doing in the hope that it is useful to other history teachers, as well as inviting feedback that may help me to do things more effectively.

In writing these posts I was inspired by Katie Ashford’s recent blog “Beyond the ‘show sentence’” ( in which she explained how she has developed her pupils’ ability to write analytically in English. I hope readers will see similarities in my approach in terms of the focus on modelling being used initially in order to move pupils to independence in writing.

With year 9 I have three lessons per fortnight with a set 2 and a set 3 (we have two parallel bands in each year group with three sets in each band). We have been exploring the causes of the First World War and my ultimate aims were twofold: firstly, to enable my pupils to explain how and why tension had developed between the great powers in Europe by 1914 and then to explain how an assassination in an obscure corner of Europe led to a continent-wide (and ultimately world) war.

I had 7 or 8 lessons with each class and I largely followed the teaching and learning cycle outlined in one of my first posts, although the phases often overlapped:

  • Building the field – ensuring the pupils have the knowledge they need.
  • Modelling and deconstruction – showing pupils how to corral this knowledge into good historical writing, breaking down the structures of an explanatory paragraph.
  • Joint construction – giving pupils an opportunity to join me in constructing an explanatory paragraph, guiding them to apply what I modelled to them.
  • Independent construction – allowing pupils to write independently, to see how much they had learnt.


Building the field
I started with the absolute basics: the dates of the War, the combatants and the main developments (Russia’s surrender, USA’s entry), establishing these with the pupils and setting a short quiz as an ongoing homework, with which we then started each lesson until pupils were regularly getting full marks:

World War One basic facts
1. When did the Great War begin and end? (2)
2. What were the names of the two alliances that fought each other? (2)
3. Which countries were in each alliance? (6)
Triple Entente       Triple Alliance
Great Britain       Germany
France                   Austria-Hungary
Russia                    Italy

4. Which Empire fought against Britain? (1)
The Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey)
5. Which country ‘changed sides’ during the war, and in which year? (2)
Italy, 1915
6. Which country surrendered in defeat in 1917? (1)
7. Which country entered the war in 1917? (1)

I also explained that they may see the War referred to as World War One, the First World War or the Great War and explained the origin of the latter term, pointing out that the first two names didn’t exist until there was a second world war!

We then established the long term causes of the War as the MAIN causes: Militarism, alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism. This is a relatively simplistic way of looking at the origins of the War, but one which I felt my pupils could handle and would be able to understand well. I used the familiar analogy of Europe being like a barrel filling up with gunpowder, ready for a spark that would ignite an explosion.

We read about the MAIN causes in our textbook and then defined them using a structure I have written about before, the four-stage definition devised by a brilliant ex-colleague of mine Helen Handford:




This gives very structured definitions (and can be used across the curriculum by the way!) and helps pupils to move towards using more academic language in preparation for writing. Following the teaching and learning cycle in miniature, I modelled the first definition, talking pupils through the way I constructed it. We then defined Imperialism and Militarism together, with me guiding pupils to agreed definitions. Finally, pupils used the structure to define alliances for themselves. They were largely successful in producing a definition similar to the one I had in mind: ‘Alliances are groups of countries that agree to fight together in a war.’

Modelling & deconstruction
I set the first assessment question of the year as: Why did World War One start in 1914? (taken from our scheme of work). Instead of simply allowing pupils to tackle the question immediately, I decided to use the teaching and learning cycle to scaffold their ability to explain the causes. This meant that pupils would end up with a full answer to this question encompassing an explanation of the long term MAIN causes and an explanation of how an assassination led to war. However, they would only have written the final two paragraphs independently.
As we progressed through these phases of the cycle we returned to the textbook to re-read and discuss sections relating to each MAIN cause as and when we needed to, supplementing this by looking at several maps, including one of Europe showing the two alliances and a map showing the scramble for Africa.

I modelled the first paragraph for pupils showing them the structure I wanted them to follow on the board:


As I modelled and pupils copied, I called pupils’ attention to the phases of the paragraph and the purpose each served, as well as certain structural features that I asked them to focus on within each phase, such as ‘one factor…’, the use of dates and phrases like ‘this led to…’ that indicate causation/explanation.

Joint construction
Having set up the next two paragraphs in the explanatory phase, we then jointly constructed the next two paragraphs, ending up with the following:

Imperialism, which is a desire to gain and expand an empire, was another factor that caused tension to build up in Europe by 1914.

From the late 19th century onwards the great powers of Europe competed with one another to grow their empires, which led to the ‘scramble for Africa’, in which Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Belgium all took control of large parts of the African continent between 1880 and 1900.

This created tension because these countries began to see each other as rivals, and threats to their overseas empires, thus making war more likely.



The third factor that enabled tensions between European nations to rise before the Great War was militarism, which is when countries massively increase their armed forces very quickly.

In the early years of the 20th century the European powers began to expand their armed forces, spending more and more each year on weapons and other military equipment. In 1906 Britain launched a new advanced type of battleship called the ‘Dreadnought’, which led to a naval arms race with Germany. Other countries built up their armies and by 1914 Germany, France and Russia each had an army of over one million men.

This meant tension built because as each country increased its armed forces, all the other nations felt threatened. Also, the temptation to use the weapons and forces that had been expensively built up was very great.

As we were jointly constructing I asked questions such as:


  • How do we decide the order of the factors? (Answer: use the explanatory phase of the first paragraph for the order)
  • Having used ‘One factor which…’ in the first paragraph, how should we introduce these next factors?
  • Which dates are important for the middle phase?


As well as more specific ones like:

  • Which countries were involved in the ‘scramble for Africa’?
  • What was the name of Britain’s new type of battleship?


Independent construction
Pupils were then given 20 minutes to think about, draft if they wanted to, then complete in neat their own paragraph explaining how alliances led to tension. This is the version that I wrote:

Alliances are groups of countries that agree to fight together in a war, and it was these agreements that represent the fourth source of tension in Europe from the late 19th century onwards.

By 1914 Europe was divided into two rival alliances. In 1881 Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary signed the Triple Alliance and in 1907 Britain, France and Russia signed the Triple Entente.

The result of this was tension between the two rival camps as they became suspicious of each other. A disagreement between two nations could result in a wider war, as each country joined in to defend their allies.


As this blog is already over long and I’ve left the kids’ books in school(!), I will use my second post to show some of the pupils’ responses later in the week when I’ve retrieved their books. But, overall, pupils were able to follow the three-phase structure and had understood the purpose of each phase. The quality of the content of each phase and the extent to which they had described the formation of the alliances and how this led to tension was more variable.

7 thoughts on “Developing my year 9s’ ability to write like historians (as well as retain key knowledge)

  1. Hi Lee, I really enjoyed reading this. I just wondered your thoughts on the following;

    • I know you have been critical in this blog of paragraph structure heuristics like P-E-E etc. How would you argue your tripartite structure is different to such heuristics?

    • Does the model always have to be one you created? If you are telling students this is ‘how historians write’ might it not be more powerful for the students to see some academic scholarship and deconstruct that? Or are you saying that ‘school historians’ (i.e. teachers, textbook writers, students, literacy co-coordinators) are synonymous with academic historians?

    If you used historians’ models you could then deconstruct with the students how historians never use deadening frames like ‘one factor which’. Instead, they tend to place the nominalisation at the start of the clause so that it acts as participant/agent/subject (however you want to phrase it). So your model would become ‘Nationalism was the critical factor that caused tension in Europe before 1914…’.

    You could then also model putting the ‘cause within the clause’ (the genre theorist Martin writes about this) and think about how you might get the students to ‘fine-tune’ causality by consideration of role/prioritisation of causes. So, for example, instead of ‘caused/led to’ which historians rarely use you might introduce more language like ‘critical factor’, ‘secondary importance’ etc (prioritising) and ‘trigger’, ‘root’, ‘facilitated’ etc (characterisation) which historians tend to use more. From a different perspective, many TH people have written about this, initially and most famously Woodcock 2005.

    • At what point in the KS3 curriculum will you model the disciplinary historical processes that formed the foundation of how you structured your model? At the moment, you present these to the students as a priori but if they are to construct their own arguments to different questions in the future then won’t they need to see the disciplinary rationale that went into your structuring? How will the students be made aware that the discipline of history drives the structure rather than the other way round?

    So, for example, you provide the students with what you consider to be the ‘4 MAIN factors’ and nominalise those factors for the students (or use the textbooks’ nominalisations – I wasn’t sure). But this process is something that students will have to do independently when they are forced to construct written arguments without teacher’s scaffolding. Could you not also ‘jointly construct’ why you consider these to be legitimate nominalisations? Coffin has written an article about ‘constructedness’ and how nominalisation is tough for students because it actually hides the interpretative process. Nominalisations often appear substantive but they are in fact often massively interpretative. For example, here, one might choose ‘patriotism’ or indeed ‘xenophobia’ instead of ‘nationalism’ – both of which are ostensibly similar but are in fact laden with interpretation and connotation. How will the students be made cognisant that these are issues of argumentation? I think Fordham, again from a different starting point, discusses somewhat similar ideas in his chapter in the new Burn, Counsell, Chapman book.

    Similarly, in the future students will need to argue that causes are ranked in order of relative importance. At the moment, you provide this ranking to the students in an unproblematic way (i.e. read the last sentence of my first paragraph for the answer) because it wasn’t the main objective of what you were doing. But in the future how will the students know that they will need to do this independently and how will they know how to do it? The onus for this will be on them and this disciplinary process is something that they will directly affect how they choose to structure their future answers. In other words, how will show the students that the prioritisation of causes is a historical and organisational argument that needs to be wrestled with?

    • I wonder if that final point, about students’ ability to organise their argument, is something that comes before, during or even after their writing.

      Before seems obvious: many of us use both simple tables and more complex significance charts, etc. to help students consider various factors which shape their thoughts. What I have found, however, is that once writing students often ask more questions which they suddenly realise are relevant to their own arguments. (Of course, this is only when the have the opportunity to ask more questions, but it’s interesting how often this happens.)

      What I’m becoming more interested in, though, is how they think after an essay is ‘finished’. Once editing, looking at other essays, etc. is complete, I ask – time permitting – what they now think – do they still agree with their arguments? Many do not, but then due to assessment commitments we simply do not have the time to reconsider.

      Now, one might argue that this is simply drafting, and that we should be doing this anyway. Time constrains us all, however. And so we draft through great teaching: we test a statement (‘Colonial ambition was the main factor which caused WWI’, for example), then once judgements are beginning to form we add new knowledge, maybe jotting down initial and then later thoughts. In this way we combat the issue of time, we build knowledge at the same time as solidifying and then pulling apart interpretations – creating liminality, if you will – and tentatively nominalise together: ‘Ah, so actually you’re saying that German ambitions in Africa were about patriotism, not xenophobia?’

      And so I think we’re organising an argument all the time, which, of course, is problematic in the hands of either a non-specialist or even a specialist with limited knowledge of the subject. If I had to teach, say, the Glorious Revolution, I’d probably initially stick to a tight framework which ‘ticked the boxes’, as it were, at least until I had a firmer grasp of the subject myself. At every other time, though, aren’t we arguing and probing every piece of new information in order to create ‘thinking’?

      And so whilst I agree that the disciplinary process is vital, is this not part of every lesson in terms of initial, tentative thoughts? Should an end of unit essay effectively be assessing the thinking which has occurred over the past seven-or-so weeks? Would it be better, then to eventually aim to assess smaller pieces of writing which develop over time into a larger piece? At TA, we start by ensuring basic technical proficiency in history writing: dates, locations, key individuals, ideas; prioritisation, discourse markers specific to history writing. Thus, writing is quite dry to begin with, but we’re attempting to master certain communicative demands before moving later in the year to more nuanced argument. This means we remove the scaffolding gradually, but are able to probe more specifically during the teaching as the year progresses.

      • Toby,

        Thank you for your comment – it is fascinating and not at all a ramble!

        I think you are right that pupils should be wrestling with this all the time, and also correct that writing will develop over time. I have only begun teaching these two classes this half term and their quality of writing is quite underdeveloped at present. As such I am keeping ti relatively simple in the hope (expectation?) that we can layer on complication later.

        I also think you have forced me to concede (though this was undoubtedly not your intention) that my own knowledge of the causes of WW1 is not as developed as it needs to be to teach the topic really well. Hence I have relied upon a relatively simple framework provided by the textbook and not problematised the causes at all.

        I like your idea of assessing in smaller chunks. As I said in my reply to Jim I am constrained by the assessment framework I have to follow in my department, though I do have some latitude so I will think about this more.

    • Jim,

      Thank you very much for the comment. I love your questions and I will attempt to answer them all. However, forgive me if this sounds defensive but you are streets ahead of me in terms of your thinking about history as a discipline and so I am not sure that my answers will be adequate. Having said that, just thinking about your questions will, I’m certain, make me a better teacher of history.

      P-E-E – you’re absolutely right both that I have been critical of this and that the structure referred to in this blog is very similar. It seemed to me to be a good starting point for getting the class to think carefully about structuring and would be a finessed version of something with which they were familiar. It also fitted in terms of doing the job for explaining how each of the MAIN factors caused tension between the great powers. Not perfect and not a destination, but perhaps a departure point.

      Modelling – I intend to use historians’ writing in the future for sure, but again this is the start of a process and I had to start somewhere, and I need to learn more (or at least make the knowledge I already have more explicit to myself) about the way historians write before I do that. For the moment I am to an extent also constrained by the curriculum at my school – there are certain assessments I have to complete, with question stems derived from the new GCSE specification we are following.

      On disciplinary processes, we used MAIN because they were provided by the textbook. I have in the past had classes wrestling extensively with concepts before finalising nominalisations for use as ‘factors’. Again, I am at the start of the process with these classes and I have my copy of the Burn/Counsell/Chapman book!

      Thanks again for the comment – it has given me new avenues to explore and no doubt I will need your advice as I do so – watch this space.

  2. Hi Lee,

    Thanks so much for writing this blog. I attended the LILAC course about 7 years ago now and this blog and the subsequent comments are making me think about how I use the T & L cycle. Like you, I too am part of the generation who missed teaching of grammar and as such I find a lot of this hard to get my head around.
    I think that in the intervening years I have forgotten some key aspects and really what has remained is the principle of using speaking as a bridge to writing, modelling and deconstructing and joint construction before independent practice. What your blog has made me realise is that the level of analysis during the deconsctruction phase is probably lacking. I find that I tend to ask students to look at features such as the structure at whole text level, then role of the topic sentence in the paragraph, the tense, third person etc and the fact that it is lexically dense. I have not really dealt with nominalisations, although I remember this being something of an epiphany during the course. I have been frustrated at the level of complexity in paragraphs too, so I will definitely use your templates as an interim step to help my students. So, my questions or musing are these:

    When do you draw attention to nominilisations? In year 7, on your first deconstruction? What steps do you go through to help the kids create their own?

    Also, I am interested in when you stop going through the T&L cycle. I notice in year 10 that you are using the T&L cycle for GCSE. Will it be a case of using it for each text type a few times and then assessing them on something without going through it, or do you still use it until the final exam? When you assess, is it a case of you let them do this entirely independently? This is where I am struggling to arrive at the right approach. When I first used the T&L cycle, we as a department used it to prepare for an assessment (Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?) and then we asked them to produce their essay independently. The results were much better but they had deconstructed an essay on the same topic and done some joint construction of a paragraph. Would it a more accurate assessment if the T&L cycle is used on a different topic to the assessment? Obviously time is the issue here, we may spend between 3 and 4 weeks covering the content and then factoring in the length of time it takes to go through the T&L cycle, it is then difficult to fit in another topic if we are to do it justice.

    One more thing, Caroline Coffin seems to suggest that certain genres should be or are covered in certain years, e.g. Recording genres in Years 7-8, explaining and arguing Years 9-10 etc. would you agree that this is how it should be approached?

    I hope all of this makes sense! I am so keen to do this justice but sometimes feel that my own lack of understanding of how to describe the way historians write holds me back. I seem to remember as a student, I just ‘got’ how to write history essays at university. It had taken me so many years of trial and error but I lack the understanding of how to describe this process effectively.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    • April,

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

      I think I am at a similar stage to you in my understanding. I’m still discovering how much of my knowledge about language is implicit and trying to analyse it to make it explicit to pupils is really tough! Like you, I just ‘got’ how to write essays at school and uni.

      I also need to know much more about the discipline of history (amazing thing for a history graduate to say!) and how language works in history – the prompts and advice of Jim Carroll (who had commented too) is invaluable here so check out his work.

      To answer your questions in sequence:

      Nominalisation – coming across this idea was a eureka moment for me too when I did How Language Works (the successor course to LILAC). I try to draw attention to them as much as possible and as early as possible though I have only just returned to classroom after a bit of a break and so I am getting to grips with how to do this again – watch this space (I hope!). Using nominalisations is so powerful because they condense a lot of information into one word or phrase and then can also be finessed – ‘rapid mobilisation’, ‘rampant xenophobia’, so this is a priority for me next half term.

      T&L cycle – I use it right throughout yrs 7 – 11, partly because I have picked up classes at various different stages of understanding and development. I guess the ideal would be to have a class from yr 7 to 11 and to do so well with them in KS£ that they would be independently writing well at GCSE. However, at the moment it’s horses for courses. I also try as much as I can to resist the arbitrary nature and timings of assessments – if my pupils aren’t ready, why do the assessment? But you are right that using the T&L cycle is time consuming – most other classes in yr 9 have covered the causes of WW1 as well as an enquiry on Haig and the Somme in the time I have just covered the causes.

      Coffin – when I first read her work it made complete sense but discussing this with Jim Carroll and Christine Counsell has made me see that her work is based on school history genres, not those of the academic discipline of history. So I approach them with caution. The sense of increasing complexity as we progress through the school years is logical but as Christine has pointed out to me (and I think I agree) an explanation is necessarily also an argument, so to have a dichotomy between them is somewhat false.

      I hope my replies make sense!

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