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Why Did It Happen? Making Claims about Cause and Effect

As we ask students to become more sophisticated in their historical thinking, we expect them to move from reporting historical events to explaining and interpreting them. Making claims about historical events requires a shift in writing that requires new language tools.

Many students, especially English learners, will require more support in the form of explicit instruction in writing explanations about relationships between events and conditions in history. One central relationship in history is cause and effect.

Graphic organizers are a great way for students to organize their ideas about causes and effects that are described in primary sources or history textbooks. However, many students don’t know how to transform their graphic organizer into a coherent written essay.

To help students, take them through an entire cycle of learning: reading the source texts together, filling out the graphic organizer, and finally to writing a model essay together. English learners must have access to these models throughout the year, since imitation is an important way to learn academic language!

A. Analyze model texts and essays together.

Showing is better than telling. Take a model essay (you can write it, or select from students or curricular materials) and have students try to find the phrases that signal cause-and-effect relationships. Generate a list together as a class, and keep it posted where students can see it. Add to your list whenever the class reads a text that addresses cause-and-effect relationships.

Start by writing down phrases that students find in the model essays. Then have students suggest alternative ways to say the same thing. Make sure to note when phrases are equivalent, and when they make the claim differently (X is a consequence of Y, for example, is the opposite of X caused Y).

Bilingual students should be encouraged to keep a bilingual glossary of these phrases if they know how to express cause-and-effect in their native language. This is more likely for students who enter U.S. schools in middle and high school.

B. Assign students a particular cause-and-effect claim, and ask them to express it as many ways as possible.

It’s very difficult to learn a new language and new content at the same time. This activity lets students manipulate the language of cause and effect before they have to express new ideas about history content. In other words, they can learn the language tools before using these tools to build a historical argument about cause and effect.

C. Provide different levels of support, based on students’ current levels of proficiency in English.

For students with very limited English proficiency, begin by emphasizing the simplest and most direct cause-and-effect language formulas (noted with asterisks below). Demonstrate how to lift language from one part of the graphic organizer and drop it into the “A caused B” sentence structure, similar to a fill-in-the-blank worksheet.

Students with intermediate to advanced English proficiency can write more fluently in independent work if they have access to the class list of cause/effect phrases for tests and writing assignments. They will need help identifying which essays call for this particular language tool, and should be reminded to use this resource when appropriate. It might be obvious to you, but it will require practice throughout the year for them.

Phrases that describe cause-and-effect relationships:

*A caused B
*A led to B
*A resulted in B
*A was the reason for B
*B happened because A (verb)
As a result of A, B (verb).
As a consequence of A, B (verb).
Since A (verb), B (verb)

Due to A, B (verb)
One outcome of A was B.
[Explanation of A.] For this reason… B…
[Explanation of A.] Consequently… B…
[Explanation of A.] Thus… B…

For more information 

Christie, F., & Derewiank, B. (2009). School Discourse: Learning to Write Across the Years of Schooling. New York: Continuum.