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What Are the 5 Ws?

The 5 Ws are questions that, when answered, give all of the information needed on a particular topic, and are often used in research, writing, and investigations. The 5 Ws are: who, what, where, when, and why. Often “how” is included as well as "5Ws and 1H", but isn’t necessarily needed and usually falls within one or more of the 5 Ws.

How are the 5 Ws Used for Social Studies and History?

When studying all aspects of social studies and history, it can be easy to get lost, forget to include something in your studies, or feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information. Using the 5 Ws will help students organize their ideas, thoughts, and the information that they are researching. Here is a breakdown of how each of the 5 Ws is used in research and informational writing.


When studying history or other aspects of social studies, the “who” refers to the person or people that were involved in the event. There are often many different answers to this question when one is exploring a topic. When learning about World War II, the “who” would be the people involved in the war: the Germans, Americans, Japanese, etc.

Example WHO Questions

  • Who was the first president of the United States?

  • Who won the Battle of Bunker Hill?

  • Who signed the Declaration of Independence?

  • Who were the Pilgrims?

  • Who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement?

The 5Ws: Who


The “what” is extremely important, because it tells us specific details about the event, landmark, geographical feature, place, etc. This W is the foundation for the whole research topic, and should be explored in great detail. If a student is studying the California Gold Rush of 1848, they would explore what the gold rush was, what caused it, and the specific details of the event/events that took place.

Example WHAT Questions

  • What is the capital of California?

  • What caused the Civil War?

  • What did Martin Luther King, Jr. believe in?

  • What is the weather like in Minnesota?

  • What are the geographical features of the Midwest?

The 5Ws: What


The “where” is asking for the setting or location of the event. Oftentimes there are more than one location for historical events. It is important for the students to be quite detailed in this area. If a student is learning about the Pilgrims, where they landed is extremely important to how they formed a settlement and how they lived.

Example WHERE Questions

  • Where did the Pilgrims land in 1620?

  • Where is the most populated city located?

  • Where does the president live?

  • Where was the Titanic found?

  • Where do immigrants to the United States most often come from?

The 5Ws: Where


The “when” refers to the point in time that a historical event takes place. This can span over many years, or simply be a short period of time. A timeline is an excellent tool for showing the “when” of an event. When studying The Great Depression, students would identify that it began in August of 1929 and lasted until March of 1933. The student may also include other dates of importance within that time period.

Example WHEN Questions

  • When did the United States gain its independence?

  • When did World War I take place?

  • When was Barack Obama born?

  • When were women first allowed to vote?

  • When was the First Thanksgiving?

The 5Ws: When


It is so important to understand why historical events took place, in order to truly understand the historical value. This W is not always obvious, and will most likely be the most challenging and require the most research. Sometimes there are several reasons why, and sometimes varying opinions. When the Puritans came to American from England, why did they come? Why was life hard for them? Another important “why” when researching history, is why are we learning this? Why is this important for me to know? Historical events shape who we are today and understanding the “why” helps students connect history to their own lives and current events.

Example WHY Questions

  • Why do people immigrate to the United States?

  • Why does the judicial system exist?

  • Why did the United States join World War II?

  • Why is Boston the capital of Massachusetts?

  • Why are there 50 stars on the American Flag?

The 5Ws: Why

When researching historical events, students must have guidelines and tools to help them organize their thoughts and research findings, otherwise the information may end up all mixed up together and more difficult to understand. Separating information into these 5 W categories not only ensures that students have covered all areas of research, but it also helps them to organize what they’ve learned in a predictable manner. When showing what they know, there are so many options available. Some students enjoy writing a paper, some prefer to create a slideshow, and some may want to make an informative poster.

Storyboards are an excellent way to organize and present information at the same time, and it gives students the opportunity to be creative and have lots of fun! With the many different types of storyboards available, teachers are able to provide a variety of options based on individual needs, strengths, and learning styles. Provided below are a few templates that can be used, and an example of a poster style storyboard for students who may want to provide more detailed information.

Use this die in many ways! You can use it to quiz yourself or a partner by simply rolling the dice and answering that question on your historical topic (or any topic, really!). You can use the dice in a group when deciding who is doing what for research. You can also use the dice to spark group or partner discussion.

Related Activities

Check out these 5 Ws activities from our guides on Japanese American Incarceration in WWII, Slavery in America, and Civil Rights Movement

Find more lesson plans and activities like these in our Social Studies Category!
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