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The Grammar of History Textbooks Part II: Questioning the Text

Lithograph,
Why do it?

History is a discipline constructed through language. For history students to be successful they must be able to comprehend, discuss, analyze, and write historical texts. Reading history textbooks and other documents requires academic literacy skills that far too many of our students, especially English Learners, lack.

Getting Meaning through Language Analysis not only helps struggling students comprehend the basic meaning of history writing, but this close text analysis can also promote historical thinking as students grapple with the language choices the author made in constructing the text.

What is it?

Language Analysis is a way to help students better understand and analyze historical text. Essential in this process is that the teacher first identifies a short standards-based textbook passage and poses an investigative question to establish the students' purpose for reading. Part I of this series discussed how to then guide students to identify different grammatical elements in the selected sentences and to notice how those elements relate to each other, thereby exposing the historical meaning. This installment demonstrates another way to identify and analyze the grammatical elements—by asking five questions of a history text.

These questions drive a classroom conversation about the text's meaning.

1. Who or what is doing or being something?
2. What are they doing or being?
3. What are the relationships between ideas in the passage?
4. Can we determine the author's perspective?
5. How does this information help us answer the larger investigative question?

Let's examine the following sentence excerpted from a passage in an 8th-grade U.S. history textbook.

Claiming that the nation needed protecting from treasonous ideas and actions, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in the summer of 1798.(1)

Standards-based investigative questions guide students through text interpretation.

First, the teacher should write a standards-based investigative question to set the purpose for the lesson. Here it might be "How did the Alien and Sedition Acts contribute to the divide between the first political parties?"

1. Who or what is doing something in the sentence?
This question directs students to find the subject of the sentence, the Federalist-controlled Congress. This will probably be difficult for students to find at first, as the subject is in the second clause. However, over time they will come to recognize this very common sentence pattern in history and other academic texts. This "who/what" question also sets up a discussion that will connect to students' prior knowledge about the responsibilities of Congress. They would need to understand what it meant for one party, the Federalists, to control the Congress, a very abstract idea. The teacher can help students understand this idea.

2. What is the Federalist-controlled Congress doing?
This question directs students to find the verbs and see that the Congress passed the acts and was claiming the nation needed protecting. Just as before, the teacher can help students connect the passing of acts to the legislative responsibilities of the Congress.

3. What are the relationships between ideas in the passage?
When turning to the third question about the relationship between ideas, the teacher might point out that the relationship between these two clauses is a causal one. In other instances it may be an explanation, elaboration, or comparison. In this case, the teacher could ask "Why did the Congress pass the acts?" This will lead students to see that the first clause acts as a reason for the passage: the nation needed protecting.

4. Can we determine the author's perspective?
It is the fourth question that engages students' more sophisticated historical thinking. The teacher would want to ask what the word claiming implies. If students don't recognize the connotation of claiming in this sentence, the teacher can ask students what would happen to the meaning of the sentence if they substituted "believing" or "stating" or "because" rather than "claiming" and then discuss how the author's word choices can change the way they understand the passage. A claim does not equal a cause and the teacher can ask students if the other political party, the Democratic-Republicans, would have agreed with the justification for the acts.

It is also important to remind the students that this is an interpretation, and that other authors may have analyzed the event differently. Whenever possible, it is helpful to find a comparable sentence or passage. The following example is from Alan Taylor's 1995 Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize-winning book, William Cooper's Town.

Asking the same questions of two different texts encourages historical analysis.

To suppress domestic opposition, Congress passed a Sedition Act, virtually outlawing public criticism of the federal government. (2)

By asking the same questions of this sentence, students can easily conclude that although the main subject (Congress) and verb (passed) are the same, the author's interpretation is different. Here the reason behind the Sedition Act is not to protect the nation, but to suppress domestic opposition. Also, this particular sentence includes a consequential relationship as it accuses the Congress of outlawing public criticism of the federal government.

5. How does this information help us answer the larger investigative question?
Question Five brings the students back to the main point of the lesson: what they should know after examining the text closely. Without returning to the main question, students can get lost in the details rather than the larger understanding of the material.

Why is this a best practice?

The five questions guide students and teachers in a discussion about the language of history texts. This process must be teacher directed at first, but students will gradually begin to independently use these questions to monitor their own reading comprehension. They start to question the text and the author's interpretation by examining his or her word choices. When students are able to talk about the ideas they are better able to process the information. As an added benefit, the more students recognize and analyze patterns in historical writing, the more competent they will become in using sophisticated patterns in their own writing.

Footnotes

1 Linda Kerrigan Salvucci and Sterling Stuckey, Call to Freedom, Beginnings to 1914 (Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2000), 324.
2 Alan Taylor, William Cooper's Town (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 264.

Resources

Learn more about The History Project at UC Davis: historyproject.ucdavis.edu.

Mary J. Schleppegrell, Stacey Greer, and Sarah Taylor, "Literacy in history: Language and meaning," Australian Journal of Language and Literacy 31, no.2 (2008): 174–187.

This project is also discussed in another article on this website.

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