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Reading in the History Classroom

Photography, Large print books, 27 Jan 2009, Flickr CC

In their article “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy,” Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan provide insight into the different reading skills required for success in different disciplines. What reading skills, the authors asked, do chemists need? What reading skills do mathematicians need? What reading skills do historians need? And how does this affect secondary students’ reading abilities and inform the secondary curriculum?

The authors of this study, both professors in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, analyzed the approach to discipline-specific reading taken by experts in those disciplines. They asked mathematicians to talk through their work reading math articles, chemists to talk through their work reading chemistry, and historians to talk through their work reading works of history. The authors then identified the specific strategies that the experts employed as they read. Once they had done this, they worked in collaboration with teachers to develop discipline-specific instructional approaches for teaching these strategies. Their overarching purpose was in part to develop an advanced literacy curriculum and a corresponding teacher education curriculum.

Not All Reading Is the Same
Reading is often thought of as a basic skill that can be applied in various situations. Yet research into literacy reveals a more complex picture. Strong early reading skills do not automatically develop into more sophisticated literacy skills that enable students to deal with the specialized and complex reading of literature, science, history, and mathematics. Those early skills do matter, but they must be built upon with “disciplinary literacy” instruction embedded within content-area classes such as math, science, or history.

How Historians Read
What are the literacy skills of historians? As opposed to mathematicians and chemists historians emphasized paying attention to the author or source when reading a text. They read with the view that both “author and reader are fallible and positioned.” Their purpose in reading a history book seemed to be to figure out what story a particular author wanted to tell (rather than discover one truth). Additionally, reading historical texts meant encountering words that are not current, for example “aeroplane,” and that are metaphorical, for example “Black Friday.”

(While the researchers are not specific about the texts they used with the experts, this report suggests that the targeted texts were secondary sources rather than primary.)

Working to Develop Historical Reading Skills among Students
After identifying these specific literacy skills, the researchers worked to develop discipline-specific instructional strategies.

A History Events Chart
One strategy was a “history events chart.” As students read about a particular event, they wrote down answers to the questions of “who, what, where, when, why, and how” in order to summarize the event. They did this for each event they read about. Then, they were asked to determine the relationship between events. Drawing connections between events on a chart, and writing down their explanations demanded that students draw their own cause-effect relations. It also demonstrated that these relationships can be hidden in a text and must be uncovered.

In the Classroom 

  1. Ask yourself a series of questions to determine if and how you are teaching your students historical reading.
      • Do I teach reading?
      • Do I teach historical reading?
      • What specific skills and approaches to historical texts do my students know?
      • What specific historical reading skills don’t they know?
  2. Become more clear about the historical reading strategies you will teach your students.
  3. Try an instructional strategy for teaching that particular reading skill. (This blog on historical thinking may be helpful in getting you started on numbers 2 and 3.)
  4. Once you find one or two strategies that work for you and your students, use them repeatedly with different texts and topics. This structure and repetition will help your students internalize these reading skills.

Sample Application 

Another example of a technique to develop historical reading skills among adolescents is the “Multiple-Gist Strategy”:

In this strategy, students read one text and summarize it, read another text and incorporate that text into the summary, then read another text and incorporate that text into the summary, and so on. The summary has to stay the same length, essentially, and this forces a student to use words such as similarly or in contrast when incorporating texts that can be compared or contrasted with each other. [The teacher’s] preliminary results [with this strategy] reveal that students who learned the multiple-gist strategy wrote longer, more coherent answers to essay questions.

The teacher not only helped students develop specific historical knowledge, but also equipped them to better read and understand the many texts that are important to doing history.

For more information 

See this blog on Common Core State Standards to help you connect this study to those standards.


Hynd-Shanahan, Cynthia, Jodi P. Holschuh, and Betty P. Hubbard. “Thinking like a Historian: College Students’ Reading of Multiple Historical Documents.” Journal of Literacy Research 36: 141-176.

Shanahan, Timothy, and Cynthia Shanahan. “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy.” Harvard Educational Review 78(1) (2008).