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Understanding How Elementary Students Think

Photography, Nick Telling Stories, 12 Dec 2006, Sean Dreilinger, Flickr CC

In their classic article “Storytelling, Imagination, and Fanciful Elaboration in Children’s Historical Reconstructions,” Bruce VanSledright of the College of Education at the University of Maryland and the late Jere Brophy examined how fourth graders approach history. What are fourth graders capable of? How able are they to understand the discipline of history?

In attempting to answer these questions, the authors conducted interviews with 10 fourth graders who had not yet received systematic instruction in U.S. history. These students represented the national average on standardized test scores and socioeconomic status indicators, and their school’s curriculum was in line with the expanding communities curriculum common in the elementary grades. The researchers asked students questions about the nature of history and early America.

What VanSledright and Brophy found was that fourth graders were interested in the past, concerned about human motives and cause-effect relationships, and able to construct dramatic narrative accounts of historical events. What they lacked, however, was a disciplinary framework for organizing historical narratives. As a result, they often produced accounts that contained key elements for a story, but which mixed accurate historical information with imaginative elaborations and naive conceptions.

What Fourth Graders Could Do

The authors found that eight of the 10 students knew that history is about the past and mentioned that it was concerned with noteworthy events. All the students knew some specific information about particular topics and were familiar with timelines. Some of the students told stories in response to the interview questions, while others used one word or brief phrases to answer questions. The number of students who told stories increased in later interviews, which suggested that this is a skill that is developing during these grades. In any case, storytelling indicated that, even prior to systematic study of history, some children are interested in historical detail, demonstrate preliminary understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, and are able to construct and appreciate historical drama.

What Fourth Graders Could Not Do

As the authors noted in this study, while the children often recalled a surprising amount of detail, they also exaggerated, invented facts, and blurred the line between fantasy and reality. What the students lacked, it seemed, was a set of organizational structures that would allow them to put their pattern-seeking constructions and attention to detail to work for them in developing reasonable historical understandings. While students could create “imaginative reconstructions of past events,” they did not understand that evidence mattered to an accurate historical narrative or that some stories were legitimate and others not.

What Fourth Graders Need

The researchers posited that the critical piece missing from student narratives was an awareness of historical context. “Stories” do not emerge out of thin air. But young students did not understand that. To them, stories were often standalone objects without roots or connections. The differences between fanciful and dramatic storytelling and historical narrative were not clear to these students. Consequently, elementary level students must be taught that “stories” are deeply rooted in specific times and places—a concept that may help them in distinguishing more evidence-based accounts from ones less so.

In the Classroom 

  • Use historical stories to engage students and help them imagine the past.
  • Teach students the differences between fictional stories and evidence-based historical narratives.
  • Introduce historical topics and units with some lessons that help students understand the time and place under study. This will help students gain a broad base of knowledge to inform their understanding of particular historical events.
  • Check for students’ understanding of particular topics before teaching your lesson and units. Be on the lookout for inaccurate information, conflation of disparate events and people, fanciful recreations, and dramatic additions. Use what you uncover to help you choose areas of instructional focus and craft lessons.

Sample Application 

Fourth-grade students are able to tell stories and to recall historical details, but without sufficient understanding of the nature of history—and particularly, the importance of context—their stories are prone to exaggeration and imagining:

Interviewer: Tell me a little bit about Columbus…

Helen: People say that Columbus first landed in America and named it that but I think that another person, I can’t remember his name, he found it first and Columbus went to the west and landed to the west about two years later. He sailed over here but it was already owned by this other person, but people say Columbus really found America.

Interviewer: Who is this other person? Was he another explorer?

Helen: I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think he was a pirate or something and sailed to America and named it that. After his name. It had America in it. I think he landed on it and he landed on the west side and like two years later he sailed over to where Amerigo got there and they kind of got together, but I’m not real sure.

Interviewer: Who got together?

Helen: The one guy and Columbus. Something must have happened to him before America got started as a country.

As the example above illustrates, this student capably handled half of the process of historical interpretation: imaginative reconstruction of past events. What she has not yet mastered, however, is the half that involves rules about what counts as interpretation based on reasonable evidence and what does not.

For more information 

For more related to teaching young students the difference between fiction and history, see:


VanSledright, Bruce, and Jere Brophy. “Storytelling, Imagination, and Fanciful Elaboration in Children’s Historical Reconstructions.” American Educational Research Journal 29, no. 4 (1992): 837–859.

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