The Connection Between Literacy and History
“Do we just use the text as evidence to answer this question or can we use the date of the document also?”
A bright 8th-grade student asked me this question in the middle of a lesson on Reconstruction. He and his partner were working their way through several prepared documents to answer the lesson’s central question. Matt was figuring out that the specific circumstances surrounding an historical account mattered to making sense of that account. When I answered, “Yes, by all means use the date,” he answered, “Because the date matters to the question.”
Matt was “reading historically,” even if he didn’t know it.
Consider another scenario: Susie, a conscientious 5th-grader, was working on writing an essay about the events leading up to the American Revolution. She asked me for help with beginning her essay. I asked, “What story will you tell in this essay? Or will you make an argument? What will you argue about this topic?” With a blank look that turned into a slightly annoyed one, she told me that she would do neither: “It’s an essay on the American Revolution, we’re just supposed to include important facts.”
Susie had not yet learned that historical essays tell stories and make arguments. Without one of these coherent structures, introducing her “important facts” was a difficult task.
Both of these are instances where literacy was central to the work that students were doing in history classrooms. And this is how it should be, as all history teachers are also literacy teachers.
This may be obvious to you, depending on your own teaching context, training, and experience. Even when I earned my teacher credential, more than two decades ago, I was required to take a “content-area” reading course. Together, prospective teachers of all the secondary subjects spent a semester learning about pre-reading strategies and different kinds of reading guides. But the truth is that this course didn’t help me identify as a reading teacher; I was a history/social science teacher through and through and this approach to literacy seemed only marginally useful to me.
My easy dismissal was partly my mistake and partly due to the generic nature of the course. I should have known better. Doing history in college meant reading mountains of material—identifying and critiquing arguments and their evidentiary warrants, and seeking out alternative interpretations and multiple voices. These were some of the aspects of history that drew me to the subject and reading was core to all of them. Regardless of historical topic or task, I had to read to do my work. As Princeton historian Hendrik Hartog said in a Journal of American History roundtable on the state of the historical practice, "The one [practice] we all engage in as historians is reading." But, in my content reading course, it was not obvious to me how learning about cloze reading guides was important to teaching history.
We’ve all heard about “content area literacy” practices and “reading and writing across the curriculum.” Both of these terms support my first point: that even if you’re not an English teacher, you are still a literacy teacher. But some of the books and programs that focus on “content-area literacy” fall short in their answers to two key questions: in history class, what should students read? And how should students read?
Too often, these programs identify textbooks as the primary, if not the only, history/social studies classroom text and focus primarily on generic literacy practices that cut across all disciplines, like scanning and summarizing.
Textbooks can be useful classroom tools and students should be taught how to read and use them wisely, but when students read only these books, they do not get experience, practice, or coaching with reading more authentic discipline-specific texts. Doing history requires reading many genres of text, from presidential proclamations to private letters to political cartoons. It includes “reading” images and video, objects and art. It includes analyzing primary sources for perspective and reliability and secondary sources for argument and supporting evidence.
True content-area literacy in history requires students learn reading and writing strategies specific to history. In the examples above, Matt is “sourcing” even if he doesn’t know it and this is an essential skill for reading in history. Susie is struggling with how to communicate historical knowledge in writing and needs help with understanding and producing historical arguments.
History requires particular kinds of reading and writing strategies that are critical to students being college-, career-, and citizenship-ready. It requires that students become creators and connoisseurs of arguments, careful readers, and good questioners. Students must learn that place, time, audience, and purpose matter to how authors craft and deliver their message. They should learn to ask questions of text like: whose voice is missing? What is the evidence for that claim? How are conclusions about this topic limited? History offers opportunities for students to learn how to identify and write causal claims, use hedging language to assert neither too little nor too much, identify ambiguities, and weigh evidence to make a convincing claim.
Teachinghistory.org has many resources that can help you teach students discipline-specific reading and writing strategies and competencies. We strive to be faithful to the discipline in the materials we compile and produce for the site and this means that reading and writing are central to our classroom resources. We pay special attention to providing resources for teaching historical thinking, or what we call, “the reading, analysis, and writing that is necessary to develop our understanding of the past.” Given that class time for history instruction, especially at the elementary level, is threatened in some schools, history educators need to be clear and explicit about how our discipline demands and fosters students’ critical reading skills. Teachinghistory.org can help with that message as well as with providing classroom resources for developing those skills.
(Author's note: All names are pseudonyms.)
Faust, Drew, et al. "The Practice of History." Journal of American History 90: 2 (Sept. 2003): 576–611.
See this blog, “What is Historical Thinking” for links to features at Teachinghistory.org that provide relevant teaching resources and more detailed explanations of historical reading and writing.
For a taste of studies that investigate this literacy link, see this Research Brief about contextualizing texts, or this one about teaching historical writing. This study addressed middle-school learners and this one was done in an elementary classroom.
But don't limit yourself to these suggested resources alone. Explore Teachinghistory.org, and discover the many opportunities and strategies for historical thinking we have to offer.