All About Adolescent Literacy

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Content-Area Literacy: History

The ability to read historical documents including contemporary explications about societal, economic and political issues provides a direct link to literacy as preparation for citizenship. As in the other disciplines, schools are unique sites for youth across class and ethnic boundaries to learn to read such documents and to develop the skills to engage in such reading for college and career success.

Reading like an historian

Historians view primary source documents about events of the past as partial, representing particular points of view and positioning. Primary source documents in history may include political documents, legal documents, newspaper articles, letters, diaries, first- and second-hand documents of events such as minutes, published proceedings, etc. and other archival data including artistic representations (paintings and drawings, film, digital images, photographs, cartoons). In examining primary source documents, historians ask themselves about the kind of document it is and, how the document came into being. They examine word choice and what information is included and excluded. They seek corroboration across multiple sources. They assume such texts have subtexts that reflect the authors' points of view, access to the experiences about which they write, and how the text is organized to appeal to what audience. In contrast, schools typically socialize students into seeing history as a simple chronology of events and the explanations of social, political and economic phenomena offered in texts as a truthful and unexamined master narrative.

The challenge of using primary sources

To illustrate some of the challenges of reading primary source documents in history, the following is an excerpt from Lincoln's speech, "A House Divided." This is the kind of document a 12th grader in U.S. schools should be familiar with and able to understand. The document is important, perhaps even more so than the "Gettysburg Address" by Lincoln because it poses political and ethical dilemmas with which we still struggle. We can easily identify current political speeches made by political candidates, in the Congress of the U.S. and by senior members of our government's administration that focus on similar issues and that employ similar rhetorical techniques to persuade audiences.

The following are examples of discipline-based questions that a good reader might pose while reading "A House Divided."

  1. What kind of speech is this? What self-interests might one expect from this kind of speech?
  2. Who is the audience? How is the text crafted to address this audience?
  3. What words and phrases used by Lincoln would have had a different meaning/connotation in 1858?
  4. What knowledge is presumed that a reader of that era would already know (particularly a member of the audience for whom the speech was drafted)?
  5. Are there any contradictions or tensions between knowledge Lincoln presumes and knowledge from other historical documents about similar topics or events?
  6. What can we infer about Lincoln's motives and biases? What inferences does he make about the motives and biases of others, such as Stephen Douglas? How might the reader evaluate Lincoln's critique of Douglas and others, in light of the reader's prior knowledge and the availability of other historical sources?
  7. What is the overall text structure of the document? What are the notices within the text that signal its structure?

Despite reform efforts advocated by the National Council for the Social Studies, the default experience of most students is to learn history through the reading of history textbooks. While learning how to read, including how to critique — textbook representations of historical, political and economic events and issues — is important for success in high school, research has documented that textbooks may actually be difficult to understand. Typically, we think of textbooks as being easier to comprehend than primary source documents. This may be true at one level if ones uses readability formulas as the measure of difficulty, but these texts may also not provide sufficient detail for students to build an understanding of concepts.

Teaching students to read as historians

More and less competent adolescent readers will continue to struggle with both textbooks as well as primary source documents until explicit attention to text features, prior knowledge, vocabulary, comprehension monitoring and processes become routine practices in classrooms where students are expected to read in order to learn.

Potential sources of reading difficulty and many more can be detected ahead of time by a content area teacher who is also well versed in what a reader needs to know to understand content area texts, including primary source documents. In fact, we would argue that history teachers are much better positioned to analyze these sources of difficulty we have described in these primary source documents than those typically teaching generic remedial reading courses in high schools. History teachers are also more likely to understand the ways in which helping students to pay attention to and make sense of these kinds of text difficulties are intimately linked to history reasoning and content. The sources of difficulty we have described are not unique to these particular documents, but are recurrent, certainly in primary source documents in history and the social studies.

While the focus has been primarily on reading in high school, there is evidence of effective use of primary source documents in elementary level history class. Strategies for tackling recurrent problems of reading can be taught; and teaching them in the content of discipline-specific explorations involving the analysis of multiple documents can enhance content learning. Learning to read in discipline specific ways does not need to interfere with learning content. Quite the reverse. It is possible to integrate reading instruction in content area courses that accomplish two important ends: (1) meet the needs of students with an array of reading abilities simultaneously and (2) teach all students to reason in the complex ways that the disciplines require.

Lee, C.D. and Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the disciplines: The challenges of adolescent literacy. New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Content area teachers are in a better position to identify and address reading difficulties. These teachers can give better background context with vocabulary and history, which would help set up the student for success by reaffirming the strategies that were taught in the content of discipline-specific explorations involving the analysis of multiple documents to enhance content learning.
Posted by: Isaac  |  April 12, 2012 09:53 PM
This txt challenges readers to understand the authors. Intent, the readers must be able to decipher the txt, then reader must be able to comprehend the purpose, tone and position of the authors idea of the txt. This txt lends itself to idea of time, place and position of the views that where spoke. During that time.
Posted by: Rod D  |  January 06, 2014 12:40 PM
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