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Content-Area Literacy: History

Carnegie Corporation of New York

The ability to read historical documents including contemporary explications about societal, economic and political issues provides a direct link to literacy as preparation for citizenship.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.

On this page:

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

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.

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.

“A House Divided” Speech by Abraham Lincoln

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.

Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.”A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Have we no tendency to the latter condition?

Let any one who doubts, carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combination — piece of machinery so to speak — compounded of the Nebraska doctrine, and the Dred Scott decision. Let him consider not only what work the machinery is adapted to do, and how well adapted; but also, let him study the history of its construction, and trace, if he can, or rather fail, if he can, to trace the evidence of design and concert of action, among its chief architects, from the beginning.

Questions We Hope Students Pose

  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?

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(opens in a new window). New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York.