Teaching Historical Literacy in the Middle Grades

As students enter the middle grades, they often encounter curricula that grow more challenging each year. This is especially the case in social studies when students experience primary documents and complex texts, sometimes with limited background knowledge. To help them address these challenges, social studies teachers can emphasize “historical literacy,” the ability to read, write, and create historical interpretations of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources (Nokes, 2010). Historical literacy is one subcategory of disciplinary literacy—the ways in which a member of a discipline reads, writes, and thinks about texts (Draper, Broomhead, Jensen, Nokes, & Siebert, 2010; Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). This idea of teaching discipline-specific practices is not the same thing as content area reading where generic reading comprehension, writing, and vocabulary strategies are infused into content area classrooms. Rather, the purpose of disciplinary literacy pedagogy in history and other content areas is to teach students how to read, write, and navigate across multiple texts of a particular discipline (Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Using disciplinary literacy practices in the middle level classroom empowers students to become active citizens and serves as a motivational tool for learning history (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013). Thus middle level teachers would benefit from implementing a disciplinary literacy and inquiry-based approach within their history instruction (Goldman, et.al, 2016; Spires, Kerkoff, & Graham, 2016).

Tenets of This We Believe addressed:

  • Curriculum that is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant
  • Students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning
  • Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches

The notion of teaching historical literacy skills in the classroom is not a new one. Throughout the history of the field of social studies, educators have debated the purpose of teaching social studies—social education or teaching discipline-specific practices (Evans, 2004). In the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century, the focus was a discipline-specific curriculum and traditional history (Evans, 2004). In the 1920s, educators saw an emergence of progressive education and a curricular focus on social problems and issues, reconstructing social studies. The focus on discipline-specific curriculum reemerged in the 1950s due to the Cold War and a return to emphasis on academic study (Evans, 2004). In the 1960s, Jerome Bruner (1960) and Joseph Schwab (1962) promoted teaching the structures of the discipline—those authentic disciplinary practices used in the real world used by members of the discipline.

In the 1990s, after the release of the Bradley Commission on Historical Literacy (Gagnon & The Bradley Commission, 1989) and the National Commission on Social Studies (1989), educators saw a revival of traditional history (Evans, 2004). In the current high-stakes, accountability-focused environment, this idea of teaching discipline-specific practices in social studies classrooms continues to be prevalent in preparing students to function in the world and be productive, active citizens (Goldberg, 2011). Goudvis and Harvey (2012) noted, “Memorizing facts and birth-date deaths without learning about the time period, the people themselves, and the challenges they faced dumbs down history. It limits young people’s understanding of their role as citizens in a democratic society” (p. 52). This overall trend toward using authentic documents to teach social studies makes historical literacy more important than ever.

As students progress from lower elementary (grades K–3) to middle level (grades 4–8), their reading becomes more complex (Allington, 2002; Moje, 2008; Snow & Biancarosa, 2003). In history class, students need to be able to read and understand complex, historical texts, including both primary and secondary sources. The ability to decode and comprehend advanced texts is the first step in historical understanding (VanSledright, 2012). History is interpretative, and students must be able to evaluate the source of the document, examine possible biases and perspectives, and look across texts through corroboration (Gifford, 2011).

On the heels of the Common Core State Standards (NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010), the International Reading Association (2012) released an updated position statement on adolescent literacy, further emphasizing the notion of text complexity, discipline-specific practices, and access to an array of texts, including both print and non-print. The updated principles are:

  1. Adolescents deserve content area teachers who provide instruction in the multiple literacy strategies needed to meet the demands of the specific discipline.
  2. Adolescents deserve a culture of literacy in their schools and a systematic and comprehensive programmatic approach to increasing literacy achievement.
  3. Adolescents deserve access to and instruction with multimodal, multiple texts.
  4. Adolescents deserve differentiated literacy instruction specific to their individual needs.
  5. Adolescents deserve opportunities to participate in oral communication when they engage in literacy activities.
  6. Adolescents deserve opportunities to use literacy in pursuit of civic engagement.
  7. Adolescents deserve assessments that highlight their strengths and challenges.
  8. Adolescents deserve access to a wide variety of print and non-print materials. (p. 5–12)

Thus, as concluded by Marchand-Martella, Martella, Modderman, Petersen, and Pan (2013),”For students to be prepared for twenty-first century higher education and employment opportunities, literacy skills need to be explicitly taught throughout the adolescent years” (p. 162).

History Texts and Critical Thinking

History texts such as primary sources and secondary sources provide a context for students to learn critical reading skills such as comparing, contrasting, and higher order thinking (Bain, 2006; Dunn, 2000). Reading primary source documents can elicit an emotional response from readers (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001). Using texts with embedded primary sources in them creates opportunities for development of historical thinking and critical reading. For these experience to be meaningful, teachers must model the process for the students and provide support (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001).

In an exploratory, qualitative study, VanSledright and Kelly (1998) examined the implications of using multiple texts in a social studies class with upper elementary students. VanSledright and Kelly spent three days a week observing American history over a six-month period. They took field notes on three different units. They asked the teacher to complete a questionnaire on his view of history, the importance of using alternative texts, and how “students might reconcile differences in accounts they read” (p. 244). Toward the end of the study, they interviewed six students. Based on their data, the authors offered two suggestions to orient students towards using and critiquing multiple sources of information. The first was to teach students strategies historians use when examining text. Their second recommendation was to transform the view of history in the classroom—teaching students that history is interpretive and not objective. To accomplish these recommendations, students must understand that no history account is objective because there is always interpretation. Unlike other subjects, such as science, students cannot go back and observe the historical event again as they could in reproducing a science experiment. The only way to figure out what happened in the past is to interpret multiple sources from the past. Historians and students must rely on the documents provided from various perspectives to form a shared understanding of what occurred. As VanSledright and Kelly (1998) noted:

[We need to view] history as a set of representations of the past authored by persons who are telling stories employing different frameworks, making different assumptions, and relaying varying subtexts” [instead of] “the idea that history can be understood as an objective, fact-based account that mirrors the “real” past. (p. 261)

Strategies for Teaching Historical Thinking Skills

To extend these insights, VanSledright (2002a, 2002b) conducted a researcher-practitioner design experiment where he taught a fifth grade history class for a semester. From his analysis of his extensive lesson plans, videotaped lessons, field notes, and journal, he concluded that class discussion provides a forum for students to share their interpretations and receive feedback from the teacher and peers, similar to what a historian does when composing a manuscript (Dickinson & Lee, 1984; Doppen, 2000; Leinhardt, Stainton, Virji, & Odoroff, 1994). Three activities that help students improve their contextualized thinking were providing background knowledge, asking guiding questions, and teacher modeling of the contextualized thinking process (Reisman & Wineburg, 2008). Along with contextualization, the teacher can instruct students on sourcing and corroboration (Wineburg, 1991a; Wineburg, 1991b).

Strategies for Implementing Primary and Secondary Sources

Students’ historical understanding can be improved if they are exposed to a variety of texts (e.g., primary and secondary sources) in the social studies classroom (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001; Bain, 2005; VanSledright 1996). However, as found by Stahl, Hynd, Britton, McNish, and Bosquet (1996), in order for students to fully benefit from examining multiple primary source documents, students must be instructed on how to corroborate across sources and how to implement varying perspectives into their writing. In their qualitative study, Stahl et al. (1996) investigated two classes of Advanced Placement United States History. They collected multiple data sources: a background questionnaire, a prior knowledge writing task on students’ knowledge of the Vietnam War, a Gulf of Tonkin relationship task, and a variety of texts on the Vietnam War. Stahl et al. (1996) concluded, “The disciplinary knowledge of history, or the ability to think as a historian […] may need to be directly taught” (p. 446). When students move from the textbook to primary and secondary source documents, they confront texts that are more complex. These complex texts require different structures and processes than narrative text (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001; Britt, Rouet, Georgi, & Perfetti, 1994). Thus, students must be scaffolded on how to evaluate a source or multiple sources (Bain, 2005; Britt et al.1994; Stahl et al., 1996).

Students should be taught how to source a text (e.g., who wrote the primary source) and examine the author’s perspective (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001; Lee, 2005). In addition, students need to learn the difference between “record,” a source that tells something about an event, process, or state of affairs (e.g., a newspaper clipping) versus a “relic,” a source not intended to tell us what happened (e.g., a coin) as well as the difference between intentional and unintentional evidence (Lee, 2005).

Strategies for Historical Writing

Students who learn strategies for historical writing, such as historical reasoning and argumentative writing, demonstrate mastery of the targeted strategies, thus producing more accurate and persuasive essays (De La Paz, 2005; Monte-Sano 2006). These strategies can support the development of complex writing skills (Young & Leinhardt, 1998). Modeled and explicit instruction assist students in writing argumentative essays (De Laz Paz, 2005; Felton & Herko, 2004; Monte-Sano, 2010, 2008a, 2008b, 2006). Students who receive instruction on how to write historically tend to write better argumentative essays than those who do not receive explicit instruction (De La Paz, 2005; Monte-Sano, 2010, 2008a, 2008b, 2006). In addition, students who receive specific feedback on their annotations and historical writing show greater development in their analyses over time (Monte-Sano, 2008a, 2008b, 2006). When given modeled instruction and scaffolding through the inquiry process, students can learn how to think historically, evaluate primary sources, and write historical arguments.


Middle level teachers can engage young adolescents through the use of historical disciplinary strategies while incorporating multiple historical sources. Attention to historical literacy instruction will empower young citizens, especially when teachers systematically assess their students’ level of understanding, as well as accurately model and scaffold the development of complex literacy skills that form the basis for critical thinking and argumentative writing/expression. Discipline-specific strategies for critically exploring multiple historical text sources heighten middle level students’ ability to participate in a community and culture while providing the students with curriculum that is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant. Through these multiple learning and teaching approaches, students and teachers are more engaged in active, purposeful learning. In these ways, historical literacy incorporation is essential and necessary to meet the educational needs of the young adolescent.


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Annotated Resources

Goldman, S. R., Britt, M. A., Brown, W., Cribb, G., George, M., Greenleaf, C., Lee, C. D., Shanahan, C., & Project READi. (2016). Disciplinary literacies and learning to read for understanding: A conceptual framework for disciplinary literacy. Educational Psychologist, 51(2), 219–246. doi:10.1080/00461520.2016.1168741

After a meta-analysis on reading and inquiry from disciplinary fields, Goldman and her colleagues offered an explanation of the influences of reading within the discipline and how goals within the discipline are saturated with content literacy components and core constructs of disciplinary reading. Goldman and her colleagues identified the core reading constructs within the disciplinary fields of literature, history, and science. The researchers provided an analysis of how the constructs of reading are built within the disciplines framework and how reading instruction is developed within the learning goals of each discipline. Goldman and her colleagues identified common indicators of reading within the disciplines: interpretation, strategic inquiry, ongoing conceptual knowledge while progressing through the literature, multiple text structures, and a set structure of language. Understanding the common indicators and core constructs of the disciplinary fields can heighten the instructional fortitude of the educators within the discipline.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2015). Disciplinary literacy comes to middle school. Voices from the Middle, 22(3), 10–13.

Shanahan and Shanahan offer a practitioner explanation of the purpose and necessity for disciplinary literacy within middle level education with the push for teachers in English and other content areas to teach literacy. The authors give an analysis of disciplinary literacy standards and offer teachers a comparison of content literacy and disciplinary literacy. Shanahan and Shanahan delve even further into providing teacher resources to help teachers continue to read and explore the topic of disciplinary literacy integration in the content areas.

Spires, H. A., Kerkhoff, S. N., & Graham, A. C. K. (2016). Disciplinary literacy and inquiry: Teaching for deeper content learning. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 60(2), 151–161. Doi: 10.1002/jaal577

Spires and colleagues, through a practitioner format, analyze the relationships between project-based inquiry and literacy learning within the primary disciplinary fields of a mathematician, historian, scientist, and literary critic and how these fields are taught within a project-based inquiry setting. Based on comparison, each disciplinary professional asks inquiry-based questions and publishes findings in similar ways; however, each field gathers and analyzes sources, synthesizes their finds, and evaluates and revises using different literacy constructs. These disciplinary specific literacy constructs can be developed within the disciplinary classroom using project-based inquiry, offering students more opportunity to develop their ability to critically think using disciplinary literacy discourse.

VanSledright, B. (2002). Confronting history’s interpretive paradox while teaching fifth graders to investigate the past. American Educational Research Journal, 39(4), 1089–1115.

Based on reforms of history standards, VanSledright offers a detailed perspective of teaching historical investigation and thinking using his fifth grade class. The framework of history’s “interpretive paradox” opens a new lens of how connections are generated using reality and interpretation of historical events by questioning and analyzing primary and secondary sources. The author offers researchers and practitioners detailed historical literacy strategies and thought processes to question the perspectives of history. VanSledright provides this perspective to assist teachers in understanding the dilemmas with historical interpretation and help defy history’s interpretive paradox.

Recommended Resources

1) National History Education Clearinghouse: Historical Thinking http://teachinghistory.org/historical-thinking-intro

This resource helps teachers better understand historical thinking and the uses of primary resources within instructional practices. Researchers and teachers can access best practices within the discipline and teaching materials to support historical disciplinary literacy integration.

2) Stanford History Education Group website: http://sheg.stanford.edu

This resource provides teachers with another strategy for historical thinking within instructional practices. Access to reading like a historian, assessment resources, lesson plan support, and research publications are provided for further support.

3) https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/teaching-tips-that-work

This resource provides teachers with the visual example of how to integrate literacy within the history classroom.

Author Information

Stephanie M. Bennett, PhD, is an assistant professor of content-area and disciplinary literacy education at Mississippi State University. She holds a master’s degree in reading education from the University of South Florida and a PhD in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in literacy studies from the University of South Florida. Her specific interests are pre-service and in-service teachers’ beliefs about content-area and disciplinary literacy instruction, middle level literacy teacher education, and teacher visioning.

Jennifer Stepp Sanders, EdS, is an instructor of content-area and disciplinary literacy education at Mississippi State University. She is also a sixth grade teacher currently in Rankin County School District in Mississippi. She holds a master’s degree in elementary education from Belhaven University, a specialist degree in educational leadership at Mississippi College, and is currently working on a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction at Mississippi State University. Her specific interests are content-area and disciplinary literacy instruction, technology integration, and middle level teacher education.


Bennett, S. M., & Sanders, J. S. (2016). Research summary: Teaching historical literacy in the middle grades. Retrieved [date] from http://www.amle.org/Publications/ResearchSummary/TabId/622

Published January 2017.


  1. Even though this was about a Social Studies classroom, I can definitely still use some of these ideas for my own English classroom one day!

  2. As a future Social Studies educator, I have been looking deeper into this topic and how I want to apply it to my future classroom. I think that I have learned from a variety of resources like this one, that some of the best comprehensions happens through classroom discussion. A lot of my philosophies surrounding social studies education revolves around inquiry learning, and I think pairing that with guided classroom discussion is a great way to break down large texts.

  3. When it comes to literacy in the classroom, it is essential that you look at all readings/writings in the context of which they were written. This context may help you realize that there is always a perspective to historical writings. The key for students in social studies classrooms is to be able to sort between the variety of sources and find narrative threads that match, that they can then take as fact or apply to their already existing knowledge. This article does a great job of illustrating that Social Studies has a hard task of being relatively unviewable. You cannot watch history right when it happens pre-1910’s because most video only dates back that far. It up to us as educators to illustrate and piece together this information for our students.