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Teaching Methods to Help Develop the Five Steps of Historical Thinking

It takes time to teach the skills necessary for historical thinking, but it is well worth the effort.  It is not necessary to teach all the skills at once, to analyze every aspect of every document, or to use a document in its entirety.  However, it often helps motivate students by showing them the entire historical document before providing them with an excerpt.  “Chunking” the document, or providing only one section of it at a time (this is easily done on a projector) reassures students when they are overwhelmed with the entire document and helps them to think about one aspect of the document at a time.  Photos, political cartoons, or broadsides are useful for practice in mini-lessons because often they have greater visual impact, require less instructional time, and are not so laden with difficult vocabulary and syntax.  The following teaching methods have proven to be useful:

1.  Identification

  • Help students to understand the vocabulary.  Either give them a prepared glossary of vocabulary terms in the document, or give them adequate time to look terms up in a dictionary.  Teach students the following strategies for approaching unfamiliar vocabulary:
    • Make sense of unfamiliar terms by examining context and using previous knowledge.  Don’t be quick to give students the definition of a term, let them try to figure it out by using surrounding text and other clues.
    • Determine which words are absolutely necessary to decode in order to make sense of the document and which words can be overlooked.  Discuss this with students – how can they figure out for themselves which words are important?
    • Model the process of working through unfamiliar vocabulary by doing a work-aloud – help them to understand that even adults do not immediately know what all words mean.
    • Allow students the opportunity to look up the words that are necessary for understanding the document.
  • Help students make sense of syntax by rewording phrasing so that they will understand.  Model how to approach unfamiliar vocabulary and syntax.  Put the document on a projector screen or interactive whiteboard and show students how you would approach the document for the first time – ask identification, reasoning and critical thinking questions out loud, ask questions that help make sense of context, vocabulary, or rephrase wording.  Let your students see your own thought processes.  After modeling, give students the opportunity to practice these skills, by asking them to simplify complex sentences and unconventional spelling. Sam Wineburg and Daisy Martin recommend changing vocabulary, editing, or even rearranging sentence sequences in order to render the document more accessible to struggling readers.  Font size can also be increased, and type can be “spread out” so that it is not so overwhelming for students to read.  It is important, however, to show students both the original document as well as the altered version so that students can see what was changed (2009).
  • Graphic organizers, such as charts, tables, and concept mind maps, are tools that that help students to identify and understand main ideas.  In a review of literacy strategies, the National Reading Panel noted over 28 research studies that supported the effectiveness of the use of graphic organizers in helping students to identify and understand relationships (NRP, 2000).   For example, you could ask students to fill in a t-chart with their own phrasing of critical points from the document.  
  • Provide students with scaffolding questions for complex documents, especially when they are first learning how to analyze documents.  Further structure their experience by helping them to develop their own critical thinking questions about the document.  Give them opportunities to share the questions they develop with the rest of the class.  Help them to make connections to the content by using group or class discussion, questioning, journaling, playacting, or debate. (Malkmus 2008).
  • Give students a chance to identify or analyze a document in cooperative groups.  One method that is useful for this type of analysis is the think-pair-share activity (Lyman 1981).  This strategy can be used for vocabulary review, evaluating for bias, placing document in historical context, agreeing/disagreeing with document perspective, or summarizing the meaning of the document.  Give students a defined task, and a set amount of time to study the document – this can vary from seconds to minutes, depending on how complex the task is.  Assign students a partner and give the partners time to discuss their own thinking with each other.  Then call on some of the groups to share their thinking with the class.
  • Another teaching method that works well with group analysis of documents is the jigsaw method (Aronson 1978).  To use this method, divide the class into cooperative groups (about 4-6 students in each group works best).  Start groups out in their “home station” while you introduce the topic and do a “What Do You Already Know About This” type of activity.  Then ask each student to go to a different assigned group, and give each of those groups a different primary source document to analyze.  The documents that are used for this activity should relate to each other, or the same topic/issue in history, but have various viewpoints or pieces of information, each with a “small piece” of the overall picture.  When the analysis piece is completed, students will go back to their original home group – and share what they have learned about the document they analyzed, and how it fits into the overall “big picture” or understanding of the topic.  The home group decides how the documents relate to each other as they develop theories, understandings, or conclusions about the topic.  During the last step, home groups share their conclusions in a class discussion.  For examples of primary source lesson plans that use this strategy and others, visit Smithsonian Source: Teaching American History.

2.  Understanding Historical Background – Help students to develop a sense of time and place and to understand the historical context of the era.

  • Use prepared or student-created timelines of events.
  • Historic novels are often useful in helping students develop a broader sense of the era.  Consider a multidisciplinary approach and work with an English or Language Arts teacher to design a unit of instruction incorporating a work of historical fiction.  For example, a unit could be constructed using the historical fiction book Sarah Bishop by Scott O’Dell, and the book can be linked with historical records that document the life of Bishop.  See page        .
  • Pose inquiry questions that help students to look at the bigger picture in history.  For example, help them to understand a photo of women suffragettes by asking them what life was like for women of that era.  How did they dress, how did they behave?  What was the role of women, what was expected of them and what was provided for them?  Some inquiry questions on background may need further investigation by the students.  Assist them as they develop researchable questions and find the answers for themselves.
  • Use the K-W-L technique (Ogle 1986).  Create a graphic organizer with three columns:  What I Already Know; What I Want/Need to Know; and What I Learned (from this document).  Give students a short historical background or have a class discussion to introduce the topic, and then ask them to fill in the first column on what they already know about the topic.  Ask them to read the document carefully (provide critical thinking questions) and fill in the second column for what they need to know to fully understand the document.  They may need to do some general reading or light research after this stage.  Finally, have them fill in the third column for what they have learned from studying the document and recheck the accuracy of what they wrote in the first column.  Ask how their thinking has changed.
  • Provide ample secondary sources that fully develop the historical background.  Picture books, magazine or newspaper articles (even advertisements), video documentaries or films, or graphs are very useful in this regard.  This is crucial to developing an appreciation for and understanding of how historical sources are used by historians and others to produce their own accounts of history (Barton 2005).

3.  Evaluating Point of View  Perspective  – Help students to identify the point of view of the author and to examine the motives for the creation of the document.  Historians refer to what they call the “bias rule,” which basically states that every source is biased because human beings will always bring their own perspective to whatever they create.  For this reason, the perception of the author must be examined, as well as their relationship to the historical event or issue.  Students need structured assistance in order to learn how to examine the motivations and perspectives of document authors, and to “understand how personal viewpoints can color interpretation” (Dutt-Doner, Cook-Cottone, Allen 2007).  This having been said, students need to understand that bias does not mean bigot.  They also need to consider how their own world-view and background shapes their attitudes towards the past.

  • Tell students the parable of the Blind Men and The Elephant (see         ) to help them understand that every person sees the world from their own viewpoint.  Emphasize that perspectives are influenced and limited by the environment in which you live and the experiences that you have had.
  • Give students practice identifying persuasive techniques, distinguishing fact and opinion and identifying bias.  Direct students to analyze information or statistics given in an advertisement, asking students what persuasive techniques are being used and how accurate the information is.  (Television commercials from the 50’s and 60’s are available at
  • If students have difficulty understanding point-of-view, provide political cartoons or editorials today’s newspaper, or from a blog, that characterize two different viewpoints about a current events issue, television show, or film.  Ask them to identify what the points of view are which are represented in the two items.  Which is the more persuasive, and why?  How credible is each, and why?  
  • After students have developed a sense of historical empathy as well as skepticism, give them a document with information that fully identifies the author and their role in history, the intended audience, and circumstances surrounding the creation of the document.  Have them fill in a graphic organizer that charts the language within the document in categories such as “strong language,” “argumentative,” “exaggeration,” “logical,” “faulty use of logic,” “emotional,” and “stating opinion as fact,”  Also ask students to reflect on what factors may limit the author’s reliability. Finally, students should make their own judgment as to how reliable the information in the document may be.

4.  Assessment Determining Reliability – Students will be able to analyze the document and determine its accuracy and worth as a historical record by comparing and contrasting it to other documents and/or secondary sources.
Provide students with documents with conflicting information or that each only present part of the story, such as British and American accounts of the Battle of Saratoga, to help them understand that understanding an historical event requires examination of multiple documents (Dutt-Koner, Cook-Cottone, Allen 2007).

  • Provide two documents with contrasting viewpoints and ask students to compare and contrast the perspectives (See suffrage lesson on page    ).   Have them fill in a t-chart, Venn diagram, or other graphic organizer. Ask students to evaluate which document they judge to be more reliable and why. 
  • Divide students into cooperative groups and give half of the groups a document that shows one perspective, and half a document with an opposing viewpoint.  Have students work through the various steps of analyzing a document.  Finally, have them prepare a 1-2 minute persuasive debate speech that would represent the view of the document they have been given, and give them time to debate the opposing perspectives in class.  
  • Emphasize to students that each historical record is only one slice of a whole, and that it takes the study of many records in order to create a full picture of history.

5.  Drawing Conclusions – Students will construct their own understanding of the historical issue or topic, synthesize (remix) the information, and create their own original interpretation of the historical data.  Students go beyond the mere restatement of historical fact, to an expression of its importance and meaning to today’s world.  Teach students about the work of real historians, who use source documents to create understanding regarding the historical event.  

  • Provide students with the following list of phrases that historians use in their work:
    • Experts believe…but my research leads to the conclusion that…
    • While some people think…actually, the research says…
    • I think that…because…
    • Careful study of the documents reveals that…
    • I agree with (name other historian or author) that…was important because (or disagree with them…)
    • It could be that…because…
    • One reason might be that…
    • I was surprised that…
    • Historians still disagree about…but I think that…
      Have students evaluate chosen documents and write one paragraph using any of the above phrases in their analysis of the document(s).
  • Ask students to respond to a document in the voice of a historical figure from the same (or a different) era.
  • Ask students to find issues from today’s world that may be similar to the event that is represented through historical records, and to write a news article for today’s audience about the comparison.
  • Students often stop their thinking by simply rephrasing a fact.  Encourage them to think deeper by playing devil’s advocate when they merely restate a historical fact – ask “So What” questions, and teach them to ask each other “So What?”  For example, “Teddy Roosevelt was concerned with conservation.”  So what?  “He believed that conservation was a national duty.”  So what?  “Because of his leadership, the national government has continued to be involved in conservation and has…(specific facts)…”  This technique is also useful in helping students to develop a historical thesis statement.
  • Students enjoy the chance to be creative and expressive and this may be employed to motivate them to dig deeper with their analysis.  Give students the opportunity to create a project (see Authentic Assessment on p.          ) that represents their own understanding of the historical issue while incorporating facts obtained from the document(s).  Arrange to provide students with an audience – a real output for their work that makes it authentic.  For example, allow students to assume the role of teachers as they create and present their own (interactive) lesson to the rest of the class or younger students.