teacherHistorical Inquiry & Informational Reading

Reading about and understanding history is critical in the digital age. Students need to understand that regardless of whether you're investigation something that took place 200 years ago or 2 minutes ago, you need to ask: who wrote this and published this? can the document be trusted? what's the perspective? what are we missing? what's the context?

Wineburg, Martin, and Monte-Sano (2012, ix) state that "historians have developed powerful ways of reading that allow them to see patterns, make sense of contradictions, and formulate reasoned interpretations when others get lost in the forest of detail and throw up their hands in frustration."

The Reading Like a Historian approach includes four parts

  1. Central historical question
  2. Background information
  3. Historical documents (2-5 primary source materials - use a mix of documents)
  4. Discussion

Question: Why did the Homestead strike of 1892 turn violent?
Background Information: key terms, timeline of events, cultural context
Documents: Emma Goldman autobiography, newspaper interview with Henry Frick

Students need exposure to a range of text genres. Reading primary source documents provides students will history-specific reading skills. Students need skills to be able to read historical documents. Students struggle with understanding the basic meaning of primary source texts.

Students are asked to

Historical Inquiry and Informational Reading

Nancy Boyles (2013, 36) notes that students in all ages and subject areas need skills in close reading. She describes close reading as "reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension." She suggests three practices that can be applied to all ages:

Nokes, Dole, and Hacker (2007) found that instruction with multiple documents had a significant effect of student content retention and sourcing. For instance, students might read and compare multiple North American Slave Narratives.

Cognitive modeling and apprenticeship involves a gradual shift in responsibility from the teacher to the student. The teacher includes explicit instruction, guided practice and group work, and independent practice.

Historical Inquiry and Informational Reading

Let's explore four ways of reading historically: sourcing, contextualizing, close reading, and corroborating (Wineburg, 1991; Wineburg, Marton & Monte-Sano, 2012).

Sourcing. Examines the document's attribution including the author and the circumstances of document creation. Who created the document, when was it created, and why was it created?

Contextualizing. Place the document and events reported in a specific time and place.

Close Reading. Read carefully to determine what a source says and the language used to say it. Identify the central ideas and supporting details.

Corroborating. Check important details across multiple sources to identify points of agreement and disagreement.

Others have expanded this approach to historical inquiry to include additional elements. For instance, SCIM-C includes five broad phases:

Explore some examples of SCIM-C in action: Demo 1, Demo 2, Demo 3

Reading and Historical Inquiry

Build information reading activities around the historical inquiry categories Mandell and Malone (2008) identified:

Cause and effect. We explore questions about causes and consequences of past events through forming stories.
Who or what made change happened?
Who supported change?
Who did not support change?
Which effects were intended?
Which effects were accidental?
How did events affect people's lives, community, and the world?

Change and continuity. We explore questions about what has changed and remained the same over time. These questions connect events and provide a sense of chronological sequence.
What has changed?
Who has benefited from this change and why?
Who has not benefited from this change and why?

Turning points. We study the historical record to determine what events or developments dramatically changed the course of society.
How did past decisions or actions affect future choices?
How did decisions or actions narrow or eliminate choices for people?
How did decisions or actions significantly transform people's lives?

Using the past. We explore events to seek guidance for the present and future.
How is the past similar to the present?
How is the past different from the present?
What can we learn from the past?

Through their eyes. We explore people from different times, places, and conditions to see how individual experiences, needs, and views affected their actions.
How did people in the past view their world?
How did their worldview affect their choices and actions?
What values, skills and forms of knowledge did people need to succeed?


Differentiation is essential when working with informational reading experiences using primary source documents. It's important to consider the range of needs in your classroom. While some students have the analysis and reading skills to excel with complex documents, others may need support. Even if you plan to provide support, be sure to provide access to the complete, original document for those who don't need scaffolds.

Students need to learn how to read documents. To do this, they need guided reading experiences and scaffolds to support reading. For instance, The West the Railroads Made provides lots of background information and a variety of materials to study. The Library of Congress and NARA's DocsTeach teaching materials have lots of ideas and resources.

Scaffolding Reading. One option is to modified documents along with the original.

Resources to Foster Historical Reading

General Resources


Informational Reading & Historical Fiction Resources

Book, article, website, and other types of reading can play an important role in the social studies classroom. Consider some of the following options:

Let's explore nonfiction, graphic books, and historical fiction in social studies.

spy books


Global Studies

History: General History

History: General Topics

Ancient Civilizations to 1000


History: 1000s to 1600

History: 1600-1700s

History: Early 1800s

History: Civil War

History: Late 1800s

History: Early 1900s

History: Great Depression and WWII

History: 1950s to Present

History: African American Studies

History: Native American Studies

History: Asian American Studies

History: Health, Epidemics & Ethics

History: Disasters

Try It!
Discuss ways that you currently use nonfiction reading resources in your class. How could you expand informational reading opportunities?

Nonfiction Reading

With the Common Core Standards, there's increasing interest in the use of nonfiction books and other informational reading experiences.

Dear Miss Breed. Share the true story of a librarian who stayed in touch with her young patrons while they were at the Japanese Internment Camps during WWII. Read the book Dear Miss Breed and explore the primary sources at the website at the Japanese American Museum in California including the Clara Breed Collection. Combine secondary sources with primary sources.

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from the State Hospital Attic. Share the true stories of the long lost suitcases found in an attic. You can read the stories and explore the primary sources online or read the book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Explore the real-world of medical ethics and an amazing true story. Trace the history of advances based on Henrietta's cells. Use this book to jumpstart interest in other medical stories through history.

Seek out books with both an adult version and youth adaptation:

The University of California - Davis maintains a wonderful blog called The History Project filled with primary source examples. For the blog, containing primary sources and matching nonfiction works, go to The History Project Blog.

Graphic Nonfiction

Yes, they're comics. Sometimes they're extremely accurate and sometimes they're not. Use them to help students analyze information, collect evidence and make decisions. Get started by analyzing Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of... series.

Journey into Mohawk Country. Compare the Journey into Mohawk Country by George O-Connor graphic nonfiction with the original journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van de Bogaert. Read a New York Times article.

Involve students in focused assignments that ask them to keep primary sources that support or refute the facts presented in the book. Use Laika by Nick Abazis for this type of activity.

Students often begin by exploring library and online resources. When guiding graphic inquiries remind students about the use of visual resources such as photo collections, atlas, artwork, and illustrated books. Consider the wide range of graphic resources that might provide different perspectives on a subject. For instance, use The Center for Cartoon Studies graphic histories on topics such as Satchel Paige and Houdini.


Read engaging works of nonfiction such as the wonderful graphic history The Hammer and the Anvil by Dwight Jon Zimmerman. Ask students to judge the accuracy by verifying and expanding the information found in the work. Do the visuals convey accurate representations? Compare visuals to historical photos. Ask students to use primary sources to defend their arguments. Then, create your own comparison. How as BLANK like/unlike BLANK?

Make connections with graphic nonfiction:

Graphic Novels

Graphic novels serve as a great starting point to explore historical and contemporary issues.

Pride of Baghdad. After reading the graphic novel focusing on the zoo in Baghdad, students take the perspective of a person, place, or thing to write their own graphic novel.

The Arrival. After reading the illustrated historical fantasy, students compare the book with historical photos then create their own graphic novel. Students contribute to chapters related to an immigration story.


Berlin. Read a two books dealing with life in Berlin between the World Wars.

Shooting War. Explore contemporary topics through reading Shooting War on paper or as an online comic.

War Brothers. Explore the issue of today's child soldiers with two versions of War Brothers: text version and graphic novel.

Historical Fiction

Historical novels help students create a context for exploring important concepts such as movement, change, continuity, and time.

According to Mallett (2010), "historical novels help readers to reflect on human relationships and the human condition and how events and circumstances can affect these. The best stretch the imagination by showing us the lives of people in earlier times and, in the process, illuminate life in our own times."

Historical fiction is often very closely connected with historical fact. Involve students in exploring this fine line. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is an award-winning novel set during World War II. Reading the book makes students wonder about the many women who participated as pilots and spies during the way. Use Wikipedia to locate the people and external links to learn more about them.

Murder in the Adirondacks. Let's say you and your class are reading A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly or An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Both books explore a 1906 murder in the Adirondacks of northern New York. The books will stimulate many questions about the time period and the historical events portrayed in the book. Was there really a murder? Were there really love letters? Internet provides a great tool to quickly quench the thirst for information about the actual event. For example, you can read the location the court case, and love letters online. You can view photographs of the real people. Donnelly's website even has information.

Thematic Approach. Compare Civil War novels set in different areas of the US by participating in wikis and literature circles. Read historical novels set during the Great Depression. What was life like during this time? Compare experiences.

Uprising. Read historical novels such as Uprising and use Google Tools to locate primary sources.

Primary Sources

Focus on the unusual or interesting. Analyze what was happening on the homefront during the Civil War.

Focus on primary source that combine text and images. Analyze a Harrison-Cleveland Campaign platform poster.

Use digital libraries that make use of several collections. Spend some time exploring:

Try It!
Examine a work of nonfiction designed specifically for children or young adults. How are primary sources used in this book? Are the primary sources complete or provided as excerpts? Are links to the original sources provided? How might books be used as part of classroom instruction or student assignments?

The Common Core Standards and Informational Reading

Let's explore Common Core Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies:

Textual Evidence

Explore the following Common Core Standards:

Activity Ideas

Mine quality online textbooks for sets of evidence students can read and accompanying assignments.

The Digital History Reader provides background information, primary sources, assignments, and assessment for a dozen topics in United States and European History.

Central Ideas

Explore the following Common Core Standards:

Students are often so concerned about reading the text and answering the questions that they forget to STOP and think about the most vital, most important, and basic reasons for the text. Use my STOP approach to get them thinking:

Activity Ideas

Seek out sets of documents that students can read such as trials. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey provides texts of trials in London's Central Criminal Court from 1674 to 1913. The website contains lots of materials to help teach students about reading trials. For instance, read a set of 18th Century Women on Trial for Infanticide.

Cause and Effect

Explore the following Common Core Standards:

Activity Ideas

Use historical museum and historical society lessons. Search specifically for lessons that stress "cause and effect". For instance, the Washington State History Museum has many lesson plans that use primary sources. Cause and Effect: Students Examine an Artist's Perspective uses a series of artwork, maps, and legal documents to understand the causes and effects of treaties on Indians. Interactive like the Instant Transcriber helps students examine documents up-close.


Meaning of Words

Explore the following Common Core Standards:

Activity Ideas

When exploring documents, use a Visual Thesaurus like Visuwords and Lexipedia as an alternative to traditional print thesaurus to help students think about the words used in the document. Visual Thesaurus is the best, but required a subscription.

Text Structure

Explore the following Common Core Standards:

Activity Ideas

A story was told by Private John G. Burnett reflecting on his experiences as a soldier on the Trail of Tears. It was each retold by Johnny Cash: Part 1 and Part 2. Read the story. It's a good example of chronology in a primary source, but is it true? The oral history aspect is true, however the contents of the story may not be accurate.

High school students should read "Cherokee Emigration: Reconstructing Reality," by Lathel F. Duffield, (Fall 2002), 8(3), 314-347 and Coleman Creek Trail of Tears Park. You can read an article that the proceedings of the Trail of Tears Association.

Author's Point of View

Explore the following Common Core Standards:

Activity Ideas

This standard is a great opportunity to discuss the history of advertising.


Media and Graphic Inquiry

Explore the following Common Core Standards:

Activity Ideas

Explore Presidents through the media representations. The American Presidency Project has media on many of the presidents. Read the transcript, then watch or listen to the media. How does the media impact your understanding of the event?

Evidence and Arguments

Explore the following Common Core Standards:

Activity Ideas

Encourage students to move from moral arguments to historical subjectivity arguments (Reisman, 2011). Provide examples and work toward higher level arguments. Ask students to analyze both the arguments in primary sources and their own arguments.

Ask students to analyze Supreme Court decisions. Use Oyez Project for ideas. Look at their "deep dives" on topics like Same-Sex Marriage.

Reisman's Levels of Arguments


Explore the following Common Core Standards:

Activity Ideas

In the lesson "How to Write an Inaugural Address" students analyze addresses (Inaugural Addresses) and learn about their components. Explore Lincoln's Second Inaugural and examine an interactive timeline of his speeches. Look for themes and how they are reflected in other primary source documents of the times.


Text Complexity

Explore the following Common Core Standards:

Activity Ideas

Encourage students to read on their own and reach beyond course requirements. Focus on Transcendentism through Popular Culture.

Try It!
In small groups, explore a work of graphic nonfiction. How could this book (or a portion of it) be used to address one of the Common Core standards?

Locating Readings and Lessons

How do you locate quality readings and lessons? Do a search for a standard and add the word lesson. You'll be amazed how many resources you'll find.

Google Books

Spend some time exploring Google Books for short passages from nonfiction books, graphic nonfiction, and historical fiction. Search for popular nonfiction authors for youth such as Russell Freedman, Tanya Lee Stone, Jim Murphy, and Doreen Rappaport.

Seek out short stories, articles, interview, and other short collections. For instance Soldiers, Survivors, and Storytellers Talk about War edited by Marc Aronson and Patty Campbell have lots of short segments that would work well for class.

Nonfiction Book Selection

How do you select quality nonfiction?

Seek award winning books

Do a search for reading lists. For instance, the Edsitement Recommend Reading List for College-bound Students.

Use the following questions as a guide for evaluating informational reading books.








Involve students in evaluating nonfiction books.

Make it Meaningful

Help place students in a particular place and time through photographs and primary sources.

Youth Through History


Boyles, Nancy (Janaury 2013). Closing in on Close Reading. Educational Leadership, 70(4), 36-41.

Nokes, J.D., Dole, J. & Hacker, D.J. (2007). Teaching high school students to use heuristics while reading historical texts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(3), 492-504.

Reisman, Avishag (2011). Reading Like a Historian: A Document-based History Curriculum Intervention in Urban High Schools. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=lemrFwTB-VMC

Wilhelm, Jeffrey, Baker, Tanya, Hackett, & Dube, Julie (2001). Strategic Reading: Guiding Students to lifelong literacy, 6-12.

Wilhelm, Jeffrey (2001). Improving Comprehension with Think-aloud Strategies. Scholastic.

Wilhelm, Jeffrey (2002). Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension. Scholastic. Preview: http://books.google.com/books?id=skU9zjddriQC

Wilhelm, Jeffrey (2007). Engaging Readers and Writers with Iinquiry. Scholastic. Preview: http://books.google.com/books?id=-f4lAQAAIAAJ

Wineburg, Sam (Winter 1999). Historical Thinking and Other UnNatural Acts. Phi Delta Kappan.

Wineburg, Sam & Martin, Daisy (Sept 2004). Reading and Rewriting History. Educational Leadership. Available: http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el200409_wineburg.pdf

Wineburg, Samuel S., Martin, Daisy, Monte-Sano, Chauncey (2012). Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classes. Teachers College Press.

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