Historical Literacy in Action

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Last year, my colleague Julianna was searching for strategies to help her students read and interpret complex primary documents.  I developed a lesson emphasizing ways to monitor comprehension and make inferences. Although the lesson focused on good reading behaviors, it completely flopped. That happened for a few reasons, but one that is becoming more obvious to me is that each discipline has a specific set of literacies.

Although content-area reading strategies like visualizing, summarizing, and determining importance obviously support readers in most texts, disciplinary literacy practices are essential for comprehending complex texts at the secondary level and beyond. I have been revisiting a book that examines the unique literacy practices of different disciplines. I highly recommend you order a copy of (Re)Imagining Content-Area Literacy Instruction.

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Julianna and I regrouped this year. Part of our plan was to explore some of the ideas about historical literacies in this book. We began to learn more about which literacy strategies we should use with her American History Students that best support them examining and making sense of historical documents.

Five literacy strategies regularly practiced by historians were utilized by the students in our lesson: sourcing, observation-making, inference-making, contextualization, and corroboration.

We decided to model sourcing, observation-making, and inference-making with two short excerpts of historical texts. Then students examined four more texts (using the strategy sequence we modeled) in small groups. After the students had examined and discussed the texts, they summarized what they had learned about the effects of the French and Indian War.

Sourcing

“Sourcing is the use of text’s source to comprehend and evaluate its content” (Nokes, 2010). As we modeled document-reading strategies, I noticed the expert way that Julianna brought students’ attention to sourcing. The first text we modeled was a diary excerpt from a soldier fighting for the British. Julianna pointed out how the dates of the entries were midway through the French-Indian war. The second text was from George Washington early in the war. Because of the authors’ levels of bias as well as the time period they wrote the texts, we could see how perspectives of the war shifted over time. I came to new understandings about how soldiers felt demeaned (even enslaved, actually) at the midpoint of the war. I also was enlightened to understand that Washington’s inclinations toward gaining expert military knowledge that would benefit him later on.

Observation-Making

Observation-making is noting what tangible evidence can be seen, whether that is citing text or describing non-print texts. Students spent time reading primary documents, maps, and political cartoons. Afterwards, they discussed word, phrases, and details about each artifact that revealed insights into the French and Indian War.

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Inference-Making

Inference-making is using textual or observational evidence in combination with other knowledge (contextual, background, etc.) to draw conclusions about a topic. Once students made notes about what they could observe about each document, they used contextual knowledge that Julianna had previously taught to make inferences about each text. For example, many students discussed how the colonies could be a dangerous adversary if they would work as one in this famous “Join, or Die” political cartoon created by Ben Franklin.

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Contextualization

“Contextualization in an effort to comprehend and evaluate documents with the geographic, political, historical, and cultural context of their creation in mind” (Nokes, 2010).  Although contextualization was not one of the literacies we modeled, students used context to discuss the texts with one another. For example, students made inferences about how the cultural perspective of Pontiac,  the Ottowa war chief, in a speech examining why his brethren should deny the vices of the British.

Corroboration

Corroboration entails making connections between information found in texts, with contradictions and similarities being noted” (Nokes, 2010). When the students summarized their new insights into the effects of the French-Indian War, they looked for patterns among the texts.  Looking for similarities helped students’ arrive at more solid understandings of the war while also better understanding unique perspective and biases among the texts.

So…

We were extremely satisfied with how the students engaged in historical literacies, and Julianna replicated the strategy with her AP class later in the day.

Disciplinary literacy matters to students’ engagement and mastery in the subject. Strategies that are too general may sometimes be inappropriate for supporting disciplinary concepts, so it is essential that content-area teachers and literacy specialist collaborate to identify disciplinary literacies and develop strategies to support their development.

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