History: It’s Not Just About The Facts Anymore

Hello everyone and hope you are having a wonderful October so far. So much has happened since my last post and just want to wish everyone well as the trick or treaters quickly approach. Don’t forget to get your candy! No one likes a scrooge.

The last time I wrote to you all I was explaining what my view of literacy was. Now that I have walked you through literacy and how its more than being able to read and write, I would like to talk to you about this thing called discourse literacy. What is discourse literacy? Well its actually probably something that you participate in on a regular basis and just have not labeled it before. My hope for anyone who reads this is that they will understand the importance of the different literacy discourses and how to teach the skills needed for appropriately analyzing history.

Let me give you a fun example of what being literate in a discourse looks like. We all have that “dramatic” friend in our lives… we have to that is what makes our sometimes boring lives a little more interesting. I want you to think about who that person is and think about the last text conversation or face to face encounter you had with them. There likely was some exchanging of words and then you made meaning of those words. If they are known to exaggerate then you probably took everything they said with a grain of salt knowing that is likely not exactly how it went down, but hey… they entertained you with their life drama so let’s not call them out on white lies.

Reading between the lines and asking questions is a piece of what discourse literacy is. In schools this would be broken down into the different subject content you are learning about and could even be broken down into their different friend groups and teachers. We cannot just jump straight into discourse literacy. We have to teach and address the basic literacy skills in order for students to advance into the discourse literacy. So you could argue the basic literacy skills are the most important because they are the foundation for all of the other literacy skills that we want to be able to teach our students.

Here is an easy breakdown of what I am referring to:

So, what would it look like to be considered literate in history as a discourse? There are many requirements of someone who is examining text in history that vary from say a fictional novel in an English class. Unless you are a history buff a lot of what you read in history is not for pleasure. It is not full of symbolism, metaphors, and romance. If we want to teach our students how to become literate in a history discourse they need to be able to critically analyze what they are reading by asking some of the following questions. Who is the author? What biases might the author have based on what we know about them? This may require doing research on the author to get a better understanding of his perspective. When was this source created? What biases do we bring into the source from our own backgrounds? Think about this for a second, when you are reading these young adult fiction books and you decide which guy you want the girl to fall in love with you read the rest of the book with that bias of the character you want her to end up with and are overly critical of everything the “other” guy does.


All jokes aside it’s alright when we do this reading a fictional narrative, but think about how often this happens when we are reading historical narratives. Think about how much learning we are missing out on due to our biases and not asking these essential questions to prepared ourselves to the type of text we are engaging in.

“… they [Historians] were keenly aware that they were reading an interpretation of historical events and not “Truth.”” — (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008)

I want to go back to the pyramid again for a moment. Once we master the basic skills of literacy we can all engage in historical text, but those who have mastered the discourse literacy within history will get the most out of what they are reading. This is because they have prepared themselves for the reading. This does not mean that they will not still battle when reading articles that conflict with their previous beliefs, but they should be able to pull some context from an article if they read it within the framework I have detailed.

“Students believe that they are reading to learn “the facts” and fail to take into account potential bias unless they are explicitly taught to do so” — (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008)

What we are really asking of or students is to think, be vigilant, ask questions as you read things in history or just current events in the news. According to Plaut, “These students are doing more than just recalling facts. They are engaged in inquiry” (2009). Inquiry is what we are all after as teachers. If we cannot get our students curious about a topic, then they are never going to move into their own inquiry and wonder that launches them on a quest to learn about something. There is so much information that is floating around now days that we need to question them and that is where genuine learning can take place. I am not saying we need to treat everything as “fake news”, but we should be critically analyzing news and history because there are several perspectives on any one issue. Once students begin to understand the complexities of a history and the multiple perspectives hopefully they can begin to explore events that they are interested in a learn about them in a way they never have before.

By sparking curiosity and inquiry we are also including the students in the process rather than just being a source spewing out knowledge. This is what should be striving towards according to Plaut, “When students feel involved, they are more motivated to actually go to class” (2009).

I would like to leave you with this short video that explains how we can build inquiry skills in our students and also how important the history discourse is in being able to participate in this type of inquiry learning.


Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescence: Rethinking Content Area Literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), spring.

Plaut, S. (2009). The right to literacy in secondary schools: Creating a culture of thinking. New York: Teachers College Press.

Images tagged “Team Peeta vs. Team Gale”. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://orig00.deviantart.net/8afd/f/2013/151/c/a/team_peeta_vs_team_gale_by_jackfrostteampeeta1-d67cc49.jpg

Images tagged “Question Everything”. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.azquotes.com/picture-quotes/quote-question-everything-learn-something-answer-nothing-euripides-9-13-07.jpg

Inquiry skills in the study of History 5 E’s (2012, Feb. 19). Video Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJUi3uMT0VI