Thinking Historically

Out of all school subjects, history (or social studies, if you prefer), seems to have a unique meaning of literacy. We have covered in class and in writings about how “literacy” is literally defined as to be able to read and write, but has many other meanings. We read that there are specialized literacy skills to each and every subject (Shanahan and Shanahan, 2008). While other subjects require students to understand how to work through issues or take things step by step, studying history calls for thinking completely different.

(Canada’s History)

Historians and history students always mention “thinking historically”, which in the simplest form means to take everything into account, especially when reading. Bias, background, other events in the time period, and significance and just some of an incredible amount of things that much be considered.

As the image above shows, literacy in the history discipline calls for not just being able to read, but also to interpret. Through this mindset, someone literate in history would be able to hear the same thing as someone historically illiterate and come to a completely different conclusion. One of the most obvious examples of this comes from a skill that many people (though some on Facebook lack) have today. This is taking the source of information into account. Some “news” stories today or “facts” from the past can be immediately disregarded if someone thinking historically KNOWS that the author is significantly bias one way or another or if they have an agenda. Though an extreme example, you wouldn’t trust a book entitled “Why You Should Love Everyone”, by Adolf Hitler, right?

(Link, H.M.)

The main reason literacy in the social studies field is that it requires so many components. That is not to say that other subjects are not equally difficult to fully comprehend (because they are), but is to say that history requires a broad range of thought processes in order to be successful. Another example of this understanding is complicated issues or controversial figures in history. One example of this is the perception of Christopher Columbus in the modern day United States. While it seems that much of the nation is becoming more aware of his true legacy, many Americans see him as a brave and heroic adventurer who stumbled upon the New World. We even somehow still have a federal holiday named in his honor (the reason for that holiday’s creation is another historically literate subject). Those that are literate in the subject of history would be aware, however, that his true legacy is horrible treatment of natives and genocide.

Another way to be historically literate is to be able to recognize, understand, and interpret primary and secondary sources. These are the foundation of historical learning because they are the most reliable information you can get. Of course, most would know that someone who witnessed the event is more reliable that someone just telling about the event in a newspaper, etc. Someone literate in history would understand the importance in relying on these types of sources and using as many primary sources (1st hand accounts) as they can get their hands on.

Since the practice of considering all factors that go into a reading, event, or subject is so broad, is it possible for some people to be more historically literate than other? I would say that the answer to that question is yes. This is not an insult to those who are not very literate in this way because it is a learned skill. Anyone can be good at it with practice and attention to detail. Thinking about more than what’s just on the surface becomes like second nature after enough time and is not too difficult to achieve.

In my future classroom, all students (ideally) will be literate in the traditional sense. I do not expect middle schools to understand how to be historically literate when they come to me, because it is a skill that is learned, rather than naturally acquired. I do hope, however, that I am able to guide my students and teach them to be historically literate. We have to read into things instead of just read them.

I want them to understand the context, bias, meaning, and significance of texts and news.

Being historically literate and thinking historically are essential in the world we live in today. We need to teach students to interpret and think for themselves. We all need to be able to separate fact from fiction and extreme bias from harsh realities. We all are historically literate one way or another, because in a way, it is common sense. Through practice, however, we can work towards using these skills.


Canada’s History. (n.d.). Historical Thinking Project [Digital image]. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from

Link, H. M. (n.d.). Historical Thinking Skills [Digital image]. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from

Shanahan, C., & Shanahan, T. (2008). Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1). Retrieved October 24, 2017.

Williams, K. (n.d.). Thinking Like a Historian [Digital image]. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from