Recognizing and Addressing the Barriers to Adolescents’ “Reading Like Historians”

historical thinking

I believe that every History teacher should read Professor Jeffery Nokes’ well-written paper on “Recognizing and Addressing the Barriers to Adolescents’
“Reading Like Historians”. He makes a very strong argument for creating a learning and questioning culture that is more like the actual discipline of History, rather than just uncritically rote learning and accepting what is in a textbook. Nokes’ research is firmly rooted in real classroom practice, which makes it all the more powerful and easier to apply practically.

Below you will find my highlighted sections and summary of the article. There is also a very clear overview table that lists the four barriers to “Reading like a Historian” and some suggestions as to how to overcome these barriers.

Some resources:

Introduction to Historical Thinking and Adolescents

  • In recent years, there has been a growing body of research investigating how historians read, how children and adolescents read historical materials, and how teachers attempt to help adolescents read like historians.
  • Historians, unlike students, are unusually skillful readers employing several heuristics to construct meaning with multiple sources
  • Historians demonstrate reading processes that literacy advocates desire for adolescents, including the ability to comprehend multiple genres and modes of text, analyze and interpret text content, synthesize information from multiple texts, and evaluate and use the things they read. thus, educators have an interest in helping students read like historians.
  • There is much evidence that students rarely engage in sophisticated reading processes in secondary history classes.
  • Some researchers contend that the overuse of the history textbook limits opportunities for students to read like historians.
  • Research on cognitive processes shows that all individuals, expert and novice alike, have limited cognitive resources at their disposal at any given time. Researchers refer to the cognitive resources with which an individual can devote conscious attention as “working memory.” They suggest that an individual’s working memory is surprisingly limited.
  • Difficult cognitive tasks, such as synthesizing information from multiple challenging texts, can overload an individual’s cognitive resources. But, with practice, some processes become automatic and no longer occupy working memory.
  • History teachers must remain aware of the cognitive load that historical reading and reasoning places on students.
  • Cognitive constructivists contend that an individual’s background knowledge profoundly influences the way texts are comprehended and the things he or she learns from educational experiences.
  • One’s experiences create the lens through which he or she understands history—a lens that is shaped and colored by current world conditions, personal interests, and modern values. Thus, any interpretation of the past, including that developed by historians, history teachers, and history students, is heavily influenced by present conditions
  • Socio­ cultural theorists suggest that learning is facilitated through nurturing social interactions. Vygotsky argued that learning takes place within a “zone of proximal development (ZPD),” which includes activities that an individual can only accomplish with social support. A more experienced person (e.g., a parent, teacher, big sister) provides temporary support, labeled “scaffolding,” and gradually removes support as the learner gains the ability to engage in an activity independently. Thus, a history teacher must design activities within the students’ ZPD and gradually remove scaffolding as students become increasingly proficient.
  • Being literate involves multiple literacies, or abilities to decode and comprehend various formats of texts using varied techniques. These techniques include strategies, intentionally employed cognitive steps that facilitate literate engagement with texts; heuristics, habits of mind and rules of thumb, less structured than strategies but used for the same purposes; and skills, strategies that are employed without conscious thought.
  • Techniques that are often heuristics for historians may become strategies for students as teachers formalize thinking processes and break heuristics down into stages or steps.
  • These patterns suggest that there are at least four barriers to students’ability to read like historians:
    1. analyzing historical documents taxes students’ cognitive resources beyond their bounds;
    2. students have limited historical background knowledge and misapply the background knowledge they have;
    3. students tend to hold unsophisticated views of the world; and
    4. students have a false sense of what it means to study history.
      Each of these notions will be discussed along with instructional interventions that may help students overcome each barrier.

Barrier 1: High Demands on Students’ Cognitive Resources

  • Wineburg contends “historical thinking, in its deepest forms, is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development. Its achievement…actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think.
  • Historical thinking is cognitively challenging. The difficulty of reading primary sources stems, in part, from unfamiliar vocabulary, historical changes in writing conventions, sloppily written or age-damaged documents, the evolving meanings of words, and unfamiliarity with the context of a document’s creation.
  • For many students, comprehending the literal meaning of a historical text is a major achievement. When comprehension consumes students’ limited working memory, there are few cognitive resources left for demanding tasks such as analyzing the source of the text or corroborating information across texts.
  • This may account for why students often take information in texts at face value rather than think critically about the information; literal comprehension exhausts working memory.
  • This may also account for why students tend to appreciate textbook accounts, which are typically written near the students’ reading level using modern vocabulary and familiar writing conventions.
  • Students may have to work to remember what to think about when sourcing (e.g., what type of document they are reading, who the author was, how the author was involved in the activity, when the document was produced, who the intended audience was, and what the author’s potential biases might have been) as well as to engage in the actual sourcing.
  • Focusing on these questions might detract from their ability to comprehend the document rather than facilitate their comprehension.
  • In addition, historical analysis involves the synthesis of information from multiple texts. Historians instinctively corroborate information across texts looking for similarities and differences. Students who may struggle to analyze the content of a single text are unlikely to have the cognitive resources to synthesize information across multiple sources.
  • The following research-based instructional interventions can be used to a) eliminate comprehension of texts as a barrier to deep historical analysis, b) help students become familiar with strategies and eventually employ them automatically, and c) provide scaffolding as students work with multiple texts.

Eliminating Comprehension Problems as a Barrier

  • Use of simple texts, when available, can allow students to devote their working memory to strategy use and analysis rather than to basic decoding (i.e., recognizing letters and forming words and sentences) and comprehension (i.e., understanding the literal meaning). As students’ ability to engage in historical analysis increases, the difficulty level of texts can gradually increase.
  • Teachers should pre-teach unfamiliar vocabulary.
  • This is not to suggest that students should never experience the process of attempting to decipher the words from an original manuscript, an exciting part of historical research. Instead, it is a reminder to teachers that students who must work hard to decode a barely-legible text will have fewer cognitive resources remaining with which to think deeply about it.
  • The teacher can have them work in reciprocal teaching groups, an instructional intervention that has been shown to improve students’ comprehension in a variety of settings.
  • In reciprocal teaching, a student leads a group of peers as they read out loud a passage from a text and then work together to clarify, summarize, ask and answer questions, and make predictions.
  • Teachers, then, must provide significant support for students when strategies are new so that students’ working memory is not overloaded
  • Steps for students’ historical inquiry: “dig up evidence, check sources, check the reliability of the sources, judge the importance of each piece of evidence, build an idea of what happened, and make an argument for what happened.”
  • A teacher should model the desired thought processes for students.
  • Additionally, students need numerous, regular opportunities to engage in historical reasoning so that strategies become automatic and attention can be shifted from engaging in strategies to constructing evidence-based interpretations of events. As students begin to demonstrate competence in strategic thinking, teachers should remove the scaffolding (e.g., take down posters, make students create their own graphic organizers), allowing students to become more independent. Teachers must never lose sight of the goal, which is not students’use of strategies, but students’independent ability to engage in sophisticated historical reading, reasoning, and communicating.

Providing Scaffolding for Students Work with Multiple Texts

  • Historical reading and reasoning further taxes students’ cognitive capacities by requiring them to construct an understanding from multiple texts. Several instructional interventions have been developed that provide support for students as they work with multiple, fragmentary, contradictory texts.
  • Students read a text and wrote a brief summary. They read a second text and wrote a summary that synthesized information from both texts. This process of reading a new text and writing progressively longer and more complex summaries continued through a series of documents, culminating in the writing of a summary that was intended to synthesize across all of the texts.
  • In a similar instructional strategy, called the evolving concept lesson model, students were given a graphic organizer with a place to record source information and independent summaries of multiple texts. Students worked together to list similarities and differences between the content of each text. The students were also given a place to record their opinion on a controversial topic after reading each text, and were allowed to change their opinion as their understanding of the event evolved. The record that students kept on the study guide allowed them to move back and forth between the documents and to observe their evolving interpretation of the event.
  • The Inquiry chart (I-chart) is another instructional method intended to support students’ analysis of multiple texts. the I-chart is a matrix that provides a place for students to record the characteristics and content of multiple resources that are related to an inquiry topic. This chart facilitates direct comparisons across texts.
  • In summary, the common features of instructional interventions that have been shown to help students work with multiple texts are a) the inclusion of a study guide that allows students to keep a written record of each document, b) opportunities to reflect on each document independently and in connection with other texts, and c) interaction with peers or the teacher as understanding is constructed.

Barrier 2: Limited or Misapplied Background Knowledge

  • As historians study documents, they place themselves in the context of the document’s creation. they are able to imagine the physical, social, historical, and linguistic context of the production of the document. This contextualization helps them comprehend and interpret a document’s content.
  • Contextualization often requires a great deal of background knowledge about the geography, time period, personalities, values, and trends of the era being studied.
  • Contextualization poses a particular challenge for students.
  • Students’ limited background knowledge prevented them from engaging in contextualization.
  • A related problem is students’misapplication of background knowledge.
  • Background knowledge plays an important role in the way readers construct meaning with texts
  • Adolescents’ modern world is often drastically different from that of the time periods that they study in history classes. Viewing the past through the lens of the present often results in the misinterpretation of historical events, a phenomenon that Wineburg called “presentism.”
  • Materials that are commonly used in history classrooms do not facilitate the development of extensive background knowledge. Textbooks, which provide few details of any single event, do not enrich students’background knowledge sufficiently for them to appreciate the foreignness of past times and distant places.
  • Teachers can supplement or replace textbooks with detail-rich historical fiction and primary source materials. Advocates of the use of historical fiction contend that it promotes historical empathy and perspective taking, concepts that are closely related to contextualization. Well-researched and well-written, detail-rich historical fiction may create a better understanding of the geography, culture, values, fashions, and trends that are the settings for historical events.
  • History teachers feel pressure to “cover the core.” One way to satisfy the core curriculum requirements and allow for in-depth study is by using case studies that illustrate important historical concepts—using “very small amounts of content to tackle big ideas.”

Helping Students Overcome Presentism

  • Research has shown that students enter history classrooms with prior conceptions and misconceptions, none of which is more threatening to historical reasoning than the tendency to project today’s value, culture, and world on the past. One way teachers can combat this tendency is to engage students in discussions that explicitly promote historical empathy, the ability to see the world through the eyes of historical people.
  • Additionally, teachers can prepare refutational texts that directly challenge students’assumptions about the past as has been done to confront misconceptions in other fields, most notably science.

Barrier 3: Unsophisticated Worldviews

  • Adolescents’often exhibit unsophisticated worldviews.
  • Dualism. Students have a tendency to view the world in absolutes of good or bad, viewing questions as having one right answer and problems having one correct solution.
  • Students have a tendency to engage in intellectual re­ ductionism, replacing historical complexity with oversimplification.
  • Students also have a tendency to lump people from the past into broad categories regardless of their uniqueness or distance from specific events.
  • Researchers have concluded that students inappropriately employ universalized rather than contextualized thinking, ignoring some of the significant yet subtle distinctions in historical interpretations. Oversimplification in issues of agency, and failure to make distinctions between trends and events are a few examples of students’ reductionist thinking.
  • A third tendency of secondary history students is toward authoritarianism, or an uncritical dependence on authority for their understanding of the past.
  • One of the great ironies of history classrooms is that secondary students, who by nature tend to resist authority, often willingly submit to their teachers’ and textbooks’ historical interpretations without question.
  • As described above, research has shown that history students place great confidence in objective sounding textbooks. they uncritically accept the information in the documents that they read. They do not filter the information they find on bogus websites.
  • Secondary students take a positivist epistemological stance, a theory of knowledge that suggests that humans can perceive an objective reality. Positivism is based on the belief that perceptions are value-free, an idea that conflicts with the work of historians who recognize that different individuals can perceive the same event differently and, as a result, often leave drastically different accounts.
  • Historians, keeping in mind the point of view and biases of authors, use imperfect accounts to develop historical interpretations. On the other hand, students face contradictory accounts with frustration, or with unsophisticated explanations.
  • Interestingly, when students’ positivist stance is questioned, they sometimes resort to “vicious relativism.” Lee describes students, when exposed to the notion of historical interpretation, throwing their hands up in frustration and developing the attitude that since people view the world from different perspectives, each individual is entitled to his or her own interpretation of history, all equally valid. Since the past cannot be reconstructed with exact certainty, any interpretation of it must be accepted.

Including Historical Controversies

  • Levstick and Barton argue that “the desire to avoid controversy leads to one of the most serious weaknesses in the discussion of history—the refusal to admit that all history is interpretive.” History is full of controversies, about which historians disagree. However, the history that is often pre­sented to students through textbook narratives and lectures is void of the kinds of controversies that are central in historical inquiry.
  • Students are typically given a straight-forward list of facts to be remembered. Is it any wonder that popular culture mocks history classrooms as being extremely boring,
  • Including controversy in history classrooms not only increases interest, but is likely to confront students’ unsophisticated views of the world. The teacher’s seeming omniscience as content authority is eliminated when he or she introduces a controversial historical interpretation without advocating a side and allows students to develop their own evidence-based interpretations.
  • It should be pointed out that students, when faced with a controversy, may still perceive the answer in simplistic, dualistic terms.
  • Admitting Uncertainty “the historical record is more often incomplete than contradictory.”
  • Historians are often required, by a lack of evidence, to fill in gaps in the record with reasoned speculation. Historians acknowledge the tentative nature of historical interpretations and are willing to update understandings as new evidence surfaces or as old evidence is understood in new ways.
  • One of the worst flaws of history textbooks is that they often present speculation and interpretations of events as if they were facts.
  • Textbooks and teachers often form an authoritative frontline that students cannot breach.
  • Teachers can help break down this barrier by admitting uncertainty, by pointing out to students when textbooks include theories or hypotheses presented as objective facts, by providing conflicting sources of information, and by teaching students to “question the author” of various texts.
  • Ashby and his colleagues recommend that teachers not provide too much evidence too soon. Instead, they suggest that teachers interrogate students concerning their text-based interpretations, help students recognize the need for more evidence, and then help students gather the evidence that is needed to develop greater certainty.
  • Reconsidering Assessments changes in classroom practice are unlikely to fully confront dualism, intellectual reductionism, authoritarianism, positivism, or vicious relativism if teachers exclusively use traditional assessments that measure students’ factual knowledge. Traditional tests give the impression that learning history is a matter of remembering facts, that the teacher and course materials are unquestionable authorities, and that there is always a single correct answer.
  • Instead, teachers should assess students’ understanding of events through open-ended questions that allow expressions of substantiated opinions. This type of speaking and writing more accurately reflects the work of historians as they develop a hypothesis and marshal evidence.
  • In summary, the materials that a teacher uses, and the way he or she teaches, talks, and assesses can help students overcome the unsophisticated worldviews of dualism, reductionism, authoritarianism, and positivism/relativism, which form a barrier to students’ reading like historians.

Barrier 4: A False Sense of the Discipline of History

  • History, as it has traditionally been taught, is unique among all other secondary subject areas in the disparity between the behaviors of those who are in the field—historians—and those who are in the classroom—history students.
  • History students often view history as “the past” rather than as interpretations of the past.
  • Historians question every source, accept nothing at face value, marshal evidence to support every claim, and recognize the personal biases that shape and give life to historical ideas. they are active participants in not only the learning of history, but in its very creation.
  • Students do not have an accurate conception of the work of historians, viewing them as archivists rather than constructors of historical meaning.
  • They believe that historical understanding is transmitted rather than constructed.
  • They fail to recognize the distinction between history and the past—that history is not the past, but individuals’ interpretations of the past.
  • Students believe that historical thinking is passive rather than active. Instead of viewing their role as one of questioning, interpreting, hypothesizing, and supporting a point of view, they view their role as one of listening, reading, and remembering.
  • Students fail to understand that the multiple perspectives from which individuals perceive the world create many versions of history, all competing for acceptance. Students are accustomed to the textbook narrative and the teacher version, which might be very similar.
  • Non-traditional Instructional Methods secondary history classrooms are dominated by lecture, textbook readings, or other instructional “activities” that are intended to transmit information to students. Instead, teachers should regularly use activities that encourage students to build their own understanding of the past. Such activities should allow opportunities for students to disagree, debate, and discuss historical controversy.
  • Taught students to “question the author” when reading textbook passages.
  • Students were encouraged to imagine an interaction with the author and to determine how successful the author had been in helping them understand the content of the text.
  • Other instructional interventions such as cooperative learning and reciprocal teaching can promote a more active engagement with historical ideas, more accurately reflecting the active nature of historical analysis.
  • In addition, history teachers should give students the opportunity to engage in authentic historical inquiry.
  • Students are unlikely to develop an accurate understanding of the nature of the discipline of history unless they work with the kinds of texts with which historians work—primary source documents, artifacts, and secondary sources that contain controversial interpretations.
  • In a series of studies, Wiley and Voss found that students read historical documents differently than they read textbook accounts. students instinctively became more critical.
  • One of the keys to overcoming students’ false sense of the discipline of history is exposure to multiple historical texts on a regular basis.
  • This is not to say that the textbook has no place in a history classroom. Instead, the textbook should be considered a source rather than the source of information, subject to the same critical review as any other source.


  • History provides an appropriate context for the teaching of historical reading and reasoning—the type of thinking that historians employ. However, such thinking is not natural to students. There are several barriers to students’ reading like historians. Research is helping identify these barriers as well as means of potentially overcoming them.

 Overview of Barriers, Causes and Interventions



Barrier Causes Possible Instructional Interventions
1: High demands on students’ cognitive resources • Basic comprehension challenges • choose simple texts• Preteach vocabulary• Adapt texts to fit students’ levels • Provide legible transcripts • Form reciprocal teaching groups
• Unfamiliarity with historians’ heuristics • Provide reminders through posters/bookmarks • Provide graphic organizers • Model thinking processes • Allow repeated practice
• the challenge of synthesizing across multiple texts • Provide graphic organizers • Allow students to reflect on each text independently and in connection with other texts • Allow group analysis
2: Limited or mis-applied background knowledge • Limited background knowledge • supplement textbooks with detail-rich historical fiction • Provide primary sources • Immerse students in illustrative case studies
• Misapplied background knowledge • explicitly teach historical empathy • Use refutational texts that confront assumptions
3: simplistic views of the world • Dualism, intellectual reductionism, authoritarianism, positivism or vicious relativism • Include controversies • encourage independent, evidenced-based interpretations • Admit uncertainty • Model tentative acceptance of interpretations • Redesign assessments
4: A false sense of the discipline of history • Misunderstandings of the role of historians • Give explicit instruction on the work of historians
• View history as transmitted rather than actively constructed • engage students in history labs • encourage students to conduct authentic historical inquiries
• Accept the official textbook narrative as the only narrative • Provide alternative sources from multiple perspectives • Use the textbook as one of many sources, subject to critique

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