Disciplinary Literacy in Social Studies and History


Disciplinary literacy (DL) in Social Studies uses reading, writing, speaking, listening, and performance skills to enhance social studies learning.

In the History classroom, the focus of disciplinary literacy is to teach students how to read and interpret historical texts, write and explain historical concepts, and think about issues and events from a historian’s perspective. For more information, see Disciplinary Literacy in Social Studies from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Thinking Like A Historian

The Thinking Like a Historian framework developed by Bobbie Malone and Nikki Mandell for the Wisconsin Historical Society offers a useful methodology for integrating disciplinary literacy into the Social Studies and History curriculum.

The Thinking Like a Historian approach revolves around the following key questions:

  • What questions do we ask of the past? How? What? Where? When? Why? Who?
  • How can we find out? How do we evaluate the evidence?
  • What matters? Why does it matter?

Thinking Like a Historian outlines five methods for analyzing and interpreting historical evidence. Here, we focus on three of these categories of inquiry: Change and Continuity, Turning Points, and Through Their Eyes.

Change and Continuity

Questions to consider
• What has changed?
• What has remained the same?
• Who has benefited from this change?
• Who has not benefited? And why?
Related activities
• Old Maps and New
• Main Street Then and Now

Turning Points

Questions to consider
• 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?

Through Their Eyes

Questions to consider
• 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?
Related activities
• Analyzing Photographs
• Thought Bubbles

How Do We Know?

The Stanford History Education Group’s objective is to teach students how to investigate historical questions by evaluating multiple perspectives and making historical claims. SHEG’s “Reading Like a Historian” curriculum outlines the following key concepts for historical inquiry: Evaluating Sources, Close Reading, and Corroboration.

Evaluating Sources

Key points
Students must be able to determine the credibility and trustworthiness of historical sources. According to Teachinghistory.org, students need explicit instruction on how to properly analyze primary sources by creating analytical questions and establishing thinking routines.
Questions to consider
● Are all historical sources equally trustworthy?
● What makes one account more trustworthy?
● How might the reliability of a historical document be affected by the circumstances under which it was created?

Close Reading

Key points
Students should be able to evaluate and analyze different sources written by various authors in various formats. To enhance close reading, Teachinghistory.org suggests that in order to support the claim-evidence connections that they made, students need to support their historical arguments with clear thesis statements.
Questions to consider
● What claims does the author make?
● What evidence does the author use to support those claims?
● How is this document supposed to make me feel?
● What words or phrases does the author use to convince me that he/she is right?
● What information does the author leave out?


Key points
Students should be able to consider details across various and multiple sources in order to discover points of agreement and disagreement. According to Teachinghistory.org, since textbooks tend to oversimplify historical stories, students should juxtapose a historical account with multiple additional sources.
Questions to consider
● What do other pieces of evidence communicate?
● Am I finding the same information everywhere?
● Am I finding different versions of the same story? Why might that be?
● Where else might I look to find out more information about the topic?
● What pieces of evidence are the most believable?

Related activity: The Novitiate Takeover

Material Culture as Historic Evidence

The Center for History and New Media’s World History Sources offers guidelines for unpacking and analyzing different types of primary sources, including material culture objects. “Material culture” encompasses the objects and artifacts created by human society — from coffee mugs to cathedrals. Students should learn how to perceive an object – understand what it is, when it was made, its function, and who made, owned, and/or used the object. For more information on this approach, see Daniel Waugh, Material Culture/Objects from CHNM.

Historians use objects to:

  • Analyze the relationship between an artifact and its society to subsequently understand its meaning
  • Perceive meaning in the social relationships between the makers and uses of the artifact·
  • Understand an artifact by looking at how it relates to what it represents, its aesthetic properties, and how it functions

Related activity: Packing a Traveler’s Trunk