Skip to main content

Educator’s Guide for Analyzing Historical Audiovisual Recordings  

Applying historical thinking to an audiovisual recording means a student can: describe its qualities (Encounter), understand its unique story (Investigate), and interpret its purpose and how it reflects the time in which it was made (Build). Students need many experiences examining audiovisual material to develop these historical thinking skills. Recordings should be brief, no more than a few minutes at most, to allow for repeated viewing and/or listening throughout the examination.   

The following framework guides all of the audiovisual examinations in this curriculum and can be used with any material. Not all questions need to be answered: choose appropriate ones for your audiovisual material and activity. When answering Investigate and Build questions, encourage students to provide evidence for their answers. 


Activate prior knowledge about recordings. What do students know about the history of recordings like this and how they are used?    

Become familiar with the recording. Encourage students to share what was most noticeable about the recording to engage schema. A certain voice or image? The quality of the recording? Background sounds? Such an activity helps students overcome any hesitancy they may have of working with historical audiovisual recordings. By providing their first impressions of the recording, students are encouraged to both look at it closely and later revise their views based on further investigation. Explain that going through the investigation will help them find evidence to support their thinking or prompt them to consider an enhanced or completely different conclusion.   

Understand the recording's structure. Before moving into the specific content and meaning of a recording, it is important for students to have a complete understanding of its structure. Ask students to write or dictate a description of what they see and/or hear. It is important for them to determine the elements of the recording. What type of recording is it? Are there multiple voices, and if so, how are they interacting? What kind of images are shown? Is music incorporated and if so, how? 


Support close observation of the recording. Develop students’ understanding that audiovisual recordings are created by specific people, for specific purposes. If supporting information is provided, encourage student to use it to answer the following questions. If the information is unavailable, brainstorm with students possible sources for the missing information.   

  • Title or caption. What information is shared through these? What questions do they raise?   
  • Date the recording. If this essential information is not provided in a title or caption, students must use their detective skills to see if they can establish the date the recording was made. Does the recording reference any specific events that could help narrow the range of possible dates? Are there other clues such as references to technology, lifestyles, or fashion that would indicate a certain era or decade in which the recording was made?   
  • Identify authorship. Again, if this essential information is not provided in a title or caption, students must use their detective skills to see if they can establish who made the recording. Although it may not be possible to find the name of the creator, students should be able to figure out something about who the creator is (e.g., an entertainer, a news reporter, a public figure, the man on the street, etc.).   

Purpose and Audience. Recordings can be used for all sorts of purposes such as to entertain, to inform, or to influence. The recording’s purpose will likely indicate its audience as well. For an additional challenge, discuss how purpose and audience can create bias and the difference between fact and opinion.    

Details. Continue using close-looking techniques to discover more details of the recording, which will help students understand the recording and the time it represents. 


Explore life then and now. If someone created this recording in a different time or today, how would it change? How would it stay the same? These questions help students understand continuity and change over time, as they explore facets of life that seem to be universal (e.g.,  commercials) and facets of life that seem to be products of their time (e.g., a public service announcement about an air raid drill).   

Reflect on the recording’s moment in time. Expand students’ comprehension of how the recording reflects the time in which it was created by combining everything learned previously in the activity. What does the recording teach us about the time in which it was made? Use focus questions for the unit or new questions developed by students to drive inquiry to connect the recording specifically to the objectives of the activity.   

Add to the story. Provide students with an opportunity to exercise their imaginations in regards to the recording, which will help them connect their own lives to the people of the past. This activity also allows students to place themselves in history, leading to greater engagement.