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Educator’s Guide for Analyzing Historical Documents

Applying historical thinking to a document means a student can: decode its basic elements (Encounter), understand its unique story (Investigate), and interpret its content to show how it reflects the time in which it was created (Build). Students need frequent experiences with historic documents to develop these skills. 

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

Encounter 

Activate prior knowledge about documents. Engage background knowledge and schema about documents. Discuss the many types of documents that exist and how students may encounter documents in their daily lives. 

Become familiar with the document. Encourage students to describe the document in detail. Such an activity helps students overcome any hesitancy they may have of working with historical documents. By providing their first impressions of the document, 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. 

Reading a document carefully is important for analysis. If the document is challenging, consider working in small groups for collaboration. Encourage students to look up unfamiliar words and to ask questions about unfamiliar phrases. Providing guiding questions for students and summarizing together will aid in comprehension. 


Investigate

Support close looking at documents by finding and interpreting document features. Practice locating and thinking about these essential features of documents. Note that not all documents will contain all features. 

  • Title or caption. What information is shared through these? What questions do they raise? 

  • Date the document. 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 document was written with internal clues. Is a historical event mentioned? Is there language could help narrow the range of possible dates the document was written?

  • 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 wrote the document. Although it may not be possible to find the name of the author, students should be able to figure out something about who the author is (e.g., a mill girl, a soldier, etc.). 

Purpose and Audience. Documents can be used for all sorts of purposes. The document’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 document, which will help students understand the document and the time it represents better. 
 

Build

Explore life then and now. If someone wrote this document 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., a child writing to a parent) and facets of life that seem to be products of their time (e.g., a contract for an apprenticeship or a list of the items included in a woman’s dowry). 

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

Add to the story. Provide students with an opportunity to exercise their imaginations in regards to the document, 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.