I argued in this space, back on 1/21/19, that our students will read better if we teach them what question (or questions) they’re trying to answer when they read. That’s the right way, it seems to me, for us to think about “purpose” in reading. In History class, we read to scratch an itch called curiosity. Name the question that captures the curiosity, find sources that address the question, and then start reading for the purpose of answering that question.

That advice is radically insufficient, of course. The debate about whether or not Social Studies teachers are responsible for literacy instruction is, fortunately, over and done. We teach reading. The debate about how we should teach reading, on the other hand, is in full swing. Jon has been busy recommending Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered to anyone who will listen, and rightly so. Meanwhile, the go-to source on reading advice for people who teach middle and high school history is Sam Wineburg’s Stanford History Education Group.

For those of you who haven’t seen or used the SHEG site, its centerpiece is its “Reading Like a Historian” section, and the centerpiece of that section is its articulation of four Historical Reading Skills associated with reading and interpreting documents: sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, and close reading. For each of those skills, SHEG provides questions for students designed to illustrate the skill and to prompt students to exercise it. (The site also has history lessons and assessments and now a section on civics and media literacy. You have to create an account to access materials, but it’s free.)

SHEG Aims at Question One

The problem is that SHEG has lots to say about how to read, but too little about why. If these are the rules for reading like a historian, what question or questions does the historian hope to answer, exactly? You know our questions: they’re what we’re all about at 4QM. Our purpose, when we read, is to answer some content-specific versions of our Four Questions. So what exactly does SHEG aim at?

If you look carefully at SHEG’s reading categories and questions, you’ll see that the majority of the sub-questions, and the entire “corroboration” category, are about using documents to establish a reliable account of some historical event. In other words, the implicit question drives SHEG reading skills is our Question One: What happened? SHEG’s early blockbuster lesson sample, on establishing what actually happened at Lexington Green in April 1775, corroborates (!) my hunch that “doing” primary history — establishing a reliable account of what happened — is what SHEG takes as the purpose of reading in history class.

That’s fair enough, if you’re training researchers or journalists. But in elementary and secondary school, most of our learning about what happened, both for teachers and students, comes from tertiary and, less often, secondary sources. There are good reading strategies for tackling those texts, but they don’t look much like what SHEG recommends. In any case, though it can be a cool one-off activity to show students how History Professors do their work, that’s hardly the main point of what we do. It’s downright weird to presume that the purpose of reading in schools is to train kids for work in the archives. (What we do is way more important that what professional researchers do, though I’ll reserve judgment about professional journalists.)

SHEG wants our students to read primary sources. Fair enough; so do we. But since SHEG’s reading protocols are so driven by Question One — establishing what happened — they often amount to an exercise in what Paul Ricoeur called the hermeneutics of suspicion. They want kids to be wary of getting duped by tendentious testimony or ideology. The result is palpable in classrooms that hew closely to the SHEG model. The upshot of most SHEG reading lessons is that authors have perspectives and biases. Yes, they do. In fact, we don’t even need to read to know that. Heck, if that were the main point I got from the reading in a class I were taking, I’d save myself the trouble.

Read Primary Sources For Question Two

Here’s another, better possibility: we read primary sources in order to answer Question Two: What were they thinking? We do that not because we’re at pains to get an accurate account of an event, but precisely because we want to see the world from someone else’s point of view.

In our classes, and in the vast majority of the many history classes we’ve observed in our own and other schools, that’s in fact what teachers and students are doing. We use documents to try to figure out what actors from other times and places had in mind when they expressed themselves in ways we can retrieve and curate for students. We read to meet other minds.

Jon and I have developed our own framework for reading primary sources. Ours is designed explicitly for the purpose of answering Question Two. For what it’s worth, we think that it suits what real teachers and their students do with texts much better than the SHEG framework does. First, locate the document in the narrative of the unit and lesson. Story first! We’re reading Lincoln speeches because we’re learning the story of the Civil War. In the course of learning that story, Lincoln’s choices, in action and in speech, gave us an itch we need to scratch. We’re reading anti-immigrant speeches by union leaders in California because we’re learning the story of immigration in the Gilded Age, and we want to know the minds of the children of immigrants who saw other immigrants as a threat. So, step one is to put the document in the context that allows us to define our purpose in reading it. (On our document analysis sheet, we call this step Identify and Contextualize. Consistent terminology is good for students. The idea is more important: story first!).

Second, paraphrase or summarize the text, or describe the artifact. You can’t interpret a document you haven’t read carefully. This technique is uncontroversial in principle, but not always honored in practice. If you want to have a discussion about general ideas, you can do that without a text. If you want to meet another mind, read something carefully first. And before you try to interpret it, check to make sure you know what it says. Story first; second, pay attention! By the way, SHEG “close reading” questions are good about calling attention to structural and rhetorical features of texts.

Third, we interpret. There are many ways to generate inferences from text to author, but no algorithm or mechanism for guaranteeing good results. There is no royal road to geometry or interpretive insight. There are, however, questions that will remind us as readers to attend to various features of an author’s expression. We routinely model and then ask our students to answer these questions:

  • What is the author’s purpose or goal?
  • What is their motivation for pursuing that purpose or goal?
  • What notable assumptions must the author be making for them to harbor these goals and motivations?

Again, interpretation is a thinking skill, not a mechanical habit. Students (and teachers) will need to practice it a lot to get good at it.

Reading for the purpose of meeting other minds — of answering Question Two — affects not just the advice we give our student about how to read, but what we choose for them to read in the first place. My advice: read complex and interesting ones. A few rich documents by complicated and thoughtful people are better than lots of indifferent artifacts. Match your documents to the interpretive puzzles in your story. Give your students a chance to think with another person, to see a situation, as best they can, from the inside. Meeting another mind is a good way to exercise your own.