A few weeks ago I wrote about the historical thinking skill of “contextualization.” Contextualization is most often employed when we’re working with a document, although the College Board also gives a point for it on their no-documents Long Essay Question, acknowledging that we can (and should) contextualize historical events, people, and ideas as well as documents. But we most often see it in the classroom with documents, and it is in that context (get the pun?) that students often commit a common error: they often don’t understand that they should contextualize before they actually read the document. Once they start reading the document they inevitably start doing other intellectual tasks related to document interpretation, such as describing the author’s point of view or purpose, and they can quickly lose sight of contextualization.


In my previous post, I described contextualization of a primary source as situating the document in the story of the unit we are telling. We ask students, “What has happened in our unit story at the time this source was created? How is the author or creator related to the story so far? What might you assume about the author given their relationship to the story?” Notice that you can answer all of these questions once you have identified and dated the source, and described its author. You don’t need to read the document to contextualize it. That’s why on our analysis sheet contextualization comes before we ask students to “summarize or paraphrase.” 

Every useful rule has exceptions, and there are certainly times when reading a primary source document allows us to identify context that is not otherwise apparent. But most of the time we can and should contextualize before we read. But students need practice to learn that skill. Here are two examples from my own classroom in the past few weeks. We’re currently studying World War One, and our first key primary source in the unit is some short excerpts from the Kaiser’s “Place in the Sun” speech of 1901. What’s the context? The Kaiser had fired long-time Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1890, choosing to manage his own foreign policy. He had launched a new policy (“weltpolitik”) which aimed to gain more power and prestige for Germany on the world stage. He wanted to build up the German navy, which would be expensive and could cause conflict with England. Knowing all that before we read helps us to make sense of the document in the way that the Kaiser and his audience would have. But when I cold called a student and asked her to give the context for the speech, she immediately cast her eyes down and began scanning the text. I stopped her and reminded her that we can’t find the context for the text in the text; I was asking her to access relevant background knowledge, not to read. That turned out to be harder for her, because she actually had to remember some things, rather than just use her considerable reading and verbal skills to react to the text.

A bit later on in the unit we were studying a set of World War One propaganda posters, and some students made a similar error. I had explained that the belligerent powers had all expected a quick war, and the grinding trench warfare of the Western Front left them short of men, money, and war materiel. This is the context in which the governments produced propaganda. But several students described the context for the posters as, “they were trying to convince people to join the army,” or “they wanted people to loan money to the government.” These are both descriptions of the purpose of specific posters; the students had jumped from context to purpose without realizing it. Once again, students got ahead of themselves, and skipped over a key understanding that would have provided insight into the content that they were studying.


It’s easy to think too fast about context and then end up not thinking about it at all. As history teachers we should aim to slow our students down, and to teach them that they need to contextualize before they read. Doing so will help ensure that they can make the most of the documents when they actually read and interpret them.