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Building Students' Historical Literacies: Learning to Read and Reason with Historical Texts and Evidence

reviewed by Scott Alan Metzger - October 21, 2013

coverTitle: Building Students' Historical Literacies: Learning to Read and Reason with Historical Texts and Evidence
Author(s): Jeffrey Nokes
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415808987, Pages: 240, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

In the contemporary educational climate of standards and accountability, “literacy” has emerged as one of the dominant rhetorics for what schools need to be doing more of and better.  Literacy has expanded outside its longstanding domain within English to exert influence over other subject areas.  The Common Core Standards further trumpet literacy.  History and Social Studies emerge in the Common Core within English Language Arts and exclusively emphasize “literacy work.” Even before the Common Core, research suggested that, at least in certain elementary-grade contexts, social studies topics, including history, were at risk of being crowded out in a literacy-dominated curriculum, used mostly for practicing reading skills when taught at all (Boyle-Baise, Hsu, Johnson, Serriere, & Stewart, 2008).  If history is reduced to an ornament for literacy education, a serious consequence is that the special intellectual value of historical thinking and reasoning can be undermined.  History education reformers stress that reading in history needs to grow beyond just text comprehension and summary to incorporate analysis and interpretation too (Monte-Sano, 2011).  What the field seems to lack is explicit guidance on what “literacy” means beyond reading comprehension in other subject areas.  What should literacy look like in a subject like history—and how can it be taught in a way that strengthens the learning of historical content and understanding?

Jeffery Nokes’ Building Students’ Historical Literacies takes up the challenge of articulating a theoretical and pedagogical framework to bridge this divide.  It is a crucially important work that deeply integrates meaningful literacy practices into history education in a way that keeps the historical discipline at the intellectual center, not as an adornment to reading and writing.  It is a bold undertaking that embraces a wider conceptualization.  Nokes observes that “reading” (words, sentences, and paragraphs) is distinct from “literacy” (a wider variety of sources including traditional written text but also visual images and sound).  “Historical literacy, as defined in this book, is the ability to appropriately negotiate and create the texts and resources that are valued within the discipline of history using methods approved by the community of historians”—skills that include “historians’ strategies for comprehending and evaluating the vast array of artifacts and records that are useful in making inferences about that past” (p. 13).

Nokes argues that reliance on traditional history instruction consisting of lectures, videos, and textbook reading does not yield long-term learning for most students.  He summarizes NAEP data that indicates U.S. students over many generations have struggled with factual recall of historical information.  “Students leave traditional history classrooms with little ability to engage in historical reading, reasoning, or writing because their time has been spent managing information rather than engaging in historical thinking” (p. 8).  The theme of his book is that

instead, history teachers should focus on building students’ historical literacies: students’ abilities to gather and weigh evidence from multiple sources, make informed decisions, solve problems using historical accounts, and persuasively defend their interpretations of the past…. Historical literacy is crucial for participation in a democratic and increasingly globally-linked world. (p. 9)

The book is arranged in three conceptual parts.  Part I (Historical Literacies) lays out a vision that contrasts the practices of traditional instruction from building historical literacies.  It consists of chapters on building (Chapter One), defining (Chapter Two), and teaching (Chapter Three) literacies through examples of historical content and a variety of literacy strategies (e.g., close reading, metacognition, code breaker, meaning maker, text user, text critic) as well as developing students’ thinking on history and texts from limited objectivist or subjectivist stances to an evidence-based criterialist stance (Chapter Four).  Part II (Fluency with Strategies and Evidence) describes how teachers can weave historical literacy strategies into their curriculum.  It focuses on analytical heuristics for working with primary sources (Chapter Five), making inferences with non-text physical artifacts (Chapter Six), historical understanding through visual texts (Chapter Seven), historical empathy and perspective through fiction (Chapter Eight), healthy skepticism of textbooks and secondary sources (Chapter Nine), avoiding reductionist thinking with audio and video (Chapter Ten), and argumentation with quantitative evidence (Chapter Eleven).  Part III (Putting It All Together) discusses how to integrate the strategies into a pattern of planning and teaching.  It articulates critical intertextual analysis with multiple texts (Chapter Twelve) and a four-stage pattern (selection of objectives, selection of texts, determination of student supports, and execution) for planning and implementing historical literacy lessons (Chapter Thirteen).

Nokes says his book is “written for prospective, new, and practicing history teachers” and is “a synthesis of the best of my teaching and current research on building historical literacies…. The uniqueness of this book lies in its practical application of literacy research and history teaching research” (p. xvi).  On the whole, the work is very successful.  It is highly approachable and applicable to his target audience.  Each chapter begins with a “quasi-autobiographical” vignette that bears some resemblance to an actual “teachable moment” from Nokes’ own experience (p. xvi).  These vignettes are each a few readable pages long and usually contain useful graphic resources to help illustrate (or recreate) the recommended practice.  His highly effective writing style should be appealing to teachers, blending conciseness with intelligent description and justifications that are based in a reasonable volume of prior scholarship—but never a dense literature review.  Most of the chapters revolve around detailed yet succinct examples of practice, and Nokes wisely reaches across the span of the history curriculum.  I’ve often been frustrated in the past how books like this tend to focus on more obviously relevant episodes of U.S. history and avoid the tougher matter of how to make older world history (like the Mongols in Chapter Nine) more meaningful to young learners today.

Nokes’ book is grounded in three research-based rationales for why teachers should teach to build the historical literacies he argues students will need to be “critical patriots” in the Information Age: 1) working with documents can be highly engaging; 2) students who actively piece together interpretations from documents learn content better; 3) students who read and reason like historians exhibit more sophistical critical reading and thinking skills (p. 12).  Not all three rationales are equally persuasive.  The first premise is debatable, as any educator or student who has encountered “death by sources” inundation can attest.  The second premise is perhaps the most intriguing, but it is also the least developed by the book.  The third premise receives the lion’s share of attention.

Too frequently Nokes positions historical literacies as another round in the perennial breadth-versus-depth debate.  He states in the conclusion, teachers should “worry less about [content] coverage” (p. 203).  He blames “heritage” as one of the causes of bad, coverage-obsessed traditional history teaching.  Longstanding curricular goals of cultural transmission, whether emphasizing the traditional national heritage figures venerated by the political right or the cultural-diversity heroes of the political left, provide a strong political base for breadth and coverage reflected in most state history standards (Anderson & Metzger, 2011).  Nokes proposes an intriguing notion of “critical patriotism” to position historical literacies as a vehicle for bettering rather than replacing heritage goals, but unfortunately this promising idea is not well developed.

This complaint aside, Building Students’ Historical Literacies is a clear, concise, and powerfully effective illustration of how this intellectually robust approach to history education could be done in practice.  It is at its most persuasive when demonstrating how literacy practices empower students to recognize and engage with alternative perspectives on complex issues involving the past, to engage in evidence-based reasoning, and to articulate and evaluate historical generalizations and interpretations.  However, the book may occasionally overpromise on what historical literacies can deliver.  Nokes critiques the narrow selectivity of traditional practices: “Through both lectures and textbook reading, teachers maintain control of the historical accounts students hear” (p. 6).  But doesn’t this remain true in any pedagogy that involves text selection and policing?  The literacies-inquiry approach still requires teachers to select source texts and police the appropriateness of what accounts can be brought into the classroom.  There is no easy freedom from teacher control in student-constructed interpretations.  Nokes cites the scholarship of Bruce VanSledright heavily, yet I can’t help but think of VanSledright’s (2002) experience teaching the Jamestown colony to fifth graders using literacy-based inquiry only to find in the end that these young students misapplied the documentary evidence and gravitated toward the Disney movie Pocahontas in their interpretations.  Nokes’ argument, while fundamentally sound, could benefit from being more nuanced about the limitations of primary documents (Barton, 2005).

Building Students’ Historical Literacies is an important contribution to the growing scholarly reform of history education.  It builds on recent books advocating interpretive and argumentation-based reasoning in history teaching (VanSledright, 2011) and the central role of analytical reading in historical thinking (Wineburg, Martin, and Monte-Sano, 2011).  His approach offers an improvement over transmission teaching that exclusively revolves around basic-level content coverage by positioning literacies techniques in support of evidence-based decision making about the past—and what meanings the past can hold for the world today.  It is well worth reading by practicing history teachers interested in meaningfully incorporating literacy and reasoning, and also a valuable choice for social studies teacher education methods courses.


Anderson, C. B., & Metzger, S. A. (2011). Slavery, the Civil War era, and African American representation in U.S. history: An analysis of four states’ academic standards. Theory and Research in Social Education, 39(3), 393-415.

Barton, K. (2005). Primary sources in history: Breaking through the myths. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(10), 745-753.

Boyle-Baise, M., Hsu, M.-C., Johnson, S., Serriere, S., & Stewart, D. (2008). Putting reading first: Teaching social studies in elementary classrooms. Theory and Research in Social Education, 36(3), 233-255.

Monte-Sano, C. (2011). Beyond reading comprehension and summary: Learning to read and write by focusing on evidence, perspective, and interpretation. Curriculum Inquiry, 41, 212–249.

VanSledright, B. (2002). Confronting history's interpretive paradox while teaching fifth graders to investigate the past. American Educational Research Journal, 39(4), 1089-1115.

VanSledright, B. A. (2011). The challenge of rethinking history education: On practices, theories, and policy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wineburg, S., Martin, D., & Monte-Sano, C. (2011). Reading like a historian: Teaching literacy in middle and high school history classrooms. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 21, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17287, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 5:41:14 AM

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About the Author
  • Scott Metzger
    Penn State University
    E-mail Author
    SCOTT ALAN METZGER is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Penn State University. His research interests include history teaching and learning, history in popular media, and social studies teacher education, curriculum, and policy. He is co-author (with Alan Marcus, Richard Paxton, and Jeremy Stoddard) of Teaching History with Film: Strategies for Secondary Social Studies (Routledge, 2010).
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