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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Big Ideas in Literacy – History/Social Studies


Welcome to the history/social studies content-specific units on disciplinary literacy. These next four units explore disciplinary literacy in history as an approach to teaching history and social studies. Unit 5 will introduce useful concepts and tools that promote disciplinary literacy. Units 6 and 7 will focus on specific reading and writing practices, respectively. Unit 8 will present various methods to support the integration of reading and writing practices into classroom instruction.

This unit introduces concepts and tools that can provide the foundation for planning and implementing instruction. These concepts and tools include:

  • Defining disciplinary literacy in history
  • Thinking like a historian
  • Using investigations and questions to frame inquiry
  • Developing background knowledge
  • Incorporating historical sources that are used to back up claims

Video and Reflection: Watch Reading and Writing in History to see an example of how reading and writing are brought together in the study of history. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: What do students read and write in your classroom? What are your learning goals for students with regard to reading and writing?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how reading and writing in history/social studies are framed. What learning goals do the different classrooms appear to have for students?
  • Reflect: How are these ideas similar to or different from your classroom teaching? What might be easy about implementing some of the ideas you saw? What might be difficult?


What is meant by disciplinary literacy in history? How can the discipline of history inform literacy instruction? To answer these questions, this unit looks at what history is and what historians do to make sense of history.

Disciplinary literacy in history refers to a broad set of reading, writing, and thinking practices that are aligned both to the work of historians and the approaches they take to such work. When used in the social studies classroom, disciplinary literacy activities can support students as they learn valuable thinking and literacy practices. These include:

  • Learning to ask questions
  • Critiquing sources of information
  • Considering multiple perspectives
  • Judging the quality of evidence
  • Forming reasoned opinions

So, then, what do historians do? In short, historians ask questions and review a variety of historical sources to make claims about the actors and events of the past. In other words, they investigate and interpret the past by researching documents and artifacts—receipts, diaries, paintings, stories—in order to answer the questions they have.

By teaching with practices that approximate the work of historians, teachers can achieve three goals. They can:

  • Teach content through the investigation of primary and secondary sources
  • Develop specific literacy practices in reading and writing that promote historical interpretation
  • Support analytical ways of thinking about the past

Reflect: What disciplinary literacy practices, if any, have you used in your own classroom instruction?


Because historians investigate the past, much of what they do is detective work—they search for evidence and clues that will help answer questions they consider worthy or significant. They pore over documents, texts, and artifacts in order to re-create and make sense of a past event. They work with emerging ideas and develop hunches along the way, making connections between the past and present. To do this kind of work, historians think in certain ways. Such ways of thinking are habitual for historians and are called habits of mind.

While there are many habits of mind that a historian might possess while doing history, these units focus on a few that relate to teaching history using methods that promote literacy:

  • An orientation toward inquiry and asking questions
  • The role of interpretation and argument or narrative
  • The use of sources as evidence for making claims

History is an inquiry into events and people in the past, which are unfamiliar to those in the present and must be understood through research. History, as undertaken by historians, is not simply the study of dates and facts, although knowing such background information is important. Rather, history is a process of asking questions about the past and making reasoned conclusions about what is known. By doing so, historians can begin to understand why people in the past acted the way they did or why certain events happened.

What one historian might write about the past is not necessarily the same as what another might write. Since evidence of every perspective and every detail of the past simply does not exist, historians are limited to working with what artifacts do remain. Therefore, they write different arguments—sometimes in the form of narratives—because of their differing interpretations of evidence within the historical record. In doing so, historians note the causes of past events, what has changed or remained the same over time, how people of the past viewed their world, and significant turning points that affected the decisions people made in the past. By doing all of this, historians develop interpretations about the past—what happened and why—and communicate them to others.

Historians view the past by looking at what has been left behind in documents and artifacts. These remnants of history are called sources because they provide us with information that can inform our knowledge about the past. But sources do not become historical evidence until they are interrogated and used purposefully in response to questions. What these sources become evidence for depends on what questions the historian asks.

The habits of mind used by historians can play an integral role for teachers who seek to use literacy to promote inquiry and interpretation in their social studies classrooms. That is, students learn to read, write, and communicate within the context of an investigation while being guided to make a claim in response to an essential question. These habits of mind extend to the way teachers can support students in reading texts and writing about the information in those texts.

Video and Reflection: Watch Reading and Responding Like a Historian to learn more about historians’ habits of mind. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: What historical habits of mind have you focused on or thought about incorporating into your teaching? What historical habits of mind do you have questions about?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, consider how LeRoy Votto thinks about historical habits of mind. How does he incorporate these ideas into his teaching?
  • Reflect: How might you incorporate any new ideas from this video into your own teaching?



In the same way that historians investigate the past by developing their own questions, researching historical artifacts, and making conclusions about people and events of the past, teachers can adapt such practice for the classroom through careful structuring and planning.

As a way of supporting students in developing literacy and using the historian’s habits of mind, class investigations give students opportunities to learn the historical practices involved in inquiring about the past. By framing the learning of history as investigation, teachers can model and have students participate in the process of learning history and developing interpretations about the past. The remaining sections of this unit will focus on the practices necessary for creating engaging investigations.

In order to frame an investigation for students, it is important to understand the component parts of an investigation. These components include:

  • Essential historical questions that guide the inquiry
  • Background knowledge that informs understanding
  • Multiple and varied sources that represent different perspectives to analyze as evidence for making claims
  • Opportunities to write claims in response to essential historical questions

Reflect: Have you used investigations in your classroom instruction? If so, how have you prepared your students to investigate a history or social studies concept (e.g., cause and effect, problem/solution, important people)? If not, how would you prepare your students?

One model of a class investigation that introduces students to investigating sources is a strategy called Opening Up the Textbook. This kind of lesson shifts the role of the textbook from being the source of one true story to being one historical account among many. By challenging the textbook, students might also come to see that history is open to different interpretations, making room for authentic investigations. One way to do this is to take a textbook excerpt and compare it with another document—another textbook excerpt, a primary source, etc. A few ways to open up the textbook include:

  • Comparing two textbook excerpts
  • Using a primary source to challenge a textbook’s account
  • Identifying people or voices who are not present in the textbook
  • Expanding the narrative of something that is only briefly mentioned in the textbook by investigating additional sources
  • Identifying the ways the textbook uses language to describe events and actors in the past

Explore: Read about the Opening Up the Textbook [PDF] strategy.

The remaining sections in this unit deal with the materials necessary for creating investigations in the history classroom: creating framing questions, developing background knowledge, and selecting and adapting historical texts as sources of inquiry. While these sections present the component parts of an investigation in a linear fashion, it is important to remember that these steps take place in an iterative process. That is, developing questions, selecting sources, and identifying learning goals might all take place together gradually. For instance, even if there is a really great essential question to investigate, there may not be available sources to address such a question. Therefore, once sources are identified, essential questions may need to be changed or new essential questions may need to be established in order to align them to the evidence provided in the sources.

Video and Reflection: Watch Reading Like a Historian as an example of using investigation and interpretation to promote literacy. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: What ideas about using investigation and interpretation to promote literacy have you incorporated into your teaching? What questions do you have about using investigation and interpretation to promote literacy in your classroom?
  • Watch the video: Observe how Lili Velo uses investigation and interpretation to promote literacy in her classroom.
  • Reflect: How might you incorporate any new ideas from this video into your own teaching?


Historians often approach their work by first identifying a problem space they find significant and worthy of investigation. Such a problem space might include figuring out what happened at a specific time and place, what qualities characterize certain people over time (e.g., leaders), or the reasons that caused events to occur. Regardless of the problem space, historians begin their investigations by asking questions. For teachers, however, the pathways to forming questions may not be as emergent as they are for historians. While teachers may be motivated to create their own investigations based on the desire to understand something, they may also begin by coordinating investigations with topics identified in state standards or established curricula.

Because investigative history, by definition, inquires into the past, questions play an integral part in the process of student learning. In fact, questions play two roles:

  • They can be used to frame a unit or a single lesson. (For the purposes here, questions frame individual investigations.)
  • They can be used to highlight controversy or problems for students. Questions can both frame and advance an inquiry. That is, questions can be used to provide an overarching structure for an investigation. Once the investigation is underway, questions can be used to prompt students to think deeply about the complexities of the topic under study.

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) College, Career, and Civic Life C3 Framework distinguishes between two types of questions that can be both teacher- and student-generated: compelling questions and supporting questions. Compelling questions focus on enduring issues and concerns. For example, “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” In contrast, supporting questions focus on descriptions, definitions, and processes on which there is general agreement. That is, supporting questions focus on the content needed to fully consider the compelling question; for example, “What were the regulations imposed on the American colonists under the Townshend Acts?” For the purposes of this course, compelling questions are used to frame investigations. These compelling questions here are called essential questions.

In forming essential questions, it is important to consider a few aspects. The best questions to guide inquiry are complex and debatable and require students to analyze texts and move beyond a summary. These questions are not answerable by a simple yes or no, and there is typically a range of possible answers to and multiple interpretations of the questions. However, in some instances, it may be appropriate to frame questions for students in a dichotomy (either/or) so that students recognize that their role is to make an argument, rather than summarize information.

Examples of good essential questions for investigations include:

  • What happened at the Boston Massacre in 1770?
  • What characteristics make for an effective leader?
  • What is the proper role of government?
  • Should Martin Luther be considered a hero or heretic?
  • How does technological change influence society?
  • What makes places unique and different?
  • Why did the boycott of Montgomery’s buses in the 1950s succeed?

Video and Reflection: Watch Blended Learning: Purposeful Instruction to learn more about using questions to frame and sustain inquiry. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch:  How have you used questions to frame or focus students’ learning? Can these questions be answered in multiple ways, or do they have one right answer?
  • Watch the video: Consider how Andrea Gambino Rhodes frames questions so that they are open to multiple interpretations or responses. How does her use of questions help sustain inquiry?
  • Reflect: Write one to two paragraphs in response to the following questions: What would be a good essential question to guide an upcoming unit of study? How can you write or phrase the question so that it is complex and debatable and pushes students to analyze texts rather than purely summarize?

Explore: On the Historical Thinking Matters website, there is an investigation of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956. Consider the essential question, “Why did the boycott of Montgomery’s buses succeed?” What makes this type of question effective? What characteristics of good essential questions does this question exemplify?


As with all classroom lessons, students are more likely to be successful if they have developed prior knowledge of the topics at hand. However, in studying history and social studies, it is not reasonable to expect students to have prior knowledge of the expanse of all human history or the human experience. Therefore, in order to support students, teachers need to help them make connections to prior knowledge and to develop new knowledge to support the investigations.

As noted before, one of the reasons for using investigations in history and social studies classrooms is to teach content in an engaging manner. Even though teachers might ask students questions for which they already know the (consensus) answer(s), they do not want to give away the whole story before students have a chance to investigate it for themselves. Therefore, developing background knowledge with students sets up the investigation. But this does not simply mean giving students background of a historical time period or going over an event in excruciating detail. Background knowledge here includes all the information critical for helping students make sense of texts, consider an author in light of the essential question, and situate the texts within historical context. It is a matter of providing just enough information for students to dig in and learn more from the texts.

Reflect: How have you developed students’ background knowledge during your own instruction? How do you determine what prior knowledge is relevant?

Developing background knowledge can take many forms: reading from a secondary source, watching a video, listening to a lecture, working with or creating a timeline, and using various graphic organizers or other ways of sorting information. All relevant content knowledge that can inform an interpretation of the texts should be considered here. Most importantly, developing background knowledge of the historical context in which a source was written or of the author who wrote the source is paramount.

Explore: Consider these examples of ways in which background information can be developed.

Video and Reflection: Now watch Flexible Grouping to Promote Learning to see an example of a teacher developing background knowledge with students. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Consider how you determine what background knowledge is relevant for students. What strategies have you used for developing students’ background knowledge? Which strategies were most effective?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, observe how Darby Masland structures the activities so that students can develop their background knowledge. How do the students work collectively to develop background knowledge?
  • Reflect: How might you incorporate any new strategies from this video into your own teaching?


Because this course is focused on how to support students as they develop literacy skills, it reasons well that texts play a key role in that development. But all texts have been written by individuals with certain purposes at a specific time and place that shaped the person and the text she or he wrote. Whether to inform, persuade, entertain, illustrate, or do otherwise, all text forms have been created by someone somewhere at some time for a specific purpose. One of the primary features of teaching disciplinary literacy is to help students consider the facets of what went into creating a text. This ultimately can lead students to become critical readers who can make inference and understand both the literal text and the subtext.

It is important to note that documents for investigation do not have to be written texts. Historians and social scientists use a multitude of visual documents (maps, photos, etc.) as well as other artifacts. However, the focus of this course is on written texts.

While teachers may feel the need to focus on students’ comprehension of text ideas, meaningful comprehension focuses on ways that students can consider authors’ purposes, place sources within a context, identify specific language used in a source, and weigh them against other pieces of evidence. In other words, the focus is on analyzing texts and thinking critically about them so that students can fully understand the meanings of texts.

Reflect: How have you used multiple sources to encourage students to consider different accounts or points of view of an event?


Since teachers are most often provided with only a textbook, the task of trying to select sources is typically very challenging. Therefore, the first practical hurdle to designing class investigations is usually identifying sources that can be used. While Unit 8 will offer specific resources and guidelines for doing this, following are some considerations for choosing appropriate sources for students.

Regardless of how many sources (and what kind of sources) are used in a class investigation, they should do the following:

  • Represent a range of author perspectives
  • Offer ideas and information that help students answer the essential question of the investigation
  • Include information that helps students consider how reliable the source is, and
  • Match a range of student reading levels as best possible.

Reflect: Think about the texts you use in your courses. How do they reflect the reading levels of your students? How do they reflect the above considerations? What changes in text selection might you make to address these criteria?

Explore: Check out the sources used in this Rosa Parks Inquiry of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956.

Reflect: What different perspectives do you notice in these sources? In what ways might the different sources help students think about the essential question that has been presented? What in these sources helps students answer the essential question? What do you notice about the way these sources are cited?

Video and Reflection: Now watch Blended Learning: Evaluating Source Material for an example of how a teacher selects and uses texts in investigations. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Consider the texts you have used in your history or social studies class recently. Describe any that present multiple perspectives and include information that could help students think about the reliability of the text (e.g., author, date, and place of creation).
  • Watch the video: As you watch, consider how Andrea Gambino Rhodes selects texts and uses them as sources for investigation. What kinds of texts were included in this lesson?
  • Reflect: How might you incorporate any new ideas about selecting and using texts as sources for investigation into your own teaching?


Once sources have been selected for a class investigation, adapting these sources through formatting so that they are more readable is one way to make complex texts accessible for students. Adapting sources is also a way to differentiate ­­­­­for reading levels within a class and provide equitable access for all students to complex texts. Two primary ways of adapting sources include (1) formatting the source so that it is viewable and recognizable by students and (2) excerpting sources so they are shorter and more manageable.

Another option is to provide resources to help students with difficult vocabulary (e.g., including a word bank). As a last resort, teachers can modify the language of the sources in order to make the text more accessible to students. Of course, there are pros and cons to modifying the language of sources, and not everyone agrees that the text itself should be modified from the original form. Modifying the language of a source should only be done to make the source accessible for students who could not otherwise read it.

When modifying language is necessary, the key is to do so less and less over time so that students become more independent. The purpose of adapting and modifying text is to provide accessibility to students through a temporary scaffold. Ultimately, students should transition to more complex work.

Even if the original text of a source isn’t modified, formatting, shortening, and providing vocabulary resources can lend to better accessibility among students. Here is a simple way to format a source:

  1. Lay out the source on its own page.
  2. Add a title for the source.
  3. Create a head note that briefly explains what the source is or that gives important background necessary for understanding the source.
  4. Format the body of the excerpted text with a larger font.
  5. Create a source line that notes who wrote the source when, as well as the kind of source.
  6. Include a word bank of difficult vocabulary.

Reflect: In what ways have you made text more accessible to all students?

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


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