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Reading Multiple Sources in History Class

A student studying multiple sources. NHEC

The call to use primary documents to teach history comes from many quarters. While teachers are urged to use multiple documents in their classrooms, they are rarely told how to use them. To understand how students learn from multiple documents, researchers Steven Stahl, Bruce Britton, Mary McNish, and Dennis Bosquet observed how students approached different sources to make sense of a controversial historical event.

First, researchers asked 44 students in two Advanced Placement history classes to read multiple documents about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The documents represented a range of views and genres, from a Viet Cong cablegram to the actual Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The students were told that once they finished reading, they would be asked to either describe the topic or develop an opinion about it. Students took notes as they read. After they read the documents, some students wrote a brief essay describing the event, while others put forth an opinion about the incident.

The students' notes revealed they had read all the documents in the same way and with one goal in mind: searching for basic facts and information. The researchers concluded that simply presenting students with multiple documents, regardless of any assigned purpose, did not enrich the students' understanding. Rather, students needed to be explicitly taught how to analyze and interpret documents.

A skilled historian doesn't simply accept a document as fact, but rather probes it, searching for bias and perspective: Who wrote the document? To what end? When? Where? To develop students' historical understanding, researchers recommended they be taught the same approach, incorporating specific elements:

  • prior knowledge about the topic
  • experience working with different types of documents
  • explicit instruction in interpreting documents
  • explicit instruction on using evidence when writing

This study supports the idea that documents play a central role in history education. But if students are expected to do the work of an historian, i.e., make sense of a variety of texts, they must learn how to navigate different types of documents in new and more meaningful ways.

In the Classroom 

Sample Application 

Excerpt from text, "The Vote that Congress Can't Forget"
For more than two decades, the Congressional vote that lawmakers most often cite as the one they would like to take back is their 1964 vote for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the resolution that was used as authority for the war in Vietnam. Only two Senators and no Representatives voted no.

Student # 25's Notes
The vote that lawmakers would most like to take back is the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in which two Senators and no Representatives voted no.

Excerpt from Student # 25's Essay
The vote passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and 80 to two in the Senate in approval of military action against the North Vietnamese (Viet Cong).

For more information 

Cynthia Hynd, "Teaching Students to Think Critically Using Multiple Texts in History," Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 42, no. 6 (1999): 428–436.

Daisy Martin and Sam Wineburg, "Seeing Thinking on the Web," History Teacher 41, no. 3, (2008): 305–319.

A more thorough description of this approach is also available online.


Steven Stahl, Cynthia Hynd, Bruce Britton, Mary McNish, and Dennis Bosquet, "What happens when students read multiple source documents in history?," Reading Research Quarterly 31, no. 40 (2000): 430Ѿ457.