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What Do You Mean?: How Language Changes Over Time

Students create sentences using words whose meanings have changed since the 17th century. They then discover how their sentences change meaning when the words’ 17th century meanings are used.

Silkscreen, Languages, 1938, Blanche L. Anish, LOC

This lesson provides students with a simple introduction to a fundamental and often elusive component of historical thinking—placing the prose of an historical document in its appropriate context. Students begin with a list of words from 17th-century English that are still in use in the 21st century. Students create sentences using these words based on their modern meanings, then note how their sentences change in meaning with the 17th-century usage of the words. The short follow-up discussion focuses on how such changes in the meanings of words make the historian’s task of analyzing primary sources challenging.

Contextualization, or placing a historical text in its appropriate social, political, cultural, and even linguistic context, is a challenging task even for collegiate students of history, as noted here. Because contextual influences are often subtle and linked to extensive background knowledge, younger students can have difficulty noticing them, and teaching younger students to recognize the historical context of a document can be a daunting task when students are already dealing with challenging texts. This lesson introduces the idea of context through the changing meaning of words. Rather than dealing with the meanings of entire texts, students are focusing on the meanings of individual words. Thus, this lesson provides a useful starting point in laying the foundation for historical thinking skills like contextualization and the close reading of documents, while clearly showing that language changes over time.

Teachinghistory.org Lesson Plan Rubric
Field Criteria Comments
Historical Content Is historically accurate?


Includes historical background?

In addition to information on the historical usage of words featured in the lesson, the site also includes a brief article on the history of the Jamestown settlement, and a variety of other resources for teachers and students.

Requires students to read and write?

The amount of writing required is minimal, but teachers may easily adapt and extend that part of the lesson.

Analytic Thinking Requires students to analyze or construct interpretations using evidence


Requires close reading and attention to source information?

Although the lesson itself does not require close reading, it focuses on skills that will help students closely read and question other texts.

Scaffolding Is appropriate for stated audience?

This lesson is easily adapted to the needs of a variety of students; while designed for elementary school, it could be adapted easily for a middle or high school classroom.

Includes materials and strategies for scaffolding and supporting student thinking?

Teachers may want to scaffold the lesson for younger students by providing 21st century definitions of the words.

Lesson Structure Includes assessment criteria and strategies that focus on historical understanding?


Defines clear learning goals and progresses logically?

A simple, but elegant, plan.

Includes clear directions and is realistic in normal classroom settings?