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What Does it Mean to Be "Historically Literate"?

Posted by Stéphane Lévesque
19 February 2013 - 1:31pm

In a recent blog post (The War of 1812: Notes on Students' Ideas), I argued that what makes historians experts is not so much their vast historical content knowledge but their “historical literacy”, that is their ability to read, write, and think critically about the past.  Nowadays, there is a widespread talk in education about the need for critical literacy skills. In this information age, being able to think critically about a range of social media and text forms, including prints, graphics,visuals and electronic texts, is becoming vital to an educated citizenry. It is no surprise that Ministries of education across the country have responded with policy documents, reports, and learning resources “to enable students to make meaning from and in the wide range of texts they will encounter and produce at school and in the world.”[1]


Yet despite significant progress in students’ performance in standard literacy tests (e.g., EQAO results), there is still no clear evidence of improvement in students’ ability to read, write, represent, or think critically in history. Part of the problem has been our inability as educators to teach “historical literacy.” For Australian professor Tony Taylor, becoming literate in history necessitates “a range of abilities and understandings required to grasp the nature of history.”[2]Decades of research in the field has shown that expertise in history is counter-intuitive and best cultivated when students are given able opportunities to “do history.”


Indeed, students come to school with powerful beliefs and stories about the past. These so-called “common-sense” ideas acquired at home or in everyday life experiences are gradually challenged in higher learning by some more complex and scientific ones.[3]But does public education really challenge learners to replace these intuitive ideas with more warranted ones as produced by historians? A central principle of history education continues to be that students need a firm ground of knowledge about the past to be “good” citizens.  The recent transformation of the Museum of civilization into a Canadian Museum of National History is driven by this citizenship requirement of common historical knowledge. But historical literacy is more complex than mastering stagnant pieces of facts about the past. Transforming students’ intuitive ideas and equipping them with the tools to make sense of the past necessitate what Peter Lee calls “metahistorical” knowledge.[4]Unlike the substance of the past, this knowledge shapes the way we go about doing history. Instead of naively asking “what is the best story to know?” historians face the complexity of the past with such fundamental questions as “How do we know about the past?” “What was it like back then?” and “Why is it important to remember it?”[5]Questions of this sort engage historians in a research process of investigating past events and producing evidence-based accounts.[6] This disciplinary enterprise is dynamic and never complete, subject to debate and revision.


From “cross-curricular” to “historical” literacy

The strategies to develop cross-curricular literacy are useful in helping students develop everyday skills to read, write, and interpret a range of media like news clips, blogs, and tweets. Because of the kind of habits of mind it develops, cross-curricular literacy promotes what might be called “proto-disciplinary” knowledge, that is knowledge extending beyond common sense to include general features of higher-order thinking.[7]At this level, for instance, students can read a variety of texts, decode their meaning, and make a distinction between “facts” and “opinions.” But this type of literacy is largely inadequate to sophisticated understanding in history because it does not originate from the texts and methods of history. One cannot read John A. Macdonald in the same way as a Facebook profile.[8]


Developing historical literacy necessitates a particular mode of engagement with the past. When students are challenged to think like historians they must tackle a series of essential questions that cannot be answered with classroom texts and cross-curricular skills. Defining contextualized historical reading, writing, and thinking is more complicated than simply outlining a set of heuristics as so much depends on the questions, the texts, and the context. Still, it is possible to outline some of the questions that historians bring to the task:

  1. Use of inquiry: How do we know about the War of 1812?
  2. Need of significance: Why is it important to study the War of 1812? 
  3. Role of self/identity: How does my identity shape the way I engage with the collective past?
  4. Sense of empathy: What was it like to be a British or American soldier in 1812?
  5. Use of evidence: What evidence do we have that Canada won the War of 1812?
  6. Importance of causation: What were the causes of the American invasions in 1812? What consequences did the war have on the colonies of Canada?
  7. Connection to the present: In what ways does the present shape the way we make sense of the past? How is the present in continuity with the past?
  8. Role of judgment: Why should I believe in the argument presented by the Canadian government? With what reservation? 
  9. Language of history: How do we read and deal with the language of the past? How do we represent it today?
  10. Use of historical narrative: What stories of the War of 1812 do we tell today? How are these stories constructed? For what purpose?


Helping our students learn to answer these (and many other such) historical inquiry questions provides one, perhaps the most effective way of introducing them to the power and limits of historical thinking.[9] Schools are in a privileged position to challenge popular, intuitive ideas about the past with “an orientation to the past informed by disciplinary canons of evidence and rules of argument.”[10]


To access the complete article, visit the Association for Canadian Studies Journal Canadian Issues (Winter 2010), pp. 42-46.

Stéphane Lévesque

University of Ottawa


Photo Source: Creative Commons, Old Fort York, 1 July 1984

[1] Ontario Ministry of Education, Literacy for Learning: Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy in Grades 4 to 6 in Ontario (Toronto: Queen’s Printer, 2004), 12.

[2]Tony Taylor, “From History Horror Stories to Historical Literacy,”Monash Magazine (2004), 2. Retrieved on May 5, 2010 from

[3]See Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind:  How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 172-175.

[4]Peter Lee, “PuttingPrinciples into Practice: Understanding History,” in How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom, ed. S. Donovan & J. Bransford (Washington DC: National Academies Press, 2005), 32.

[5] For a study of students’ ideas about these questions, see Peter Lee, “Historical Literacy: Theory and Research,” International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research, 5 (2005), 29-40.

[6] Bruce VanSledright, The Challenge of RethinkingHistory Education: On Practices, Theories, and Policy (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[7]Garner &Boix-Mansilla, Teaching for Understanding in the Disciplines – And Beyond, 151. On the proto-disciplinary knowledge developed by students in history, see Sam Wineburg and Jack Schneider, “Was Bloom’s Taxonomy Pointed in the Wrong Direction?,” Phi Delta Kappa, 91 (December 2009/January 2010), 56-61.

[8]On parallel challenges facing students in the U.S. curriculum, see Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, 79-80. 

[9]StéphaneLévesque, Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the 21st century(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

[10]Sam Wineburg,“Unnatural and Essential: The Nature of Historical Thinking,” Teaching History, 129 (2007), 6.



What about orally literate students?

Hi Dr. Lévesque,

I'm curious to know whether you think students who cannot yet read and write can begin developing historical literacy. Do you think it is worthwhile beginning history education before students can read and write?

Thank you!


What did Sean do on the weekend?


Very good question Kate. Let me try an answer with the following scenario:


Sean is a grade 1 student who, like most of his classmates, thinks he does not know history – history as a scholastic form of knowledge about the past. One Monday morning, Sean comes to class and his social studies teacher asks him what he did on the weekend. After some thoughts, he goes on to tell the whole class his personal story of his weekend in family, including passages from the video ‘Brother Bear’ he watched on television Saturday night. The story is simple but it encompasses all the elements of a historical narrative: it includes a historical topic, a timeframe, some characters, events connected together in a causal chain, and a retrospective view from the present (what historians call “hindsight”). After Sean has finished, the teacher turns to Amélie and asks her: “What did Sean do on the weekend?” Amélie goes on to tell, in her own words, what she remembers and understood from Sean’s story. Then, the teacher turns to the whole class and asks the group; Who provided the primary account? And who offered a secondary account? Leading a discussion, the teacher takes students to the following questions: what are the differences between the primary account (Sean) and the secondary account (Amélie)? What could account for the differences in the two stories? Which one do you think is most reliable (or “true” in their language)? How could we find out what Sean actually did on the weekend?


Having let this discussion myself in class, I can tell you that students, even in grade 1, can learn to think historically and develop their abilities to read, write, and think critically about the past.  In their own personal world and words, they very quickly and enthusiastically realize the pervasive power of historical narrative as a way for human beings to connect the past, the present, and the envisioned future in a way that make sense to them. It provides students with a meaningful, sense-bearing orientation for situating their place in the world and orienting their actions and identity. Have a look at the following:

Historical content

Thank you for the links Dr. Lévesque!

What do you think about teaching historical content in the elementary grades? Do you think it is worthwhile to teach historical content while teaching historical thinking skills? For example, could we teach Sean and Amélie about the War of 1812, rather than what he did on the weekend?



This is really interesting,

This is really interesting, and a good example to give for future teachers in kindergarden and grade 1-2. I will ask you the same question on the French blog!