Volume:6, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2014

Historical Literacy through Historiography: Teaching to the C3 Framework
Lovorn, Michael G. [about]

KEYWORDS: History, literacy, social studies, historiographic analysis, historical thinking, C3.

ABSTRACT: The author discusses the new C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards and, in particular, its emphasis on the development of historical literacy skills at the secondary level. The author then shares a comprehensive, research-supported strategy for engaging high school students in historiographical analysis activities to facilitate their development of historical thinking and related disciplinary literacy skills. Historiographic analysis is a strategy that takes students outside the classroom and into their local communities to perform literacy skills-based evaluations of historical commemorations (such as museum displays, landmarks, monuments, roadside historical markers, local presentations, parades, festivals, or reenactments). Throughout a historiographical analysis project, students are trained to collect and critique information on a commemoration, to recognize perspective and agency, to evaluate sources and evidence, to evaluate causal relationships, and to formulate strong arguments and counterarguments. Students then develop presentations to share their findings. The author demonstrates that activities of this nature fit neatly into the design of the new C3 Framework and support the development of historical literacy skills.



In 2013, the National Council for the Social Studies released the new C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards as a concise and coherent articulation of knowledge and skills students need for success in college, career, and civic life in the 21st century. In their introduction of the framework, the writing team asserted that “students need the intellectual power to recognize societal problems, ask good questions and develop robust investigations into them, consider possible solutions and consequences, separate evidence-based claims from parochial opinions, and communicate and act upon what they learn” (p. 6). “Most importantly,” the introduction continues, “they [students] must possess the capability and commitment to repeat that process as long as is necessary” (p. 6). While these assertions refer to broad field social studies teaching and learning, each point is certainly consistent with historical thinking and historical literacy skills we have promoted for nearly two decades. This paper is intended to highlight the embedded emphasis of historical literacy within the C3 Framework, and to promote historiographical analysis as one approach to advancing middle and high school students’ development of these and related skills.

Discipline-specific literacy may be defined as a confluence of content knowledge, experiences, and skills necessary to read, write, listen, speak, and think critically within the contexts of a given field (Wisconsin Department of Education, 2013). With this understanding, naturally, the skills and abilities necessary to demonstrate “literacy” in one field may be quite different than those necessary to do so in another. Literacy in social studies contexts is marked by skills and abilities related to developing questions and planning inquiries, applying social studies-specific concepts and tools, evaluating informational sources and evidence, communicating conclusions, and when needed, taking action (NCSS, 2013). More specifically, historical literacy relates to the practice and demonstration of understanding of change and continuity, recognition of context and perspective, evaluation of primary and secondary sources, recognition of causation, and articulation of informed arguments (NCSS, 2013, p. 45-50).

It should be noted that while the C3 Framework provides a new lens through which we may perceive social studies education, its components are familiar to all social studies teachers. Indeed, we have been teaching these concepts for many years. Even the notion of teaching discipline-specific literacy has been around for a while. In Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (2001), Sam Wineburg asserted that students who are enabled to interrogate the historical sources they encounter and then use findings to form reasoned conclusions about the past, build literacy skills that enable them to read and think like historians. Nearly a decade later, in her article Disciplinary Literacy in the History Classroom (2010), Anita Ravi argued that reasoning, inquiry, and analysis development activities should be embedded in instruction and that such activities result in students’ better understanding of differences in experience and perspective (p. 55). These and similar studies highlight the great potential harnessed in activities that develop students’ historical literacy skills. As articulated by the National Center for History in the Schools (2014):

…true historical understanding requires students to engage in historical thinking: to raise questions and to marshal solid evidence in support of their answers; to go beyond the facts presented in their textbooks and examine the historical record for themselves; to consult documents, journals, diaries, artifacts, historic sites, works of art, quantitative data, and other evidence from the past, and to do so imaginatively – taking into account the historical context in which these records were created and comparing the multiple points of view of those on the scene at the time. (p. 1)

Of course, when NCSS released the C3 Framework, it was promoted as a means to assist states in their efforts to update and upgrade state social studies standards, and to strengthen social studies programs on the school and district levels. C3 objectives are to:

“… enhance the rigor of the social studies disciplines; build the critical thinking, problem solving, and participatory skills necessary for students to become engaged citizens; and align academic programs to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies.” (p. 1)

Dimension 2 of the C3 Framework supports these objectives by asserting that historical investigation should engage students in self-directed, discipline-specific, inquiry-based investigation, evaluation of sources and evidence, recognition of point of view, and informed argumentation (p. 45). Such exercises in historical inquiry and “chronological reasoning,” as it is called in the introduction of Dimension 2, present students with a better, more thorough opportunity to develop deeper understandings of people and events of the past (Lovorn, 2013). C3 has categorized these attributes into four overarching areas of focus: 1. Time, Continuity, and Change; 2. Perspectives; 3. Historical Sources and Evidence; and 4. Causation and Argumentation. Each of these areas highlights components of historical literacy as previously discussed, and is discussed briefly here.

Time, Continuity, and Change

The structure of the framework is such that dimension components are emphasized and reinforced throughout the K-12 educative process. It is clear from this language that middle and high school students are to develop and use sophisticated knowledge and skills related to thinking in and across time. Student development and success is marked by their skills for engaging in these literacy processes, particularly classification, analysis, and evaluation. Activities founded on these continuums, it is expected, will blend content and procedure as described in Common Core State Standards (NCSS, 2013, p. 20).


The C3 Framework also recognizes the need for students to understand, recognize, and academically appreciate the existence of perspective and point of view in the telling and interpreting of history. Once again, all student engagement comes in the forms of detailed explanation and analysis. Disciplinary literacy in history, as discussed earlier, requires students to recognize perspective in narrative and other forms of text, and to be able to articulately cite the impact of various points of view on the inquiry process (Ravi, 2010). Once again, the area of focus is supported by consistent procedural literacy skills-based language. For instance, through exposure to multiple historical points of view, students are to learn to identify and measure the impacts of various influences and trends related to the recording of history by different people and at different times.

Historical Sources & Evidence

Students’ exposure to historical various historical sources and evidence is among the most critical literacy skill they will develop during their middle and high school years. This area of focus may even be perceived as the common thread that links all other historical literacy skills. Scholars have emphasized the link between sources (primary, secondary, and other) and historical thinking for years, and have been clear in identifying it as a critical attribute of historical literacy. Here, students are taught not only to classify and analyze the primary and secondary various sources within their reach, but to identify their strengths and weaknesses, recognize their limitations, and when appropriate, critique them for validity, usefulness, and accuracy.

Causation & Argumentation

The final area of focus may be considered a culmination of the other areas. Building on their understandings of time, continuity and change; their recognition of various perspectives; and their abilities to evaluate sources, students should be well equipped to explain causal relationships in history (why ‘A’ led to ‘B’ and ‘B’ led to ‘C’), and critique competing arguments about past people or events. Students’ abilities related to historical causation and argumentation may also be the most telling in terms of their degree of competency in historical literacy skills (VanSledright, 2013).

Scholars are consistent in demonstrating the necessity of historical literacy, and to date, the C3 Framework, while not entirely revolutionary, has been well received across the field. It is commonly understood that students who can “think like historians” are better equipped to not only recognize representations of historical perspective and agency, and develop the reasoning skills necessary to interpret, analyze, and use information about past events (Stearns, Seixas, & Wineburg, 2000), but are also more likely to become lifelong learners of history (RecollectionWisconsin.org, 2014). With this in mind and while the C3 Framework has been celebrated is many circles, it should be noted that the concerted emphasis on these and other complex historical literacy skills has its challenges.

A Rationale for Historiographical Analysis

Research into the sustained engagement of students in higher order thinking activities have revealed that they receive only limited exposure to these and similar strategies during their K-12 experience. A nationwide study conducted by the Social Studies Inquiry Research Collaborative (SSIRC) recently revealed that students in social studies classrooms generally experience only episodic higher order thinking, engage in little substantive conversation, and are often make only marginal connections between content and their lives (Saye et al., 2013). It is understood that conceptual and procedural inadequacies obstruct students’ development of literacy skills, particularly in contexts of historical thinking and analyzing the past, and can even contribute to their apathetic response to content (Lesh, 2011). In 2010, the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) published National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: A Framework for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment (CSSS) to articulate a concise but comprehensive scope and sequence for higher order thinking in social studies. The predecessor to C3, CSS framework was issued with the central thesis of equipping students with the tools needed to make informed, reasoned decisions and construct meaningful opinions about social studies content. The framework emphasized disciplinary literacy skills that should be applied in the development of students’ abilities to source and contextualize content, and adaptable for various grade levels (NCSS, 2010). One such way to develop these abilities is to engage students in historiographic analysis projects (Blaszac, 2010; Lovorn, 2012).

Historiographic analysis is a strategy that keys on each of the disciplinary literacy components outlined in Dimension 2 of the C3 Framework. The approach centers on the teacher’s willingness and ability to give up some of her authority regarding content and procedure, and in doing so, take students outside the classroom and into their local communities to perform literacy skills-based evaluations of historical commemorations. Commemorations, as they are described here, refer to museum displays, landmarks, monuments, roadside historical markers, local presentations, parades, festivals, reenactments, or similar. Throughout a historiographical analysis project, students are trained to collect and critique information on a particular commemoration, and in doing so, practice and hone their skills to recognize perspective and agency, evaluate sources and evidence, explain causal relationships, and formulate strong arguments and counterarguments.

Project Design

Historiography is the study of how history is presented, and in the context of this multi-phase project, we focus on how history is presented in a local public arena. I suggest these analysis activities take place in the students’ local community for three reasons: 1. Local commemorations are typically immediately accessible to students; 2. They are often excellent outlets for observing historical perspective and agency; and 3. They can provide real world connections to history that lead students to greater understandings of community and perceived senses of identity. So with this, students and their teacher embark upon a semester-long, multi-phase historiographical analysis project. Each of the four project phases is described here.

Project Phase 1 – Introduction to Historiographic Analysis

During phase one of the project, the classroom teacher presents students with an example of a historical commemoration. Ideally, the teacher would be able to lead students on a walking tour of a monument or marker in close proximity to the school, although online examples may work as well. Students are exposed to the single historical marker and encouraged to verbalize any evaluative observations about its size, shape, inscription, and other commemorative elements.

Students are encouraged to verbalize general as well as specific observations about the commemoration, and the teacher needs to be prepared to direct students’ attention to particular elements of interest. Students are engaged in a discussion at the site of the monument, and all of their observations are noted. The teacher’s objective at this point is to generate rich discussion by prompting students to perform several evaluative assessments before returning to the classroom for a review of the analysis. During this analysis, the teacher demonstrates how to maximize information gatherings, and walks students through the process of making bolder, evidence-based evaluative judgments about the commemoration.

Project Phase 2 – Training

During Phase 2, students are trained in making six distinct observations when evaluating historical monuments: 1. Design, size, and shape; 2. Location or spatial orientation; 3. Date and origin of commemoration; 4. Recognized perspectives and agendas; 5. Historical accuracy and completeness; and 6. The overall “take-home” message for students or anyone else who might encounter the commemoration. Students are then introduced to a data collection sheet they will use for the duration of the project and practice completing it with the data they gathered from the examples in Phase 1. The sheet is made up of seven categories of data to be collected; the six listed above, plus one more about historical advocacy. Figure 1 (below) contains an abbreviated project data collection sheet.

Figure 1: Data Collection Sheet

Step 1: For your historiography project, select a monument, landmark, roadside marker, gravestone, work of art, museum display, or similar type of historical/cultural commemoration (In some cases, even an un-commemorated historical event could work!).

Step 2: Collect the following data on your selected commemoration.

  1. Describe the physical design, shape, and size of the commemoration. What, if anything, makes this commemoration unique?
  2. Describe the location of the commemoration. Do you find any particular significance in its location or orientation? If so, why?
  3. What is the date of commemoration? Can you tell who placed it or paid for it? Are there any particular historical events or sociopolitical philosophies of that time that might have influenced the commemoration?
  4. Describe any perspectives or agendas you recognize in viewing the commemoration. What messages are likely being conveyed with the inscriptions (or lack there of)?
  5. After performing a brief historical investigation, what can you share about the historical accuracy of the commemoration. Does it tell a complete story?
  6. In its present state, what is the “take-home” message conveyed by the commemoration? Summarize how middle school or high school students might perceive it.
  7. If you were to be invited to recommend changes, revisions, or updates to the commemoration, what might they be?

Project Phase 3 – Selection, Collection, & Synthesis

During Phase 3, students are encouraged to identify a local commemoration on their own, and to perform thorough, self-guided evaluations using their newly acquired historiographical analysis skills. The teacher should allow students to be creative as they select the topics of study, but is encouraged to have a list of acceptable commemorations to recommend if students do not identify one promptly.

Once the selections has been made and approved by the teacher, the student is given time (likely any period between a week and a month, depending on how involved the project is to be) to collect data as outlined in the sheet introduced in Phase 2. Once raw data has been collected, students can begin their systematic synthesis and analysis of information, and eventually make overall evaluative assessments about the commemoration. While students are expected to work independently, periodic small group peer sharing opportunities are encouraged, and the teacher can still provide careful guidance and regular progress checks, and make herself a resource for historical context, inquiry pointers, and advice on how to find information on obscure commemorations. 

Project Phase 4 – Historiography Fair

Finally, during Phase 4, students prepare to share their findings in a formal setting by crafting presentations in the form of PowerPoints or trifold posters. The trifold poster option has proven useful in a variety of settings because they may be displayed anywhere in the school, and students can serve as presenters in a face-to-face setting. The “historiography fair” as I call it, can be held in a central location of the school, perhaps during lunch, and students from all grade levels can attend. The fair could also be accessible to other teachers, administrators and parents. Presentations of this design make for terrific culminating activities because they allow middle and high school students’ to operationalize the historical thinking and historiographical analysis skills they have learned during the project.

Several variations of this project may also be performed. Once students demonstrate comprehensive command of the skills necessary, they could duplicate these steps by historiographically analyzing a passage of text, primary/secondary sources, images, music, arts, or other source of historical information. A historiographical analysis of a work of art or lyrics of a folk song, for instance, could be quite revealing and engaging for middle and high school students.


Noted experts in history/social studies education have supported the C3 Framework and its emphasis on the development of comprehensive and sophisticated activities that are geared toward honing students’ understandings of time, continuity, and change; perspective and agency; sources and evidence; and causation and argumentation (Ravi, 2010; VanSledright 2013). Historiographic analysis is one highly engaging and effective way to serve these objectives by getting students out into their historical communities and learning to see themselves as integral parts of the historical inquiry process (Fallace, 2009; Loewen, 2009; Lovorn, 2012). By exposing students to examples of historical ambiguities that are commonplace in historiographic analysis projects, teachers facilitate students’ conceptualizations of historical complexities and advance their development of abilities to draw informed conclusions and make succinct arguments about history (Neumann, 2013).

Historiographical analysis activities foster students’ development of literacy skills critical to the discipline of history education, including inquiry, substantive conversation, and real-world connectedness (Lovorn, 2012). The C3 Framework was conceived as a clear, coherent call for more student engagement at all levels in activities that develop skills for good decision-making, critical thinking, and democratic citizenship. As noted historical thinking and historiography scholar James Loewen argued: “Helping students understand what happened in the past empowers them to use history as a weapon to argue for better policies in the present. Our society needs engaged citizens, including students” (2009, p. 17). By exposing students in historiographic analysis activities such as the project described here, teachers address each historical dimension and area of focus outlined in the C3 Framework, and tap one great potential way to advance literacy in the discipline and thus help create that engaged populace.


  1. Blaszac, B. J. (2010). Preventing ‘back-atcha’: Improving secondary school instruction by introducing prospective teachers to historiography. History Teacher, 43(3), 435-439.
  2. Fallace, T. D. (2009). Historiography and teacher education: Reflections on an experimental course. History Teacher, 42(4), 205-222.
  3. Lesh, B. (2011). Why won’t you just tell us the answer?” – Teaching historical thinking in grades 7-12. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
  4. Loewen, J. W. (2009). Teaching what really happened: How to avoid the tyranny of textbooks & get students excited about doing history. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  5. Lovorn, M. (2013). Encouragement, engagement, and empowerment: Recognizing the need for more historical thinking and historiography projects in the secondary social studies classroom. The Leader, 27(2), 25-29.
  6. Lovorn, M. (2012). Historiography in the methods course: Training preservice history teachers to evaluate local historical commemorations. In T. Keirn & D. Martin (Eds.), Historical Thinking and Pre-Service Teacher Preparation, a special edition of The History Teacher, 45(4), 569-579.
  7. National Center for History in the Schools (2014). Historical thinking standards. Retrieved from http://www.nchs.ucla.edu/standards/historical-thinking-standards-1.
  8. National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). (2013). College, career, and civic life (C3) framework for social studies state standards: Guidance for enhancing the rigor of K-12 civics, economics, geography, and history. Silver Spring, MD: National Council for the Social Studies.
  9. National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). (2010). National curriculum standards for social studies: A framework for teaching, learning, and assessment. Silver Spring, MD: NCSS Publications.
  10. Neumann, D. (2013). Against the grain: Teaching historical complexity. Social Education, 77(6), 310-313.
  11. Ravi, A. K. (2010) Disciplinary literacy in the history classroom. In S. McConachie & A. Petrosky (Eds.), Content Matters: A Disciplinary Literacy Approach to Improving Student Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 33-59.
  12. RecollectionWisconsin.org (2014). Disciplinary literacy in social studies and history. Retrieved from http://recollectionwisconsin.org/teachers/socialstudies
  13. Saye, J., & The Social Studies Inquiry Research Collaborative. (2013). Authentic pedagogy: Its presence in social studies classrooms and relationship to student performance on state-mandated tests. Theory and Research in Social Education, 41(1), 89-132. doi: 10.1080/00933104.2013.756785
  14. Stearns, P., Seixas, P., & Wineburg, S. (Eds.). (2000). Knowing, teaching and learning history: National and international perspectives. New York: NYU Press.
  15. VanSledright, B. A. (2013). Assessing historical thinking and understanding: Innovative designs for new standards. New York, NY: Routledge.
  16. VanSledright, B. A. (2011). The challenge of rethinking history education: On practices, theories, and policy. New York, NY: Routledge.
  17. VanSledright, B. A. (2002). In search of America’s past: Learning to read history in elementary school. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  18. Wineburg, S. S. (2001). Historical thinking and other unnatural acts: Charting the future of teaching the past. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  19. Wisconsin Department of Education (2013). What is disciplinary literacy? Retrieved from http://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/cal/pdf/section2.pdf

Home | Copyright © 2019, Russian-American Education Forum