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7 strategies that support historical thinking with grade school kids

As we continue to talk about ways to integrate literacy skills and social studies content, I often get the chance to chat with elementary teachers about the process. It’s always an interesting conversation and always seems to include some sort of comment that questions the ability of grade school students to think historically.

It’s not that K-5 teachers think historical thinking can’t happen. They’re just not sure what it can look like. So if you have questions or know someone who might have questions about what historical thinking looks like at the grade school level, we’ve got you covered.

(And you secondary folks? Don’t be afraid to browse through the list. There’s a lot of crossover.)

You wanna start with the basics. Head over to the Teaching History Interactive Poster and find an overview of historical thinking skills as well as specific examples. The poster is divided into four quadrants. Hover your mouse over a quadrant to highlight it and click. When the image of that quadrant appears, click on a bullet to learn about the image and find related learning and teaching resources.

Teaching History also suggests these 7 strategies to support grade school historical thinking:

  • Use historical stories to engage students and help them imagine the past.
  • Teach students the differences between fictional stories and evidence-based historical narratives.
  • Introduce historical topics and units with some lessons that help students understand the time and place under study. This will help students gain a broad base of knowledge to inform their understanding of particular historical events.
  • Check for students’ understanding of particular topics before teaching your lesson and units. Be on the lookout for inaccurate information, conflation of disparate events and people, fanciful recreations, and dramatic additions. Use what you uncover to help you choose areas of instructional focus and craft lessons.
  • Introduce historical thinking as detective work or similar to the work that journalists do when piecing together a story. This kind of historical discovery can be fun for younger students.
  • Try modeling a “think-aloud” for students as you read a document. Tell students that you are going to share your thoughts as you read and ask them to pay attention to the questions you ask, the mental notes you make, and the types of things you are looking for.
  • Remember to use visual primary sources as well as written ones to teach students historical analysis.

What it can look like:

Short reads:

Long read:

The cool thing? Much of what we do with grade school kids to encourage historical thinking also works at the secondary level. So if you’re MS or HS, don’t be afraid to adapt some of these ideas and strategies to fit your kids.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Glenn, I forgot to tell you how much I love this post.  We are going to incorporate it somehow into our new History Lab–the poster, the ideas, etc.. Thanks for always giving me such good ideas! Mary Mary Madden Director, Kansas Museum of History Kansas Historical Society 6425 SW 6th Avenue Topeka KS 66615-1099 785-272-8681, ext. 417

    Real People. Real Stories.

    October 5, 2015
    • glennw #

      I can’t wait to see the final product! ELementary folks are clamoring for great ideas / resources and KSHS is the perfect place for that to happen. Thanks for all you and KSHS do!


      October 5, 2015

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