Reading documents

Please note: this guide was written before the 2014 National Curriculum and some of the advice may no longer be relevant.
For more up-to-date guidance see:

Using a textbreaker: scroll down the page ...

Historical documents are a boon to teachers. They offer the full range of types and genres of writing, from letters and diaries to official speeches and reports, from narrative accounts to poetry of every kind, from instructions to persuasive arguments and advertisements.

As such, they make excellent shared texts for literacy teaching, introducing children to new ideas, vocabulary and forms of language. Crucially, if tied in with the teaching of a history topic, historical documents provide a context that enhances the learning of literacy.

The historical context connects the children with the people, society and situation that produced a particular document, engaging them imaginatively in exploring its wider meaning. Reading historical documents includes reading as a technical exercise in comprehension and deconstruction, but goes way beyond this to the higher literacy of understanding meaning, situation and significance.

With appropriate teaching approaches and support structures, children can read documents well above their official reading ages. Our reading of documents with children can be broken roughly into two stages.

Comprehension and deconstruction

Here are some strategies for reading difficult and challenging texts with children.

  • Initially, read through the document with the children (or play it on an audio tape) to give them a feel for the whole text and its general meaning.
  • Start by asking the children 'just to glance at it' for things they will find easy (such as people's names, dates, places, animals, colours). After scanning the text like this a few times, the children lose any sense of its difficulty and are ready for deeper study.
  • Cut up the text into paragraphs, stanzas or even individual sentences for pairs or groups to work on. Later pool the pairs'/groups' contributions.
  • Cut up the text into sections and jumble them up. Give each pair or group one mixed-up text to sequence.
  • Ask the children to give the whole text, and each section or paragraph, a title.

Meaning, situation and significance

Now we turn to delving deeply into the document, asking ever more searching and complex questions. Here we ask children to develop their critical faculties, their skills of inference, of interpretation. 'In this poem, how do the Vikings describe their world? What situations do they regard as important enough to write about? What do they value? How do their values differ from ours today?' This stage requires much discussion, careful listening by the teacher, and acceptance of all contributions.


We have devised a textbreaker structure to help children make sense of difficult and challenging texts. What does textbreaker do?

  • scaffolds the children's learning
  • helps with comprehension and deconstruction of the text
  • enables exploration of the layers of meaning in the text.

Textbreaker can take several forms, from the simple to the complicated, and includes at least some of the layers in the list below.

A General structure of text

  • outlines
  • features

B Words and phrases

  • concrete nouns
  • abstract nouns
  • adjectives
  • verbs
  • adverbs
  • pronouns, etc.

C Ideas

  • main ideas
  • sequence of ideas
  • hierarchy of ideas

D Genre and Register

  • author's intent
  • language used: tone, conventions
  • Audience

E Historical and other concepts

  • time: dates, periods, sequence
  • terminology: war, Reformation, valour
  • cause/consequence: reasons, situations, significance, results
  • interpretations
  • evidence and enquiry

With textbreaker we usually provide a glossary of hard words for instant reference.

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