History and Literacy

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:

We are all language teachers, and history provides the perfect vehicle for teaching literacy. They are wonderfully compatible, fitting together like hand and glove.

Language is at the heart of both English and history: both are reading subjects. Speaking and listening, discussion and debate are central to both. Both explore people's feelings, conditions, motives, relationships. Both are concerned with the questioning and interpretation of texts of various kinds, including objects and images.

Historical knowledge is primarily organised and communicated through language. The National Curriculum for English can be addressed through historical activities, so meeting both history and literacy objectives.

See what this website offers
Many lessons on this website combine history and literacy in stimulating and imaginative ways.

National Literacy Strategy

The National Literacy Strategy provided a focus for children's thinking and learning in relation to both language and history. History supplies us with the full range of text types, and as such history provides a comprehensive context for practising language - it is language in action.

Literacy can't be taught in a vacuum: the children need a variety of texts to work on. Crucially, history involves the reading of difficult and challenging texts of every kind. Reading and writing in history stretch children and extend their literacy across a range of genres. We therefore suggest starting with the history, to engage the children imaginatively. This gives the later literacy focus a context which makes sense to the children and has meaning for them.

In this way, working within both history time and the literacy hour, we can enhance both curriculum areas. This means focusing explicitly on two separate sets of objectives: those for literacy and those for history.

The lessons section includes several accounts by teachers who have combined history and literacy in stimulating and imaginative ways.

Speaking and listening

The Government's Primary Strategy had a strong emphasis on speaking and listening. Speaking and listening, questioning, discussion and debate, if interesting and challenging, will extend children's thinking, aid assessment for learning and clarify and embed new vocabulary and concepts.

In the history classroom, we see these processes at work when we ask children to engage in:

  • group discussion to generate ideas
  • talking through their thinking processes
  • discussing different interpretations of a source
  • justifying statements made
  • pair problem-solving
  • reciprocal teaching
  • evaluating their own learning.

Reading historical texts

Historical texts make greater linguistic demands than modern texts: they include vocabulary not used today, and have more complex sentence structures. Many historical words have meanings which are different from the same words today; for example, the Church, gentleman, hose. Historical texts therefore give teachers wide-ranging opportunities to challenge and intrigue children (for example, they love discovering that Tudor hose are worn on men's legs) - and to increase the richness and breadth of children's vocabulary.

Understanding text is not only about word meanings. To appreciate the full meaning of a text, we need also to understand the world in which it was made. The language of any text reflects: the situation in which it is produced, the people who make and use the text, the people's culture and society, their world view, their mental landscape, their power structures. The texts from people in history provide tantalising opportunities for understanding them and their world. Examples are the 1841 Parliamentary Commissioners' report presentiing dark images of children working down coal mines, or an Aztec codex written in pictograms.

Teachers can draw on these rich historical sources to extend children's literacy as well as their historical knowledge. On this website, see particularly Dissolution of the monasteries - Haughmond Abbey and Tudor Tempest, where the children arrived at deep understandings of difficult and challenging texts and the Tudor world in which they were written.

Reading different text forms

It is perverse to think of texts as written texts only In the multi-media world our children inhabit. Images and artefacts are texts in their own right. They require careful ‘reading' to understand their forms, meanings and purposes, just as written texts do. Although a reader may need different ways of looking to understand the different text modes - written documents, visual images and physical artefacts - the process will be the same. The reader must ask similar questions about all text types:

Content: What is the text/image about?
Structure: What form does the text take?
Message: What is the writer/maker trying to say?
Method: How is the maker/writer choosing to say it?
Time: When was the text/image/artefact produced?
Situation: What were the context and the location in which it was produced?
Reason: Why was this text/image/artefact produced and for whom? Why was it produced in this particular form?
Meaning: What can it tell me about people, places, events, society?

These, and more, are standard questions which historians ask when interrogating sources of evidence - written, pictorial or physical. They reflect and extend questions familiar in literacy teaching - about genre, mode, tenor, and audience.

Research evidence

Intertwining history and literacy teaching also engages and motivates children.

Several research studies (by Guzzetti et al, 1992; Levstik, 1990; Smith, 1993) have found that children are more motivated to learn, and learn better, when their history lessons include literature in the form of historical fiction.

Similarly, Cottingham and Daborn (2000) found that secondary pupils who were taught history integrated with literacy were more successful in their learning. This is because the literacy activities such as writing frames and DARTS (Directed Activities Related to Text) gave them a conceptual model for understanding texts. In primary schools, Nuffield teachers' action research confirms what these studies tell us.

Literacy lessons

Lessons with strong literacy links

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