World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

Why do students find reading history challenging?

Sharon Cohen


     We've all complained about our students' reading abilities. Either they lack enough reading comprehension or they don't read enough. What might be the source of this common problem? The research literature on literacy is quite long but the focus on reading in world history is a bit thin as might be expected for a new field. I propose that there might be at least three causes of why students appear to have poor reading abilities: the lack of an obvious opinion in textbooks, the challenge in finding an author's purpose in primary sources, and students' discomfort with conflicting primary sources.

     A research study by Richard J. Paxton1 helped me realize why history students often complain that they find history textbooks boring. He determined that the lack of a visible author in textbooks can affect students' engagement with the material. In his study of 30 high school students in a world history class in Seattle, he gave half of the students a published textbook passage about Caesar's murder with seven relevant primary source documents and the other half got the same primary sources accompanied by a reading passage written with a clear authorial voice (written by Paxton). Students were asked to write a short essay on the causes of Caesar's murder. The ones with Paxton's manufactured passage produced more insights and wrote better conclusions than those given a passage on the same topic with the invisible omniscient third-person voice common in many published textbooks. Paxton concluded that the "invisible author" in textbooks discourages students from questioning the conclusions presented in each chapter. Additionally, the students who read the textbook passage were less likely to challenge the intentions of the authors of the primary sources. The writing samples from the group who read the textbook excerpt also mimicked its flat style and orderly recitation of facts. This study helped me understand a possible reason why our world history students often complain that they find the textbook boring. What I think they mean is that they do not know that they can challenge what the author(s) write in the textbook.

     What can world history teachers do if we don't have the time or inclination to rewrite our textbooks in the same way that Paxton did for the short passage on Caesar's murder? We might consider giving students more provocative questions to consider when reading a textbook. We should not assume that our students know how to take notes in a way that prompts an internal monologue about the possible problems the textbook author(s) often don't address explicitly, i.e. the sourcing of the evidence they used or the issues they neglected for lack of space or interest.

     The second possible cause of students' apparent poor reading abilities might be the paucity of experience they have with reading primary sources with an expert historian's eye. Most students read primary and secondary historical sources for basic information.2 Studies show that giving students opportunities to read multiple and sometimes conflicting sources help them go beyond finding the main idea because they are required to interpret evidence. We should be aware though that many students show discomfort with controversy in historical sources.3 We can address this obstacle by taking advantage of our authority in the classroom and give students the task of identifying the different points of view about the topic or event. Eventually, how we represent the value and purpose of interpreting historical sources will clue students into the methods that historians use and ease their way into reading critically.4

     Here's a case study from my school. When my colleagues and I designed the classroom tasks our students would do related to World War II, we wanted confirmation that the students were using and questioning the sources on warfare in the twentieth century. Therefore, we spent the most effort on wording the questions we gave the students to answer each day. We started with a guiding question: "What are the consequences of total war?" and reminded students of how we developed concept attainment of the term 'total war' during our investigation of the characteristics of warfare during World War I. [We used the interactive white boards to have students match images and words exemplifying the mechanized warfare and civilian involvement aspects of total war and different words and images for pre-modern warfare. If students put the words or images in the correct box, the board made a funny sound.] We then asked students to analyze statistics from the 1930s through the 1940s on production of military materiel (weapons and vehicles) and economic strength of the major powers involved in World War II. On the second day, we directed students to compare the justifications Rudolph Höss gave of his command of Auschwitz and Henry Stimson gave of dropping atomic bombs on Japan. [Students read the two sources in the primary source reader The Human Record (Fifth Edition, Volume 2) which gave full attribution information in a half page introduction to each source.] We made sure to prompt students to note the sources for the statistics and the primary sources. During our large class discussion on the third day, students used the statistics (which were mostly from histories of World War II written by British authors in the 1960s) when they explained how the need to keep up with other countries motivated leaders of governments to use all of their economic resources for total war against their enemies. Many students, in talking about the sources, also mentioned that the statistics from the British authors were based on what governments reported during the war, so they wondered if there might be some deliberate inaccuracies in the numbers to scare their opponents. Other students suspected that secondary sources by authors from other countries, especially those that lost the war, might influence the way the statistics were organized on the page. A number of students when referring to the primary sources as examples of what happened to civilians in total war acknowledged that they were using background knowledge they had from previous classes to agree or disagree with the authors about their justifications for their actions. Students' interpretations of the justifications usually referred to the influence of the sources being written several years after the events and the status of the author's government after the war. In each class, several students noted that Höss was subject to the Nuremberg trials which might have led him to sound more contrite than he really felt. We concluded that our students' willingness to interpret multiple sources and cite the sources in classroom discussions was aided by the interpretive task we gave them to do. We explicitly reminded students that our guiding question was modeled on questions historians have asked about warfare in the twentieth century.

     I am hopeful that if teachers can be clearer that they want students to develop arguments based on and about sources, then I think we will see more students challenging the reading we give rather than finding the texts boring and full of contradictions that confuse them. I also look forward to more scholarship on reading in world history, so we can gain insight into how students learn in our field.

Sharon Cohen teaches Advanced Placement World History and International Baccalaureate History at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. She can be contacted at:



1 Paxton, R. (2002). The influence of author visibility on high school students solving a

historical problem. Cognition and Instruction, 20(2), pp. 197-248.

2 Peter Afflerbach, P. and Bruce VanSledright, "Hath! Doth! What? Middle graders reading innovative history text," Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44 no. 8 (2001) 696-707; Samuel S. Wineburg, "On the reading of historical texts: Notes on the breach between school and academy," American Educational Research Journal, 28 no. 3, (Autumn 1991) 495-519; Steven A. Stahl, Cynthia R. Hynd, Bruce K. Britton, Mary M. McNish, and Dennis Bosquet, "What happens when students read multiple source documents in history?" Reading Research Quarterly, 31 no. 4 (1996) 430-456.

3 Jean-Francois Rouet, M. Anne Britt, Robert A. Mason, and Charles A. Perfetti, "Using multiple sources of evidence to reason about history," Journal of Educational Psychology, 88 no. 3 (1996), 478-493.

4 Ibid.



Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2009 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use