…a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom…
The Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863
Personally, I stopped reading and started skimming after “to wit.” What makes this text complex? Everything. First, the text contains challenging vocabulary words including but not limited to proclamation, to wit, whereof, thenceforward, authority, thereof, and repress. Second, it uses a sentence structure and language that is not familiar to our 21st century ears. Third, it requires knowledge of the historical time and politics in order to comprehend it. As such, it is an inconsiderate text as written. (To learn more about this specific primary source, review the Primary Sources workshop entitled, “Concerning Emancipation: Who Freed the Slaves?”)
Primary sources, especially historical documents like “The Emancipation Proclamation,” are not easy reading for our students. These documents often employ “technical” jargon and/or are written in historically-specific language. Students need support in deconstructing these texts – this support can be provided via instructional read-alouds. In doing so, teachers give students models for how to read and think about complex texts.
According to Annenberg Learner’s Primary Sources: Workshops in American History, primary sources are “firsthand evidence and artifacts of the past [including] letters, photographs, maps, government documents, diaries, oral accounts, pamphlets, or leaflets.” It is important for students to read and grapple with these primary source texts because they are the basis of our historical knowledge. However, because of the text complexity, teachers may choose to provide students with summaries or abridged versions instead. I would like to challenge teachers to support students in their reading of the actual documents.
There are several read-aloud strategies that will help make these texts more accessible to students. Here are two of my favorites:
Questioning the Author or QtA
My favorite instructional read-aloud approach is Questioning the Author or QtA (Beck & McKeown, 2006). Teachers help students actively build reading comprehension by asking queries during the read-aloud; these queries require students to refer to the text and seek evidence from the text to support their responses. Queries include: What does the author tell us here? Why do you think the author tells us this now? In addition, teachers explain complex vocabulary and content as they read. This is especially important for reading primary sources. Teachers are available to address challenging ideas during the reading as students build their comprehension. Teachers help build the context so that students aren’t confused by missing information. At the same time, teachers using QtA hold their students accountable for comprehending the text as a group.
Another strategy that will help students learn to effectively grapple with reading primary sources is the Think-Aloud (Wilhelm, 2003). As teachers read aloud a primary source, they should stop at difficult words and sections and ask, “Does this make sense?” Teachers then say out loud to the students why these parts are complex and what they plan on doing to decrease the complexity. In doing so, teachers model for students that all readers grapple with text and that there are effective strategies for comprehension.
These strategies are supportive and educative. Teachers support students in their comprehension of the text by stopping frequently during the read-aloud and guiding students’ interactions with the text. The strategies are educative because they help model for students how to be proficient readers. As such, the reading of primary source documents can be demystified for students.
Learn more about read-alouds in general in Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 7, “Social Justice and Action.”
Beck, I, L. & McKeown, M.G. (2006). Improving comprehension with Questioning the Author: A fresh and expanded view of a powerful approach. NY: Scholastic.
Wilhelm, J. (2003). Navigating meaning: Using Think-Alouds to help readers monitor comprehension. Retrieved from: http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/495