Introduction to Literacy in History

Literacy in History

Literacy in History is not the same as historical literacy, although the two are interconnected and one informs the other.

Literacy in History:

  • refers to the literate practices and strategies that enable individuals to understand, synthesise and communicate History content knowledge
  • relates to the reading, viewing, writing, speaking and listening practices that students use to access, understand and communicate History content knowledge.

Historical literacy does not have a commonly agreed definition, but it can be summed up as requiring 'coherent, conceptual, and meaningful knowledge about the past that is grounded in the critical use of evidence' (Downey & Long, 2016, p. 7).

Literate practices are necessary to enable historical literacy to enable informed and critical engagement with, and interpretation of, various sources, including

  • textual
  • visual
  • oral
  • material (objects/artefacts).

Literacy in History Video: Explained

Literate demands in History education

Literacy strategies enable students to

  • develop their understanding of history
  • engage with historical concepts and skills
  • communicate historical understanding.

In addition to acquiring new knowledge, students in history develop key skills, including:

  • sequencing chronology
  • using historical sources as evidence
  • identifying continuity and change
  • analysing causes and effect and
  • determining historical significance.

All the key skills listed above involve the literate practices of reading, writing, speaking and listening in the classroom. More than this, though, they require students to

'read history texts critically, to write thoughtfully, and to engage in meaningful discussions about the past ' (Downey & Long, 2016, p. 8).

Fundamental to History is the ability to read and critically analyse primary and secondary sources, including visual sources such as

  • paintings
  • photographs
  • maps
  • timelines.

Like all curriculum areas, History has technical terminology which has a specific meaning in the curriculum context. This is particularly important in the understanding of historical concepts such as

  • perspective
  • continuity and change
  • cause and effect
  • evidence
  • empathy
  • significance
  • contestability.

These literacy skills also help students to clarify, extend and communicate their developing knowledge of history. Writing is fundamental to 'doing' history, as is speaking about and discussing interpretations and ideas of the past. Writing and speaking help to focus thinking and to clarify understanding to express ideas (Downey & Long, 2016, p. 9).

In addition, historical texts are complex as they:

  • incorporate multiple genres
  • are multimodal, containing written language, images, timelines and maps.

To help to improve students' reading and writing in History, students must be explicitly taught about

  • the textual features of the various genres,
  • how multimodal elements work together to create meaning.

The common genres students will read and write in History include:

  • biographical and historical recounts
  • descriptive reports
  • explanations
  • persuasive texts (including analytical exposition, discussion and challenge).

Literacy in the Victorian Curriculum: History

Literate practices are embedded in the aims of the Victorian Curriculum: History. For example, the curriculum aims to ensure students develop:

  • understanding and use of historical concepts and skills, including sequencing chronology, using historical sources as evidence, identifying continuity and change, analysing cause and effect and determining historical significance
  • capacity to undertake historical inquiry, including skills in the analysis and use of sources, and in explanation and communication of arguments (VCAA, n.d.)

The Historical Concepts and Skills strand of the curriculum emphasises the subject-specific nature of language and literacy requirements as 'fundamental to the discipline of history' and provides 'a structure for the development of historical understanding' (VCAA, n.d.

Within History, students undertake reading and viewing, writing, and speaking and listening to:

  • sequence chronology
  • use historical sources as evidence
  • identifying continuity and change
  • analyse causes and effect
  • determine historical significance
  • communicate information and arguments.

Being able to engage with a variety of history-specific texts enables students to:

  • access new historical content
  • develop their historical knowledge
  • develop their skills in communicating historical knowledge.


ACARA.  Literacy learning progression and History. Retrieved from

Downey, M. & Long, K. (2016). Teaching for historical literacy: building knowledge in the history classroom. New York: Routledge.

VCAA. (2016). Victorian Curriculum: History. Retrieved from