Academic journal article The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Sciences

History Literacy and Visual Informational Texts: Scrutinizing Photographs beyond Their Borders

Academic journal article The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Sciences

History Literacy and Visual Informational Texts: Scrutinizing Photographs beyond Their Borders

Article excerpt

Historical thinking is a pattern of cognition, not simply comprehension of historical events (Martin & Monte-Sano, 2008; Wineburg & Martin, 2009). As historians examine a primary source, they consider its type, context, corroboration with other sources, and all variables surrounding its source, which includes the source's intent, credibility, and bias/perspective (Nokes, 2011; VanSledright, 2014; Wineburg, 1998, 2001). State and national educational initiatives require students deploy such habits of mind, or heuristics. For example, students are to analyze primary sources, reference textual evidence, identify perspective, distinguish implicit from explicit bias, juxtapose multiple and diverse sources, and extricate fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment (NGA, 2010; CCSSO, 2012; NCSS, 2013; PARCC, 2012). Simply viewing a historical photograph or reading a letter is not historical thinking.

Historical thinking can be initiated at young ages, practiced over time, and refined with age, yet scholars contend students' success relies largely on teachers' selection of rich informational texts (Baildon & Baildon, 2012; Bickford, 2013; Wineburg, 2001). Teachers integrate various text-based and visual-based informational texts that engage, but do not exhaust, students' cognitive resources (Martin & Wineburg, 2008; Nokes, Dole, & Hacker, 2007). Students of all ages--children, adolescents, undergraduates, and practicing teachers--gravitate to photography, which are visually appealing and present a seemingly transparent, digestible message (Barton & Levstik, 2003; Callahan, 2013; Loewen, 2010; Wineburg, Martin, & Monte-Sano, 2011). Photographs suggest the events happened as they appear and connote a false sense of impartiality. Scholars have explored students' analyses of content within photographs' borders; the findings are robust yet incomplete because not all elements were considered (Callahan, 2013; Foster, Hoge, & Rosch, 1999; Tally & Goldenberg, 2005). Scholarship has not considered all the pathways that influence viewers' understanding. Even the analysis guide and sample questions suggested by the Library of Congress (Figure One) overlooks how a photograph's title inscribes meaning both within and beyond the photograph's borders.

Reader's Guide Analyzing Photographs & Prints Observe Ask students to identify and note details. Sample Questions: Describe what you see. * What do you notice first? * What people and objects are shown? * How are they arranged? * What is the physical setting? * What, if any, words do you see? * What other details can you see?


Encourage students to generate and test hypotheses about the source.

Why do you think this image was made? * What's happening in the image? * When do you think it was made? * Who do you think was the audience for this image? * What tools were used to create this? * What can you learn from examining this image? * If someone made this today, what would be different? * What would be the same?


Invite students to ask questions that lead to more observations and reflections.

What do you wonder about...

who? * what? * when? * where? * why? * how?

Further Investigation

Help students to identify questions appropriate for further investigation, and to develop a research strategy for finding answers.

Sample Question: What more do you want to know, and how can you find out?

A few follow-up activity ideas:


Write a caption for the image.


Select an image. Predict what will happen one minute after the scene shown in the image. One hour after? Explain the reasoning behind your predictions.


Have students expand or alter textbook or other printed explanations of history based on images they study.

For more tips on using primary sources, go to http://www. …

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