Table of Contents

2.5 Understanding Context of Historical Documents

Often providing the document’s source information is not enough for students to fully grasp the document’s meaning or significance.  Dave Neumann, Director of the History Project at California State University Long Beach, argues that teachers need to be aware of the document’s context and provide students with any missing information that would impede their understanding. Read his explanation of the two types of context that are necessary to understand documents:  

Primary source texts-including poetry and literature from previous eras-do not exist in a vacuum, ready to release universal truths to the careful reader. They are embedded in two crucial contexts that teachers must address to help students derive meaning from what they read."

"The first context is literary (the missing text from a document that is excerpted)…

"The second context is historical. Primary sources are typically drawn from a world that differs from students' own time or place-or both."

Dave Neumann, 2012

The CA Historical and Social Sciences Analysis Skills call for students to understand documents in their historical contexts as seen in the examples below.

CA Historical and Social Sciences Analysis Skills

Research, Evidence, and Point of View, Grades 6–8

5.  Students detect the different historical points of view on historical events and determine the context in which the historical statements were made (the questions asked, sources used, author’s perspectives).

Historical Interpretation, Grades 9–12

3. Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.

Time to Read

Read more from Neumann’s article, “Context: The Foundation of Close Reading of Primary Source Texts” found on pages 5–6 of The Source: Point of View/Perspective (California History-Social Science Project, Fall 2012). Pay close attention to his suggestions for providing literary and historical context without giving away too much information from the text itself, thus honoring the spirit of the CA CCSS.

Time to Reflect

Based on the reading above, describe Neumann’s suggestions for providing literary and historical context in the metacognitive journal.