Close Reading and Annotating Historical Sources

History | Grades 6-12

This is the fourth in a series of eight resources on historical argumentation written especially for the Lesson Study Group at Mills College by educator Stan Pesick. These resources are designed to be used individually to help define inquiry questions for use in Lesson Study cycles or in sequence for background research in the Study phase of a cycle. An ordered list of the sequence can be found in part one.


As discussed in Working with Historical Sources, reasoning with historical sources requires a fine grained analysis to determine whether or not they can be used as evidence in support of an argument. According to the Stanford History Education Group, the components of this analysis include:  

  • Close reading of a variety of historical texts
  • “Sourcing” (the focus of the previous resource) – including drawing on background knowledge to contextualize the source in a specific time place
  • Corroborating information and evidence
  • Identifying conflicting accounts or ideas

These analytical goals reflect the academic and disciplinary demands placed on students as they use historical source documents to understand a particular history individual, place, and time. The annotation guide that follows helps students build on their close readings of historical texts and undertake the reasoning required to understand, interpret, and employ historical sources as evidence.  These techniques can be used with the wide variety of historical sources, including:

  • Primary source documents
  • Maps
  • Charts and Graphs
  • Paintings and Illustrations
  • Political Cartoons
  • Newspaper articles
  • Videos and films
  • Speeches

Why Focus on Annotation?

Many scholars note the importance of annotating in partnership with close reading Matthew D. Brown writes that “Reading is one thing, but getting something of value from what we have read is another. When we take up a text, we are engaging in a conversation with the author, with others, and with ourselves.”  

But working with historical sources requires a specific kind of conversation between reader and text. This conversation begins with the previously discussed sourcing questions, which ask the reader to read “around” the historical text, noting time, place, authorship, and other information about the text’s origins and historical context. It is then continued with a close examination and conversation with the text itself. What information, perspectives, ideas or questions are brought to the surface?

In addition, a student’s annotation of an historical text has the potential to reveal areas of understanding and misunderstanding to the teacher. Close reading the annotations can highlight student difficulties with problematic vocabulary often contained in historical texts, allowing a teacher to engage with the student to clarify meaning.It can be used to address a lack of background knowledge, without which the text is unintelligible.

This sample annotation guide for historical sources shows one way to prepare a student to read and analyze an historical source.

What to Focus on in the Source Documents: A Guide to Annotating

Identify, comment on, or question the words, ideas, and/or perspectives that:

  1. Are not clear to you or you don’t quite understand;
  2. Provide information on who created the document, when, where, and for what audience;
  3. Reveal how the creator of the document might have viewed the historical question, event, or individual at the center your historical inquiry;
  4. Provide insight into what analytical frame (reasoning) you will use to analyze the documents and develop your argument;
  5. Support the argument you develop in response to the inquiry question;
  6. May not support your position and that you will need to counter as you develop your argument in response to the inquiry question.
  7. Raise questions for you about the creator and content of this source. What intrigues, confuses, or troubles you?

Application: A Sample “Conversation”

Let’s look at  how this annotation guide might be employed with a source that might help answer historical questions.

  • Inquiry Question: Is John Brown an American hero?”

  • Inquiry question: “Imagine it’s April 1963. Should Dr. Martin Luther King encourage school-age children to participate in the continuing demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama?”

Connecting Key Questions and the Annotation Guide

A quick internet search of “Historical Thinking Rubrics” reveals many different models and goals from a wide variety of history educators and organizations. While some vary in emphasis and scaling language, they almost uniformly include an attribute identified as “evidence.” The evaluative questions below are framed to capture both what the rubrics identify as quality work and what the annotation guide asks students to consider as they work with historical evidence. Below the questions are annotations from each of the above examples. Each annotation is followed by a teacher comment that explains why it is an example of the kind of writing and reasoning that would elicit a “yes” response to the question.

  • Does the student use knowledge of the source’s historical context to develop and understanding of its connection to a specific time and place?
    • Student annotation – “This is taken from an interview Brown did with U.S. government officials conducted right after the raid.  He will probably try to explain himself as clearly and as strongly as possible. “
      • Teacher Comment:  Here the student uses information about the source of the text to understand how Brown might respond to an interrogator’s question.
  • Does the student use sourcing information to analyze for meaning, perspective, and reliability?
    • Student annotation – “This piece of context suggests, with what we know about the history of race relations in Birmingham that this would be a very serious and difficult conversation about what they might do.”
      • Teacher Comment:  Here the student uses information about the source’s historical and social context to develop an analysis of why a conversation about civil rights strategies to adopt would be a difficult conversation to have in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Does the student interpret information from the source document to help build and support an historical argument that responds to the inquiry question?  
    • Student annotation – “Brown starts with the “Golden Rule” which  I think states “do unto others…” He is saying it is his duty to help those in bondage. It implies he sees them as equals.”
      • Teacher Comment:  Here the student interprets a line from the text and building on that interpretation explains what it tells us about Brown’s beliefs.  The conclusion that Brown believed in racial equality, at a time when that was far from the norm, may be used to support an argument in support of his heroism.
    • Student annotation – “This statement suggests Dr. King would not support including young children in the demonstrations. It would be too dangerous.”
      • Teacher comment: Here the student’s interpretation of the text could lead to the argument that King should not support the participation of young children in the Birmingham civil rights struggle.
  • Does the student appropriately grapple with, and not ignore, sources that may not support their historical argument?
    • Student annotation – “Here Dr. King is talking about to other “civil rights leaders.”  I wonder what he will say to the people who want to join the protests?”
      • Teacher comment:  Here the student anticipates, through a focus on context for the speech, a different audience that may have their own reasons from wanting to act and take on all the risks involved.  The student would then have to explain why King should support the participation of youth in the Birmingham struggle.

Discussion Questions

After reading this resource, it may be helpful to discuss the following questions as a team.

  1. What ideas about teaching and learning reasoning with historical sources strike you as important to your setting?
  2. How does your curriculum currently support students in developing this key historical thinking skill?
  3. What experiences have your students had in working with historical evidence?
  4. How might this disciplinary skill and concept be developed as students move from one grade to another in your school?  Is there a developmental progression based on age and grade?

About the Author

Stan Pesick taught U.S. History and American Government/Economics in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Oakland, CA, for eighteen years (1976 – 1994). Between 2001 and 2011, he co-directed OUSD’s history/social studies department and directed three federally funded Teaching American History (TAH) projects. Between 2011 and 2014 he co-directed the Oakland Unified School District/Mills College History-English Language Arts (ELA) Collaborative on Writing the Argumentative Essay. Since 2014 he’s worked as a curriculum consultant to the National Japanese American Historical Society and National Park Service. He currently works with both the Bay Area and National Writing Projects.