Teaching Students to Interpret Documents

Ane Lintvedt, December 2004

Interpreting documents and using them in analytical essays or papers is one of the most basic and yet one of the most intricate skills that historians employ. As teachers, we need to be more explicit and more "transparent" when we teach students how to analyze documents. Drawing upon more than 20 years of teaching students, a dozen years of scoring both the European and World History AP exams, and my recent observations as the "Question Leader" (the ultimate point-person) for the 2004 AP World History document-based question, I’d like to offer the following observations about the teaching of document interpretation.

In May 2004, over 47,000 students took the Advanced Placement World History exam.1 One of the three essays the students had to write was a document-based essay. The students were given six documents, and asked to answer an essay question based on the documents.2 The students were essentially writing a mini-research paper in an hour. Their essays received points (0–9) based on the mastery of historical skills as demonstrated in the essay. The skills they were asked to demonstrate were the following:

  • writing an acceptable thesis that directly answers the question;
  • using all or all but one of the documents provided;
  • demonstrating comprehension of the documents by using them to support an argument;
  • supporting their thesis with appropriate evidence from the documents;
  • analyzing the point of view or bias correctly in half the documents;
  • analyzing the documents by grouping them appropriately;
  • realizing that there might be information they do not have at their disposal, and consequently asking for or explaining what piece or type of information they wish they had in order to make their specific argument stronger.

Generally speaking, the students did well with the skill of understanding the basic meaning of the documents. What I lightheartedly call "plot summary" is a skill most students are taught in literature classes as well as history classes, so it’s not so surprising that many students did this well. They did not do as well when the meaning of the document was shrouded in higher-level language issues: students regularly missed the meaning of documents in which sarcasm, irony, or rhetorical questions were used. They often have insurmountable problems with archaic vocabulary. (In the 2003 document-based question, practically no student knew what the verb "to raise" meant in relation to "soldiers." We got thousands of essays in which students wrote about raising children to fight!) Students also often failed to "read between the lines": they missed implied information. Most students, for example, did not pick up on the nuances of the Imperial Adviser’s "Memorial on Buddhism," in which he condemned Buddhism in part because it was socially destabilizing:

Now I hear that Your Majesty has ordered the community of monks to go to greet the finger bone of the Buddha [a relic brought to China from India], and that Your Majesty will ascend a tower to watch the procession as this relic is brought into the palace. If these practices are not stopped, and this relic of the Buddha is allowed to be carried from one temple to another, there will be those in the crowd who will cut off their arms and mutilate their flesh in offering to the Buddha.3

Students need to be exposed to, and specifically trained in, extracting less-obvious interpretations from documents. Teachers and professors need to explicitly demonstrate (model) how a practicing historian would zero in on the question of why this procession was so potentially horrifying to the Imperial Adviser. To understand that issue and the various levels of horror the adviser professed, students need to learn (that is to say, must be explicitly taught) to ask questions about the point-of-view (POV) of the author—his social class, his stake in the issue at hand, his education and background, and so forth.
More of these difficult analyses need to be worked into classwork and discussion sections on a regular basis. These are sophisticated levels of analysis (inferred meanings and POV) that students cannot just "pick up" on their own. For POV analysis, offer the students the following aid: ask why would this particular person be producing this particular type of document, at this particular time, in this particular place?

The other most commonly missed skill in the document-based question this year was the ability to analyze the documents. The students summarized them (they did "plot summary") but did not explain how the document helped prove their thesis, or how it helped them to make a particular argument. In terms of grading (scoring) the AP exam, this was very problematic: there were a lot of students out there who could do really sophisticated plot summary! In terms of teaching our students to be thoughtful historians, we need to demonstrate explicitly (model) how we take a document and analyze it for its ability to help us answer the question, or its ability to support the thesis/hypothesis of the essay.

If students really understood the purpose of the thesis statement, perhaps the job of analyzing a document in order to support a thesis would be easier. I admit, it is mystifying to me how a student can go through years of writing tests, essays, papers, and lab reports and still not understand that a thesis statement is the one-sentence answer to the question that is being asked. (Yes, I know this begs the question of how much writing students do, but in my case, the students do a tremendous amount of writing across the K–12 curriculum and still seem to have trouble with the concept of a thesis statement.) Nonetheless, if my experiences are valid indicators, students struggle with this most basic writing and analytical skill. We historians have to be explicit about teaching what a "thesis statement" should be, and we have to show how to write one in classwork and TA-led discussion sections. We can’t rely on the English department to do this for us.
In the AP world history exam, unlike its counterparts in U.S. or European history, students are instructed to ask for an "additional document" that would make their argument stronger. Of course, practicing historians know the frustration of not being able to find a particular type of document as they research and write papers. This requirement in the AP exam is a marvelous teaching tool: in order to ask for an appropriate missing document, students need to assess the weakness of their own arguments—and indeed, assess if they have an argument! It also leads a student to evaluate the uses of different types of historical evidence: Would a map, a photograph, a piece of cloth, a diary, a document from an unrepresented social group, help my argument? And why would such a document create any further enlightenment? This can become a very thought-provoking teaching exercise, and I’d encourage its use in all history classrooms when working with document-based essays.
Most students read a document as if they were reading a paragraph in a narrative text. Students have to be shown that historians often read documents "backwards," so to speak: we look at the author and the date of composition, and form a quick conclusion about the context in which the author’s comments might have been made. This is a sophisticated, multilayered set of skills, and we have to teach students how to do this explicitly.

All experienced teachers know that there is no substitute for practice when it comes to writing. Sometimes, however, the thought of grading all those essays is quite overwhelming! Here are a few practical suggestions for shorter, or more student-centered assignments.

  • Give students one short, primary-source document every other day, or every third day, and work for 5–10 minutes on how to decode it with them: plot summary, POV, and an analysis in the context of the current class topic.

  • Give students an essay question, but require them to write the introductory paragraph only, with a thesis that answers the question as the last sentence of that paragraph. Every now and then, let students critique each other’s work, preferably by keeping the writing anonymous.

  • Most textbooks now include primary source documents embedded into the chapters. Assign them as document-analysis homework: they should do plot summary, POV, and analysis.

  • If you give exams, replace one typical essay question with a document-based question instead.

  • Have the students create their own document-based question, a scoring rubric to go with it, and perhaps write the response to it themselves. (This one manages to summon up many skills.)

  • Purchase back copies of previous AP exams from the College Board, and use those document-based questions for student assignments. It’s relatively easy to parse out the tasks: students could be asked to write the whole essay, or just the introductory paragraph, or just do the document analysis, and so on. Be sure to have them critique each other’s work every now and then (removing names to "protect the innocent," perhaps).

  • Give students practice with reading longer documents, even with the difficult language of a particular time period. Work with them to produce a lexicon of "weird language" of the period. Or if you have a sense of humor, have them create silly sentences from weird historical vocabulary to go along with a more historically correct example.

Historians bring a specific set of skills to the task of analyzing documents. As teachers, we need to be more explicit about teaching those skills, and we need to teach these skills with regularity. I certainly don’t want to denigrate the amazing work thousands and thousands of students and their teachers do every year to prepare for AP history exams, and for their basic classwork in any history course. I am offering my observations in the spirit of improving our teaching in order to help our students have a more nuanced understanding of the historians’ craft and a better sense of history itself from the documents themselves. And besides, I think most of us would agree that the documents are the fun part!

—Ane Lintvedt teaches history at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Maryland.


1. In 2004, over 260,000 students wrote the AP U.S. history exam, and over 79,000 wrote the AP European history exam. All three AP history exams have a document-based question (DBQ). Since I have worked on the scoring of the AP world history exam for the last three years, my examples in this essay will be drawn from that exam.

2. The 2004 question was: "Based on the following documents, analyze the responses to the spread of Buddhism in China. What additional kind of document(s) would you need to evaluate the extent of Buddhism’s appeal in China?" The document excerpts were from: (1) The Four Noble Truths; (2) a pro-Buddhist Chinese scholar, c. 350 BCE; (3) an anonymous Chinese scholar who saw the benefits of meshing Confucian and Buddhist doctrines, c. 500 CE; (4) an anti-Buddhist Chinese imperial adviser, 819 CE; (5) a Buddhist scholar arguing for coexistence of Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist traditions, 9th-century CE; and (6) an edict of Emperor Tang Wu abolishing Buddhism in China in 845 CE. To see a copy of the complete exam, go to http://apcentral.collegeboard.com.

3. Document 4 from the APWH DBQ: Han Yu, Imperial Tang advisor, 819 CE, "Memorial on Buddhism."