The Language of History – Part Two: ‘Figuring it out’.   Leave a comment

Figuring it out: What is History Teaching and Learning?

I asked this question of a number of colleagues in the 1990s in the context of an ethnographic research programme carried out into dual language teachers and learners of history in Hungary. One teacher, Robi, put it like this:

History is not at all giving out dates and definitions; it’s a kind of thinking style or a framework of mind – and if you can give it to them…then that’s very important… I try to make parallels…because I want them to realize that history is not a separate…subject which you learn and there is no connection with life, so I like making parallels; some people don’t like (that). I had a teacher in university who firmly believed that we shouldn’t make any parallels, I remember. But I like making parallels because (although) sometimes they are not good, sometimes they can help understanding.

On the question of the presentation of different historians’ perspectives, another of my colleagues, Stefi, felt that whilst students may find it difficult to cope with a wide diversity of views in the time available, they needed at least to be moved away from the notion that whatever was written down in the history book, that’s true and this is how it was! In particular, they needed to be made aware that answers, whilst never final, are to be found in the complex webs of causation. Robi felt that if we had more books presenting differing perspectives, the students could then figure out (for) themselves by only using the facts…why that happened. They would then, obviously they thought, ‘come up with different views’. This is where we came, in our discussions, to the classroom discourse, and how collaborative it could be.

Stefi recalled that, after a certain time of looking at a certain topic, she moved away from looking at it as a collection of data and dates and names by trying to analyse the particular problem in the topic and predict the questions which the students might have, producing a presentation as a kind of answer to these questions. Robi agreed with this, defining a topic in history as a collection of problems. This also redefines the role of the history teacher as problem-poser rather than problem-solver, and suggests that the most important teacher-competences were therefore the ability to identify and present general issues or problems to students, to ask more specific questions of the students in clear, precise language, and to provide ‘model’ answers without giving the impression that they are either ‘correct’ or ‘objective’.

These brief extracts from our workshops in Hungary (see also the appendix) illustrate something of the value of developing teachers’ awareness of self in relation to subject. The next stage in teacher development is to explore teachers’ own theories related to what they perceive the discourses of their subjects to be. A useful way of doing this is through the exploration of metaphors. For instance, with history teachers, we might describe the discourse of history as being somewhat like an iceberg in terms of our awareness, i.e. that for most learners and teachers it is the story or narrative element which is above surface, most apparent in setting it apart from other curriculum areas. This is the one-fifth of the iceberg which always appears above the surface, but it is supported in this by four-fifths of chronicling and interpreting which lies beneath the surface, not so apparent or obvious in its day-to-day usage. This can be best shown in the following pictogram:

Fig. ‘The Iceberg Principle’


The iceberg diagram therefore represents a hierarchy of historical language. In developing this metaphor, I would explain that some theorists have argued (Husbands, 1996) that history has no specialist vocabulary, since it deals with length, breadth and depth of human experience. However, this does not mean that historical language can simply be acquired; there are key elements of the discourse which can be taught, including key terms and core concepts, starting with the terminology used to describe the tiers of historical language themselves.


So, starting from the bottom up, two-fifths of the language of history could be described as the essentially fixed language of chronicling, the past-into-present intercourse, including the division of historical time into era, century, millennium, period, ancient, medieval, modern; the authentic names for events, dates, sources and artifacts, and the period-specific terms or ‘archaisms’ e.g. fief, beadle, reeve, galleon (used in the past only). Put simply, this is the raw data of the past itself and the discourse markers are usually conveyed in question form by simple ‘who?’, ‘what?’, ‘when?’ prefixes. To answer these, the learner is required to demonstrate a clear understanding of chronology and an ability to relate past events and people to each other within a series of timescales.


The middle two-fifths of the iceberg could therefore be described as comprising the more shifting language of interpretation, the present-into-past intercourse of historical description and analysis (cause, factor, similarity, difference, change, continuity, primary source, secondary source, evidence), combined with terms which have shifted their meaning in transition from the past into present (nobility, monarchy, manufacture/ factory, orders, classes, revolution, radical, conservative, liberal, democracy). The typical discourse features of this tier in the hierarchy would be represented in question form as ‘what factors/ causes…?’, ‘what was the significance of…?’, ‘what do you think were…?’, together with questions prefaced by ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ To operate successfully within this tier, the learner is required to demonstrate an ability to use the language of enquiry in framing their own research questions, to retrieve and evaluate information from a variety of sources and resources, including archaeological evidence and artefacts, and to supply coherent answers relating the processes of change and continuity in human societies over periods of time.


The final fifth of the iceberg, representing the most sophisticated tier of discourse, combines all the structural and functional language contained in the four-fifths below the surface in addition to narrating the past using historical concepts and figures of speech such as the Victorian Working Class(es), the English Revolution, Enlightened Absolutism. These are labels for larger sets of ideas, drawing on higher levels of abstraction (Edwards: 1978). Questions at this level might be phrased ‘how far…?’, ‘to what extent…?’, ‘was this….or…..?’ Alternatively, they might be given simply in a statement form which is followed by a request to the student to ‘explain’ or ‘discuss’. The ability to produce extensive and ‘mature’ narratives at this tier of discourse requires the learner to demonstrate a clear understanding of historical writing, including the turns of phrase and figures of speech used by historians; to organise and communicate the results of enquiries in a variety of written, oral, pictorial and dramatic forms, including debate, role-play and re-enactment.

In addition to linguistic awareness, skills and abilities, learners in all three tiers also need to apply, to varying degrees, the other core educational competences in geography, numeracy, computer literacy, problem-solving, inter-cultural values and conflict resolution. These are common humanistic competences which are perhaps less dependent on linguistic skills. Therefore, historical learning cannot be treated as a metaphorically isolated ‘iceberg’, but needs to be placed within a more holistic ‘ecology’ of education. That, of course, is the responsibility of ‘craft’ historians, history teachers and educators in general. We need to remind ourselves, as well as our students, that history is about the whole of human life in the past, related to the present.

What does this look like in practice? Teaching and Training.

In our initial workshops, Robi highlighted the difference between chronicling and narrating when dealing with a topic like the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Whilst a purely chronicling approach might deal solely with the events in sequence, a what happened at Crécy? approach, a truly narrative approach might focus on the role of the Welsh bowmen in the battles of Crécy (1349) to Agincourt (1415) relative to other military factors and developments. It would result in a question emerging in preparation and teaching such as how did warfare change by the power of the longbow? It would refer back to previously gained knowledge about these changes from studies of earlier chronological topics. So, a narrative approach would, in simple terms, combine ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ to result, through interpretation of the relationship between events, factors, in an explanation of ‘how’ the change transpired. A chronicling approach, by contrast, would simply confine itself to ‘when?’ and ‘what?’ and result in students producing a timeline of dates and events in their notes.

Narrative approaches turn time-lines into flow-diagrams or web-charts, on which references back to earlier factors and changes are shown. The ‘mature’ narrator is thus able to produce an extensive explanation of the process of change following the ‘SEE’ pattern familiar to many history teachers – make a Statement, Explain its validity and provide Examples from sources of evidence to support it. In any teacher-training course, the tiers of historical discourse would need be matched with these types of notional cognitive and linguistic hierarchies. Whilst a great deal of work has been done in recent decades on adolescent cognitive development (Shemilt: 1980, 1984; quoted in Husbands: 1996), very little work has been done on linguistic competences of students, whether in their first or second language, beyond the general recognition that historical description is drenched in linguistic convention (Husbands).

More positively, ‘studying’ history should enable the learner, at any level, to personalise topics and content more generally, to ‘unpack’ complex historical processes and relate them to descriptions in their own lives (Husbands). The metaphor of unpacking personal baggage in a training workshop is potentially a useful tool for a variety of reasons; a specific use here might be to demonstrate how students need to ask and answer the question ‘what’s your story?’ by getting them to relate the happenings they can label in the lives of recent generations of their own families to contemporary-historical events, developing elementary chronicling language in the creation of simple time-charts or time-lines.

At the level of interpreting, activities might be developed to bestow ‘significance’ to ‘historic’ events in teachers’ lives, perhaps drawing twists and turns along a teacher’s ‘career path’, encouraging the use of interpretative language. Finally, being asked to explain or narrate their path (or those of others) involves changing word order and tense structures to show cause and effect, etc. The representation of significant events in words and pictures might also provide plenty of scope for the exploration of figurative language in narrative accounts. Activities like these might enable teachers to personalise ‘the iceberg principle’ as well as providing an introductory exercise with students to gauge both linguistic and cognitive levels.


Story as a Vehicle to Learning and Teaching History

In any teacher-training course, this sequence of activities would lead on naturally to considering ways of working with stories, or ‘Story as Vehicle’ (Garvie, 1990) for language learning. Whilst English language teachers have come to accept this as a valid methodology in their teaching in recent decades, it has tended to be jettisoned from the ‘baggage’ of many history teachers, largely because narrative approaches have been seen as methodologically counterpoised to interpretative ones. Teachers telling stories, giving anecdotes or providing parallel narratives, fell out of fashion in the 1970s and 80s, to be replaced by an emphasis on students developing analytical tools and skills in pursuit of scientific ‘objectivity’ (Husbands); in Hungary, as demonstrated in my workshops and interviews with Hungarian teachers of history, the method has survived such ‘pedagogical’ pressures, and has continued to be used as a means of helping students to access the past.

Some skeptical ‘western’ academics have represented the narrative form as an immature mode of analysis; history teachers have also tended to be dismissive, associating it with the ‘great tradition’ and ‘active didacticism’ of the history teacher relaying a mainly national folklore to essentially passive pupils (Sylvester: 1994, quoted in Husbands). This was never a real problem in Hungary and in central Europe more generally, where the post-war linguistic, philosophical and pedagogical traditions were, until recently at least, never so nationalistic. More recently, cultural anthropology has reinstated the role of narrative accounts in history throughout Europe, particularly through the development of ethnographic approaches to primary sources (Husbands). A pan-European training course for history teachers would need to build on these approaches to show how they have led to a methodological emphasis on students themselves figuring out what the stories mean or show.

In this approach to story, the temporal sequence is often subordinated to explanation and interpretation – back-tracking to clarify causal connections (Lively, 1979). The teacher therefore facilitates the story-telling, or collaborates in the telling; he certainly does not provide a moral, though he may help learners to discover their own – the exercise of history is never an amoral or neutral venture. No story is simply received or heard; it is re-made, recounted, with the sequence and characters altered. The listeners have an active role in this process, and their expressions of interest, boredom, apathy and concern shape the story. They are taught to listen to the silences among the traces left by people of past times (Williams, 1979), because these pauses may be evidence in themselves, which also need interpreting. Their stories thereby become shared experiences, as they are ‘related’ to ‘the organising principles’ of causation, continuity and change involved in the development of complex historical discourse (Husbands). This is the major difference between the language of interpretation and that of narrative; the former is essentially divergent, because it explores the past in relation to differing present positions (a woman probably will not ask the same questions as a man, for example). Narrative language attempts to arrive at a shared understanding of the past, and is therefore integrative and convergent.

In a training pack, or on a training course, these theories could be given a practical focus by lesson planning based on language classroom activities similar to those set out by Morgan and Rinvolucri (1983), Rosen (1988) and Garvie (1990), among others. Their use of ‘staging-posts’, repetitions and other story-telling techniques could be used to demonstrate the concept of discourse markers. Teachers could then be asked, in collaborative groups, to reproduce historical narratives from their own teaching experiences, sketching simple outline chronicles, then re-ordering, using a variety of different time-expressions and tenses (according to predetermined language levels), also incorporating staging-posts and repetitions. Each group could then, in turn, present their story in a micro-teaching exercise to the other participants.

Developing Language Awareness

As a means of developing language awareness among both pre-service and in-service teachers, they could be given the following ‘grammatical guidelines’ for reproducing stories (examples taken from/ adapted from Fisher & Williams, ‘Past into Present 3’ (1989: 31-33):

  • For chronicling, use the simple past to show a sequence of events; e.g. …

“In July 1789, people in Paris attacked the Bastille; In August, they published ‘the Declaration of the Rights of Man’.”

  • Use the past continuous with the past simple to show the relationship between general activities and specific actions; e.g. …

“By mid-1793 France was at war with most of Europe. The British, Dutch and Austrian armies were invading from the north, the Prussians from the north-east, the Piedmontese and Austrians from the east, and the Spaniards from the south.”

  • For interpreting and narrating, use the past perfect to show the relationship between the event you have chosen to begin with and an earlier causative event or situation, e.g. …

“A young army volunteer, Gabriel David, was found guilty of writing ‘infamous words’ and was imprisoned. He had written ‘shit on the nation’ on his leave pass.”

Ten Steps on a Linguistic Staircase

A linguistic framework would help move history teachers away from a transmission model of history which is increasingly inappropriate in both multi-lingual and inter-cultural terms, in the context of the modern multi-cultural and international classrooms in Europe (Husbands). It would replace this with an interpretative-narrative model, in which teacher-talk and the way learners interact with both the teacher and their peers, play central roles in how they learn about the past. All learners need the scaffolding of historical language in order to interpret human experience, and within it their own individual, familial and cultural identities. In addition to raising awareness about discourse features and markers, there are some specific techniques which history teachers can be helped to develop to provide students with greater access to an increasingly international curriculum, whether delivered in their first or second language. These are partly adapted from Sears (1998) and are set out here as ‘ten tips’, rather than as a set of formal recommendations, so that teachers can be encouraged to experiment with them as part of their own classroom action research:

  • stop to ‘talk with texts’, especially by displaying the text on an interactive white board, so that the learners can also engage in dialogue with the text in a shared activity, rather than viewing reading and interpreting text as an individual exercise;

  • show students how to highlight and extract information which they can then summarise in their own words; modify and gloss texts, especially using cloze gap-fill exercises;

  • develop group jigsaw reading techniques, so that learners are not overcome by the sheer volume of text, but can share ideas in working out meanings, and can then collaborate in presenting their own interpretations and summaries;

  • use visual adaptations, especially web-charts to show factors in a web of causation; use interactive CD-roms, Power-Point presentations and subtitled DVDs, providing glossaries as appropriate;

  • provide a balance of activities in all four skills areas – reading, listening, speaking and writing – with plenty of pre-reading and post-reading comprehension activities; don’t allow any students to be passive; challenge them to explain meanings, give synonyms and make simple linguistic and cultural comparisons;

  • give presentations of new ‘key’ concepts and terms, especially for abstract archaisms; present ‘shifting’ vocabulary in context, e.g. ‘comrade’; a glossary may not be enough; a web-chart may be better, showing context and collocation, or etymology and parts of speech;

  • use visual prompts through ‘vocabouts’, identifying simple words, phrases and especially archaic usages in mini ‘field’ trips, and realia, photographs, maps and other pictorial clues in the classroom; make clear distinctions between ‘past only’ and ‘past into present’ vocabulary;

  • allow translation with fixed meanings in bilingual groups, in conjunction with an English to English glossary with phonic spellings; encourage learners to do preparative reading and note-making before topics are dealt with in classwork, giving them an opportunity to prepare the new vocabulary; set up, encourage and monitor L1 subject reading, using the Internet where other L1 resources are limited or unavailable.

  • teach learners a list of common abbreviations (including Latin forms – e.g., etc., i.e.) and show them how develop their own ‘shorthand’ system to take and make grammar-less notes at speed, and then to re-formulate these into connected prose;

  • set process-writing exercises, especially in project work and collaborative course work, so that learners can benefit from your comments before producing a final draft; don’t set writing only as an individual homework activity or use homework simply for writing-up; use the SEE pro-forma – Statement, Explanation, Evidence as a ‘template’ for academic writing in groups.

These ‘tips’ have been given in no particular order of priority, since this will be determined by the teaching and learning context, together with the needs, language levels and ages of learners.

The Continuing Upward Spiral of Development

My own teaching and classroom research have shown how ethnographic approaches, an essential part of ‘the Humanities’, lead to a form of continuing professional development which enables teachers to focus on areas of concern and enthusiasm within their own teaching. In my case, a shared interest in the nature of collaborative discourse in the dual language history classroom has led to a significant raising of awareness and sharing of teaching resources and insights. Personally, I continued to develop them to meet challenges involved in integrating second language students into mainstream English-medium subject area teaching, and more recently in multi-lingual contexts in international secondary schools. These have provided fresh discourses through continuous engagement in new ethnographic cycles and collaborative upward spirals with learners and teachers.

Appendix: On ‘What is history?’ (Jan 1996)

“Robi: It’s the accumulated experiences and knowledge .., the past …, events of the past=

“Stefi: =Or story about the past=

“R: =Story about the past, yes …,=


“R:=Events of the past …, interaction …, .., what processes and events had an influence on processes and events in other parts of the world ..,/=


“R: ..,/= .., how the events happening in different parts of the world interlinked with each other …, connected to each other .., is a cumulative process …, how one thing instigated the happening of another thing (…….) …, that’s what I’m most interested in .., this part of history ..,=


“R: .., ‘történelem’ .., comes from ‘történet’ …, linked with story .., the word story, I think ..,=

“S: = Something which happened some time ago …


“R: One thing that I read once and I really like this .., that if you take logic .., as a discipline (….) logika? /mm/.., if you take formal logic .., then, according to formal logic, you have a premise or two premises; you have a conclusion and you’re almost certain, especially in sciences, if that happens ((..)) certainly something else will happen ((non-verbal actions)) .., (for example) if you boil the water and the water’s going to be hot .., it will evaporate .., OK? //mm// .., so that’s why .., you can ((coughs)) e:r, e:r, foresee, …, or you can foretell (…) what will happen .., because the direction of logic (so it’s) forward-going //mm// but with history, OK? /mm/ e:r .., the enquiry – or the enquiry of history – is turning backwards /mm/.., so it’s not necessary .., so what will happen according to formal logic in sciences – what will happen later on – is necessary .., /mm/ but if you have an event which happened – let’s say there was a war in 1515, OK? .., you cannot say with certainty what was the cause of that war, because it happened earlier …, /mm/ do you understand that? And the rules of logic – the rules of formal logic – cannot be applied to that /mm/ , so one thing can have many causes /((……..))/=



“R: = /((………)) If we go further and further back then we don’t have enough information, if we’re talking about the Roman .., e:r, Roman Empire or the , e:r, Greeks .., we have limited resources (…), sources (…), and on the basis of that limited sources we have to figure out why the thing happened /mm/ .., right? So partly we have limited (re)sources and partly the rule(s) of formal logic is forward-going, so we cannot say that that happened exactly because of that. //aha, mm// Because, e:r, e:r, the reasons behind the events, or behind certain processes, could be, e:r, could be absolutely different; so it could happen because of the social situation; it could happen because of the economic crisis; it could happen because of personalities (right) /mm/ for example, the French Revolution (and the) Jacobins, when they argued with each other /mm/ – Danton and Robespierre – it was all about personalities; or the Girondins and the Jacobins, it was all about personal, e:r, e:r, what is that?, e:r, ..,=

“S: =Rivalry?

“R: =Yes, personal rivalry /aha/ yes, they wanted to have more .., so there could be several causes and we can never be sure, e:r, what exactly contributed to the, e:r, development of a certain situation, and that is very interesting, I think /aah/ in history.


((pause in recording))

“((conversation in Hungarian))/

“Andrew: / Right, so, (….) what you’re saying… is that when you do a scientific experiment, for example, /uhhumm/ you can isolate what the cause or the catalyst of a certain reaction is /exactly! yes, .., with great certainty!/ …, I mean I often talk about catalysts when I’m teaching history as well as causes, you know – origins, causes, catalysts etc., /uhum/ and it’s a very complex situation /yes!/, and you’re saying that history therefore cannot be seen as a kind of science in that way?/exactly!/ or certainly not as a pure science?/yes,yes!/ but the most it can be seen as is an, uhm, applied science /yes/ if you like, e:r and I suppose the other question is there .., of course we apply ourselves to the past, don’t we? /uhum/ and we look at the past, e:r /uhum/ with our own particular concerns .., so the /yes!/ questions a woman asks about the past /exactly!/ (….) would be different from the questions a man /exactly/ asks; …, different the..the..e:r questions a central European /uhum/ would ask would be different from a western European /yes!/, different from an African etc.? /yes/

“R: Yes, that was exactly another point that I wanted to raise (out) of that; that was one of the points that I said to the American students when I was teaching there .., I..I..I see history and I teach history in a subjective way; there is no objective history teaching, I think, //uhu, aha!// because everybody .., yeyeah, there’s a difference between a woman and a man asking questions about history and our personal interests, our personality, what we are interested in (…), so I think history teaching is subjective.”


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