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How to communicate like a historian

Disciplinary literacy in History

To me, literacy in History is like remnants of an ancient tower. Literacy helps historians to understand people and places of the past, and events, civilisations and ideas of the past that resonate today. All of the skills of historical inquiry are directly related to literacy:

The process of historical inquiry is.. the ability to ask relevant questions; critically analyse and interpret sources; consider context; respect and explain different perspectives; develop and substantiate interpretations, and communicate effectively. (ACARA).

This is all literacy!

Today, we will cover one of disciplinary literacies of History which is:

What kind of genres do historians need?

As we covered in a previous post, genres are purposes for writing in subject area. To see more about that click here. Genres have patterns of meaning that can be explicitly taught to our students, so that they can communicate like a subject expert. Not all the subjects use all of the genres, so the choice of genres in a subject area form part of the disciplinary literacies of that subject.

What are the genres of History?

History covers a lot of purposes for writing, more than many other subject areas.

The main genres of History are:

1. describing

2. recounting past events and the lives of people from history

3. explaining

4. arguing a point of view.

There are many other kinds of genres that students in school are asked to do, but the four above are the main ones.


Descriptions are also essential in History. Some examples are:

· Describe the classes in Egyptian society (a classifying report)

· Describe features of medieval life (a descriptive report).


Historians often recount past events in sequence, using historical facts and evidence. They can write recounts of the lives of important people (e.g. Pharaohs and Emperors and dictators) and also of empires and time periods (e.g. the Persian Empire). Historians often finish a recount with an evaluation of the significance of the person (which is like an argument text) or an explanation of their impact and legacy (which is like a consequential explanation).


History is all about cause and effect. The core business for Histories is to look at the past and explain causes, effects, outcomes, consequences, based on evidence.

Some examples are:

· Explain the causes of World War I (a factorial explanation)

· Explain the impact and legacy of the Roman empire (a consequential explanation)


Arguments are persuasive texts that requires students of History to take a position to argue a case, using historical evidence as a back up, such as:

· Why is it important to study ancient human remains?

· Was the Battle of Long Tan a defeat or a victory, and for whom?

There are many fantastic resources exploring genres of writing like a historian – see the list below for recommended ones. There will be more posts about History soon.

Follow up

· In a History faculty meeting, look at your assessment program for a year level and identify the genres that you are asking students to do. Discuss where students tend to struggle the most. Focus on this area for next term. Collaborate with your peers to write some model texts (examples) related to the topic and assessment tasks that are coming up. See the post on scaffolding writing for more info.

· Within the faculty, divide teachers up between the four most important genres (description, explanation, recount, argument). Colleagues can investigate the resources below and report back to the group at the next faculty meeting, sharing some relevant literacy teaching strategies they have found.


ACARA (2021). History curriculum. Rationale. Available at:

Derewianka, B., & Jones, P. (2016). Teaching Language in Context. 2nd Edition. London: Oxford.

Humphrey, S., & Rutherford Vale, E. (2020). Investigating model texts for learning. Newtown: PETAA.

Weekes, T. (2007-2021). Literacy Works for History Year 7.

To reference this post, please cite:

Weekes, T. (2021, September 13). Disciplinary literacy in History. [Blog post]. Retrieved from


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