Comprehending historical sources

Stele of Minnakht. (c. 1321 BC)
"Stele of Minnakht" by Clio20. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Minnakht_01.JPG

History sources are documents and artefacts that provide information about the topic you are studying. As a student, you will be required to find specific information from sources and demonstrate the meaning of a source in a variety of assessment pieces. Therefore, the ability to find and explain information in historical sources is an important skill to develop. 

 

Unfortunately, the information in the source is not always easy to find. Some of the information is clearly stated, but other information is only hinted at and is less clear. 

 

As a result, you need to learn how to comprehend the meaning of a source. Thankfully, comprehension is one of the easiest source criticism skills to learn, but it does require practice to master fully. 

 

What is ‘comprehension’?


Comprehension is the ability to understand explicit information in a source.  

 

‘Explicit information’ is anything that is clearly stated in a source using specific words. 

 

Since comprehension is focused on the meaning of particular words and phrases, this skill often works best with written documents. If you’re looking to learn how to understand the meaning of visual sources, like photographs, cartoons, and posters, have a look at the interpretation section of the History Skills website. 

 


How to comprehend the explicit meaning of a source


The most important thing you need to do to comprehend the explicit meaning of a source is to show that you understand the exact words or phrases that are clearly stated in the source.  

 

To do this, you need to take the time to carefully read your source and identify the main words and phrases that could offer specific information regarding the topic that you are studying.  

 

Here are some clear and practical steps to follow in order to successfully comprehend the explicit meaning of a source. These steps are sometimes called ‘annotating a source’: 

  1. Read the entire source through once, highlighting words you are not familiar with as you do 
  2. Use a dictionary to find the meaning of the words you highlighted in Step 1 
  3. Read the source a second time, underlining what you think are the most important statements 
  4. Read the source a third time, writing notes or questions about what specific phrases mean 
  5. If possible, discuss your notes and questions with another student to improve your understanding  

Here is an example of an annotated source using the steps outlined above:

 

(You can click on the picture to make it larger).

Once you have completed the steps above, you should feel more confident about what the source is saying and what information it contains.  

 

How to demonstrate your comprehension


Once you have taken the time to understand the explicit meaning of the words and phrases in a source, you are ready to use the information in your assessment tasks.

 

If you are conducting a research task, you can use a direct quote from the source to help answer on of your sub-questions. 

 

If you are writing an essay, you can use a direct quote from the source to help prove the argument you are making in a particular paragraph to support its topic sentence

 

If you are preparing for a response to sources exam, you can use your comprehension to answer specific exam questions. Remember, it can also be useful to support your answers by providing direct quotes from the source itself. 

 


For example:

Imagine that you had the following source and questions on an exam paper: 

Source 1 

“The Gothic tribes swept through the valley in a flurry of violence and slaughtered more than two thousand villagers and burnt all of the available farmland so that people were left to starve during the harsh winter that followed.” 


Question 1 

According to Source 1, how many people died in the initial attack on the valley? 


Question 2 

According to Source 1, why did so many people starve during the winter after the attack by the Gothic tribes? 

Both questions above are comprehension questions, requiring you to demonstrate an understanding of the meaning of particular words and phrases. 

 

Example answers to these questions are provided below. 

Answer to Question 1 

According to Source 1, more than 2000 people died during the initial attack on the valley. This is clear when the source says that the “Gothic tribes swept through the valley in a flurry of violence and slaughtered more than two thousand villagers”. 

 

Answer to Question 2 

According to Source 1, many people starved during the winter after the attack because the Gothic tribes destroyed all of the agricultural land with fire. This is evident when it states that “The Gothic tribes ... burnt all of the available farmland so that people were left to starve during the harsh winter that followed”. 


Additional Resources


The difference between explicit and implicit information in sources

Image source: https://pixabay.com/photos/middle-ages-poet-writing-ancient-4938310/
Image source: https://pixabay.com/photos/middle-ages-poet-writing-ancient-4938310/
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