How to interpret written sources

Japanese writing on a stone fence
© History Skills

Interpreting a source requires you to demonstrate that you understand the overall message of a source.


Interpretation when reading historical sources refers to the process of understanding and making sense of historical texts and records, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the past. 


This requires you to think a bit more about what a source says than is required for simple comprehension.


However, interpretation allows you to draw a more confident conclusion when you evaluate a source, particularly in regards to its relevance to your topic. 

What is 'interpretation'?

Interpretation is the ability to identify implicit (‘hidden’ or less obvious) meanings in historical sources.


You will need to do this most often with visual sources that take time to interpret. However, some written sources will often not be explicit enough for you and they will require your interpretation of the information.

How do I interpret a written source?

To successfully interpret what a written source says, follow these steps:

  1. Read the source two or three times. (Reading it once is often not enough).
  2. Identify the main message of the source. (e.g., What is the most important point made in the writing?).
  3. Highlight the key phrases used by the author. (Usually, two to three key statements are enough).
  4. Summarise the main message in your own words. (This will usually require you to use indirect quotes). 
  5. Read over your summary to make sure everything you have written was stated by the source. (e.g., Don't include your own opinion in your summary).
  6. Reread your summary to make sure you have successfully paraphrased the source and have not simply copied their exact words.

Here is an example interpretation of a source that follows the steps above.


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

What do I do with my interpretation?

Identifying the message of a document shows that you understand the source, which means that you can use it as an indirect quote in your historical writing.


Your interpretation also helps you in your analysis and evaluation of the source. For example, identifying the source's message can help you ascertain:

  • The purpose of the writing
  • The motive of the author
  • The relevance of the source to your argument
  • The accuracy of the information presented in the source


Demonstrating the interpretation of a written source in your writing:


Davis makes the point that all the major political changes in Israel in the second half of the twentieth century are the direct result of American interference (1998, 56).


The Edwin Smith Papyrus provides explanations about Egyptian treatments for medical trauma, and it shows that they were very much aware of the existence of all the major organs in the human body.

Additional resources

Watch a video explanation on the History Skills YouTube channel:

Watch on YouTube