Analyzing historical documents requires students to identify the purpose, message and audience of a text. Document Analysis Forms are graphic organizers that guide students through a process of identifying important background information about a document (e.g. author/creator, date created, place, format, etc.) and using this data to determine the bias or perspective of a text.
Step one: Constructing your Document Analysis Form
Document Analysis Forms typically ask students to record the same basic information such as:
- Context (place and time when the document was created)
- Intended audience
- Purpose for the document’s creation
- Type of document (photograph, pamphlet, government-issued document, newspaper article, diary entry, etc.)
- Main points expressed in the document
- General message of the document (What is it trying to say? What perspective does it represent?)
- Significance (So what? Why is this document important?)
You can customize your Document Analysis Form based on the type of documents students are working with. You can decide to label categories as phrases or questions (or both). Click here for examples of three different Document Analysis Forms:
National Archives Document Analysis Worksheet
Step two: Helping students use a Document Analysis Form
Students can work on Document Analysis Forms on their own or in small groups. To ensure accountability, it is often best if students have to complete their own forms, even if they are working in small groups. Showing students an exemplar of a completed Document Analysis Form or modeling how to complete one helps students better understand what accurate, thorough answers look like.
Step three: Sharing information
Completing these forms is just the first step of document analysis. Students learn much more when they have to explain their ideas and hear other interpretations. After students have had the opportunity to work with their classmates, they can revise and update the information on their forms. Sharing their analysis can also stimulate interesting discussions about the message and the significance of a document. In this way, completing Document Analysis Forms can be viewed as a pre-discussion activity.
For an example of how Document Analysis Forms are used in a lesson, see lessons two and three of the unit A Pivotal Moment in the Civil Rights Movement: The Murder of Emmett Till.