Helping Students “Get” History

Many of my students have told me that Social Studies or History is their worst subject. When I ask why, they say they “just don’t get it”. I usually find out that they have a hard time connecting the dots. For example, they learn about the American Revolution but don’t understand how it connects to King George III and the Declaration of Independence. This article gives parents, tutors, and teachers some hints and tips for helping students connect the people, places, and events of history to improve their comprehension.

1. Use historical thinking skills. The National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS) is a UCLA - based organization dedicated to collaborating with schools and teachers to provide “engaging and exciting explorations of U.S. and World history.” (From the NCHS mission statement; use this link to visit their website: One powerful tool they created is their list of five historical thinking skills teachers, parents, and tutors can use to organize history teaching and discussions. These skills are: chronological thinking, historical comprehension, historical analysis and interpretation, historical research capabilities, and historical issues.

Use these to discover why your student is struggling with History/ Social Studies and help them learn the material. If you talk to your child about the American Revolution and they don’t understand that Colonists were angry with King George III over taxation and the amount of control they had over their own laws and punishments, which led to rebellion by groups like the Sons of Liberty, the Declaration of Independence, and the American Revolution, then they need help with chronological thinking. Use historical thinking skills to help your child fill in knowledge gaps.

2. Teach them history they don't learn in class. History is full of stories that aren't in student’s history books. Many times, these are the stories that really interest students. It’s up to adults to find these stories and teach them to their children. A good way to get started is with history “fun facts”. For example, tell your child that Pike’s Peak is named after American explorer Zebulon Pike, but he never made it to the peak! My students always found Pike’s story interesting and they asked questions. If your child asks questions, explain the basics, and then tell them about Zebulon Pike’s other explorations and bad luck. (Use this link to visit the official Zebulon Pike web site for a great summary and explanation of Pike’s exploits:

3. Help kids “do” history. You can do so many history – related activities with your kids. There are battle re-enactments, pioneer villages, and national historical sites you can visit with your family. Many of them are free! Once you’re there, help them “do” history by asking questions that force them to think like a historian. Use the list of historical thinking skills from #1 above as your guide to asking challenging questions. Before you know it, your child will start talking to you about history in terms of these thinking skills.

4. Teach them their own history. Every family has a history. One way to interest your child in history is to tell them about their own history. Many historians became interested in the subject after studying genealogy. Teach them the fun facts from your own family’s history. Include stories about family members who took part in great events in history (veterans serve as a good example). Fill in the story with facts they might have heard in class to help them connect their family history with the rest of the story. Children are more likely to remember the details if they connect them to something personal.

5. Encourage your child’s interest in history. Every child can find at least one person, place, or event from history they find interesting. Some of them just may not have heard about them yet! Listen when your child talks about history for clues about what interests them. If your child talks about clothes and is into fashion (what teen isn’t?), tell them about the way people dressed during the Victorian Era or the outrageous clothes King Louis XIV of France wore. Then you can look for opportunities for your child to see some of history’s outrageous outfits in museums or art galleries. Find the seed of interest in your child and help it grow.

History/ Social Studies does not have to be your child’s least favorite class. Educate yourself about historical thinking skills and use that knowledge to nurture seeds of interest in your child. Teach them about history’s fun and funny people and events. Tell them their own history and how their family’s past intertwines with great moments in history. Combine this with chances to visit historical sites and experience history and your child will soon “get it”.

I hope you found this article helpful. Please take a minute to leave a comment, Like this post on Facebook, or Tweet the post via Twitter using the buttons on the right side of my blog page. If you have questions about whether a tutor is right for you or if you would like advice for your unique situation, feel free to E-mail me using the “E-mail Jeff S.” button on my Wyzant tutor home page. (Here is a link to my page: I’m happy to help!

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