What are interpretations?

Historians use facts gathered from primary sources of evidence and then shape them so that their audience can understand and make sense of them. This process whereby the historian makes sense of the past is called an interpretation.

In order to study interpretations students need to be able to recognise different types of interpretations, know why they might differ, and how to critically evaluate them. Students need to be able to recognise how and why interpretations change over time.

It is important that students grasp the idea of history as a construct otherwise they will be unable to make sense of conflicting and competing accounts of the past which present themselves in their daily lives.

Teaching young children about interpretations involves them in reflecting about different versions of the past. Children can find this concept difficult as it challenges their notion that there is one certain version of history. When using interpretations with young children teachers need to ensure that the children are given just the right amount of uncertainty to challenge them. Teaching children about historical interpretations tells them something about the people who created them and the societies in which they lived.

Planning to teach interpretations

When teaching interpretations teachers need to:

  • Use as many different forms of interpretation as possible for example film, music and art, so that students see the different views which are held on an issue.
  • Use examples of interpretations which show issues about which people  held really strong views.
  • Offer a good range of contrasting views on a topic and try to include one or two which will present an interesting or new standpoint.
  • Use interpretations only when the students are well grounded with background information and have some knowledge of the issues.
  • Use strategies which will help students to see the limitations of some interpretations and how the facts of history can be distorted or over simplified for a particular purpose.
  • Use criteria with students to show what makes a good answer on interpretations.

Primary examples

  • During the foundation stage the children can be introduced to the idea of different perspectives by examining different images of a character in a nursery rhyme. These different representations of the same character introduce the children to the idea of different ways of representing people and events in the past.
  • At KS1 enquiries can be focused interpretations in the form of commemoration mugs, posters, badges etc. of significant people studied, such as Florence Nightingale or Grace Darling, and raising the children’s awareness of how and why these forms of commemoration were made.
  • Teaching young children that all history is a construct is very difficult for them to understand, as they are inclined to think that the history they read in the textbooks is full of fixed truths and facts that cannot be disputed.  Developing children’s understanding of this concept at KS2 focuses on helping them to understand that some interpretations might be more accurate and reliable than others, and that historians might write different versions of the same event even when using the same evidence.
  • The children might also be able to understand that interpretations might differ depending on which aspect historians are looking at. For example views of the Victorians might be more positive if looking at the benefits of industrialization and empire, and more negative if looking at child labour or slavery. Children  might also understand that people create different versions of the past for different audiences and therefore might give a different emphasis.
  • Using collections of commemorative artefacts at museums to help the children understand the purpose and audience of an interpretation and to discuss and debate why people represent the past differently.
  • Presenting the children with one perspective of past events and asking them to discuss and debate why the past is represented differently.
  • Using powerful visual interpretations such as a photograph of the evacuation of children during World War 2, can at first stimulate the children’s interest about war and conflict and how it affected the lives of children and their families. Asking children to focus on the photograph itself and exploring what they see happening to the children the teacher could ask the children.
  • Who they think the photographer was.
  • Are there any clues in the photograph about when it was taken?
  • Can they suggest who they think the photograph was taken for?
  • Why did the photographer take the picture? What did he think would happen to the photograph afterwards?

Post Primary Examples

Students at KS3 need to be encouraged to engage with interpretations so that they come to realise that their knowledge and understanding of the past depends  not only on events but how the events are represented.

Examples of using interpretations at KS3

Focus an enquiry question on an interpretation using a  poem, exhibition, film or piece of music for example. If the interpretation used in the enquiry was an exhibition the question could be, “What can the exhibition tell us about the ways in which the centenary of the Ulster Covenant has been commemorated?”  The purpose of this enquiry is not just the acquisition of knowledge about the Ulster Covenant but to examine the reliability of the exhibition in terms of the factors which shape it as an interpretation. These may include for example as a tourist attraction, as a form of education, as a way of preserving the past and as a way of communicating with the public.

Choose interpretations which

  • Show that textbooks or internet sites may present over simplified versions of the past and may not always tell the whole story.
  •  Challenge traditional views of history by looking at events through the lens of  women, of ordinary groups of people whose focus may have been more on economic or social issues, and of people from different regions such as north and south.
  • Challenge the monolithic view of Irish history by presenting alternatives or different perspectives

Develop and negotiate criteria which the students can use when working with interpretations depending on the topic. For example;

  • All history is open to interpretations.
  • Many interpretations can be used to justify the actions  of people in the past and that a winners version may be different to a losers version.
  • Interpretations differ because they are written for different audiences.
  • Historians select information and when they write they can distort information to make their arguments stronger.
  • Historians change their views when they discover new evidence.
  • Some interpretations portray victims in a more sympathetic way than perpetrators.
  • The author’s viewpoint may affect what they write for example Catholic/Irish.


Having developed the students understanding of historical interpretations it is often disappointing for teachers that opportunities to continue this development at KS4 may diminish due to examination constraints.  The commemoration of the Holocaust offers great opportunities for teachers to explore interpretations

Using Living Graphs to plot how historians’ ideas on the Holocaust have changed over time, and show whether their views over time have become more balanced with the benefit of hindsight.

Comparing and contrasting a number of different interpretations and representations of the Holocaust which differ in purpose and intention.  For example comparing and contrasting Spielberg’s film with historical narrative and different forms of  public commemorations.

A Level

At A Level the students are required as part of their preparation for their examination at


“to comprehend, analyse and evaluate how the past has been interpreted and represented in different ways, for example in historians’ debates and through a range of media such as paintings, films, reconstructions, museum displays and the internet.”


“Contemporary evidence should be evaluated for reliability and utility and used to support or underpin their answers. Later interpretations too should be explored and used to inform the debate.”

Studying commemorations in all its forms enables A Level students to further develop their skills to analyse and evaluate interpretations of the past and to explore historians interpretations both contemporary and past to inform their arguments.

These strategies are based on ideas from Diana Laffan (Better Lessons in a Level history Hodder 2009)


Source Auction

As part of a mock trial or debate, ask teams of lawyers to bid for evidence, such as eyewitnesses, expert witnesses or visual sources that they will use to make their case (a simple argument type exam question works best). The sources have to come up for auction. The asking price depends on their usefulness, typicality, value etc. and the teams of lawyers can offer for them. Alternatively you can set up a market and open it for a period while the lawyers select the best evidence for their case. During the hearing / case the sources can be cross examined by the opponents.


The Language Bag

The tone of some historical interpretations may be difficult for students to understand as well being able to distinguish between tone and mood. Tone describes how the writer felt towards the subject of the text. Mood describes what the reader feels when reading it.

All texts have different tones be they official documents, letters, speeches, and accounts.

Authors create the tone of a source by the words they use, how they are arranged in the text and how they might appeal to the senses.

The language bag requires the students to work in groups with a single source and a copy of the language bag (which can be an envelope containing words) to describe the tone of the source. The students chose the most appropriate word to describe the tone of the source and then one member of the group reads out the source using the tone identified. The rest of the class have to suggest which word it is. The language bag is not definitive and students can be asked to add their own words. Some sources have underlying tone and the source can be passed to the next group to determine another tone. Some examples of words in the language bag could be;


Lines of continuum

Use lines of continuum to discuss the reasons why historians disagree. Students are given 6 sources. In groups of 2 or 3, students have to decide where they would place each source in terms of agreeing and disagreeing with a proposition. They physically place the source with the group name on it along the line at the most appropriate place between strongly supports and strongly disagrees with the assertion. Teacher can then ask a few students to pinpoint areas of disagreement between the groups and ask students to explain their viewpoint.