History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

Teaching Historical Interpretations

Teaching historical Interpretations.

If you want success at GCSE and beyond you need to think about how you teach what you teach and why you teach what you teach! Fact.

This means developing a great Key Stage 3 curriculum and building on this into Key Stage 4. Recently Ofsted have picked up on this theme in a report describing Key Stage 3 as ‘wasted years.’ We have always seen history as a 5 years model of progression, and never got hung up on the reductive nature of pre 2016 GCSE questions lower down the school. That is where we are free to  teach some real history thank you very much!

One of the bedrocks of the history curriculum at Key Stage 3 is the key element ‘interpretations’. What with the changes to GCSE from 2016 interpretations is now crucial at Key Stage 4 too. However,  I must admit, I haven’t always thought this.

Actually, I am not sure that I really understood what this concept really was when I first started teaching in the mid 1990s. But after years of working with Neil Thompson, ex Hampshire History Adviser, I have come to agree with him: Historical interpretation is the national curriculum’s ‘jewel in the crown’.

In the past Ofsted  noted that some teachers struggle to teach this concept well. Is this because it is difficult or that we don’t actually understand it?

However, presently Ofsted do not appear to be vaguely interested in the teaching of history. Long gone are the days when a report about the quality of  history teaching across England came out.  Even further back in the past Ofsted actually had bothered to send subject inspectors to find out what was going on!

Nowadays, who keeps us informed and in check?  Well I am always happy to give my views on teaching and on historical interpretations, so read on.

The big questions we have to consider when doing interpretations work are:

  • Are we clear about what interpretations really means in the history curriculum?
  • How do you teach it, especially at the lower end of Key Stage 3?
  • What does progression look like in interpretations?

What is an interpretation?

The two quotations below can be used to define what an interpretation is:

“… a conscious reflection of the past and not the ideas and attitudes of participants in past events”                                  McAleavy 93

“…how people in later times have reconstructed and presented the past.”

Byrom, Counsell, Riley 2004


I way prefer McAleavy’s definiton. After all, what constitutes ‘later times’? A day? A week? Ten years? I don’t recommend that you get bogged down in a meaningless discussion about how long it takes before a construct becomes an interpretation.

Unfortunately, Neil and I once did at a conference. Clever people working at universities in teacher education , far too distant from the classroom, told us that the movie the Battle of the Somme we were using, couldn’t be an interpretation as it was made at the time.  Our answer was simple: it was a construct of history, not an eye-witness account, therefore it was a conscious reflection of the past. It was constructed to influence therefore we thought it an interpretation. But what really matters is what works in the classroom. We knew that our photos stuff worked a treat!

Clearly, an eye witness account is not an interpretation and interpretations work isn’t just about ‘interpreting’ source material.

Slide1Let us start by considering what forms interpretations take. The chart here on the left from Byrom, Counsell, and Riley (or was it McAleavey?) is really helpful here. If you click on the image it will enlarge!

But we shouldn’t just stop there. We need to really understand what the different aspects or ideas of this tricky concept are, and then consider how we teach them.




Luckily Interps 2this thinking has been done for us. Way back  in 2004 OFSTED held a History Conference in Bristol all about interpretations. Jamie Byrom, Christine Counsell and Michael Riley came up the big ideas on the left (it will enlarge if you click on it!).


For me this is a perfect guide.



It’s all in the planning

When it comes to planning to teach interpretations at Key Stage 3 we should aim to sprinkle a number of different interpretation enquiries right across the key stage, ensuring that between them they cover all of the above aspects highlighted in figure 2. On the surface this may seem really difficult.  You might like to consider the following:

  • You don’t have to answer all of the questions in second diagram above, in every single interpretation enquiry
  • You are probably already doing a lot of work on interpretation without even realising it.
  • You can touch on interpretations at the end of most enquiries – get the students to use their historical knowledge to pull apart a textbook account, or a film, or even a poem.

Membership Options

Access more inspirational articles and fully-resourced lessons to enliven your classroom teaching.

Find Out More

Many of our Key Stage 3 enquiries have an interpretations focus!

If you want to teach what an interpretation says in style and tone then use:

If you want to explore how an interpretation as been affected by the context in which it was created in, then try these enquiries:

If you are keen to check out what parts of an interpretation are factual and which parts are imagined use:

If you want to work on checking interpretations against available evidence – we love this – then try:

If you are interested in looking at the purpose and intended audience of the interpretation then try:


Nearly all of our enquiries touch upon interpretation, and number of our enquiries focus really heavily on them!

 For a copy of this  article and resources that will help you plan for progression in interpretations across the key stage, you can download them here for £2.99.

Download lesson

  • Article: PDF
  • Interpretations types: PDF
  • Interpretations ideas: PDF
  • Interpretations progression model: PDF

Price: £2.99

Add to basketMembers’ Download

follow us in feedly

History Resource Cupboard


Receive details of our latest courses, new lesson downloads, exclusive discounts and the latest articles with ideas to help you enliven your classroom teaching.