Top Ten Tips for Teaching History at Home: by Clare Horrie & Rachel Hillman

Clare Horrie and Rachel Hillman are the authors of The National Archives History Toolkit for Primary Schools and 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: History.  In this post they provide their top ten tips for teaching history at home.


Exchanging the classroom for your kitchen doesn’t mean that teaching at home can’t be engaging, inspirational or fun. Teaching history is all about hooking children’s interest in the first place and one way of doing this is by using original historical sources. Teaching history using original sources is crucial to developing children’s critical thinking skills and understanding of what history is all about. With a source-based approach, their learning can be transformed and their historical skills honed through the method of historical enquiry, a key aim of the National Curriculum. This can make history real, captivating and exciting.

Here are our top tips for bringing this approach to life at home:

1. Take a mystery document approach to introduce a historical topic. Find an original source for your topic, e.g. a photograph, government report, painting, cartoon, royal seal, manuscript, or private or official letter, and show it to the children to captivate
interest. See our list of suggested links at the bottom for where you can find historical sources at the bottom of this page. Don’t say anything about the source at first but give the children five minutes to look closely at it. Use the approach below with a written source or adapt it if using a visual source.

Picture1
Letter of thanks from Nelson Mandela to Sir John Maud for sending him books via the British Embassy, 14 September, 1962. The National Archives (Catalogue ref: DO 119/1478) 

LOOK at the source as an object. DON’T read it. What do you see?

  • How was it produced? (E.g. typed or handwritten.)
  • How is it set out? (E.g. with dates, in sentences.)
  • What does this reveal about the type of document it could be? (E.g. a letter, diary, calendar, report.)
  • When was it written? Can we see?
  • Any other points to note?

NOW encourage children to read or describe the source image to make inferences based on its content:

  • Can we tell when it was written/drawn/photographed? (Look for clues in the language or scene.)
  • What is the document or image about? (E.g. a historical event or character.)
  • What is the tone or attitude of the source? (E.g. written, visual, propaganda, personal, formal.)
  • Why do you think this source was produced?
  • Who is this source meant to be read or seen by? (Think about the audience.)
  • What other sources could you use to find out more about the content?

FINALLY, ask the children to select their own ‘mystery’ document to present to you. What does it reveal about a particular topic?

2. Your home-school children could be tasked to create their own worksheet lesson on a particular historical topic. You give them the level and the age group and they need to select sources, develop an enquiry question and write some more detailed questions.

3. Gather together any history textbooks, reference books and library books you might have access to at home. Use them to locate a particular history topic studied in school. Use the suggested links to find some original sources on the same topic. Discuss how we can use sources to find out about the past. Do any of the sources say anything different about the topic in the history book? Do any of the textbooks contain original sources? You could also compare how the same topic is described in different books. Can the children explain why these differences exist? The purpose of this kind of activity is to get children to understand that we learn about the past from original sources that historians have interpreted and these interpretations may differ, depending on the sources you use.

4.  Boost historical thinking by getting the children to produce an illustrated timeline for display on a decade, era or single topic.

5. The children could write a biography of a significant individual in history based on a selection of primary and secondary sources. Guidance for writing a biography is available on the web here.

Picture2
Plea roll initial detail of Henry VIII towards the end of his reign, 22 April 1541, The National Archives (Catalogue ref: KB 27/1119/2) 

6. Try a spot-the-difference activity. A child of any age can do this. Find two similar sources from different time periods. Can the children compare and contrast them? What seems similar or different? What does this activity reveal about change over time?

7. Use original sources for creative inspiration! Children could paint their own portrait of Elizabeth I in the style of Nicholas Hilliard or write a poem or story based on a photograph. They could make a historical birthday card or their own facsimile document. Primary school children could make their own ‘archive box’ (or kitchen display) containing sources about their lives: a toy, birthday card, photograph, and so on. The possibilities are endless!

Picture3
Photograph by P.H. Emerson (18561936) showing women working in the fields, 1886. The National Archives (Catalogue: COPY 1/375 f21) 

8. Children could hold their own Zoom video broadcast about a history topic and then virtually meet up with their classmates to discuss it.

9. Use film clips alongside document source evidence for 20th-century history topics. Try video footage from The National Archives (click here), or British Pathe (click here) contains a huge selection of newsreel from 1910 onwards. What does film reveal that documents do not and vice versa?

10. Start your lesson by Googling what happened on this day or significant events that happened this month. Find out more about the topic by doing some further internet research.

Suggested Links

About the Authors

Clare Horrie is Education Web Manager for The National Archives’ education website. Together with Rachel Hillman, she has developed, written and produced a wide range of online teaching materials from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 5 for the website. Clare previously worked as a secondary school teacher and head of history in the state sector.

Rachel Hillman is Onsite Education Manager for The National Archives. She has led in the development of The National Archives’ special educational needs and family programmes, as well as a number of large-scale education events for history students. She has also developed creative projects for young people on different historical themes and previously worked as a primary school teacher and history coordinator in the state sector.

About The National Archives History9781472959355 Toolkit for Primary Schools

With instant access to genuine historical sources, accompanied by exciting lesson plans, activities and photocopiable worksheets for both Key Stages 1 and 2, The National Archives History Toolkit for Primary Schools is the essential manual for teaching history in the primary classroom.

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