Tools of the Historian: Frame of Reference

Grades: 4-8

Subjects: Social Studies

Concepts: Frame of reference (point of view)

Skills: Understanding bias, critical analysis

Materials: Handout: Understanding Frame of Reference, Handout: What makes you, YOU?

Time: 1 class period

Focus Questions

  • Why do people have different interpretations of the same event/person/document?
  • How do historical documents have their own frame of reference?

Instructional Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Define frame of reference.
  • Discover and describe their own frame of reference.
  • Understand the relationship between sources and their historical context.
  • Give examples of how frame of reference affects interpretation.

Rationale and Background
Connection to the NH Framework Proficiencies

Introductory Activity

  1. The first step in understanding frame of reference is for students to realize they each have a distinct perspective that has developed over their life times. Ask students to brainstorm those factors in their lives that have helped shape who they are. Ask them, what makes you, you? For example, students will mention their parents, friends, interests, gender, religion, socio-economic status, teachers, strengths/weakness, media, culture.
  2. Distribute the handout What Makes You, YOU? Have students fill in the diagram and then compare answers with a partner. Follow up with a whole class discussion on how these factors shape frame of reference and why it is important to understand the connection between individual perspective and how one views life and historical events, objects, and people.

Instructional Resources or Materials

Instructional Procedure

Applying frame of reference to history

To give a visual example of how frame of reference influences our study of history, engage students in a brief scenario. Excitedly tell the class that it is the anniversary of an important event in their community. Explain that there was a “great fire” in one of the local buildings and draw a building on the chalkboard. Dramatically show flames coming out the windows on one side of the building. Then tell students that there were eye witnesses to the event: draw stick figures on each side of the building.


Have students describe the fire from the various perspectives of the eyewitness. For example, those on the side of the building with the flames will focus on that while those on lookers from the other side do not have the same view, but may describe the smoke or what they hear. Dramatically describe what the direct onlookers see and explain how this has been passed down through family stories (oral history).

Depending on the class and age range, provide more detail about how many people perished, how the fire department responded etc. Go further and tell students that this event shows up in several historic diaries of local townspeople, as well as the newspaper from the time.

Now ask students to pretend they are historians interpreting this event. Have students list the sources available such as: oral histories, diaries, fire department report, morgue report, building records, census, newspapers etc. Then bring students through each source, explaining how each has its own “point of view”. Tell them that historians call this “frame of reference”. Ask students what they think is the frame of reference for each source. For example, imagine a diary entry for the event and solicit questions from students such as: how old was the writer? what was the motivating force behind this diary entry? was this someone who survived the fire or knew someone who perished? How might that connection influence what they wrote? Imagine the newspaper reports. What was their point of view? Are those subjective in any way (trying to sell newspapers, shape opinion, etc.)? What motivates and shapes media portrayal today?

Let students know that this was an imaginary event, but one that simulates actual events through history.

Applying Frame of Reference

Apply the idea of frame of reference to an historical source from the colonial period. Distribute the handout Understanding Frame of Reference. Read the selections out loud and have the students answer the questions individually. Go over their responses.

Concluding Discussion questions

Ask students if everything has a frame of reference? (yes) and how will knowing a source’s frame of reference help them understand history better? (helps them determine bias, objectivity, accuracy etc.) Is this a skill that applies to our study of other time periods? (yes) How? (For example, in looking at a Civil War diary it will be important to ask if it is from a southern soldier or northern soldier).


Students will complete both handouts: What makes you, YOU? and Understanding Frame of Reference. Ongoing assessment can be made in how well students apply the idea of point of view in other historical time periods.

Curriculum Modifications/Extension