Helping children understand history

Researchers Ron Vukelich and Stephen J. Thornton, of the University of Delaware, have been studying the concept of time as it is understood by children. Their purpose is to help teachers use appropriate language in order to facilitate a more accurate understanding of historical time.

Research has shown that a child’s understanding of time is closely linked to his/her cognitive development. Vukelich and Thornton suggest that teachers bear in mind the following:

3-5 years: children generally have developed some understanding of the clock and calendar which is closely linked with their personal experience. They understand the time frame of immediate daily events, such as breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as the order of family members by age.

6-8 years: they begin to associate dates with past events, but more often understand general terms, such as “long ago”.

9-11 years: children can more accurately associate famous persons or events with dates and they comprehend general terms for historical periods, such as colonial, revolutionary, civil war period, etc.

12-14 years: they become adult-like in their understanding of historical time concepts. They are capable of using terms such as decade, 17th century, 1600’s, etc.

In examining several social studies texts, Vukelich and Thornton often found that the language was not appropriate, in their opinion, for the designated grade level. In texts for younger students, for example, specific dates were used too often. They felt that language in the third grade text was frequently beyond the understanding of most third graders.

Conversely, they judged that the language in the eighth grade text was simplistic and did not take advantage of eighth graders’ capabilities. These researchers recommend that teachers evaluate the appropriateness of the time language in the social studies text they use and adjust their instruction accordingly.

“Children’s Understanding of Historical Time: Implications for Instruction”
Childhood Education Fall 1990 p. 22-25.

Published in ERN January/February 1991 Volume 4 Number 1


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