Four Steps to Historical Literacy


1 – Introduction

2 – The Four Steps

3 – Background


There is no universal definition for historical literacy. That being said, when I talk about historical literacy, I’m talking about being historically literate, that is, understanding the fundamentals of the discipline of history and how to navigate historical information (information about history and the past).

When you are historically literate, you have a basic understanding of the discipline of history (aka historiology). The words “history” and “past” are sometimes used synonymously but “history” is also used to refer to the scholarly study of the past, known for short as “history”. This distinction between the two words is important when having discussions about historical literacy.


The Four Steps

At the core, these four “steps” are aimed at helping you navigate history-related information. The word “step” may be misleading in the sense that these 4 steps do not have to be taken in order of 1, 2, 3, then 4. You can learn about any of these 4 areas independently from the others. However, knowledge in all four arenas is essential to developing historical literacy.

To be historically literate, you need to understand the basics of:

1 – Chronology

2 – Causality

3 – Historical Methodology

4 – The Value of History

1 – Chronology

Chronology is the study of time and the backbone of history. There are 3 key points to understanding chronology:

  • Identifying time
  • Measuring time (chronometry)
  • Dating methods (chronography)

For a more detailed outline for chronological competency, check:

Identifying Time

Our concept of time is based upon motion. We observe movement between 2 or more objects and derive our concept of time from that. Due to there being cyclical events, that is events that occur at fairly constant intervals, we can start to create standard measurements of time.

Measuring Time

Today’s most popular measurements of time are based on astronomical observations. Days, months, years, etc… were determined by watching the movements of celestial bodies in our sky.

For an overview of timekeeping throughout history, check:

For additional information on time, check:

Dating Methods

Numerous methods of determining the age of an object have been developed. Being familiar with these will help you become more historically literate.

For a list of dating methods, check:

2 – Causality

Events are constantly taking place, and they can only take place because time exists. As far as we have observed (except for maybe on the quantum level), the events that have taken place were entirely dependent on the events that preceded them.

Causality is the study of causes. It looks at the effects that events have had. This is important for understanding the past and for understanding the methods employed by historians. Historians have long asked questions along the lines of “What caused X to happen?” or “What effect did X have on Y?”. Historians have also spent a great deal of arguing over the responses that have been generated.

3 – Historical Methodology

Historical Method

  • Evidence
  • Interpretation


  • Motives
  • Psychology

4 – The Value of History

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is value.

  • The value of the discipline of history (methodology)
  • The value of histories (product)


The thing that initially got me thinking more about what it means to be historically literate is a graph I saw on Twitter posted by Jason Steinhauer. I thought about the graph for some time and eventually decided to post an article about it to get my thoughts out. You can read that article on my website @ Jason and I had a discussion about the article and the broader topic and that discussion was recorded in a YouTube livestream that is linked at the end of the article we were discussing. Check the above link to see that.

Another major influence on the four steps below was Dr. Shalini Dixit’s model of historical understanding (HU) as it was presented in “The Psychology of Teaching Critical History” (2021). For her PhD, she spearheaded a field that’s being called “the psychology of history”, and this model of HU helped outline the psychological processes involved in understanding history. I use all four main categories from Dr. Dixit, but I’ve combined her 3rd and 4th categories into 1 because I think a historian’s job is almost wholly dependent on and represented by methodology. I also modified her first category to be Chronology instead of Temporality, even though these could be considered synonymous, I think Chronology is more fitting because the word has a longer history of scholarship behind it and because I’ve outlined it in some depth already prior to putting these steps together.


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