SCIM-C Explanation: A Strategy for Interpreting History

Grounded within research on teaching and learning history (see Wineburg, 1991) and building upon Riley's layers of inference model to support teaching evidential understanding (1999), the SCIM-C strategy was developed to provide teachers with a tool to help students develop the knowledge and skills necessary to interpret historical primary sources and reconcile various historical accounts, in order to investigate meaningful historical questions. The SCIM-C strategy focuses on five broad phases: Summarizing, Contextualizing, Inferring, Monitoring, and Corroborating. Further, when students examine an individual source, they move through the first four phases (i.e., summarizing, contextualizing, inferring, and monitoring) and then, after analyzing several individual sources, they compare the sources collectively in the fifth phase (i.e., corroborating).
In addition to the aforementioned five phases, within each phase there exists a series of four spiraling analyzing questions that serve to scaffold a concerted level of engagement with each source in order to allow students time to linger and learn from the source in light of the historical question being asked. While more analyzing questions may be asked within each phase, and while teachers may re-work the model to support the contexts within which they teach, the model should be viewed as an initiating device through which to nurture and support student's abilities to begin to engage in primary source analysis. The overall process of moving through the phases of the SCIM-C strategy should be viewed as a precise, recursive, and thoughtful approach to historical inquiry. It is an approach that requires a concerted level of engagement with each source whereby you allow yourself time to linger and learn from the source in order to develop and write an historical interpretation. The following sections explain each of the five phases of the SCIM-C strategy, including the four spiraling analyzing questions for each phase. In addition the demonstration sections, offered on the menu to your right, links to edited transcripts of historian Tom Ewing's think-aloud process as he analyzes historical texts using the SCIM strategy. These think-aloud protocols provide models for teachers and students to see how a historian moves through the layers of inference as they examine a text while using the SCIM strategy as a scaffold.


Summarizing is the first phase of the SCIM-C strategy and begins with having students quickly examine the documentary aspects of the text, in order to find any information or evidence that is explicitly available from the source. Within this phase students should attempt to identify the source's subject, author, purpose, and audience, as well as the type of historical source (e.g., letter, photograph, cartoon). In addition, the student should look for key facts, dates, ideas, opinions, and perspectives that appear to be immediately apparent within the source. The four analyzing questions associated with the summarizing phase include:
  1. What type of historical document is the source?
  2. What specific information, details and/or perspectives does the source provide?
  3. What is the subject and/or purpose of the source?
  4. Who was the author and/or audience of the source?


Contextualizing begins the process of having students spend more time with the source in order to explore the authentic aspects of the source in terms of locating the source within time and space. The teacher needs to emphasize that it is important to recognize and understand that archaic words and/or images from the period may be in a source. These words and/or images may no longer be used today or they may be used differently, and these differences should be noted and defined. In addition, the meanings, values, habits, and/or customs of the period may be very different from those today. Ultimately, students and teachers must be careful to avoid treating the source as a product of today as they pursue their guiding historical question. The four analyzing questions associated with the contextualizing phase include:
  1. When and where was the source produced?
  2. Why was the source produced?
  3. What was happening within the immediate and broader context at the time the source was produced?
  4. What summarizing information can place the source in time and place?


Inferring is designed to provide students with the opportunity to revisit initial facts gleaned from the source and to begin to read subtexts and make inferences based upon a developing understanding of the context and continued examination of the source. In answering an historical question and working with the primary source, sometimes the evidence is not explicitly stated or obvious in the source, but rather, the evidence is hinted at within the source and needs to be drawn out. The inferring stage provides room for students to explore the source and examine the source's perspective in the light of the historical questions being asked. The four analyzing questions associated with the inferring phase include:
  1. What is suggested by the source?
  2. What interpretations may be drawn from the source?
  3. What perspectives or points of view are indicated in the source?
  4. What inferences may be drawn from absences or omissions in the source?


Monitoring is the capstone stage in examining individual sources. Here students are expected to question and reflect upon their initial assumptions in terms of the overall focus on the historical questions being studied. This reflective monitoring is essential in making sure that students have asked the key questions from each of the previous phases. Such a process requires students to examine the credibility and usefulness or significance of the source in answering the historical questions at hand.
Ultimately, monitoring is about reflection, reflection upon the use of the SCIM-C strategy and reflection upon the source itself. The SCIM-C strategy is recursive in nature and thus revisiting phases and questions is essential as one begins to create an historical interpretation of a source in light of one's historical questions. The four analyzing questions associated with the monitoring phase include:
  1. What additional evidence beyond the source is necessary to answer the historical question?
  2. What ideas, images, or terms need further defining from the source?
  3. How useful or significant is the source for its intended purpose in answering the historical question?
  4. What questions from the previous stages need to be revisited in order to analyze the source satisfactorily?


Corroborating only starts when students have analyzed a series of sources, and are ready to extend and deepen their analysis through comparing the evidence gleaned from each source in light of the guiding historical questions. What similarities and differences in ideas, information, and perspectives exist between the analyzed sources? Students should also look for gaps in their evidence that may hinder their interpretations and the answering of their guiding historical questions. When they find contradictions between sources, they must investigate further, including the checking of the credibility of the source. Once the sources have been compared the student then begins to draw conclusions based upon the synthesis of the evidence, and can begin to develop their own conclusions and historical interpretation. The four analyzing questions associated with the corroborating phase include:
  1. What similarities and differences between the sources exist?
  2. What factors could account for these similarities and differences?
  3. What conclusions can be drawn from the accumulated interpretations?
  4. What additional information or sources are necessary to answer more fully the guiding historical question?
The SCIM-C strategy's utility lies in the recognition that it provides a point of entry through which to teach and learn historical inquiry. The overall process of moving through the phases of the SCIM-C strategy should be viewed as a precise, recursive, and thoughtful approach to historical inquiry. An approach that requires a concerted level of engagement with each source in order to investigate historical questions through analyzing primary sources deeply, thoroughly, and carefully. The ultimate goal of this strategy instruction is for students to become self-regulated in the use of the strategy as part of the process of doing history. In pursuit of this goal - the development of a multimedia tool for teachers and student that facilitates the use of the SCIM-C strategy for historical inquiry - the three authors, a social studies educator, an educational psychologist/technologist, and an academic historian, respectively, designed, developed, and implemented the SCIM-C Historical Inquiry Tutorial.


Gerwin, D., & Zevin, J. (2003) Teaching U.S. history as mystery. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Levstik, L., & Barton, K. (2001). Doing history: Investigating with children in elementary and middle schools (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Riley, C. (1999, November). Evidential understanding, Period, knowledge and the development of literacy: A practical approach to 'Layers of Inference' for Key Stage 3. Teaching History, 97, 6-12

Wineburg, S. (2001). Historical thinking and other unnatural acts. Philadelphia: Temple University

The Historical Inquiry project was funded by an IDDL Research Fellowship and a FIPSE grant.
Copyright © 2004-2005, Peter Doolittle, David Hicks, & Tom Ewing, Virginia Tech