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Content Area Literacy

Oral History

Oral history is a method to learn about past events from the spoken stories of people who lived through them. When students conduct oral history research with members of their families or community they are participating in active learning rooted in the student’s own experience. Students are actively engaged in collecting data when they do oral histories. Not only are they learning history, they are learning to be historians.

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The students in the 8th grade social studies class had all done a family oral history project where they interviewed family members. The teacher asked each one to share the most interesting thing they learned about their family. Phillip shared that in 1937, when his father’s grandfather was 13 years old, there was a terrible famine in Fizhou on mainland China so the boy was put on a boat with his little sister, who was 11. They were told to get off when they reached Singapore and look for relatives. When the boat docked, they got off. It was not Singapore, however; it was Taipei on the island of Taiwan. The boat left, and the children stayed and had to fend for themselves. Phillip told the class that one of his goals was to learn Chinese so that he could learn more about his heritage from his family in Taiwan.

Oral history is a method to learn about past events from the spoken stories of people who lived through them. When students conduct oral history research with members of their families or community they are participating in what John Dewey (1938) called active learning, which could move to a “more objective intellectual scene of organization” (p. 82) rooted in the student’s own experience. Students are actively engaged in collecting data when they do oral histories. Not only are they learning history, they are learning to be historians.

Engaging students in historical research should begin with students exploring their own personal, family, or local history (Leigh & Reynolds, 1997; Schwartz, 2000). Students can do this by interviewing family and community members and creating oral histories — a type of primary source material in the study of history. Other source materials to use with oral histories could be physical artifacts such as photographs, journals, documents, and other materials that the subject of an oral history could provide (Barton, 2001; Field, Labbo, Willhem, & Garret, 1996: Hickey, 1997). There are a variety of ways to use primary sources such as oral histories, documents, photographs, and artifacts in social studies education, but teachers should be mindful of using these in constructive and meaningful ways (Barton, 2005).


Introduce oral histories by reading literature that is on a social studies topic to be explored, such as grandparents for young children, or that models the use of oral histories as a data collection method. Discuss the books using reader response questions and prompts: “What did you find most interesting about the person’s life or what they said? What would you ask this person if you were interviewing them? What else would you like to know about them? Who might you want to interview to do an oral history?”

Choose a topic for oral histories that is related to an area of study in social studies and is developmentally appropriate for the grade level of students. In some cases, the people who are telling their life story may be the same, but the topic would be different. For example, 2nd grade students might be focusing on learning about grandparents and family heritage, and they could interview their grandparents. Students in 5th grade might be studying U.S. history and interviewing those same grandparents about their related experiences or memories of events. For students in 5th grade today, a grandparent might be interviewed about the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights Movement.

Help students plan ways to gather information through oral histories. Co-create questionnaires and surveys. Have students plan and practice interview techniques and make decisions about whether to use an audio or video recorder, take written notes, ot; in the case of young children who may not be writing themselves, ask the person interviewed to write comments on a survey. In some cases, the oral history interview could be less structured and take the form of a conversation beginning with open questions in semi-structured interviews, followed by more structured follow-up questions. Permission to use the oral histories should be given by the interviewee.

Offer students options for communicating what they have found:

  • Written reports summarizing the oral history
  • Q&A Reports: Turning the questions with answers into statements
  • A poster about the person
  • Role playing the person interviewed
  • Inviting the person interviewed as a guest speaker
  • PowerPoint presentation using video clips of the interview
  • Scriptwriting: Write a script using the words of the interviewee and dramatize it

The final oral history project may also incorporate photographs, letters, and artifacts, or copies of these used with the interviewee’s permission.

Grade-level modifications

K–2nd Grade

Young students can be introduced to the strategy of oral histories by interviewing family members. In many states, a primary grade social studies focus is on grandparents. By interviewing grandparents, or interviewing other family members about grandparents if they cannot be interviewed, young children learn about their historical and cultural heritage, their families, and themselves.

Introduce a study of grandparents by reading the Caldecott Award-winning book Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say (1994), a beautifully illustrated account of the author-illustrator’s grandfather’s journey from Japan to the United States and back again over the course of his lifetime. The story continued with the author’s father as a child and then the author himself. Allen Say learned about his family and Japanese heritage from stories told by his father and grandfather. Use reader response questions and prompts to discuss the book and lead into using the strategy of oral history with the class: What do you think was the most interesting thing about Grandfather’s journey? What do you know about your own grandparents? What questions would you like to ask them about their lives?

Record a list of questions suggested by students, discuss the list, suggest questions related to the social studies standards, and decide on a set of questions that all students can either ask their grandparents or ask their family about their grandparents. Use the questions on a form with space for answers and make a copy for each student.

Model asking the questions for students, and let them practice asking the questions in pairs. Write a memo to parents about the oral history project on grandparents and send home a form with the questions developed in class. Attach a permission form.

When students have interviewed a grandparent, or another family member about a grandparent, give students a writing frame that turns the question format into statements so that they can write a Q&A Report on their grandparents.

Recommended children’s books

3rd Grade–5th Grade

Read excerpts from Remember Pearl Harbor: Japanese and American Survivors Tell Their Stories (Allen, 2003) and lead a discussion using reader response questions and prompts: Which story interested you the most? What other events would you like to learn more about?

With students, plan an oral history project related to a period of modern history they are learning about, or they can identify any number of people who might participate in an oral history project and provide a first-hand account of past key historical events. Students can reach beyond the family or community for oral histories they would like to conduct. Notify other teachers in the school about an area of interest, or students can search online for participants (e.g., members of historical societies, veterans’ organizations, city officials, or advocacy organizations). With supervision, they can arrange telephone interviews with people they want to interview but cannot meet face to face. Students can use eye to eye technology, e-mail, and so on.

Put together a text set of books that model the use of oral histories as they pertain to modern American and world history.

Recommended children’s books

Differentiated instruction

English language learners

Oral histories are an effective strategy for learning social studies because they can tap into students’ prior knowledge and increase home-school connections often cited as lacking among ELLs. English learners can also use two languages: the home language for interviewing family members and English for writing the results of an oral history to share with other members of the class.

Struggling students

Scaffold learning for struggling students with writing frames and templates, modeling, and cooperative learning. Use the Q&A Report format, turning questions they ask into statements as they write up the report of what they discovered from the interview. Model asking questions with students and then reverse roles so the students can practice asking the teacher questions. Students can work in pairs to practice the interview.


Combine a guideline for conducting an oral history with a cover sheet checklist that has a description of the step in conducting an oral history, the date it was completed, and space for a student to comment for self-reflection and evaluation.


Hazareesingh, S. (1994). Speaking about the past: Oral history. Staffordshire, England: Trentham Books.

Cox, C. (2012). Literature Based Teaching in the Content Areas. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.