Improving Student Ability in Interpreting Visual Sources through Action Research


This paper reports the experience of a History Professional Learning Team (PLT) from St. Andrew’s Secondary School in 2017 in developing literary strategies to improve student ability to read and interpret pictorial sources. An action research strategy was used with 150 students for this purpose. Students were explicitly taught the “Triangle Method” of source analysis, as well as specific persuasive techniques used in political cartoons to help them make sense of visual sources. The team found that the strategy of focusing on students’ prior knowledge and allowing them to engage in think aloud protocols had resulted in significant improvements in students’ ability to analyze pictorial sources.


While the History PLT members at St. Andrew’s Secondary School had varying degrees of experience teaching upper secondary history, they shared a common concern in managing students’ difficulty with interpreting visual sources in history. Pictorial sources like political cartoons and posters convey various messages and offer diverse perspectives. They also offer both popular beliefs and discerning views shared by different sections of a society on particular historical events. However, the messages in political cartoons tend to be abstract; interpreting these sources would involve deep understanding of rhetorical devices and persuasive techniques that are seldom (explicitly) taught in history classrooms. (Schoelfeldt, 2000; Gallavan, Webster & Dean, 2012). Interpreting historical sources like political cartoons, then, would require a deeper understanding of historical context as they may contain hidden messages that are not easily deciphered or uncovered. As such, some writers have suggested that perhaps more intelligent or high performing students may benefit from analyzing such cartoons as they are more adept at critical thinking. (Haas, 2012). Yet, pictorial sources are a staple in the compulsory Source Based Question (SBQ) component of the national exams, which assesses students’ ability to understand, analyze and evaluate a range of historical source materials as part of historical inquiry (MOE, 2017). Hence, regardless of their ability levels, history students in Singapore must be equipped with the skills and the ability to interpret all manner of historical sources, including political cartoons and other similar pictorial sources. This undertaking has become quite a challenge for both history students and history teachers in Singapore.

In the course of our discussions, the History PLT identified three issues that seemed to imped students’ understanding of pictorial sources:

  • First, students face difficulties in “getting” the overall message of pictorial sources;
  • Second, many students are unable to provide relevant evidence to support their interpretation of the source (i.e. the “message” of the source); and
  • Third, students are more likely to describe and make observations without providing historical contextualization as the basis upon which the analysis or interpretation of the sources were made.


Related Teaching Materials

annex1.85 MB

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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