The Ladybird book of historical interpretation

Interpretations are hard

Like all of you, I’ve been grappling with the increased demands of both the new GCSE and the new A-Level. I think one of the biggest (and most positive) changes has been the increased emphasis on historical interpretation. Our GCSE (OCR SHP) has a large focus on interpretations and we are clearly going to need to teach this a lot more.

Looking through the specimen assessment materials there is a lot about unpacking historical interpretations:

  • Thinking about how and why an author has reached a particular interpretation.
  • There is also quite a bit about comparing historical interpretations in terms of their content, message and purpose.
  • Finally there is a long question  where the students are required to evaluate a given interpretation.

All this is ace, but a bit daunting, and we have been planning some explicit interpretation lessons into our new Norman England unit to help the students get to grips with it all. To do this we needed some historical interpretations to get our teeth into so I bought the Ladybird history of William the Conqueror and I am fast of the opinion that it was the best £3 (thanks I’ve spent in a while.

Why use Ladybird books?

  • They are written in dead easy language for a student to understand.
  • They are ridiculously subjective and argue a very specific narrative.
  • They have wonderful images that are ace interpretations in themselves.
  • They are short!

Using Ladybird to teach historical interpretations – some lesson ideas

1. Evaluate a specific interpretation

On our OCR paper the last question is worth 20 marks. You are given an interpretation and must say how you agree or disagree. At the moment we have two sample questions (more are coming) but we needed more to get the kids exam ready. The interpretations they give you in this question will always be pretty one sided and subjective so you can argue against them. Often it’s really hard to find short snappy statements like this that the kids can evaluate – believe me I have picked through Marc Morris to find such quotes. But good old Ladybird is full of them, here’s one:


What a cracker. After I’ve done all my lessons on William trying to gain control England I am going to introduce this to the kids as a summary and then get them to pull it apart. They’ll find evidence that it is an accurate statement, then find evidence that it is not and finally I’ll get them to rewrite a more accurate version. This is perfect preparation for these longer questions.

2. Compare Ladybird and another interpretation

In the exam the students must compare two interpretations. If one of these interpretations is Ladybird this is all made a bit easier as its language is dead easy and there is a clear purpose of it being written – it is to entertain little kiddies. So in our new scheme of work I’ve built in a lesson where they compare the Ladybird interpretation of the Battle of Hastings with Simon Schama’s (from History of Britain).


What’s good about this is that actually in some respects they are pretty similar as both emphasise Harold’s mistakes but they are hugely different as they have totally different purposes. Using the Ladybird one is good as it makes it less daunting and is good scaffolding. You can build their confidence at analysing the Ladybird one first before introducing the far more complex Schama interpretation. If you did this the other way you might scare a few kids off.

3. Unpick a single interpretation

On the exam the students have to unpick a single interpretation, identifying and explaining how and why the author / artist produced this interpretation. To do this illustrations are brilliant and the Ladybird books are stacked full of them. Here is the page for the Harrying of the North:


I think reading these two pages that in many respects the author here is pretty sympathetic to the Normans, you can see it in the grumpy face of the northern Saxon and the language they use. Yes they acknowledge that it was “wilderness for more than fifty years” but they also suggest that this was about restoring order implying the northerners were to blame. Lovely stuff to unpick. Finding interpretations that are so easy to unpick is really hard. Ladybird books are full of them.