Page 3 – Resource interpretation

Coping with Year 13 resource interpretation

Thanks to Liz Hay (Wellington East Girls College) for this material. While this example relates to Year 13, it can be applied easily to other levels.

If you think you have material that may be helpful to other teachers please feel free to send it to us. We're always ready to consider your contributions to the toolbox. Send material 

To gain merit or excellence you must make use of the evidence contained in the resource and your own knowledge, which puts the source in context.

Answers should be carefully written and concise.

Make sure you don't ignore the instructions 'in your own words'.

Make sure you show how the evidence is relevant to the question. It is not enough merely to repeat evidence.

  1. Clearly point out the main or key idea of the source. This should be done in your topic sentence. This could be done by paraphrasing the source in your own words.
  2. Then place the source or sources in the historical context. This shows you are informed. Going beyond the obvious points and bringing out less evident points also shows you are informed.
  3. Then add something else to show you are perceptive. This could be done by commenting on:
    • what is being said in the source
    • who the author of the source is and whether they are reliable or may be biased
    • whether the source is primary or secondary and the key issues around this
    • what the tone of the source is and what the reason is for the source being written.
  4. Read the date of the resource carefully – the date of publication does not necessarily mean that a resource was written in that year.
  5. Take note of whether the source is primary or secondary. Remember a source found in a secondary book can still be primary.
  6. Remember the pitfalls of secondary sources. Historians can provide different explanations of the same event as a result of different interpretations of primary resources.
  7. Remember the pitfalls of primary sources:
    • They can often be patchy and give an incomplete picture of events.
    • They may be biased and give a prejudiced or one-sided version of events.
    • They may be so influenced by personal feeling that they are difficult to generalise from.
  8. Remember all sources are useful, but not all are reliable.
  9. What is the intent of the source – is it a personal letter, a publication, a piece of propaganda or an official document?
  10. Reliability can be verified by checking other sources.
  11. Take note if the author of a source is a contemporary of the person or event being written about.
  12. Remember to refer to the source directly, e.g., H.G Robley, British officer's painting of a haka with muskets at Maketu, c.1865, Alexander Turnbull Library.
  13. You must refer to all the sources if more than one is provided to comment on.
  14. Annotate the source on the examination paper – highlight key short quotes, identify people, underline the date, etc.
  15. Take your time to read the resources and plan your answer very carefully.

This represents a very sound approach and highlights the importance of being systematic in such activities. Rushing the resource questions is a common way for candidates to trip up, so stressing a careful method such as this is good advice.

How to cite this page

'Resource interpretation', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 12-Nov-2015